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.