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John Calvin was Not a Very Good Calvinist — Thank Goodness!

December 28th, 2007
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I bumped into this very well done brief summary of John Calvin’s view on what has become one of the five-pillars of Calvinist "wisdom" or, to put it more accurately, one of the things that is so wrong about Calvinism namely, the teaching that Christ’s atonement was limited, not for all. It is a such a glaring contradiction of the teaching of the New Testament, but Calvinism finally is about logically arranging all things in a nice, tidy system. Well, seems John Calvin himself was not much of a Calvinist. Here are quotes from his Bible commentaries that refute belief in a limited atonement:

How Calvinistic was John Calvin? What did he teach concerning the extent of the atonement? Let us ponder his own words:

Isaiah 53:12–"I approve of the ordinary reading, that He alone bore
the punishment of many, because on Him was laid the guilt of the whole
world. It is evident from other passages, and especially from the fifth
chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, that many sometimes denotes all."

Mark 14:24 – "The word many does not mean a part of the world only, but
the whole human race." In other words, Christ’s blood was shed for the
whole human race.

On Matthew 20:28–"‘Many’ is used, not for a
definite number, but for a large number, in that He sets Himself over
against all others. And this is its meaning also in Rom. 5:15, where
Paul is not talking of a part of mankind but of the whole human race."

John 1:29 – "And when he says the sin OF THE WORLD, He extends this
favour indiscriminately to the whole human race….all men without
exception are guilty of unrighteousness before God and need to be
reconciled to Him….Now our duty is, to embrace the benefit which is
offered to all, that each of us may be convinced that there is nothing
to hinder him from obtaining reconciliation in Christ, provided that he
comes to him by…faith."

On John 3:16 – "He has employed the
universal term whosoever, both to invite all indiscriminately to
partake of life, and to cut off every excuse from unbelievers….He
shows Himself to be reconciled to the whole world, when He invites all
men without exception to the faith of Christ."

On Romans 5:18 –
"He makes this favor common to all, because it is propoundable to all,
and not because it is in reality extended to all (i.e. in the
experience); 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."

On 2 Corinthians 5:19 – God "shows
Himself to be reconciled to the whole world" and Calvin goes on to say
that the "whole world" means "all men without exception."

Galatians 5:12 – "It is the will of God that we should seek the
salvation of all men without exception, as Christ suffered for the sins
of the whole world."

On Colossians 1:15–"This redemption was
procured by the blood of Christ, for by the sacrifice of His death all
the sins of the world have been expiated."

On Hebrews 5:9–"He
(the writer of Hebrews) has inserted the universal term ‘to all’ to
show that no one is excluded from this salvation who proves to be
attentive and obedient to the Gospel of Christ."

Calvin even
taught that the lost were purchased by Christ’s blood: "It is no small
matter to have the souls perish who were bought by the blood of Christ"
(MG, 83).

In fairness, it should be stated that some of Calvin’s
comments seem to indicate that he held to a limited atonement (see his
comments on 1 Timothy 2:4-6, for example, where he says that the "all"
refers to all classes or ranks of men, and see his comments on 1 John
2:2 where he says that the word all or whole does not include the
reprobate). However, in his comments on 1 John 2:2 he mentions a phrase
commonly used in the schools: "Christ suffered sufficiently for the
whole world, but efficiently only for the elect." He then states that
he is in basic agreement with this statement and that it is true.
Calvin basically taught that the cross-work of Christ was unlimited in
its extent, but limited in its application. Only those who believe
benefit from it.

For a full discussion of Calvin’s views on
the extent of the atonement, see Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism by C.
Gordon Olson, Appendix E, pages 458-463.

In conclusion, Calvin
made some statements which seem to indicate he held to a limited
atonement, but he also made many more statements which seem to better
harmonize with an unlimited atonement. The best indication of where he
stood on this issue, as Norman Duty suggests, should come from his
final statement on the matter. Calvin made a statement in his will,
drawn up when he was 54, shortly before his death. The year was 1564
and may be regarded as his final judgment concerning the extent of the
atonement: "I testify also and profess that I humbly seek from God,
that He may so will me to be washed and purified by the great
Redeemer’s blood, shed for the sins of the human race, that it may be
permitted me to stand before His tribunal under the covert of the
Redeemer Himself." [See Douty, The Death of Christ, pages 175-176. For
an excellent discussion of Calvin’s position on the extent of the
atonement, see Morison, The Extent of the Atonement, pages 126-128.]
See also Norman Geisler’s Systematic Theology, Volume 3, pages 382-387.

