Monday, October 13, 2008

Calvin on Christ's mediation - for "all" or "the elect"?

I continue my critique of Roger Nicole's 1985 article, "John Calvin's View of the Extent of the Atonement." This article will relate especially to Calvin's doctrine of Christ as mediator.

After Nicole's survey of the literature, he engages in an analysis of the arguments, both pro and con, beginning with rebuttals of six arguments for seeing John Calvin as advocating unlimited atonement. I propose to examine those one at a time.

Nicole's objections to universal atonement

Nicole says this:

Those who have asserted that Calvin held to a universal atonement have advanced mainly the following arguments: 1. Calvin, they urge, views Christ's mediatorship to have a race-wide reference and not to be restricted to the elective purpose of God.


To this we reply that there are manifestly certain benefits which accrue to humanity at large and to the cosmos from the atoning work of Christ, that Calvin is not loath to acknowledge these, but that the specific purpose of Christ's mediatorship is related to the impetration of salvation, which is done for those whom the Father has given him, drawn as they are from all imaginable categories in the human race, not from some narrowly defined group, like the Jews, or the poor, or males, etc., but from gentiles, or the rich, or females, etc., as well. This is the precise point of Calvin's Commentary on 1 Tim 2:5.

As I understand Nicole, his objection is twofold: 1) when we speak of limited atonement, the focus is on the impetration of salvation (not on other and ancillary benefits, which may be of cosmic significance) and who God intends to reap the benefits of Christ's atonement. These benefits are limited to and intended only for the elect; 2) Calvin's use of universal language and universal categories, as, for example, in Calvin's Commentary on 1 Timothy 2:5, cannot be taken to refer to all individuals universally, but should be taken to refer to the elect from all sorts of groups of people. Thus, Nicole argues, though Christ is indeed the second Adam, in the most important respect, Christ represents only the elect, who are drawn from the whole world.

God's universal saving intention

It is certainly true that when we speak of the controversy of limited atonement and whether Calvin taught limited atonement, we ought to focus primarily on the question of God's salvific intent. Questions of ancillary benefits, general providence, redeeming the material world, and other such questions, serve more to distract than otherwise. And we must agree with Nicole that Calvin did believe and teach that only the elect will enjoy the benefits of Christ's atonement. But we continue to insist that Calvin taught that God had real saving motives and intentions for the whole world, including all individuals, both elect and reprobate, and that these saving motives and intentions extended even to Christ's work on the cross.

Christ the second Adam, not the second Abraham

Calvin sees Christ as representing the race of Adam, not the children of Abraham's covenant: Christ was afflicted "in the place of all sinners;" he "has paid the debt of all sinners;" Christ hung on the cross, "as it were, in the person of all cursed ones and of all transgressors, and of those who had deserved eternal death;" he suffered "for all mankind," and "in the name of all poor sinners;" the "curse of all men was laid on him;" etc.

I would especially note the following, which sums up the argument on this point:

It seems that St. Paul would make Jesus Christ, as it were, the root of mankind, so that we should be his descendants, for he speaks of us as his race. But we have to note that since our Lord Jesus Christ was formed of the seed of Abraham to perform the things that were promised, yes, and that he could not be the mediator between God and us, unless he had been of our nature, for he could not have atoned for the offences through which we were bound to endless damnation, unless he had clothed himself with our body, and had also a soul, in order to present himself in the person of all men; so it was necessary that our Lord Jesus Christ to be our flesh.

~John Calvin, Sermons on Ephesians, Sermon 41, 5:28-30, pp., 600-1. Emphasis added.

