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.


David said...

Hey Steve,

There is also that comment from Calvin where he says Christ is the head of all mankind. I found a secondary source citing Aquinas on this very point. This shows that the concept of universal adamic headship was existent in Calvin's time.


Steve said...

Can you give me a citation for that quote? Or do i just search on calvinandcalvinism?


David said...

1) It is true that the angels well knew that Jesus Christ was the Head of all mankind, but how that should come to pass, or what time, or by what means, that was hidden from them. John Calvin, Sermons on Ephesians, Sermon 18, 3:-12, p., 264