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Categories: Calvinism
  1. John Meade
    December 29th, 2007 at 09:31 | #1

    With all due respect, I think you are raising an issue, which others have dealt with in the past. R.T. Kendell attempted to make this same point, and Paul Helm (Calvin and the Calvinists) and others have continually showed that although Calvin does not use the same language and is not answering the same questions as latter generations, the substance of the teaching on the extent of the atonement is the same, limited atonement.
    Since your post was concerned with fairness of Calvin’s view, I thought I would add at least two more citations from Calvin’s commentaries (Torrance and Torrance edition).
    His statement on Col. 1:20 is relevant:
    Should anyone, on the plea of universality of the expression [reconciled all things to himself] ask in reference to devils, whether Christ is their Peace-maker also, I answer, ‘No; not even of the ungodly.’ Though I confess that there is a difference, inasmuch as the benefit of redemption is offered to the ungodly, but not to the devils. This, however, has nothing to do with Paul’s words, which only say that it is through Christ alone that all creatures who have any connexion at all with God cleave to Him.
    Thus, even Calvin makes a distinction regarding the limitedness of the universal language of the text, excluding the devils and ungodly, though there is a difference between these.
    Notice also, Calvin’s savy interpretation of the phrase “to every creature in Col. 1:23, “Moreover, lest anyone should explain too rigidly the mark of universality, Paul means simply that it had been preached everywhere far and wide.”
    Calvin does make distinctions with “universal” language in the NT in a very similar manner of the Calvinists of latter generations.
    The last citations simply expands on the quote from Heb. 5:8 above:
    The apostle indicates that the fruits of it [the obedience of Christ] do not come to any but to those who are obedient. In saying this, he commends faith to us, for neither He nor His benefits become ours unless, and in so far as, we accept them and Him by faith…
    His comments on Heb. 2:13 “Which God hath given me” are relevant:
    What is noted here is the first reason for obedience, namely because God has adopted us for Himself. Christ brings none to the Father unless they are given to Him by the Father. We know that this giving depends on eternal election because those whom the Father has elected to life, He gives into the care of His Son for Him to look after. This is what is said in John 6.37…
    The quote is too long to quote in entirety, but the theme is entirely “Calvinistic.” The connection between the Father’s election of a people and the Son’s atonement of the same people is clear. The Son atones [brings none] for none, whom the Father has not elected and given to the Son. This statement does not get any clearer, and I think Calvin’s comments on 5.8 are compatible with it.
    This comment became longer than anticipated. I apologize.

  2. January 3rd, 2008 at 19:31 | #2

    Calvin was not really a calvinist. Here is a blog site that challenges the belief that Calvin promoted the “L” in TULIP calvinandcalvinism.wordpress.com, he did not.
    What we have today is Owenian Calvinism and its popularizers.

  3. January 4th, 2008 at 21:41 | #3

    At any rate, I still think Calvin was a rookie compared to Luther.

  4. John Meade
    January 7th, 2008 at 14:25 | #4

    LPC -
    What do you think about the quotations from Calvin that I cited? Would not Owen agree with these? Here is Owen on Heb. 2.13, “That which the apostle aims at in the citation [Behold, I and the children which God hath given me] of this testimony, is further to confirm the union in nature, and the relation that ensues thereupon, between the captain of salvation and the sons to be brought unto glory” (430-1). And again Owen says, “That God gives all the sons that are to be brought unto glory to Jesus Christ: ‘The Lord hath given them unto me.’ ‘Thine they were,’ saith he, ‘and thou gavest them to me’ (John 17.6). God having separated them as his peculiar portion, in the eternal counsel of his will, gives them unto the Son to take care of them, that they might be preserved and brought unto the glory that he had designed for them” (431).
    Maybe you are defining “Owenian Calvinism” in a peculiar way, since I see no difference between Owen and Calvin, at least on this verse, which has traditionally been a proof of limited atonement. Looking at how these men comment on “all” and “world” passages is not enough to prove whether Calvin was a “calvinist.” There are other texts to consider such as Heb. 2:13, John 6.37, and 17.6 et al in order to come to a more certain interpretation of his thought.
    Are not the same debates happening in Luther studies? Did the Lutherans diverge from Luther on X doctrine (justification, predestination etc.)? Do you agree with these interpretations of the Lutheran tradition?

  5. January 7th, 2008 at 21:38 | #5

    Dear John,
    In the matter of Limited Atonement as a category by itself, I have always found Calvin not to be a Calvinist. In John 3:16 Let us remember, on the other hand, that while life is promised universally to all who believe in Christ, still faith is not common to all. For Christ is made known and held out to the view of all, but the elect alone are they whose eyes God opens, that they may seek him by faith. Here, too, is displayed a wonderful effect of faith; for by it we receive Christ such as he is given to us by the Father — that is, as having freed us from the condemnation of eternal death, and made us heirs of eternal life, because, by the sacrifice of his death, he has atoned for our sins, that nothing may prevent God from acknowledging us as his sons. Since, therefore, faith embraces Christ, with the efficacy of his death and the fruit of his resurrection, we need not wonder if by it we obtain likewise the life of Christ.
    To say that the promise is to all says that the atonement is universal I think Calvin believed this as a category concept on its own, and for him to say that not all have faith is true Biblically speaking, but these are two different subjects of which one must speak properly (in Lutheran talk – properly speaking). The error I think in Owenian way of seeing things is the conclusion that since God does not give faith to some, that means God did not send Jesus to die for them. This reductionism eventually gets one into a hole because Scripture does not speak that way. Calvin does not slump into this reductionism, but Owenians do. However, I still think Calvin was confusing in other matters, like in Baptism and his articulation of baptismal regeneration.
    John, the Lutherans have got several writings of Luther that they confess and agree with so to say that Luther was not Lutheran is really trying to pick and choose one’s Luther. Now if you are speaking of Lutherans who are not confessional then I agree, because by default they would have to not agree with Luther’s Small Cath, Large Cath, and Smalcald Articles etc. The BoC quotes Luther specially also in the Formula of Concord i.e. it takes as its own Luther’s verbatim words.
    Contrast that to WCF/LBCF, there is no verbatim/reference or quote of those confessions from Calvin. Of course, there will always be a difference between Calvin and Calvinism as Luther and Lutheranism, the private opinions of these leaders are not always accepted because Calvinists/Lutherans are bound by their confessions to which they subscribe and not necessarily to every word they have written.