Note that he was formed of the seed of Abraham (according to the flesh), but he represented all mankind. Thus, since Calvin taught that Christ came to earth as a man and represented mankind, we can justly infer that Calvin did not see Christ's work on the cross, even with respect to the impetration of salvation, as limited to the elect. Christ represented the whole human race. He had a body and soul; he thus represented all those who had a human body and a human soul. Thus though the benefits of salvation extend only to believers, Christ suffered for all men and intended for all men to repent, believe the gospel, and be saved. You will often see Calvin speaking of God loving the world on the one hand and the limitation of the benefits of salvation to the elect on the other. Calvin did not see a conflict between the desire of God for the salvation of all men on the one hand, and the particular limitation of the benefits of salvation to the elect on the other. To my mind, Calvin believed and taught this way because he was committed -- first and foremost -- to fidelity to the scriptures, not to his own reasonings.

This is only a small sampling of the material available from Calvin that teaches that Christ represented the whole world when he hung on the cross. You can find more of it at the Calvin and Calvinism blog.

Nicole's objections answered

Having seen what Calvin actually said on this subject, Nicole's objections are obviated. First, it is plain that Calvin taught that Christ represented all men when he suffered for the sins of the world. Thus Nicole doesn't gain any ground by noting that limited atonement speaks specifically of the impetration of salvation, which, he claims, "is done for those whom the Father has given [Christ], drawn as they are from all imaginable categories in the human race...." Calvin did not speak only of Christ representing the human race for ancillary and cosmic benefits, which are irrelevant to the impetration of salvation. As we have seen, for Calvin, Christ's represented the whole race on the cross: he bore their sins, took their curse, paid their debt, hung in their place. According to Calvin, what Christ did for the whole world was very much related to the impetration of salvation.

Nicole's second objection is answered as well, provided we're willing to take Calvin at face value. When Calvin says "the whole world," we are perfectly justified in reading the phrase as referring to all men, not just to some of all sorts of men. The concept of Christ representing Adam's race precludes the idea of limiting that representation to "some of all kinds." Notice that in the quote from Calvin's sermons on Ephesians, above, Calvin said that in his incarnation, Christ presented himself "in the person of all men...." This is difficult language to manipulate. We wouldn't normally think of this kind of language being properly interpreted as referring to "some men from all kinds of groups" as the high Calvinists are wont to do.

Lastly, Nicole objects to the use of 1 Timothy 2:5 as proof for this concept. But we are not limited to 1 Timothy 2:5 for proof. Calvin's literature abounds with the idea that Christ represented the whole race. So even if Nicole is correct in his interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:5, it hardly makes a dent in the proof available to us. Nicole's attempt to answer the argument from one verse will not suffice as an answer to the rest of the evidence.

I will have more on the question of classes and Calvin's interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:5 in answering Nicole's second rebuttal in the near future.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Hermeneutics of 2Peter 3:9 -- "Us all" or "you all"?

Introduction to 2Peter 3:9

(This is a repost of an article I wrote for a previous blog of mine. I like the analysis and wanted to put it here. This is over 2 years old ... so the dispute is dated; but the issue is still important.)

My friend Tony Byrne (whose most excellent blog, Theological Meditations, I highly recommend) recently posted some criticisms of Dr. James White, which garnered a response from White. The point in dispute is the proper interpretation of 2 Peter 3:9. White has objected to some aspects of Byrne’s logical analysis of the categories involved, (believers, unbelievers, elect, etc.) and Byrne is well able to defend himself on those points. In this post, I seek to analyze White’s approach to hermeneutics and the proper understanding of the context of the verse.

The verse in dispute is 2 Peter 3:9:

The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.

Or as it is translated by the NASB:

The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.

White advocates the idea that “any” and “all” of 2 Peter 3:9 refers to “any elect person” and “all elect persons.” The process of thought that leads to this conclusion is suspect and most certainly has led many to bad ideas about the verse. I will respond to White’s two main arguments and make a positive case for seeing “any” and “all” as addressed to all men generally, believers and unbelievers, elect and non-elect.

Some passages are more equal than others

White’s first argument is that 2 Peter 3:9 occurs in a context that is primarily eschatological, not soteriological. Since the verse is not primarily soteriological, it is "illogical," he says, to "demand deep specificity and great depth of information" about salvation from the verse. That is, White believes it is illogical to make deep inquiries about soteriology in this passage that primarily teaches eschatology. I have always thought this concept to be destructive to good reading. In my opinion, it is illogical to impose restrictions on possible meanings -- provided the meanings are legitimately drawn from the text -- because of the topic of the context of the statement. Context may be king, but White’s rule makes context a wicked tyrant, depriving statements of their rights.

