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."

Indeed!

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.

11 comments:

Kent said...

Have you seen calvin500.com? There are a whole bunch of Calvin-related resources. Thought you might be interested.

Steve said...

Thanks very much, Kent; I'll bookmark it.

a helmet said...

I guess the belief in the dogma of Limited Atonement is always adopted through conversion by another calvinist but never by an appeal to the bible. Everyone who explains how he came to embrace the doctrines of grace narrates about his enlightenment by other calvinists' aid.

Steve said...

Thanks for your comment, helmet. I have a friend who actually persuaded himself of limited atonement simply by reading the Bible. But I think his case is unusual. For myself, I was persuaded that limited atonement is correct by this argument: if Christ's death was substitutionary, then it must have been limited. I would reject that argument now, of course. But the argument was made by one of my Calvinist friends. :-)

Josh said...

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love the blog, need more!

Steve Costley said...

Dude ... have you hear this thing called "encourage the blogger by leaving positive comments?" Oh wait ... you have. Cool. :-)

Ok ... I'll do more. Thanks!
Steve

Anonymous said...

The materials compiled at http://calvinandcalvinism.com/?p=230 are thought provoking concerning this topic. Has anyone seen "A Word for the World: Calvin on the Extent of the Atonement" by Paul Hartog? It seems to be worth a read as well, at http://www.baptistbulletin.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/a-word-for-the-world.pdf

Steve said...

Thanks for leaving the link to Hartog, Anonymous! I'll write some blog posts on Hartog's work in the coming weeks.

heyray said...

Why are we arguing over whether or not Calvin believed it? What difference does it make? Shouldn't we rather be thinking about whether or not the Bible teaches it? Let's not make the mistake of valuing church tradition over scripture- this is the very error the Reformers were against.

Steve said...

Thanks for your comment heyray. Do you care what your pastor preaches on Sunday? Do you ignore what he teaches? Do you just accept what he says blindly? Do you automatically reject what he says? No ... unless I misjudge you entirely.

John Calvin has been one of the most influential teachers in the Christian church for hundreds of years. And we care ... ought to care ... what he says for exactly that reason. He is one of our teachers, like it or not. And it matters that we understand his teaching properly.

You are quite right, though, to say that the greatest of teachers must be held to the standard of scripture. The ultimate test of truth in these matters is what God has told us in the Bible.

Steve said...

Thanks for your comment heyray. Do you care what your pastor preaches on Sunday? Do you ignore what he teaches? Do you just accept what he says blindly? Do you automatically reject what he says? No ... unless I misjudge you entirely.

John Calvin has been one of the most influential teachers in the Christian church for hundreds of years. And we care ... ought to care ... what he says for exactly that reason. He is one of our teachers, like it or not. And it matters that we understand his teaching properly.

You are quite right, though, to say that the greatest of teachers must be held to the standard of scripture. The ultimate test of truth in these matters is what God has told us in the Bible.