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.