But even if we concede to White that we can’t make deep demands of a casual reference, White is himself demanding great specificity and depth of information from this verse. Whereas the common reading -- that God is not willing that any man should perish -- is plain on the face of it and requires no deep technical analysis, the reading advocated by White requires one to make highly technical and strained (if not completely fallacious) interpretations regarding categories of men. The simple reading of the verse on its face is much more in keeping with the idea that this is a passing thought in the mind of the apostle.

“Context” and Peter’s Audience

White’s second argument -- by far the more important one -- is that 2 Peter 3:9 should be understood in light of its context as an epistle from Peter to a group of believers. Understanding who is being addressed gives us the contextual setting. Quoting White,

he [Peter] speaks directly to his audience as the “beloved" and "you." He speaks of how his audience should behave "in holy conduct and godliness," and says that they look for the day of the Lord. He includes himself in this group in verse 13, where “we are looking for a new heavens and a new earth.”

Let us concede that the epistle is addressed to believers. So far, so good. Now White says of 3:9, "In any other passage of Scripture the interpreter would realize that we must decide who the "you" refers to and use this to limit the "any" and "all" of verse 9."

But there is no such rule. Why must the “any” and “all” refer to the antecedents of the pronoun “you”? I don’t know exactly why White says that “the interpreter ... must....” He doesn’t really say why and so we must guess. One thing we can say for sure: there is no rule that indefinite pronouns must be limited by the antecedents of other pronouns occurring in the immediate context. Antecedents to the indefinite pronouns may be implicit or understood from the context, and must be analyzed accordingly.

The word “any” in the phrase “not willing that any should perish” is the Greek word tinas and is a form of the word tis. The lexicons define this word as an “indefinite pronoun.” Indefinite pronouns do not refer to specific persons or things. This being the case, we do not need an explicit antecedent to make sense of the sentence. In 2 Peter 3:9, the Greek word tinas means “anyone.” The word needs no explicit antecedent. Obviously, “any” need not refer to the antecedents of “you” in the previous clause.

There are many examples where the indefinite pronoun tis (or one of its forms) is used without an explicit antecedent. Here’s one example:

1Cor. 9:22 - To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some [tinas].

No explicit reference to an antecedent is required. The antecedent may be understood from the context or from the very nature of the case (as in this example).

Another good example comes from the first occurrence of the word in 2 Peter 3:9. “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise as some [tines] men count slackness....” The word “some” in this clause is the same word in a different form. Here it means “certain people.” Does this instance of the indefinite pronoun require an explicit antecedent? Interpreting it according to White’s rule, we should read it this way: “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise as some of you count slackness.” Is that the right way to read it? Some commentators think not. Jamieson, Faussett and Brown refers “some” to the scoffers. Matthew Henry refers this to ungodly men who “charge a culpable slackness on God....” John Gill refers this to “scoffers or mockers.” These commentators have referred “some” [tines] to the scoffers of verse 3, even though this is not explicit in the verse and despite the presence of the pronoun “you” in the immediate context.

Returning to the question: in 2 Peter 3:9, must “any” [tinas] refer to the same group as “you”? Many good interpreters did not believe so. Calvin certainly did not so interpret the verse.

“Not willing that any should perish. So wonderful is his love towards mankind, that he would have them all to be saved, and is of his own self prepared to bestow salvation on the lost.” (Calvin comment on 2Peter 3:9.)

The commentaries of Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, and Albert Barnes are in substantial agreement with Calvin. The Geneva Bible translation (as well, I would argue, as Luther’s translation) reflects the idea that God’s will is that no man should perish.

