Monday, November 09, 2009

Assurance Must Rest on Universal Atonement - Part 1

Taking on a Pyro Blogger

One of the Pyro bloggers has given what he believes is an unanswerable objection to those who believe that limited atonement (as most commonly held) removes all grounds for assurance. His answer is part of a series of quick answers: short verbal jabs, intended to "checkmate" the theological opponent in fifty words or less. His stated goal in these short posts is to require his opponent to think, while not wasting too much time actually engaging with the theological opponent. "The response," says Phillips, "is meant to be that sort of a verbal sharp stick." I mean to take on one of his recent "gotchas."

I must, of course, devote more than fifty words to answering his objection. It takes less time to throw mud against a wall than to clean it off. But the subject deserves some thought; and though Phillips apparently thinks he has the answer, I hope to show that he has both understated the problem and completely missed the answer.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Institutes 3.1.1 - Christ Suffered for the Salvation of the Human Race

I'm continuing my critique of Roger Nicole's treatment of Calvin. I have been focusing most recently on the many universal ("all mankind," "the world," etc.) statements in Calvin's work. Nicole makes an attempt at answering the moderates in the scope of a few pages (see Nicole, at 215-218. Nicole attempts to treat scores (or hundreds) of possible quotations from Calvin that have a universal import in the space of fewer than four pages in a journal article. Having that limited space, Nicole necessarily paints with a broad brush; but this leaves him open to those of us who are willing to spend some effort (and who have no publisher's space limitations) looking at the details.

I point out Nicole's space limitations not to excuse him (nor, on the other hand, to condemn him), but to point out that those who rely on Nicole to give the definitive answer to the moderate Calvinists are leaning on a thin reed. Nicole could not possibly have accomplished his objective in the 28 pages devoted to his article, let alone the 4 pages he devoted to Calvin's universalistic statements.

Institutes 3.1.1

For example, Nicole points to Calvin's statement that Christ suffered "for the salvation of the human race" found in Institutes 3.1.1. Here's the quotation from Calvin with a bit of context:

1. We must now see in what way we become possessed of the blessings which God has bestowed on his only-begotten Son, not for private use, but to enrich the poor and needy. And the first thing to be attended to is, that so long as we are without Christ and separated from him, nothing which he suffered and did for the salvation of the human race is of the least benefit to us. To communicate to us the blessings which he received from the Father, he must become ours and dwell in us. ****

Accordingly, he is called our Head, and the first-born among many brethren, while, on the other hand, we are said to be ingrafted into him and clothed with him, Eph. 4:15; Rom. 6:5; 11:17; 8:29; Gal. 3:27. all which he possesses being, as I have said, nothing to us until we become one with him. And although it is true that we obtain this by faith, yet since we see that all do not indiscriminately embrace the offer of Christ which is made by the gospel, the very nature of the case teaches us to ascend higher, and inquire into the secret efficacy of the Spirit, to which it is owing that we enjoy Christ and all his blessings. I have already treated of the eternal essence and divinity of the Spirit (Book 1 chap. 13 sect. 14,15); let us at present attend to the special point, that Christ came by water and blood, as the Spirit testifies concerning him, that we might not lose the benefits of the salvation which he has purchased. For as there are said to be three witnesses in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Spirit, so there are also three on the earth, namely, water, blood, and Spirit. It is not without cause that the testimony of the Spirit is twice mentioned, a testimony which is engraven on our hearts by way of seal, and thus seals the cleansing and sacrifice of Christ. For which reason, also, Peter says, that believers are “elect” “through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ,” (1 Pet. 1:2). By these words he reminds us, that if the shedding of his sacred blood is not to be in vain, our souls must be washed in it by the secret cleansing of the Holy Spirit. For which reason, also, Paul, speaking of cleansing and purification, says, “but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God,” (1 Cor. 6:11). The whole comes to this that the Holy Spirit is the bond by which Christ effectually binds us to himself. Here we may refer to what was said in the last Book concerning his anointing.

The language "salvation of the human race" is given in a context that shows Calvin's universal intent. We see this in that Calvin speaks of Christ's work for "the salvation of the human race" in context of those who "are without Christ and separated from him." For those thus separated from Christ, nothing which he did for their salvation will be of any benefit to them. Later in this paragraph, Calvin raises the possibility of Christ's work being wasted: "all which he possesses ... being nothing to us until we become one with him," and "if the shedding of his sacred blood is not to be in vain, our souls must be washed in it by the secret cleansing of the Holy Spirit."

We can make two points here. First, the immediate context gives us a solid reason for interpreting Christ's suffering for the human race as referring not to some of the human race, but all of the human race. The reason is because Calvin speaks of those who are at risk of "losing" the benefits of the salvation Christ purchased, and of those for whom Christ's suffering might be "in vain." (This last reminds us of the "wasted blood" passages in Calvin.)

Second, here we have a solid example of Calvin's distinction between impetration (which is for the human race), and application, which is for those who are washed in Christ's blood "by the secret cleansing of the Holy Spirit." But Calvin's "distinction" is no mere distinction. Calvin speaks of two different groups of people: on the one hand we have the poor and needy, those who are without Christ and separated from him, who are at risk of missing the benefits of all that Christ did and suffered, i.e, the human race. On the other hand we have the elect, those who have believed, who are "ingrafted," etc. Christ suffered for the human race on the one hand, but only believers enjoy the benefits of the salvation that Christ has purchased.

Nicole's treatment of 3.1.1

Nicole gives no treatment of this passage. In fact, for most of the passages that Nicole analyzes in his article, he mainly gives a sentence or two that gives his own conclusions, and then relates those conclusions to passages from Calvin by reference to footnote numbers. There's no analyzing of context, grammar, or language. As I mentioned earlier, this kind of treatment is understandable given the space limitations. But at best Nicole's article could be considered suggestive, not authoritative.

For many of Nicole's readers, though, his article is treated as a sort of oracle. I will admit to a certain amount of hyperbole in the previous statement. But even Nicole himself sees his article as a sufficient answer to the question of definite atonement in Calvin. (See Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, vol. 38 No. 3, September 1995, at 403.)

This kind of respect given to such a light treatment of the subject is likely due to Nicole's academic credentials. But I suspect it is also because this kind of vague treatment of the subject is the best that one can hope for from the high Calvinist camp. Any high Calvinistic treatment of this subject that involves more detailed analysis is going to run into trouble ... and that right early!

More on this quote in my next post.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Calvin Sermon - Christ Suffered for the Redemption of Mankind

Sermons on the Deity of Christ

Moderate Calvinists have long pointed out Calvin's common use of expressions that denote universal atonement. There are many such statements, as I have mentioned before. Roger Nicole has taken a smattering of statements of that type and proposed some answers from the high Calvinists' perspective. I will attempt to deal with each of the Calvin quotes raised by Nicole.

We begin with a statement from Calvin's Sermons on the Deity of Christ, page 55, in which Calvin refers to Christ's suffering for the "redemption of mankind." (See Nicole, at 215, footnote 62.)

Here is the quotation from Calvin:

But again, to better understand the whole it is said that our Lord Jesus took only three of his disciples and left the company at quite a distance, and again those three He did not take all the way with Him, but He prayed to God His Father in secret. When we see that, we must notice that our Lord Jesus had no companion when He offered Himself as a sacrifice for us, but He alone completed and accomplished that which was required for our salvation. And even that is again better indicated to us, when the disciples sleep, and cannot even be awakened, although they had already been warned so many times that the hour was approaching in which our Lord Jesus would have to suffer for the redemption of mankind, and that He had exhorted them for three or four hours, never ceasing to declare to them that His death was approaching.

Emphasis added

This is an unremarkable statement. Calvin is not making any doctrinal statement about the extent of the atonement; he simply uses "suffer for the redemption of mankind" as a synonym for "death." This natural, unstudied use of universal language indicates Calvin's ingrained and habitual thought on the subject: Christ died for mankind.

Nicole's Rebuttal

Nicole answers that here Calvin is emphasizing the exclusivity of Christ's sacrifice as opposed to the Catholic system which invokes Mary, Saints, and other things as working with Christ in effecting our redemption.

In the context of [this quotation] a major concern of Calvin is to emphasize the exclusivity of the atoning impact of the cross in contrast to those (especially the Roman Catholics) who posited other mediators or other sources of merit.

Nicole, p. 217 (see footnote 85).

Nicole gives this explanation as a way of answering those who would take the words "redemption of mankind" as referring to ... well, the redemption of mankind. Nicole would have us believe that we need not take Calvin's words at face value because he is addressing the exclusivity of Christ's work as mediator.

