Monday, May 03, 2010

Institutes 3.1.1 Christ Suffered for the Sins of the Human Race - Part 2

I'm continuing the previous post on Roger Nicole's interpretation of Calvin's language in Institutes 3.1.1. Calvin wrote:

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.

Institutes 3.1.1

Nicole's argument

Nicole's argument regarding Calvin's language runs as follows:

Calvin's language parallels very closely the usage of Scripture. (See for instance Rom 5:13; 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, 218.

Nicole adds in a footnote:

The crux of the matter resides in the fact that Christ's impetration involves the gift of the Holy Spirit to secure repentance and faith in those whom God intended to save. Thus salvation does not occur apart from appropriation, but appropriation is seen by Calvin as a gift of God rather than a performance by the creature. Human beings thus are seen as responsible for their sinful rejection of Christ, when offered, but only the Spirit, whose intervention was secured in the atonement, can lead a sinner to repent, believe and accept the proffered salvation. See Calvin's Calvinism, 164 (OC 8.335).

Nicole, 218, footnote 98.

Impetration v. application

So to Nicole's way of thinking, in Biblical and Calvinistic theology, impetration leads necessarily to application. That is, the extent of the impetration must be coextensive with the extent of application.

We know how the argument might go from scripture (the high Calvinist interpretation of Romans 8:32, being the mainstay). But how would the argument go in Calvin's theology? There is no direct statement from Calvin that would serve the purpose.

In fact, Calvin's statement in the Institutes cannot be pressed into the imagined mold. There is no hint in this quote from the Institutes, nor in any other place in Calvin's work, of the work of the Holy Spirit being co-extensive with Christ's impetration. That being the case, Nicole's argument fails.

The dilemma: universal salvation or definite atonement

As to the imagined dilemma -- universal salvation or definite atonement -- the dilemma disappears when one recognizes that impetration and application need not always go together. That is, in fact, the question in dispute. Obviously if impetration and application always are co-extensive, then limited atonement is a logical and obvious necessity. But if they are not co-extensive, then some sort of universal atonement becomes a possibility. Calvin having distinguished between impetration and application, as in Institutes 3.1.1, his theology does not logically preclude some form of universal atonement.

Bible language/Calvin language

And finally I would address Nicole's argument regarding Calvin's language. It closely parallels the Bible, says Nicole. Agreed. Neither Scripture nor Calvin can be fairly interpreted to teach universal salvation. Agreed. But the passages (what passages?) "simply do not stop there." Nicole's vague statement seems to be saying this: that the Bible passages that would purportedly teach universal atonement must fairly be seen to teach universal salvation if they teach any universality at all. Thus they teach either universal salvation or no universality at all. And it being the case that Calvin's language parallels Biblical language, his use of universal language in the atonement context must also be viewed as teaching either universal salvation or no universality at all.

Having seen the argument spelled out, its falsity is also obvious. To evaluate Calvin's language, we must consult Calvin, not the Bible.

For example, Nicole would have us see Romans 5:18. So let's take that as an example. That verse, in isolation, might plausibly be interpreted to support universal salvation. But only a venal or incompetent interpreter would give it such an import. That being the case, one must ponder how the words "even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life" should be interpreted. There must be some qualification of one sort or another.

Does that mean, therefore, that Calvin's use of the phrase "all men" (or some equivalent expression) ought to be qualified in the way we interpret the phrase when we see it in Romans 5:18? The notion is absurd. One must interpret Calvin's language by reading Calvin, and interpret Biblical language by reading the Bible.

In interpreting Romans 5:18, Calvin says that Christ "suffered for the sins of the whole world...." Should we interpret Calvin's expression "whole world" in the same way that we interpret "all men" in Romans 5:18? Using Nicole's rule, we sure ought to. But then what do we make of the rest of Calvin's sentence? It goes: "for though Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world, and is offered through God’s benignity indiscriminately to all, yet all do not receive him.." This creates problems for Nicole's Bible/Calvin language rule. Because Calvin is speaking of a "whole world," all of whom are offered the benefits of Christ. This "whole world" is such a world that "all do not receive him."

Any sensible reader would conclude that Calvin's phrase "whole world" cannot refer to the elect of the whole world. That being the case, there is either some discontinuity between Calvin's language and that of the Bible, or else Romans 5:18 really refers to "all men" without qualification. In either case, Nicole's argument goes pfffft. I suggest that Nicole could not reasonably interpret "all men" in 5:18 in the same way that he interprets "whole world" in Calvin's commentary on 5:18.

And I would add still further, (going back to our question about interpreting Calvin's statement in Institutes 3.1.1), that since we are dealing with Calvin's language in the Institutes, not in a commentary (where we would expect to have close symmetry of meaning), Nicole's Bible/Calvin language rule has even less force and applicability. What Calvin means by "human race" in the Institutes must be divined from the plain meaning of words and sensible interpretation.

And just in case you're wondering, there is no dilemma for me: both Calvin and Romans 5:18 refer to all men (really all) and the whole world (including all men). We just have to understand that though Christ suffered for all and is offered to all, out of God's goodness to all, yet all do not receive him. Simple and sensible.