The same concepts apply to the “all” of “that all should come to repentance.” Further examples could be multiplied (of either “any” or “all”), both from Peter’s writings and from the New Testament generally.

Thus it is not the case that the careful exegete must (as White insists) refer the “any” and “all” indefinite pronouns to “you” in verse 9. The careful exegete will decide the proper antecedent of the indefinite pronoun based on the subject matter and other contextual clues. The rule that White has proposed is inaccurately stated and will lead to inaccurate results.

White tries to establish his case for the close connection between “you” and “any/all” by asserting that the clause “patient toward you” (“longsuffering to us-ward”) is left dangling if the material following (including the “any” and “all” clauses) does not modify the “longsuffering” clause. (I note in passing that this is the only real argument given for the connection White insists on.) He says,

“it should be noted that if one suggests that there is no referential connection between "you" and "any/all," the text is left making no sense. Consider it. The phrase "but is patient toward you" is left hanging in mid-air, disconnected and undefined. Obviously, what follows is modifying and explaining how this patience is expressed.”

I am willing to grant that the “longsuffering” clause relates to the following clauses. But does this mean that “you” limits the “any” and “all”? Certainly not. The longsuffering that God exhibits towards believers need not be limited to believers alone. That God is longsuffering to “you” is explained by the fact that he exhibits longsuffering to all men generally. We could read the verse this way: “God is longsuffering to you inasmuch as he is not willing that any man should perish but that all men should come to repentance.” That is, the “you” is included in the “any” and “all”; it is not a limitation of the “any” and the “all.” This is the normal way to read the verse; White's reading is a strain.

The Positive Case

What is the positive case for seeing the indefinite pronouns (“any” and “all”) as referring to a group larger than the audience of the epistle? White insists that the audience is believers. Agreed. But consider that while the epistle is addressed to believers, the “any” who risk perishing and the “all” who should come to repentance are clearly unbelievers. Thus by the simple reading of the verse, our minds are naturally drawn to a larger category than Peter’s immediate audience. These are saved, those are unsaved. White’s rule results in an interpretation that is 180 degrees opposite of the true reading.

This interpretation is buttressed by the mutually reinforcing nature of the final clauses. We have not just “no man” or “all men.” We have contrasting clauses that each serve to emphasize the other. On the one hand, God is not willing that any man should perish; that not one man should perish is explained by God’s desire that all men come to repentance. And the class who should come to repentance is not just a general class of men, but it is a class that has no exceptions – that none of them should perish. The two clauses taken together clearly speak of a universal desire of God that covers all men in general and every man in particular. Another way of putting this is, “God ... commandeth all men every where to repent.”

What of the elect?

Some high Calvinists insist that though this verse refers to unbelievers, it must refer to elect unbelievers. White argues this based on several contextual clues that he claims support this idea. But consider that in order to come to White’s interpretation, we must accept the following argument:

Major premise: all believers are elect;
Minor premise: all of Peter’s audience are believers;
Conclusion: All unbelievers referred to at the end of verse 9 are elect.

The argument requires no further refutation. To see it spelled out is to see its invalidity. (The proper conclusion is, of course, "all of Peter's audience are elect." But this says nothing of the unbelievers mentioned in the verse.)

White’s idea that the indefinite pronouns refer to elect unbelievers is unsupported by the text. The passage does not make any mention of elect unbelievers. Rather unbelievers in general are mentioned. As Calvin says of this verse, “no mention is here made of the hidden purpose of God, according to which the reprobate are doomed to their own ruin, but only of his will as made known unto us in the gospel.”

The Uncontroversial Interpretation

Reading the verse as referring to God’s unwillingness that “any man” should perish and that “all men” should come to repentance is completely uncontroversial from a Biblical standpoint. The Bible elsewhere makes these same points. God is good to all men (Matt. 5:45; Acts 14:16-17), which goodness – especially His longsuffering (cf. 1 Peter 3:20) – is designed to bring men to repentance (Rom. 2:4). God does not take delight in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11); rather God’s will is that all men everywhere come to repentance (Ezekiel 33:11, Acts 17:30). The ideas of God’s patience with all men and desire that all men come to repentance are brought together and emphasized here as nowhere else in scripture, but the ideas are not taught here alone. This fact supports the proposed interpretation.