While Nicole is perfectly correct on Calvin's emphasis on Christ's exclusivity as mediator, this doesn't throw any light on the problem with the words "redemption of mankind." Nicole's answer seems out of place, as if it were a non sequitur.

In the critical sentence, Calvin is expostulating on the disciples insistence on sleep, though they should have known that our Lord was facing imminent suffering and death. Calvin explains that this shows the solitary nature of Christ's suffering. But knowing this does not throw the critical phrase "redemption of mankind" into any different light.

One can insist that "redemption of mankind" here refers to Christ alone being the redeemer of mankind, as if Calvin were saying the phrase like this: "although they had already been warned so many times that the hour was approaching in which our Lord Jesus would have to suffer for the redemption of mankind...." But there is nothing in Calvin's sentence or the context that makes us want to read the expression that way. The phrase "our Lord Jesus" should not be read here as "our Lord Jesus alone."

Does Nicole suggest here that the disciples were thinking that the twelve - or the three? - would suffer with him? That does not fit well with the flow of Calvin's thought or with the scripture Calvin is explaining.

My answer to Nicole

Calvin is explaining that the disciples slept, though they had been repeatedly and recently warned of our Lord's impending death. The emphasis in the sentence should be placed on the language of warning; so it should read like this: "And even that is again better indicated to us, when the disciples sleep, and cannot even be awakened, although they had already been warned so many times that the hour was approaching in which our Lord Jesus would have to suffer for the redemption of mankind, and that He had exhorted them for three or four hours, never ceasing to declare to them that His death was approaching."

And perhaps it is even better read this way: "And even that is again better indicated to us, when the disciples sleep, and cannot even be awakened, . . . " Calvin is making the point of Christ's solitariness at this hour. But Calvin's picture makes the point, not the expression "redemption of mankind," which is incidental to his main point.

Read this way, the sentence fits smoothly in Calvin's flow of thought, while Nicole's way would be awkward and out of place. Calvin is emphasizing the solitary nature of Christ's suffering, and this way of reading the sentence fits that thought admirably. But that leaves the expression "redemption of mankind" simply as a synonym for "death," which is exactly what it is. Calvin has simply given us a reflexive insight into his thought on Christ's suffering: it was for all mankind.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Response to a critic of Impetration v. application

A critic has written a response to my previous article Impetration v. application. You can find the critique at this link, and I invite you to read the critique and feel free to engage me or the author of the critique on the subject.

I note first that the critic has labeled me a "neo-Amyraldian." The critic doesn't know my views of Amyraut; he just wants a handy disapprobatory label. I am Amyraldian only in that Amyraut thought himself a follower of Calvin; I say, "me too." I somehow doubt that is the meaning my critic intends.

Relevancy of Romans 5:18

My critic has said that Romans 5:18 is "not germane" to the impetration v. application question. One wonders what kind of passage my critic would consider "germane." (His comment is ironic given the irrelevant passages offered up by the critic himself!) It is true that the passage does not go on at length about the matter. But the distinction between impetration and application is important to Calvin's argument in explaining the verse. Calvin specifically speaks of Christ's sacrifice and the enjoyment of the benefits of it. He further distinguishes the groups involved; those ("the world") for whom Christ suffered on the one hand and those who "receive him" on the other. If there is a world for whom Christ suffered and to whom he is offered who yet do not receive him, there must be some degree of separation in Calvin's mind between impetration and application.

The statement that this passage is not germane to the question is puzzling.

The alleged "inseparable" link

My critic refers to Calvin's commentary on Romans 8:34, alleging proof of the inseparable link between impetration and application. Yet nothing germane to the question is found there.

In reviewing Calvin's comment to 8:34, it should be noted that Calvin is arguing for the assurance of the godly, not the mass of humanity. Here is Calvin on Romans 8:31:

31. What then, etc. The subject discussed having been sufficiently proved, he now breaks out into exclamations, by which he sets forth the magnanimity with which the faithful ought to be furnished when adversities urge them to despond. And he teaches us in these words that with the paternal favor of God is connected that invincible courage which overcomes all temptations.

Calvin, Comm. Romans 8:31.

Calvin speaks in the following verses of believers: "they who possess him," "the godly," the faithful," "children of God," etc. For believers, then, paternal favor gives assurance. The love of God is here expounded by Calvin (explaining Paul) as being such as to give "that confidence which banishes all anxieties and fears."

There is no mention here of unbelievers, reprobate, or the like. Calvin's argument is that believers can feel assurance because the love of God is amply shown to us in the death of Christ. But what does that tell us about God's love for the ungodly? It tells us nothing.

It is possible (indeed, it is common in Calvin) to assert the love of God for believers (or the elect) on the one hand, and yet maintain the goodness and love of God for unbelievers on the other. My readers have seen the proof of this too many times to require additional proof. Again, one need only look at the masthead to see sufficient proof. God out of his goodness offers salvation to all. For Calvin, the sending of Christ, the suffering of Christ, and the offer of salvation in Christ are for all and demonstrate God's love to all.

Christ's eternal intercession

My critic refers to this phrase in Calvin's commentary to Romans 8:34:

But we must not measure this intercession by our carnal judgment; for we must not suppose that he humbly supplicates the Father with bended knees and expanded hands; but as he appears continually, as one who died and rose again, and as his death and resurrection stand in the place of eternal intercession, and have the efficacy of a powerful prayer for reconciling and rendering the Father propitious to us, he is justly said to intercede for us.

Calvin, Comm. Romans 8:34

My critic cites the Institutes (3.20.20) to the same effect. It ought to be sufficient to point out that both the Commentary and the Institutes speak of the manner of Christ's intercession, not the objects of that intercession. Calvin is denying that Christ kneels, pleading with outstretched hands. As opposed to this imagined pleading posture, Calvin says Christ's death is a sufficient and eternal intercession for us. Calvin is expostulating on the "powerful prayer" of Christ's sacrifice to disabuse us of any notion of suppliant pleading. Calvin is not here saying that Christ's intercession must inevitably extend to all those for whom he died ... though that is the way my critic reads him.

We also must recognize that (for Calvin) Christ intercedes for believers, not for unbelievers. This being the case, we have not gained anything by showing that Christ intercedes for believers; we already know that from Calvin. What the critics have yet to explain is how Calvin can speak of a world for whom Christ suffered and yet do not receive him. We still are faced with the necessity of acknowledging some distinction between believers on the one hand and those, on the other hand, for whom Christ suffered though they do not receive him.

My critic says, "Calvin is clear (elsewhere, as well as here) that the intercession is specific to the elect. Calvin is essentially saying that Christ intercedes for us by dying for us." Well, Calvin certainly is clear, though my critic has managed to misread him anyway. Calvin does not here at all limit the intercession to the elect (though he may elsewhere). But more importantly, the manner of Christ's intercession does in no way prove that all for whom Christ died will certainly receive the benefits of Christ's death.

The argument from logic

My critic makes a logical argument, supposedly showing that we must read Calvin as teaching limited atonement. Here is the argument, quoting from my critic's blog:

The Amyraldian and Arminian views essentially allege that God is already propitious toward all mankind. If Calvin held such a view, then knowledge of God's propitiation would not be a ground of assurance of salvation, since God is also propitious (according to the Amyraldians and Arminians) to everyone, even those in hell.


If Calvin believed that Christ is "already propitious toward all mankind," then knowledge of God's favor could not be assurance, for God would have been propitious toward all those in hell ... so it is alleged.

One hardly knows what to say to such a statement. This kind of argument will, of course, be enough to persuade many high and hyper-Calvinists. But it is very bad. Is there nothing to distinguish those in hell from those not in hell apart from the death of Christ? The difference for Calvin is, of course, the application of the benefits of the atonement.

But whether my critic's argument works or not is completely irrelevant to reading Calvin. One can make an argument that such and such ought to follow from such and such principle. But that is not a safe guide for reading a writer of weighty philosophical theology. One must look at the words themselves. Especially in this case, where we have a strong backdrop of explicit statements to oppose the "argument." Against Calvin's many clear universalistic statements, we are offered a flawed argument, supposedly requiring that Calvin must be read in some way as to negate those myriad clear statements.

Now I believe I am reading Calvin properly ... (I am, as the reader of good sense will agree) ... but it would be very bad reading and very bad argumentation to say that Calvin ought to be read as teaching a universal atonement because otherwise he would be expounding a view that deprives believers of assurance. I really believe that the high/hyper view deprives believers of assurance, but I would never argue that Calvin should be read in such and such a way because of the consequence of that argument. Arguments about what Calvin meant must be rooted in the language found in Calvin.

