Limited Atonement- J. Calvin (Part I)

One accusation often raised by those who claim Calvinism has evolved far from what Calvin himself ever intended is that the doctrine of predestination was never the center of Calvin’s theology, as it has become the center of Calvinist theology.  This statement is partially true. During the time of the Reformation, doctrines often functioned as concrete lines that served to help clearly define certain groups and societies.  This was a noticeable shift away from the precedent of the early Church. Early Church councils often only focused on expelling that person or doctrine that was deemed heretical.

Around the time of the Reformation, however, Church councils began to use doctrines to define not those outside the Church, but inside.  One of the reasons for a greater emphasis on predestination among Calvinists is that many Calvinists felt the need to distinguish themselves from Lutherans.

Lutheran theology by and large was very similar to Calvinist theology.  One of the only points of difference was the doctrine of predestination.  Because doctrines had this newfound role as lines of demarcation there was a natural tendency among Calvinists to place a higher emphasis on the doctrine of predestination.  While this is a worthy observation and something modern Calvinists must be aware of, it does not necessarily prove that Calvinists have distorted the theology of John Calvin.  As long as Calvinists still hold to the same core doctrine, differing emphases are not necessarily harmful to Calvin’s original theology.

Perhaps the most well founded argument behind the belief that Calvinists have twisted and applied Calvin’s doctrine in ways he never intended is the assertion that John Calvin never claimed Limited Atonement.

Limited Atonement is one of the five points of Calvinism.  Limited Atonement simply means that Jesus’ death on the cross was for the elect alone, not the entire world.  This point happens to be one of the most controversial points, as well as the one point that seems to clearly in contradict Scripture.  Many seek to circumvent this difficulty by denying that Calvin ever held the doctrine of Limited Atonement.

Those who hold this opinion present numerous historical reasons why those directly following Calvin might have felt inclined to further develop and in some cases even twist Calvin’s theology.  These reasons will be explored in some depth, but first it is important to be reminded of the purpose of this exploration.  The goal is to understand if the followers of John Calvin have merely expounded upon his doctrine of predestination or if they have misunderstood and misrepresented this doctrine.

On this subject some claim that following the death of John Calvin, his theology came under serious attack from a variety of directions.  It fell to the disciples of Calvin to defend his theology from these attacks however they could.  One thing in particular that needed to be demonstrated was the coherency of Calvin’s theology.  According to Alister E. McGrath in his biography on John Calvin, early Calvinist writers began a new approach to prove their theology. This was done in four different ways.

First, Christian theology is presented as a logically coherent and rationally defensible system, derived from syllogistic deductions based upon known axioms. Second human reason is assigned a major role in the exploration and defense of Christian theology. Thirdly, theology is understood to be grounded upon Aristotelian philosophy, and particularly Aristotelian insights into the nature of method; later Reformed writers are better described as philosophical, rather than biblical, theologians.  Fourth, theology is concerned with metaphysical and speculative questions, especially relating to the nature of G-d, his will for humanity and creation, and above all the doctrine of predestination.

In this excerpt McGrath uses four proofs to illustrate the fact that shortly after Calvin’s death, there came to be a higher emphasis on human reason and logic. He later asserts that this is an emphasis that Calvin would have been suspicious of.  The accusation here is that Calvin’s direct followers, namely Theodore Beza and Giralmo Zanchi, in their defense of Calvin’s theology began in a completely different place than Calvin and used completely different methods than Calvin.

For example, Beza and Zanchi are accused of starting their theology at predestination, thus making it the center of their beliefs, something John Calvin never did.  They are also accused of using reason and logic to move forward, attempting to prove the consistency of Calvinism, a method also not used not used by John Calvin never did either.

It rather naturally follows that considering these facts that the understanding of the doctrine of predestination that they developed was not the same doctrine that Calvin himself held.  There is no denying that the accusations that have been raised here are good ones.  All of them at the very least point to the fact that it is quite possible that Beza and Zanchi created a new understanding of the doctrine of predestination.  However, their evidence does not prove that the Calvinist doctrine of predestination is any different than Calvin’s own doctrine of predestination.  The consistency between Calvin’s doctrine and the Calvinist’s articulation can be shown by a direct examination of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, The Synod of Dort, and the Westminster Confession.

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