The interpretation proposed here has a good Calvinistic history, as evidenced by the Geneva translation of the verse:

2 Peter 3:9 (Geneva Bible) “The Lord is not slacke concerning his promise (as some men count slackenesse) but is pacient toward vs, and would haue no man to perish, but would all men to come to repentance.”

The original Geneva notes reflect Calvin’s understanding of the verse:

He speaketh not here of the secret & eternal counsel of God, whereby he electeth whom it pleaseth him, but of the preaching of the Gospel, whereby all are bidden to the banquet.


Good theology, good hermeneutics, or good logic: any of these – and all of them together – lead us to see 2Peter 3:9 as expressing the will of God that no man (whosoever he may be) should perish, but that all men (“all mankind” as Calvin put it) should come to repentance.


(Regarding the textual issue: for myself, I think “us” (following Calvin, Luther, Geneva Bible, and KJV) makes more sense than “you.” “Us” is defined by the “any” and “all” clauses rather than limiting them, thus making the entire verse to have a universal reference. That is, “us” refers to the children of men.)


A friend of mine proposes an analysis to rescue the high Calvinist position on this verse. He proposes what I will call the eschatological context argument. The thought is this: because the book of 2 Peter warns of the ultimate judgment of the wicked (which judgment is assured even before they appear on the scene – see 2:1-3) and assures believers of the ultimate rewards of faith, the verse in 3:9 is out of place if taken as a statement of the general love of God for all mankind. “There is no John 3:16 in the immediate context here,” so my friend says. (“Touche’,” I say.) This being the case, interpreting 3:9 as representing assurance for the elect fits the theme of the book more appropriately.

It’s a good point and worth considering. I observe that this argument basically says that the verse, interpreted as I have suggested, does not really “fit” the theme of the rest of the book. This may be true, and interpreting the verse as I have suggested does seem to make the verse a bit of a parenthetical statement. (Perhaps we can see the verse as more of a pivot point or summary conclusion than a parenthetical.) Seen as such, the argument against my position is not a logical necessity, but more of an aesthetic necessity. Though my friend has made a better argument, I still find myself comfortable in posting the foregoing analysis without change. It seems to me that the pronoun “you” (or “us” of KJV) must be limited grammatically and logically or not at all. The grammar and logic don’t support the limitation and the eschatological context argument of my friend, while appealing, does not seem to change that.

John Calvin on Romans 5:18

This is one of my favorite quotes from Calvin's universalist statements. This is from John Calvin's Commentary on Romans 5:18 (the link goes to one of my previous blog posts where one can read the quote in a larger context and get more of my thoughts on the subject):

He makes this favor common to all, because it is propounded to all, and not because it is in reality extended to all; for though Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world, and is offered through God’s benignity indiscriminately to all, yet all do not receive him.

Justification is "propounded" (i.e., offered or set forth) to all, but not in reality "extended" to all. That is, all men are offered justification, but not all men are actually justified. That's Calvin's meaning here.

Calvin explains that this is so "for though Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world...." No question about the meaning of that, is there? It's not out of context, and it isn't denied by anything in the quote itself. Calvin is asserting this: "Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world...."

Notice the parallelism between Christ's suffering for all on the one hand and the indiscriminate offer to all on the other hand. The "all" here must be really "all," because the suffering is for "the whole world" and the offer is "indiscriminately to all." The ideas explain and reinforce one another. And it isn't "the world of the elect," because some of those for whom Christ died and to whom he is offered, "do not receive him."

It couldn't be clearer.

Table of Contents to Controversial Calvinism

This is a Table of Contents page. Here you will find a full chronological listing (from oldest to newest) of the articles posted on this blog. I will try to keep it current enough to cover everything that isn't listed in the archive section of the blog home page.

Complete Table of Contents