What my critic has proposed is both bad logic and bad hermeneutics.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Impetration v. application

In my previous blog post (entitled Did Christ's Sacrifice Actually Save?) about Roger Nicole's 1984 article, I began to treat his fifth argument in rebuttal to the myriad of universalistic (or at least universal sounding) statements produced by moderate Calvinists from Calvin's corpus. Nicole's fifth argument amounts to this: since impetration and application cannot be separated, Calvin's universalistic language must teach either universal salvation or not teach universalism at all. Since Calvin cannot be fairly seen to teach universal salvation, his universalistic statements must not really be universalistic. The choice, Nicole says, is "between universal salvation and definite atonement." Since all agree that Calvin did not teach universal salvation, he must have taught definite atonement. Or so Nicole's argument would urge.

In my previous article, I opined that Nicole has committed a black-or-white fallacy in limiting our options to universal salvation and definite atonement. I used Calvin's theology of the Lord's Supper to show that there must be some tertium quid in Calvin's theology between these two positions.

The black-or-white fallacy relates to Nicole's insistence that the choices are universal salvation and definite atonement. But Nicole has committed another fallacy as well: he has begged the question. (David pointed out this fallacy in a comment to my previous post.)

Begging the Question

One of my favorite websites, Fallacy Files has this to say (in part) about begging the question:

For an argument to have any epistemological or dialectical force, it must start from premisses already known or believed by its audience, and proceed to a conclusion not known or believed. This, of course, rules out the worst cases of Begging the Question, when the conclusion is the very same proposition as the premiss, since one cannot both believe and not believe the same thing. A viciously circular argument is one with a conclusion based ultimately upon that conclusion itself, and such arguments can never advance our knowledge.

The question that Nicole has "begged," is whether impetration and application always go together. First, we need to understand what we mean by impetration. I found this quote from John Owen on the Puritan Board about impetration:

For by impetration we mean the meritorious purchase of all good things made by Christ for us with and of his Father; and by application, the actual enjoyment of those good things upon our believing; -- as, if a man pay a price for the redeeming of captives, the paying of the price supplieth the room of the impetration of which we speak; and the freeing of the captives is as the application of it.

Owen, Works Volume X, pg. 223 - Banner of Truth edition. Help to understand the use of 'impetration.'

Using this definition, impetration refers to Christ's work on behalf of men such that we could say that he "paid the price," or "redeemed" them. If that is Nicole's meaning when he says that impetration and application always go together, then has he not asserted the very question that is in dispute? If impetration and application always go together, then of course atonement is limited to the elect.

But the moderate Calvinist (and most other Christians) would deny that impetration and application always go together.

What is the evidence?

Having said that Nicole's argument is circular, we haven't said that his argument is actually unsound. Many perfectly good arguments are circular in form. And Nicole's argument is valid. But though it may be valid, it may still be unsound. A valid argument can give untrue results if one of the premises is untrue.

The premise I question, of course, is that impetration and application always go together. Do they? And how has Nicole established that they do?

First, in Nicole's article, he merely asserts that they always go together. That impetration and application always go together may be a commonly accepted principle in reformed theology, but it is certainly not commonly accepted in Christianity at large.

And whether this principle is accepted in Christian or reformed theology is really irrelevant. What is important for our discussion is whether impetration and application always go together in Calvin's theology. Nicole's article produces no evidence to establish this point.

The evidence to the contrary

One can see evidence contradicting Nicole's assertion in the header of this blog. It's an excerpt from Calvin's commentary to Romans 5:18:

...for though Christ suffered for the sins of the world, and is offered through God's benignity indiscriminately to all, yet all do not receive him.

The plain import of Calvin's language here shows that impetration (defined as Owen defined it above) and application cannot possibly be such that they always go together in Calvin's theology. In this commentary Calvin clearly distinguishes between those for whom Christ suffered and those who will enjoy the benefits offered to them. Having established that impetration and application do not always go together in Calvin's theology, Nicole's argument fails to prove that Calvin's universalistic statements should be taken in any way other than sensible hermeneutics would require.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Paul Helm and Calvin's Doctrine of Faith

This past February, Paul Helm published a blog post entitled "The Language and Theology of the Free Offer." (HT Tony.) Though I would take exception to significant portions of his discussion of the theology of the free offer of the gospel, I wanted to comment on one statement in particular and how it relates to Calvin's theology.

In that blog post, Helm says this:

It is not part of the presentation of Christ freely to say that God sincerely desires the salvation of everyone, and to say such a thing makes preaching sermons on definite atonement and eternal election all the more difficult, leading to unnecessary perplexity.

Faith as Assurance of Divine Favor

I would make three points about Helm's statement: first, since Calvin taught that faith is the knowledge of God's love for us, it is problematic to say that God's sincere desire for the salvation of everyone is no part of the gospel presentation.

That Calvin taught the doctrine of faith I have alleged can be demonstrated most easily from the Institutes 3.2.7:

When conscience sees only wrath and indignation, how can it but tremble and be afraid? and how can it avoid shunning the God whom it thus dreads? But faith ought to seek God, not shun him. It is evident, therefore, that we have not yet obtained a full definition of faith, it being impossible to give the name to every kind of knowledge of the divine will. Shall we, then, for “will”, which is often the messenger of bad news and the herald of terror, substitute the benevolence or mercy of God? In this way, doubtless, we make a nearer approach to the nature of faith. For we are allured to seek God when told that our safety is treasured up in him; and we are confirmed in this when he declares that he studies and takes an interest in our welfare. Hence there is need of the gracious promise, in which he testifies that he is a propitious Father; since there is no other way in which we can approach to him, the promise being the only thing on which the heart of man can recline. * * * For it were of no avail to us to know that God is true, did He not in mercy allure us to himself; nor could we of ourselves embrace his mercy did not He expressly offer it.

Calvin, Institutes 3.2.7.

Notice how expressly Calvin declares that faith can only rest on the testimony of God himself that he is good and merciful. Indeed, Calvin says that the gracious promise is God's testimony that He is a propitious Father. How odd to scruple, as Helm does, against the declaration of God's desire for the salvation of any particular sinner. Such a scruple is certainly not concordant with Calvin's definition of faith. We cannot assure sinners of God's love for them while exhibiting reluctance in declaring to them God's desire that they be saved. Helm's idea of the free declaration of the gospel is distinctly at odds with Calvin's doctrine of faith.

We shall now have a full definition of faith if we say that it is a firm and sure knowledge of the divine favor toward us, founded on the truth of a free promise in Christ, and revealed to our minds, and sealed on our hearts, by the Holy Spirit.

Institutes, 3.2.7

Calvin's doctrine of faith as it relates to definite atonement

One of the important points to come out of Helm's statement is the fact that the doctrine of limited atonement as it is commonly held is not consistent with Calvin's doctrine of faith. If it is problematic to tell sinners of God's desire for their salvation (and I would equate the declaration of God's benevolence, mercy, and propitious stance toward a sinner with such a desire toward that sinner) consistently with our doctrine of limited atonement, then our doctrine of limited atonement must not be consistent with Calvin's doctrine of faith.

That such is the case is further buttressed by the reluctance that many high Calvinists have of saying that God is good and kind to the non-elect, even in a general sense. The hyper-Calvinist usually simply denies such benevolence; but many high Calvinists, though stopping short of denying God's favor toward the non-elect, stop short of allowing that such favor is salvific in any sense. The common doctrine of limited atonement produces resistance to the notion of God's love for the non-elect - especially saving love for the non-elect. Indeed, Helm baldly states that the notion that God desires the salvation of every sinner is problematic for the preaching of limited atonement and unconditional election. To me, this at the very least indicates a doctrine of atonement and election that is out of step with what Calvin taught.

Calvin's doctrine of faith supports the notion that he did not teach limited atonement

Having established that Calvin's doctrine of faith involves a declaration of God's benevolence toward sinners (I mean individual sinners, all sinners, every sinner), we are further justified in concluding that Calvin did not teach limited atonement (at least not the kind that is inconsistent with his doctrine of faith). This is especially true, as Calvin's doctrine of faith necessarily involves the proclamation of Christ's work as the very testimony of God's love for the sinner.

It were presumptuous in us to hold that God is propitious to us, had we not his own testimony, and did he not prevent us by his invitation, which leaves no doubt or uncertainty as to his will. It has already been seen that Christ is the only pledge of love, for without him all things, both above and below speak of hatred and wrath.

Institutes, 3.2.7

The work of Christ on our behalf (I speak as a man, not as a Christian) is the testimony by which God leaves no doubt as to his will. Christ is the pledge of God's love, for without Christ, "all things, both above and below speak of hatred and wrath." Without the testimony afforded by Christ's death for us, there is, indeed, no testimony of the divine favor. And if there is no testimony of the divine favor, there can be no faith.

