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.