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.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Assurance Must Rest on Universal Atonement - Part 2

Faith is the foundation on which hope rests.

~Calvin, Institutes 3.2.42

This is Part 2 of my answer to a Pyro blogger. You can find part one here: Assurance Must Rest on Universal Atonement."

"Hope," in Calvin's language, would be the same as the modern word "assurance." When the modern evangelical speaks of assurance of salvation, he's speaking of the same thing that Calvin called hope.

So for Calvin, assurance is always produced by faith. But that faith must have an object. Obviously, for the Christian, the object of that faith is God. God promises salvation, faith believes God, and faith in God produces assurance. That's Calvin.

But what of the modern evangelical Calvinist? He says that there are some men for whom Christ has not died. How then can one have faith in God if God, perhaps, has not provided for my salvation, has no love for me, and has no desire that I should be saved? How then am I to have assurance?

The answer of many Calvinists down through the years is this syllogism:

  • All believers will be saved
  • I am a believer
  • Therefore I will be saved

This, or something like it, is called the practical syllogism, and it is often resorted to as the grounds for assurance. The problem in the syllogism is that "I am a believer" part. It's problematic in two ways: first, it focuses on "I"; second, it presumes that I am not a false believer.

But what if I am a false believer? Surely it's conceivable that I have deceived myself. That being the case, I search somewhere for assurance. It cannot rest in God, for God may not love me. It must rest, therefore, in my works. I have believed, I am progressing in sanctification, etc. The assurance for the high Calvinist rests in God's work in him.

For Calvin, though, assurance rests directly in God. It is a direct (rather than reflex) act of faith. The look of faith looks to Christ alone, and finds assurance there.

But what of the objection that God may not love me? Rubbish. God loves all men and has proved his love by sending Christ to die for them.

But what if I'm a false believer? Look to Christ. The answer always for Calvin would be "look to Christ." Assurance is found always and only in the look of faith to Christ. No syllogisms, no looking to self; look to Christ and to him alone for assurance.

That look to Christ can only give hope if I know that God loves me and Christ has died for me. And that is why assurance must rest on universal atonement.

The answer to the Pyro Blogger

So how would I answer Phillips's objection: that if Christ has died for Judas and the Beast, I can't have any assurance that my sins won't send me to hell.

Answer: look to Christ. All objections are answered in that way: look to Christ. In Christ alone is salvation, and in Christ alone is assurance. No syllogisms, no arguments; just look to Christ. I can look to Christ, for I know that he has died for me.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Assurance Must Rest on Universal Atonement - Part 1

Taking on a Pyro Blogger

One of the Pyro bloggers has given what he believes is an unanswerable objection to those who believe that limited atonement (as most commonly held) removes all grounds for assurance. His answer is part of a series of quick answers: short verbal jabs, intended to "checkmate" the theological opponent in fifty words or less. His stated goal in these short posts is to require his opponent to think, while not wasting too much time actually engaging with the theological opponent. "The response," says Phillips, "is meant to be that sort of a verbal sharp stick." I mean to take on one of his recent "gotchas."

I must, of course, devote more than fifty words to answering his objection. It takes less time to throw mud against a wall than to clean it off. But the subject deserves some thought; and though Phillips apparently thinks he has the answer, I hope to show that he has both understated the problem and completely missed the answer.

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.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Calvin Sermon - Christ Suffered for the Redemption of Mankind

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.

Emphasis added

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's Rebuttal

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.

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.