If our doctrine of the atonement holds that there are some men for whom Christ is not the pledge of divine love and favor, then it would be presumptuous indeed on the part of Christ's ministers to profligately proclaim that God is propitious toward any particular individual. But if there is no promise of the divine favor on which the individual can repose, then there cannot possibly be faith ... at least not of the kind that Calvin taught. How could one have assurance of the divine favor if there are many men for whom Christ did not come (indeed, was not sent)? I claim that such an attitude would be not only against the spirit of Calvin's doctrine of faith, it would also be against the spirit of a Biblical notion of the gospel.

For ...

God so loved the world that he sent his only-begotten Son. See Calvin on John 3:16

Monday, June 08, 2009

Did Christ's Sacrifice Actually Save?

That's the way the question is put by most advocates of limited atonement. I clearly remember hearing Greg Bahnsen (on tape) say that very thing. Christ's sacrifice actually saves. This is in contrast to the Arminian position (and other non-Calvinistic positions) that says that Christ's sacrifice only potentially saves: it merely makes salvation possible.

Roger Nicole's Fifth argument against the moderate Calvinists

As you may remember, last time I gave Nicole's response to the myriad of quotations that can be produced from Calvin's works that seem to say that Christ died for the whole world, for every sinner, for all sin, and such like. Nicole has five arguments in response to the moderate Calvinists, who point to those many quotations from Calvin. (If you want to review Nicole's first four arguments, go to John Calvin's many statements on the scope of the atonement. This article is about Nicole's fifth argument, which relates to the question of actual v. merely potential salvation provided by Christ's sacrifice.

In response to the dozens of quotes from Calvin that have a universalistic import, Nicole makes this argument (the fifth of five):

Finally in the context of many of the above quotations expressions are used that connote the actual application or attainment of salvation, not merely an impetration that would still await appropriation: “our sins are forgiven” or “wiped away,” God is “satisfied” or “appeased,” “we are justified,” “we are exempt from condemnation,” “we may partake of the Lord’s Table,” we are “saved,” “delivered,” “restored to life,” “reconciled.” In this respect, as in so many others, Calvin’s language parallels very closely the usage of Scripture. (See for instance Rom 5:18; 8:32 ; 1 Cor 15:22; 2 Cor 5:14; Heb 2:9; 1 John 2:2). Neither the Scripture nor Calvin can be fairly interpreted to teach universal salvation, but the passages advanced as supporting universal atonement simply do not stop there. It is of course legitimate to distinguish, as Calvin clearly does, between impetration and application, but it is improper to separate these, since they always go together. The choice, therefore, is not between universal atonement and definite atonement as properly representative of Calvin’s theology, but rather between universal salvation and definite atonement.

Nicole, at 218.

Nicole's fundamental error

Nicole's logical fallacy is called the "black or white fallacy," or "false dilemma." Nicole would have us believe that all the possibilities for interpreting Calvin can be fairly grouped into one of two positions: universal salvation or definite atonement. And when Greg Bahnsen asserted limited atonement as affirming the principal that Christ's death actually saves, he committed the same fallacy.

For example, let's take Nicole's view of Calvin's commentary on Mark 14:24 (cited in footnote 93 of Nicole's article). First here is the quote from Calvin:

Which is shed for many. By the word many he means not a part of the world only, but the whole human race; for he contrasts many with one; as if he had said, that he will not be the Redeemer of one man only, but will die in order to deliver many from the condemnation of the curse. It must at the same time be observed, however, that by the words for you, as related by Luke — Christ directly addresses the disciples, and exhorts every believer to apply to his own advantage the shedding of blood Therefore, when we approach to the holy table, let us not only remember in general that the world has been redeemed by the blood of Christ, but let every one consider for himself that his own sins have been expiated.

Calvin, Comm. Mark 14:24. Emphasis added.

Calvin said that Christ's blood was shed not for a part of the world only, but for the whole human race. Nicole would point out that Calvin goes on to say that the words for you are directly related to the disciples, and Calvin applies this language to every believer. And Nicole would buttress his point by reminding us that Calvin is speaking of the institution of the Lord's Supper here, which is, of course, only for believers.

Well, yes and no. First, though, we must remember the logical problem: just because Calvin (and Christ) says that Christ's blood was shed for believers does not mean that Christ's blood was not shed for unbelievers. If the Lord's Supper is given as a comfort to believing souls does not mean that it is not given for the salvation of unbelieving souls.

Those of you who have read this blog for any length of time will remember that this is precisely the point I made in my article about Calvin's dispute with Heshusius.

[W]e maintain, that in the Supper Christ holds forth his body to reprobates as well as to believers...."

Calvin, Theological Treatises.

In Calvin's theology of the Lord's Supper, he plainly asserts that Christ is offered to believer and unbeliever alike in the Supper. Indeed, Calvin goes so far as to say that Christ's body and blood are offered to all in the Supper. Nicole hasn't seen this point, and so his thinking on Calvin's comment to Mark 14:24 is colored by a false bias. He has improperly excluded one of the possibilities for interpreting Calvin.

If I might be so bold as to offer my view of Calvin's theology on this point, I would put it this way: Christ's sacrifice was made for all; and in the Lord's Supper the benefits of that sacrifice are offered to all. Those benefits of the sacrifice of Christ's body and blood offered to us in the Supper can be appropriated only by faith, and the comfort of that universal expiation is realized only by the believer's applying to himself the universal promise. Those who impiously reject Christ offered to us in the Supper cannot be saved, and those who partake of the Supper improperly (not discerning the Lord's body) eat and drink damnation to themselves.

This view both accepts universal expiation and rejects universal salvation. So Nicole can't be right in reducing the possibilities for interpreting Calvin to universal salvation or particular redemption.

More on this point next time.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

John Calvin's many statements on the scope of the atonement

I have been critiquing Roger Nicole's 1985 article defending the view that Calvin taught limited atonement. I have come to Nicole's rebuttal of the fifth argument of those who see Calvin as teaching a form of universal atonement. The fifth argument is the most powerful, and Nicole does little more than make a feeble protest.

The fifth argument is this:

Calvin, they urge, did repeatedly assert universal atonement as is manifested from the following categories of statements culled from the Institutes, the commentaries, the sermons, and the tracts.

Nicole, at 215.

Nicole goes on to give quotes from at least 19 locations in Calvin's various works, all of which seem to have an import favorable to universal atonement. (See pages 215 through 217 of Nicole's article.)

Nicole answers: "this is indeed an impressive list of statements, which could probably be extended still further."


As I pointed out in my previous two blog posts, the problem is a lot more serious than Nicole lets on. The quotations Nicole gives may represent a tithe of the quotations that could be produced from Calvin bearing on the extent of the atonement.

And against those scores of quotes from Calvin that have a universal import, the limited atonement advocate has but two to use: i.e., Calvin's comment on 1John 2:2 and the Heshusius quote. (And they are wrong on both of those.)

The pronouns

But back to Nicole. Nicole doesn't leave those 19 quotes completely untouched. He groups them into five categories and gives suggestions on how to answer the categories. The first group concerns pronouns.

In a number of cases ... we note that the pronouns “we,” “us,” and the adjective “our” appear in alternation with “mankind,” “all,” etc.... Those to whom Calvin refers by such pronouns are not merely members of the human race, but are most commonly those who confess Jesus Christ as their Savior.

Nicole, at 217.

Nicole's answer is basically the "letterhead argument," (as the unnamed one has labeled it.) The letterhead argument goes like this: find out who the letter is addressed to, and then we know who all the first person and second person plural pronouns refer to. Is the letter to the church? "Us" is the church.

This handy little argument is well known to every five-point Calvinist. Nicole simply extends the argument to reading Calvin. So let's look at an example. Nicole says that Calvin's comment on John 19:12 can be answered by the letterhead argument. Here's Calvin:

Nor is it without a good reason that the Evangelist so laboriously examines and details those circumstances; for it is of great importance to us to know, that Pilate did not condemn Christ, before he had several times acquitted him with his own mouth, in order that we may learn from it, that it was for our sins that he was condemned, and not on his own account. We may also learn from it, how voluntarily he offered himself to die, when he disdained to avail himself of the favorable disposition of the judge towards him; and, indeed, it was this obedience that caused his death to be a sacrifice of sweet savour, (Ephesians 5:2,) for blotting out all sins.

Calvin, Comm. John 19:12

There is nothing here (or in the context) to indicate that Calvin intends to limit the pronouns to the church or the elect. Calvin is certainly not suggesting that the knowledge of Christ's innocence is important only to the believer. Why Nicole believes that Calvin is speaking only of the elect when he says "our sins" is a mystery.

