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.
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 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.