Back to my defense of R. T. Kendall
It is time to return to my critique of Roger Nicole’s criticism of R. T. Kendall. For the sake of reference, one may find Nicole’s critique at this link: John Calvin's View of the Extent of the Atonement. (The essay was originally published in Westminster Theological Journal 47 (1985) 197-225.)
Having made arguments from logic (which I have answered in previous posts) Nicole now takes aim at Kendall’s use of material from Calvin:
Kendall devotes two pages to discussing Calvin’s view of the extent of the atonement. Here he quotes largely the same passages of Calvin we have encountered earlier, [footnote 35] one of which is so wrested from its context as to appear to have a meaning opposite to that which Calvin explicitly delineated.” [footnote 36]
WTJ 47, at page 205. First, as to the question what Calvin said on the subject of the universality of the atonement, I trust that the material available at Calvin and Calvinism has put that question beyond controversy. At this point, only an academic would continue to insist that Calvin taught limited atonement.
As to Nicole’s allegation that Kendall “so wrested” a quote from Calvin “from its context” as to make it mean the opposite of Calvin’s explicit intent, I propose to examine that briefly.
The dispute involves this sentence from Calvin’s Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God,, 148: “It is also a fact, without controversy, that Christ came to atone for the sins of the whole world.” Kendall cites this sentence as evidence of Calvin’s universalism. Nicole, on the other hand, criticizes Kendall, as “wresting” the quote from its context. Here’s Nicole’s footnote:
Calvin, Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God, 148. This passage refutes Georgius’ interpretation of 1 John 2:2. “John does indeed extend the benefits of the atonement of Christ, which was completed by His death, to all the elect of God throughout what climes of the world soever they may be scattered. But though the case be so, it by no means alters the fact that the reprobate are mingled with the elect in the world. It is also a fact, without controversy, that Christ came to atone for the sins of the whole world. But the solution of all difficulty is immediately at hand in the truth and fact that it is whosoever believeth in Him that shall not perish, but shall have eternal life. For our present question is, not what the power or virtue of Christ is, nor what efficacy it has in itself, but who those are to whom He gives Himself to be enjoyed. Now if the possession of Christ stands in faith, and if faith flows from the spirit of adoption, it follows that he alone is numbered of God among His children who is designed of God to be a partaker of Christ. Indeed, the evangelist John sets forth the office of Christ to be none other than that of gathering together all the children of God in one by His death. From all which we conclude that although reconciliation is offered unto all men through HIm, yet, that the great benefit belongs peculiarly to the elect, that they might be gathered together and be made together partakers of eternal life.” Calvin’s Calvinism 165-66 (OC 8.336). By quoting only the sentence in italics, Kendall violated Calvin’s intent.
“Out of context”?
The “out of context” allegation occurs routinely in debate. But having made the allegation, Nicole is obligated to follow up with something to prove the point. Nicole completely fails.
Nicole does provide a section of Calvin’s context; but what does it show? There is nothing in the context to mitigate the force of Calvin’s statement. And Nicole doesn’t provide any argument ... just the quote from Calvin.
In fact, the quote from Calvin clearly substantiates Kendall’s view of the matter. It is perfectly clear that Calvin did in fact believe that Christ had died for the sins of the whole world, in part because he goes to some length to explain how this could be. His explanation provides a solution to that “difficulty.” And having attempted a solution, it shows that he really believed the statement that creates the difficulty.
A look at the solution that Calvin provides further proof to support Kendall. Calvin says that though Christ has died for the whole world, not all believe in him and it is they alone who shall have eternal life. The question, says Calvin, is not the power or efficacy of Christ’s work in and of itself, but the application of the “great benefit” of the atonement, which “belongs peculiarly to the elect.” Calvin distinguished between the intrinsic value of Christ’s work and those who should benefit from it.
This, of course, is exactly what most four-point Calvinists would say: Christ died for all, but only the elect enjoy the benefits of Christ’s work.
Universal intent v. particular intent
This analysis of the situation does not do full justice to either the problem or Calvin’s treatment of it. The question -- this often comes up as one of the preliminary issues in the discussion of limited atonement -- is not the value of Christ’s atonement considered in itself (cf. Calvin’s statement of the “present question” in the quote above). The question is, rather, what is the intent of God in the sacrifice of Christ. The limitation, it is held, is in the intention, not in the value of Christ’s work.
Yes. But the distinction between intrinsic value and intent does not touch the critical distinction some of us would make. Specifically we would point to a distinction between God’s universal intention on the one hand and God’s particular intention on the other. Calvin speaks to this:
From all which we conclude that although reconciliation is offered unto all men through Him, yet, that the great benefit belongs peculiarly to the elect, that they might be gathered together and be made together partakers of eternal life.
Notice the universal intent -- reconciliation “offered unto all men” -- contrasted with the particular intent -- the great benefit which “belongs peculiarly to the elect.” If one would understand Calvin’s universalism, one must at least understand and acknowledge this diverging of divine intentions for the expiation.