But there is a further problem. Let us imagine that Calvin did mean "the sin of the elect" when he said "our sin." How does that explain his statement that Christ's death was the sacrifice "for blotting out all sins?" It doesn't explain it at all! So even if Nicole is right about the pronouns (which he isn't), it doesn't explain Calvin's universal statement. It's this tendency to hand wave all universal statements in scripture (or Calvin, apparently) that many Calvinists resort to: "all" can't mean "all" ... unless it's convenient.

In every instance that Nicole applies this argument, it appears to be utterly without foundation; and Nicole hasn't explained why he thinks the argument applies. So we can only surmise. I would welcome an argument from my readers on any of the passages given by Nicole that he would explain by this method. If you think you can defend Nicole here, I would welcome the discussion.

Jews v. all nations

Nicole explains the second group of quotations in this way:

In some cases Calvin makes it clear that he contrasts the broad scope from which the elect are drawn, with a narrow-minded outlook that would restrict salvation to the Jews, or to a few people....

Nicole, at 217.

Nicole applies this argument to Calvin's commentary on John 1:29 and 1John 2:2. On John 1:29 Nicole is patently wrong, for Calvin explicitly argues from the whole world in general to particular individuals without exception. (There is an interesting twist on John 1:29, for Calvin argues for the guilt of every individual from the general principle enunciated by the apostle in Christ's taking away the sin of the world. Calvin is certainly not arguing that the "world" is the elect in John 1:29!)

And Nicole's application of "Jews v. whole world" to 1John 2:2 is just puzzling. The problem there is that we have the "sufficiently for the whole world, but efficiently only for the elect." How Jews v. world helps answer that question is beyond my capacity. (Did Christ suffer sufficiently only for the elect scattered throughout the whole world, but efficiently only for the elect?)

Christ Alone

Nicole says that some of Calvin's quotes can be understood as emphasizing Christ as the sole mediator, the only hope for salvation. While this is unquestionably true, it doesn't answer the problems raised. For example, Nicole applies this explanation to Calvin's comment on Galatians 2:20, where it simply doesn't apply. Here are Calvin's words:

He gave himself. No words can properly express what this means; for who can find language to declare the excellency of the Son of God? Yet he it is who gave himself as a price for our redemption. Atonement, cleansing, satisfaction, and all the benefits which we derive from the death of Christ, are here represented. The words for me, are very emphatic. It will not be enough for any man to contemplate Christ as having died for the salvation of the world, unless he has experienced the consequences of this death, and is enabled to claim it as his own.

Calvin, Comm. Galatians 2:20

Consider Calvin's statement. How could an unsaved man contemplate Christ dying for the world of the elect: a world that might exclude him? I don't believe for one minute that Calvin has a limited view of Christ's death in mind here. And Nicole's explanation of this passage is just inapposite. Calvin is speaking of applying Christ's death (by grace, certainly) to oneself, not consideration -- in the abstract -- of Christ as the sole mediator. Calvin makes the point by a contrast between consideration of Christ as dying for the world as against consideration of Christ as having died for me. That is why Calvin notes the emphasis on the words for me.

Assurance, universal guilt, universal call

Nicole explains some of Calvin's universalistic language as being designed to give believers assurance, of emphasizing the guilt of all sinners, or of the universal proclamation of and applicability of the gospel call. While Nicole is certainly right on this point, it doesn't relieve him of the problem; it rather exacerbates the problem. If Christ's suffering for the whole world reflects the applicability of the gospel call to all, then we can't explain away on that basis Calvin's use of universalistic language. In one instance Calvin calls unbelievers doubly culpable on the basis of Christ's having suffered for all. (See Sermons on Isaiah's Prophecy of the Death and Passion of Christ, 52:12, p. 140-141.)

Nicole makes one more argument to explain some of these passages, but it will require some little bit of space, so I'll wait until next time.

Friday, April 03, 2009

More on Nicole and Calvin's "Wasted Blood" passages

In my previous post on Nicole's rebuttal to the "wasted blood" argument, I omitted one point. In referring to those difficult passages that give reformed theologians pause (i.e., Romans 14:15, 1Corinthians 8:11, Hebrews 10:29, and 2Peter 2:1), Nicole says this:

The warnings of Hebrews and 2 Peter ... do relate to people who will ultimately be lost. * * * There is no way in which these benefits can in these verses be extended to the universality of mankind. If these apostates are thought to have been regenerate at any time, however, it would appear that the scope of the atonement exceeds the scope of ultimate salvation. This would also raise a difficulty with the doctrine of perseverance. The solution may be found in viewing the description of Hebrews and 2 Peter as expressing what the apostates at one time professed to have rather than what they had in fact.

This is in any case what Calvin has opted for, as is apparent when he calls the offenders of Heb 10:29 “hypocrites…usurping a place among the faithful.” * * * Calvin’s silence on the relationship of these four texts to the extent of the atonement should not, in all fairness, be construed as an endorsement of universal atonement, not any more than his silence in his commentaries on the relation of these texts to the doctrine of perseverance provides a substantial basis for affirming that Calvin did not believe in perseverance. Other passages prove beyond dispute that he did believe in it!

Nicole, 214-15.

If I may be permitted to rephrase, Nicole's argument runs thus:

Interpreted a certain way, these passages cause us to question not only limited atonement but also perseverance! Calvin certainly believed in perseverance; and since we don't doubt that Calvin believed in perseverance, his silence on the scope of the atonement from these passages should not cause us to doubt his belief in limited atonement.

The problem, of course, arises from the fact that Calvin was not silent on the scope of the atonement in his commentary to these passages. It is Calvin's non-silence that causes the problem. Besides, the idea Calvin's belief in perseverance ought to argue for his belief in limited atonement is the kind of argument that is music to the ears of the choir but leaves the rest of us cold. At the end of the day, Nicole has utterly failed to explain what Calvin meant by the "wasted blood" statements.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Whose (sic) afraid of R.T. Kendall?

Sean Gerety posted a comment to my recent paean to R. T. Kendall, in which he blasted my logic (among other things). I admit to admiring Kendall, but I plead innocent of defective logic, which (logic, that is) Gerety and his ilk aspire to honor. (A poor job of it, in my view.)

First I must call attention to Gerety's slander against David Ponter. Ponter is neither Amyraldian nor Arminian, and his theological views are certainly not closeted. The pursuit of logic is the pursuit of truth, and Gerety shows his defect on both points (logic and truth) by his careless or malicious chatter.

I shall make some response to some of Gerety's less odious comments. He writes:

While Calvin certainly said things that, at first blush, seem to support Kendall’s and your thesis, the fact is Calvin had much bigger fish to fry. Unambiguously expounding on the extent of Christ’s death certainly wasn't high on his list.

Yes, Calvin did indeed say things that support Kendall's thesis: quite a few things, in fact. The canard that the atonement wasn't on Calvin's agenda is nothing more than wishful thinking. Anyone who has read this blog at all, (or the mountain of material at Calvin and Calvinism, particularly the over 200 quotes from Calvin relevant to the subject of the atonement) will know that Gerety's statement is simply whistling in the dark.

It is true, of course, that Calvin did not devote a chapter of the Institutes to "the extent of the atonement," (though I would argue that chapters 12 through 17 of the second book of the Institutes would fill that function as well as any other "less ambiguous" treatment) but that does not mean that he was not aware of the theological question or express himself clearly on it. The reason Gerety sees Calvin's statements on the atonement as ambiguous is because he doesn't like the consequences of the unvarnished truth. What could be more unambiguous than Calvin's comment to Romans 5:18? Or how about this statement from the Institutes?

Luke goes still farther, showing that the salvation brought by Christ is common to the whole human race, inasmuch as Christ, the author of salvation, is descended from Adam, the common father of us all.

Institutes 2.13.3

Calvin's Argument against Marcion

This last quote is particularly interesting because it approaches our problem from a different angle. Calvin's discussion in 2.13.2, and 3 is addressed to those (Marcionites or their contemporaneous admirers) who denied that Christ came in the flesh. Calvin proved that Christ came in the flesh by arguing that Christ came as the savior of the whole human race. If Calvin meant "the elect of the whole human race," his argument would no longer be cogent against the Marcionites. (It would, in fact, give them support!)

Let me elaborate. Marcion believed that Christ came as God, but not God in the flesh. Christ was God Manifest, not God Incarnate. Christ was not born, had no childhood, and was in no sense incarnate. (See the article on the Marcionites in the Catholic Encyclopedia.) Tertullian says mockingly of the doctrine of Marcion: "Suddenly a Son, suddenly Sent, suddently Christ!" (loc cit.) Calvin said, "In ancient times, the reality of his human nature was impugned by the Manichees and Marcionites, the latter figuring to themselves a phantom instead of the body of Christ...." (Institutes 2.13.1) For Marcion, Christ was God descended to humanity, not God who took on human flesh.