  6. John Meade
    January 8th, 2008 at 08:34 | #6

    Dear LPC,
    Thanks for your kind response.
    As I read the quotation from Calvin on John 3.16, I do not see any contradiction to a limited atonement in these words. Calvin says the life is promised universally to all who believe. Christ is held out to all (no Dortian calvinist denies this point; only hyper-calvinists have a problem with this). Calvin says explicitly that only the elect’s eyes are open. No where in this passage has Calvin said that Christ has atoned for the sins of the non-elect. This text, like the others, supports Calvin’s view of Trinitarian salvation: the Father elects a people, which the Son atones for and redeems.
    At the very least, this text does not supply sufficient evidence to overturn Calvin’s distinction in Col. 1:20 and his language of Heb. 2.13. Rather, this text complements the others, and can fit nicely into the formula of Dort: Sufficient for all, efficient for the elect.
    I have crossed Mr. McCain in the past over these issues, so I will have to pass over your comments of the Scriptural validity of a limited atonement. I think Calvin’s statements are pretty clear, I think Heb. 2:13 and many other texts support the Calvinist position as well.
    Regarding Lutheranism: my point is simply that Lutherans and Calvinists do not usually receive the charge that the tradition strayed from its founder lying down. Your point is well received that each respective tradition does not subscribe to every individual writing of the founder.
    Thanks for the cordial exchange

  7. January 9th, 2008 at 08:22 | #7

    I may be wrong, but I always was taught that the point of limited atonement was that Jesus simply did not atone for the sins of the non-elect. Any language of Jesus having bought, paid for, died for, or having reconciled himself to the non-elect was rejected in no uncertain terms by the Calvinists I knew.
    Calvin on this issue really does read like a scholastic Lutheran–perhaps it is what Lutherans in the Age of Orthodoxy would have sounded like had they held to the FC’s teaching on election rather than going for intuitu fidei. Jesus truly died for all, but only the elect ultimately receive the benefits.

  8. John Meade
    January 9th, 2008 at 14:32 | #8

    Josh -
    Thanks for joining the conversation!
    Part of the problem with this discussion is getting the terms down [and Calvin muddies the waters since he is not asking the same questions as the 17th cent. theologians].
    Here are the relevant statements from Dort, which some Calvinists hold to be sufficient, while others consider them minimalist (no puns intended :):
    Article 3: The Infinite Value of Christ’s Death
    This death of God’s Son is the only and entirely complete sacrifice and satisfaction for sins; it is of infinite value and worth, more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world.
    Article 8: The Saving Effectiveness of Christ’s Death
    For it was the entirely free plan and very gracious will and intention of God the Father that the enlivening and saving effectiveness of his Son’s costly death should work itself out in all his chosen ones, in order that he might grant justifying faith to them only and thereby lead them without fail to salvation. In other words, it was God’s will that Christ through the blood of the cross (by which he confirmed the new covenant) should effectively redeem from every people, tribe, nation, and language all those and only those who were chosen from eternity to salvation and given to him by the Father; that he should grant them faith (which, like the Holy Spirit’s other saving gifts, he acquired for them by his death); that he should cleanse them by his blood from all their sins, both original and actual, whether committed before or after their coming to faith; that he should faithfully preserve them to the very end; and that he should finally present them to himself, a glorious people, without spot or wrinkle.
    I believe that it is these two points which caused many Calvinists to adopt the slogan “Sufficient for all, but efficient only for the elect.”
    The rejections are also important:
    V. Who teach that all people have been received into the state of reconciliation and into the grace of the covenant, so that no one on account of original sin is liable to condemnation, or is to be condemned, but that all are free from the guilt of this sin.
    For this opinion conflicts with Scripture which asserts that we are by nature children of wrath.
    Now the question is, does Calvin agree with the substance of this teaching? I think Calvin at least agrees with this teaching, and some of his comments seem to go further such as his distinction in Col. 1:20 and his language that Christ brings none to the Father except those given him by the Father.
    Do later Calvinists go beyond this teaching, and basically remove the clause on sufficiency? It seems that some do.
    Josh, what is the Lutheran position on this issue? Does this issue arise in the BoC anywhere? Later Lutheran teachings and statements? Perhaps you could point me in the right direction? Thanks!

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