Calvin argues against the doctrine of the Marcionites: Christ was indeed manifest in the flesh. "Wherefore, our Lord himself not contented with the name of man, frequently calls himself the Son of man, wishing to express more clearly that he was a man by true human descent." (Institutes 2.13.1)

And Calvin advances his case for Christ's true humanity by saying that Christ brought salvation to the whole human race! If Calvin really believed that Christ came to bring salvation only to the elect, then his argument against Marcion would have been ineffective and disingenuous. Why ineffective? Because the Marcionites could argue that the elect are the spiritual children of God, and that Christ need not come in human flesh, since he did not come to save all descended from Adam. Why disingenuous? Because in advancing his argument, Calvin would have to hide his secret definition for "whole human race" and "us all." I trust that we accept that Calvin was more honest than to hide or misrepresent his true beliefs in order to gain a debating point.

Predestinarianism proves limited atonement?

Gerety goes on to bring his proof of Calvin's bona fides on "L" (the emphasis in the following quotes were supplied by Gerety):

That said, Calvin was by no means unclear:

Through Isaiah he still more openly shows how he directs the promises of salvation specifically to the elect: for he proclaims that they alone, not the whole human race without distinction, are to become his disciples (Isa. 8:16). Hence it is clear that the doctrine of salvation, which is said to be reserved solely and individually for the sons of the church, is falsely debased when presented as effectually profitable to all. Inst. III.xxii.10

Whence it comes about that the whole world does not belong to its Creator except that grace rescues from God’s curse and wrath and eternal death a limited number who would otherwise perish. But the world itself is left to its own destruction, to which it has been destined. Meanwhile, although Christ interposes himself as mediator, he claims for himself, in common with the Father, the right to choose. ‘I am not speaking’, he says, ‘of all; I know whom I have chosen’ (John 13: 18). If anyone ask whence he has chosen them, he replies in another passage: ‘From the world’ (John 15:19), which he excludes from his prayers when he commends his disciples to the Father (John 17:9). This we must believe: when he declares that he knows whom he has chosen, he denotes in the human genus a particular species, distinguished not by the quality of its virtues but by heavenly decree. Inst. III.xxii.7.

Hence we read everywhere that Christ diffuses life into none but the members of his own body. And he that will not confess that it is a special gift and a special mercy to be engrafted into the body of Christ, has never read with spiritual attention Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. Hereupon follows also a third important fact, that the virtue and benefits of Christ are extended unto, and belong to, none but the children of God. A Treatise on the Eternal Predestination of God

Some of my readers will have already spotted the problem in Gerety's proof texts: they are all irrelevant to the question. I deny none of those statements from Calvin. My readers might also note that the statements Gerety adduces as proof all relate to the application of the benefits of Christ's death. The application is not in dispute; the benefits (the saving benefits) of Christ's death are applied to the elect alone. But Christ's death was sufficient for all (intentionally so), offered for all, and is offered to all.

I have dealt with Gerety's error in the past. Gerety believes that proof of Calvin's predestinarianism also proves limited atonement. Such is simply not the case. In the first article of my series on Calvin's view of the atonement, I answer those who think they've carried their burden on "L" by proving "U". Again, Gerety simply wishes his problems away.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Nicole on Calvin's "wasted blood" passages

Roger Nicole's fourth rebuttal to the moderate Calvinists treats Calvin's "wasted blood" passages. This is an important point, which Nicole skims over. There are many such passages in Calvin's corpus, and there ought to be some thought given to the answer. Nicole hasn't done it.

Cause to pause and ponder

Nicole refers to four scripture passages as giving the advocate of definite atonement "reason to pause and ponder:" Romans 14:15, 1Corinthians 8:11, Hebrews 10:29, and 2Peter 2:1. Here's what Calvin said on Romans 14:15:

The next thing is, — that when the weak conscience is wounded, the price of Christ’s blood is wasted; for the most abject brother has been redeemed by the blood of Christ: it is then a heinous crime to destroy him by gratifying the stomach; and we must be basely given up to our own lusts, if we prefer meat, a worthless thing, to Christ.

Calvin, Comm. Romans 14:15, emphasis added.

Nicole replies to the scripture problem, but ignores Calvin:

To this we reply that in the context of the problem of weaker brothers, Paul affirms that they will not perish but God will make them to stand (Rom 14:4). Thus Paul’s statements do not so much represent an expression of doubt as to God’s perseverance with his own for whom Christ died, as a castigation of the selfishness of so-called “strong” Christians who would give priority to their own exercise of Christian liberty over the spiritual eternal interests of their weaker brothers.

Nicole, at 214.

That's all Nicole says on the Romans passage. The reader will notice that Nicole's short paragraph does nothing to analyze Calvin's use of the phrase "the price of Christ's blood is wasted." Whatever Nicole may think of the scripture in question, he ought to be analyzing Calvin's language, since Calvin's language is the subject of his article.

Regarding Hebrews 10 and 2 Peter, Nicole admits that the passages relate to those who will ultimately be lost, and gives a brief argument for the language being seen as not supporting universal atonement.

The solution may be found in viewing the description of Hebrews and 2 Peter as expressing what the apostates at one time professed to have rather than what they had in fact.

This is in any case what Calvin has opted for, as is apparent when he calls the offenders of Heb 10:29 "hypocrites...usurping a place among the faithful."

* * *

Calvin's silence on the relationship of these four texts [Romans 14:15, 1 Corinthians 8:11, Hebrews 10:29, and 2 Peter 2:1 - slc] to the extent of the atonement should not, in all fairness, be construed as an endorsement of universal atonement, not any more than his silence in his commentaries on the relation of these texts to the doctrine of perseverance provides a substantial basis for affirming that Calvin did not believe in perseverance. Other passages prove beyond dispute that he did believe in it!

Again, Nicole focuses mostly on an analysis of the scripture, and mostly avoids analyzing Calvin. Here are relevant statements from Calvin's commentaries on the passages in question:

There is, however, still greater force in what follows — that even those that are ignorant or weak have been redeemed with the blood of Christ; for nothing were more unseemly than this, that while Christ did not hesitate to die, in order that the weak might not perish, we, on the other hand, reckon as nothing the salvation of those who have been redeemed with so great a price. A memorable saying, by which we are taught how precious the salvation of our brethren ought to be in our esteem, and not merely that of all, but of each individual in particular, inasmuch as the blood of Christ was poured out for each individual!

12. When ye sin so against the brethren, etc. For if the soul of every one that is weak is the price of Christ’s blood, that man who, for the sake of a very small portion of meat, hurries back again to death the brother who has been redeemed by Christ, shows how contemptible the blood of Christ is in his view. Hence contempt of this kind is an open insult to Christ.

Calvin, Comm. 1 Corinthians 8: 11, 12.

The blood of the covenant, etc. He enhances ingratitude by a comparison with the benefits. It is the greatest indignity to count the blood of Christ unholy, by which our holiness is effected; this is done by those who depart from the faith. For our faith looks not on the naked doctrine, but on the blood by which our salvation has been ratified. He calls it the blood of the covenant, because then only were the promises made sure to us when this pledge was added. But he points out the manner of this confirmation by saying that we are sanctified; for the blood shed would avail us nothing, except we were sprinkled with it by the Holy Spirit; and hence come our expiation and sanctification. The apostle at the same time alludes to the ancient rite of sprinkling, which availed not to real sanctification, but was only its shadow or image.

Calvin, Comm. Hebrews 10:29. Emphasis added.

Even denying the Lord that bought them. Though Christ may be denied in various ways, yet Peter, as I think, refers here to what is expressed by Jude, that is, when the grace of God is turned into lasciviousness; for Christ redeemed us, that he might have a people separated from all the pollutions of the world, and devoted to holiness and innocency. They, then, who throw off the bridle, and give themselves up to all kinds of licentiousness, are not unjustly said to deny Christ by whom they have been redeemed. Hence, that the doctrine of the gospel may remain whole and complete among us, let this be fixed in our minds, that we have been redeemed by Christ, that he may be the Lord of our life and of our death, and that our main object ought to be, to live to him and to die to him. He then says, that their swift destruction was at hand, lest others should be ensnared by them.

Calvin, Comm. 2Peter 2:1. Emphasis added.

Nicole glosses over these comments without giving us much analysis. But consider the import of the argument. Strict limited atonement insists that all for whom Christ died are certain of eternal salvation. The shedding of Christ's blood must be efficacious, the argument goes, for all for whom it is offered. Contrast that with Calvin's statements: Christ's blood "wasted," (Rom. 14:15); brothers who have been redeemed being hurried back to death (1Cor. 8:12); Christ's blood availing nothing apart from application (Hebrews 10:29); and apostates denying Christ by whom they have been redeemed (2Pet. 2:1). In at least the Hebrews passage, Nicole admits that we are speaking of those who will ultimately be lost. Nicole has failed to give a cogent analysis or argument for understanding Calvin's language in a way that is consistent with strict limited atonement.

It would be well to note here the distinction that Calvin made in the Hebrews passage between the shedding of Christ's blood for men and the application of it to them. This distinction helps us in analyzing Calvin's thinking on the subject of the atonement.

Calvin's MANY references to "wasted blood," "redemption voided," and "redeemed souls perishing"

It is also important to note here that Nicole has barely scratched the surface of the problem. There are many statements of this type throughout Calvin's corpus. I encourage my readers to look at the Calvin and Calvinism blog (scroll down to the section under Part II., entitled "Redeemed Souls Perishing and Redemption Voided." There are fifty-four(!) quotations from Calvin's sermons, Commentaries, and Tracts that indicate that Calvin thought that Christ died for some whose souls will be eternally lost.

Finally, it is shocking to hear Nicole say that Calvin was "silent" on the question of the extent of the atonement in these passages. In these passages Calvin did not treat the "extent of the atonement" in a discourse, but he certainly was not silent. And when considering the mountain of evidence in favor of universal atonement in Calvin's corpus, it is negligent (at best) to say that Calvin was silent on the subject.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Two Wills in Calvin's Institutes

Just a quick one today; I'll have another entry in my critique of Roger Nicole shortly (later this week, D.V.).

D.V.: it means "God willing." But there are two senses of God's will. This is much disputed by some, who seem unable (or unwilling) to speak of God having a will apart from his decree. (There are some on the other side, of course, who are unwilling to speak of God's decree.)

Calvin, as you should know, spoke of both God's revealed will and his will of decree. Here's a quote I came across today. I've probably referred to this quote in this space before ... but, if such be the case, it bears repeating:

Why, then, they ask, should the thief be punished for robbing him whom the Lord chose to chastise with poverty? Why should the murderer be punished for slaying him whose life the Lord had terminated? If all such persons serve the will of God, why should they be punished? I deny that they serve the will of God. For we cannot say that he who is carried away by a wicked mind performs service on the order of God, when he is only following his own malignant desires. He obeys God, who, being instructed in his will, hastens in the direction in which God calls him. But how are we so instructed unless by his word? The will declared by his word is, therefore, that which we must keep in view in acting, God requires of us nothing but what he enjoins. If we design anything contrary to his precept, it is not obedience, but contumacy and transgression. But if he did not will it, we could not do it. I admit this. But do we act wickedly for the purpose of yielding obedience to him? This, assuredly, he does not command. Nay, rather we rush on, not thinking of what he wishes, but so inflamed by our own passionate lust, that, with destined purpose, we strive against him. And in this way, while acting wickedly, we serve his righteous ordination, since in his boundless wisdom he well knows how to use bad instruments for good purposes.

Calvin, Institutes 1.17.5

The reader with even the slightest sense will recognize that Calvin speaks both of God's will as revealed in the scripture, which disobedient men refuse to do, and God's will of providence, which, if He did not will it, they could not do it.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Influence of R. T. Kendall

I was talking with a friend of mine recently (the unnamed one), and we discussed the rise of moderate Calvinism among modern evangelical theologians. I'm not speaking of the 4-point Calvinists (who tend to reject limited atonement outright), the dispensationalists, or nearly Arminian fundamentalists, but the Calvinist scholars who actually influence the community of TULIP Calvinists. I asked my friend if he didn't think R. T. Kendall was one of the first of his kind in the late 20th century.

My friend said that Kendall may not be the first, but was certainly early, and has been very influential. He said that there is a great irony here, because without the vociferous (and seemingly endless) criticism that Kendall has received, he would not have been influential at all.

This is probably true, but I find it most telling that Kendall seems to inspire a constant impulse to refute him.

This, to me, speaks of the power of his thesis. The power of Kendall's argument comes not from his historical analysis (which some have criticized ... though I have no strong quarrel with Kendall on this point ... though I'm no historian), but from his analysis of the issues involved in the question of Calvin's theology. The question, of course is this: did Calvin teach limited atonement? Kendall answers that question not by directing us to statements about the atonement itself, but by looking at Calvin's doctrine of faith and the subsequent development of the doctrine of faith and assurance in English Calvinism.

Kendall's thesis is, in my view and as I have said before, devastating. And that is what (in a way) engenders the constant desire to refute him. He strongly shows that Calvin could not have taught limited atonement ("limited atonement" meaning "Christ did not die for some men") while teaching the doctrine of faith that he did. But what has not been analyzed (though Nicole does mention it) in these critiques (as far as my limited historical knowledge permits me to make this statement) is the question of Calvin's doctrine of faith. The analysis of Kendall tends to be about Calvin's doctrine of the atonement, while very little is said about Calvin's doctrine of faith. Do today's evangelical churches and seminaries hold Calvin's doctrine of faith?

One corollary of Kendall's thesis is that insofar as modern Calvinism holds to certain forms of limited atonement, they cannot teach Calvin's doctrine of faith. This ought to rock us to our core. But the question seems to be ignored by diversion to the more controverted question of Calvin's doctrine of the atonement. But I believe it is Kendall's strong argument that puts the burr under the saddle of his critics -- or at least it ought to be.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Nicole v. Calvin on Ezekiel 18:32 and 2Peter 3:9

Well ... I suppose one must devote a certain amount of energy to a blog if he intends to have one. So, back to the grind.

Roger Nicole’s third rebuttal against the moderate (or “historic” or “non-continuity”) Calvinists is this:

3. Calvin, they urge, ["they" referring to the moderate Calvinists, such as R.T. Kendall, Curt Daniel, et. al. - slc] takes at face value certain biblical texts which appear to teach God’s universal saving will. Here Calvin’s Commentaries on Ezek 18:32 and on 2 Pet 3:9 are often quoted.

To this we reply that with respect to Ezek 18:32 as well as to 2 Pet 3:9, Calvin expressly distinguished between the revealed, preceptive will of God by virtue of which an appeal may be extended to all humans, and the secret, decretive will of God which draws unto him only the elect. The very strong language Calvin uses in his comments on these passages relates to the obligation to present an indiscriminate universal invitation, as already noted under 2 above.

Nicole is certainly correct on this point. But it doesn't answer the objection; in fact, it seems to concede the objection. Nicole admits that Calvin uses "very strong language," but he limits (or seems to limit ... Nicole's reply is not completely clear to me) the strong language to the church's obligation to present the gospel. But Nicole has this (if I'm reading him right) 180 degrees wrong. Calvin does not speak of our obligation to present the gospel, but God's nature in His gracious invitation to embrace the gospel. Here's an excerpt from Calvin:

Meanwhile Ezekiel announces this very truly as far as doctrine is concerned, that God wills not the death of him that perishes: for the explanation follows directly afterwards, be you converted and live. Why does not God delight in the death of him who perishes? Because he invites all to repentance and rejects no one. Since this is so, it follows that he is not delighted by the death of him who perishes: hence there is nothing in this passage doubtful or thorny, and we should also hold that we are led aside by speculations too deep for us. For God does not wish us to inquire into his secret counsels: His secrets are with himself, says Moses, (Deuteronomy 29:29,) but this book for ourselves and our children.

Calvin, Comm. Ezekiel 18:32.

Notice that Calvin does not pose the question this way: "to whom must we proclaim the gospel?" Calvin asks rather, "Why does not God delight in the death of him who perishes?" Nicole would have us see Calvin as speaking to our duty. But in fact, Calvin speaks to God's merciful nature as shown in His gracious proposals. A similar objection could be made regarding 2Peter 3:9:

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. But the order is to be noticed, that God is ready to receive all to repentance, so that none may perish; for in these words the way and manner of obtaining salvation is pointed out. Every one of us, therefore, who is desirous of salvation, must learn to enter in by this way.

But it may be asked, If God wishes none to perish, why is it that so many do perish? To this my answer is, that 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 to us in the gospel. For God there stretches forth his hand without a difference to all, but lays hold only of those, to lead them to himself, whom he has chosen before the foundation of the world.

Calvin, Comm. 2Peter 3:9

Again notice that Calvin is not speaking of our obligation, but of God's nature.

Many Calvinists seem to speak of God's revealed will as if it is merely a declaration: a bare statement of our duty. Nicole seems to imply something similar. Since (Nicole seems to say) the strong statements in Ezekiel and 2Peter address God's revealed will, it says nothing about God's real will. For Nicole, the revealed will speaks merely of our obligation, not God's nature.

As we've already seen, this does serious injustice to Calvin's plain language; but it also does injustice to God's clear declarations about His own nature. When God speaks of his revealed "will," we dare not brush aside such statements as if they say nothing about God's "real" will. His revealed will is every bit as "real" as his will of decree. And God's revealed will is far more relevant to us, for it not only describes God's pleasure, but it also describes our duty.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Arminian Perspectives

Interesting reference to my Nicole articles at Arminian Perspectives. I appreciate the link, and while I would take issue with Ben's argumentation and view of scripture, he appears to be a thoughtful person.

So why would I point out a link from an Arminian? (Gasp!) Well ... I appreciate the link and it's good to reciprocate. But it also points out a problem with making bad arguments: a bad argument gives comfort to the other side. If we must support our theology with outrageous assertions (e.g., "Calvin clearly taught limited atonement") or outlandish arguments ("all really means all elect") then we make our own position weak. The bad arguments give our theological opponents a place to stand.

This was brought home to me strongly last week, when my daughter returned from a weekend working at a Bible camp. The camp director led a Bible study in which he advocated limited atonement using John Owen's "trilemma." My daughter wondered what to think of it, and I gave her a brief tutorial on the assumptions at work in Owen's argument. She was quickly satisfied that Owen was talking through his hat.

But not everyone can see the problems so quickly. (It took me decades to figure out the problem in Owen's thinking.) In the meantime, some young people will be misled about Calvinism; and either they will embrace Reformed theology with the corrupting influence of Owen's bad assumptions, or they will reject the argument (as they ought to do) and throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Calvin's theology is built on careful exegesis. His followers have, over the centuries, ruined a lot of it by careless exegesis and careless argumentation.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Answering Roger Nicole on 1Timothy 2:5 (part 3)

To briefly recapitulate: my first two arguments against Nicole's reading of Calvin on 1Timothy 2:5 consisted of examining the allegedly qualifying language of class vs. individual that Calvin used in his commentary on the verse. Whereas Nicole would have us read Calvin as speaking of some of all kinds of men, this doesn't seem to work when applied to two actual cases that appear in the immediate context: the preaching of the gospel and prayer.

What we saw was that if we applied Nicole's some of all kinds logic to Calvin it gives us awkward -- or simply impossible -- readings. In the first case we saw that we would have to read Calvin as saying that the gospel ought to be preached to all kinds of men rather than to all individuals (see Calvin on 1Timothy 2:4). This is awkward if we are saying that Calvin taught elsewhere that we should preach the gospel to all men, excluding none. Nicole says explicitly that Calvin taught that the gospel should be preached to every individual, and even that Calvin's universalistic language should be understood in just that way.

Second we saw that using Nicole's analysis we would have to read Calvin as saying that we ought to pray for some of all kinds of men (excluding some, wicked Nero for example, as John Gill did), whereas Calvin taught an idea diametrically opposed to that (see Calvin on 1Timothy 2:1-2).

All of all classes

The third argument I would make is that in analyzing Calvin's language of "class" v. "individual" [genera v. persona], though Calvin may not be speaking of individuals, he has in mind the exclusion of no individuals.

Consider Calvin's treatment of those for whom we are to pray. He says that we are to pray for "all mankind." Here is his comment on 1Timothy 2:1:

That, above all, prayers be made. First, he speaks of public prayers, which he enjoins to be offered, not only for believers, but for all mankind.

~Calvin, Comm. 1Timothy 2:1

Notice the categories: believers v. unbelievers, which categories make up "all mankind." Calvin urges us to include the ungodly in our prayers:

Some might reason thus with themselves: “Why should we be anxious about the salvation of unbelievers, with whom we have no connection? Is it not enough, if we, who are brethren, pray mutually for our brethren, and recommend to God the whole of his Church? for we have nothing to do with strangers.” This perverse view Paul meets, and enjoins the Ephesians to include in their prayers all men, and not to limit them to the body of the Church.

* * *

Paul, in my own opinion, simply enjoins that, whenever public prayers are offered, petitions and supplications should be made for all men, even for those who at present are not at all related to us.

~Calvin, Comm. 1Timothy 2:1

If we are to pray for all men, we cannot pray for them individually, but as a class. To answer the childish sophistry that asks whether I suggest getting out the phone book and start praying for "all men," beginning at the A's, I answer that clearly the apostle is speaking of classes, not of individuals. And I think that's exactly what Calvin has in mind here. Calvin (if not the apostle) would have us pray for all men, excluding none; not praying for them all by listing all particular men, but including all generally by reference to the relevant class. (I do not suggest neglecting to mention individuals by name, especially government leaders, but I do suggest the inclusion of all by reference to relevant classes. For example, one might pray for "all my neighbors," or "all residing in Phoenix." There is no need to resort to the phone book.)

It is equally important to see that Calvin's conception of "all men" does not exclude any individual. In his commentary on 1Timothy 2:4, Calvin combines his language of classes with the exception of no one:

for the Apostle simply means, that there is no people and no rank in the world that is excluded from salvation; because God wishes that the gospel should be proclaimed to all without exception. Now the preaching of the gospel gives life; and hence he justly concludes that God invites all equally to partake salvation. But the present discourse relates to classes of men, and not to individual persons; for his sole object is, to include in this number princes and foreign nations. That God wishes the doctrine of salvation to be enjoyed by them as well as others, is evident from the passages already quoted, and from other passages of a similar nature. Not without good reason was it said, “Now, kings, understand,” and again, in the same Psalm, “I will give thee the Gentiles for an inheritance, and the ends of the earth for a possession.” (Psalm 2:8-10.)

In a word, Paul intended to shew that it is our duty to consider, not what kind of persons the princes at that time were, but what God wished them to be. Now the duty arising out of that love which we owe to our neighbor is, to be solicitous and to do our endeavor for the salvation of all whom God includes in his calling, and to testify this by godly prayers.

~Calvin, Comm. 1Timothy 2:4

In reading that quote, notice that the language of classes is combined with universalistic language: "all without exception," "all equally," and "all whom God includes in his calling." That this includes the non-elect should be obvious because Calvin speaks of those to whom the preaching of the gospel comes, all whom God "includes in his calling" (i.e., the external call). And it is for the unbelieving as well as the believing, for it is not our duty to consider "what kind of persons the princes at that time were, but what God wished them to be." That is, Calvin would have us pray for bad princes as well as good. In his comment to 1Timothy 2:2, he mentions that these magistrates might be such as "were so many sworn enemies of Christ." But we are to pray for them.

A little consideration of Calvin's comment to verses 1 through 4 of 1Timothy 2 will show that Calvin's language of classes is not intended to exclude any individual because he is not one of the elect. We are to pray for them all and preach the gospel to them all.

This View Confirmed from Isaiah

I have mentioned in a previous blog post that Calvin elsewhere says that Christ "became surety for every one of the most excellent of the earth, and suffered in the room of those who hold the highest rank in the world." (See Calvin on Isaiah 53:12. This is also where Calvin says that "many" sometimes means "all.") If we're speaking of classes (as, in this case, the class consisting of kings, rulers, and the like), then it doesn't help Nicole to say that Calvin is speaking of classes v. individuals if the relevant class includes the most wicked sworn enemies of Christ and includes "every one" of the relevant class. It doesn't help Nicole, for this class would clearly include some who are not elect; and Nicole's entire purpose in pointing to the notion of classes is to make the exclusion of the non-elect possible. Clearly Calvin is not excluding any person by suggesting the idea of thinking in terms of classes rather than individuals. Calvin's idea of classes excludes no person.

This View Confirmed from 1Timothy 2:5!

Interestingly enough, Nicole's view of Calvin is refuted in the very passage he cites for support. Here is some of Calvin's comment to 1Timothy 2:5:

Accordingly, whatever diversity might at that time exist among men, because many ranks and many nations were strangers to faith, Paul brings to the remembrance of believers the unity of God, that they may know that they are connected with all, because there is one God of all — that they may know that they who are under the power of the same God are not excluded for ever from the hope of salvation.

~Calvin, Comm. 1Timothy 2:5

All those ranks and nations (classes!) are all "under the power of the same God," and therefore "are not excluded for ever from the hope of salvation." What could be clearer? Calvin excluded none from the class of those who are given the hope of salvation.

If you want to see what excluding individuals would look like, consult John Gill on this passage. You'll find nothing of Gill's like in Calvin's theology.