Limited Atonement- J. Calvin (Part II)

Continuing on the conversation from my previous post:

John Calvin penned his book, Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536.The Synod of Dort was composed in 1619 and the Westminster Confession was completed in 1647.By beginning with The Institutes of Christian Religion, and working forward, examining in detail what each work says about the doctrine of predestination and in particular Limited Atonement, it will be possible to see exactly how the doctrine of Calvin have evolved.  Because of the controversy surrounding the doctrine of Limited Atonement, the purpose of examining these works will be to directly learn what they say about the scope of Christ’s work on the cross.  The other four points of Calvinism are less debated, and for the sake of time and space the focus of this paper is directed at Limited Atonement.  As just previously mentioned, this paper will begin with the Institutes and work forwards to the Westminster Confession.

Calvin devotes a mere four chapters to the topic of predestination in his Institutes.  It is important to understand the John Calvin never specifically addresses Limited Atonement.  So in some regard it is impossible to prove that he believed in Limited Atonement.  What can be proven is that Calvin believed in the two principles that lead directly to Limited Atonement.  This paper makes no claims that Limited Atonement was a doctrine that John Calvin taught.  However this paper does claim that Calvin’s theology is clearly described and accurately developed in Calvinism. The two points that Calvin held which lead to Limited Atonement are as follows, first Calvin clearly understands Jesus’ death to bring about actual remission of sin and actually obtain salvation.

Secondly, Calvin also believes that salvation is for the elect alone. These points will be elaborated on in detail.In book three chapter XXII, titled “This Doctrine Confirmed by Proofs from Scripture” Calvin specifically addresses the discussion on Christ’s atonement. According to Calvin, salvation is for solely the elect. Quoting directly from him,

“But it is by Isaiah he more clearly demonstrates how he destines the promises

of salvation especially to the elect (Isa 8:16); for he declares that his disciples

would consist of them only, not indiscriminately of the whole human race.”

This illustrates that Calvin understood salvation for the elect alone.  This alone does not prove that the doctrine of Limited Atonement even entered into Calvin’s head. It simply proves that Calvin believed that salvation was only attained by the elect. This is the first point of two. Earlier in his same work, Calvin affirms what has already been stated, that Jesus’ death obtains the actual remission of sin.  Quoting directly from book two chapter XVII, “Christ Rightly and Properly Said to Have Merited Grace and Salvation for Us”,

“That is Christ, by his obedience, truly purchased and merited grace for us

with the Father, is accurately inferred from several passages of Scripture. I

take it for granted, that if Christ satisfied our sins, if he paid the penalty due

by us, if he appeased G-d by his obedience; in fine, if he suffered the just for the

unjust, salvation was obtained for us by his righteousness; which is just equivalent

to meriting.”

This quote along with others that cannot be quoted verbatim illustrate the second point about Calvin’s theology. That Jesus’ death is complete, final, all that is necessary for sins, and obtains real removal of sin. For Calvin, Jesus’ death on the cross does not simply provide the possibility of remission of sins but the actual remission of sins.

This statement along with numerous other statements that can be found in John Calvin’s Institutes prove that Calvin firmly believed Jesus’ death to in no ways be in vain.  Calvin firmly held to the fact that Christ’s work on the cross was final and complete.

From these two points it shows that for Calvin, all whom Christ died for are saved.  It is reasonable then that since Calvin also affirmed that not everyone is saved, he did not believe in Universal Atonement.

Therefore it is not inaccurate or misleading for later Calvinists to affirm Limited Atonement in response to Arminian writings.  John Calvin’s theology clearly affirmed the two principles that lead directly and inescapably to the doctrine of Limited Atonement. Eighty-three years after the Institutes was completed the Synod of Dort was written in response to the Five Articles of Remonstrance.The Five Articles of Remonstrance was a work composed by Dutch theologians who were disciples of Jacobus Arminius, the founder of Arminianism.  It is generally considered that here, in 1619, those composing the Synod of Dort made Calvin’s doctrine of predestination more rigid than he had ever intended.  Because the Synod of Dort was composed in response to the doctrine found in the Five Articles of Remonstrance, it is not a complete exposition of Calvinist theology but merely disagrees with the Five Articles.  Almost every article’s function is a refutation an Arminian view of predestination and affirmation Calvinist position. This format makes it very simple to discern exactly what the composers meant.  In Section 02: “Of the Death of Christ and the Redemption of Men Thereby” under the “Rejection of Errors” heading the Synod states that the claim that Christ died for all (Universal Atonement) is “injurious to the wisdom of G-d, the merit of Christ, is contrary to Scripture.”

The Synod of Dort goes on to claim what will later become known as Limited Atonement. In regard to the other five points of Calvinism, although they were not discussed in relation to the Westminster Confession, the Synod of Dort clearly affirms Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints.  The Synod of Dort seems to be much harsher in its language than the Westminster Confession. It is clearly obvious that the composers of the Synod of Dort are attempting to draw clear and distinct lines between their own beliefs and Arminian theology. Because the authors of the Synod of Dort are responding to the Five Articles of Remonstrance, they seem to be affirming what is exactly contrary to the Five Articles.

The Westminster Confession is generally regarded as the best expression of Calvinist theology during its time. Quite obviously it addresses many doctrines other than the theology in question.  However this paper will limit itself to only to those articles pertaining to predestination and particularly Limited Atonement.  Both sides of this debate agree that the Westminster Confession claims Limited Atonement.  In Chapter XIII section V the Confession agrees that Christ’s sacrifice is only for those who were given to him by the Father. Just earlier in Chapter X section I the Confession states again that the elect alone are the purpose of Jesus Christ’s work on the cross. Again in the next Chapter, XI, section IV the Confession concludes that the justifying work of Christ fulfilled an eternal decree promised by G-d to those whom He had elected.

This is sufficient evidence that the Westminster Confession asserts Limited Atonement.  Using this as a reference point it is possible to track the evolution, or lack thereof, of Calvin’s doctrine backwards in time.  In regard to other points of predestination, the Westminster Confession seems to hold fairly clearly to Calvin’s theology.  It is also clear though, that the atonement found in the articles of the Confession is Limited Atonement.

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5 Responses to “Limited Atonement- J. Calvin (Part II)”

  1. I have composed a Calvin file with all of his statements regarding the extent of the satisfaction and redemption of Christ. You may want to check that out. Click on the link after my name.

    For example, Calvin spoke of unbelievers, created in God’s image and redeemed by the blood of Christ going to hell. In this sense the redemption price was voided by their unbelief. There are lots of statements too where he says Christ suffered for all the sins of all men, ie the world, meaning the whole human race.

    Anyway, if you want to talk further my email address is located on my about page (scroll down).

    David
    http://calvinandcalvinism.com/?p=230

    • David,
      I appreciate your comment. The purpose of my paper was to argue that although John Calvin never used the words “Limited Atonement” he did in fact teach two doctrines that lead directly to what has come to be called “Limited Atonement.” I argue these two doctrines are first, that there are a specific number of elect or those chosen for salvation. Secondly, that Christ’s work on the cross is sufficient for the actual remission of sins not merely the possibility for remission of sins. If I understand you correctly it is this second doctrine that you are questioning. Let me acknowledge this point is the most difficult to prove and certainly the most open to being challenged. The fact that this was the point you chose to bring up proves your knowledge of Calvin. As I stated in my paper, some of the primary evidence for my claim comes from Book two chapter XVII in Calvin’s Institutes which is title: “Christ Rightly and Properly Said to Have Merited Grace and Salvation for Us”. I believe the quote I use in the paper is this one:

      “That is Christ, by his obedience, truly purchased and merited grace for us
      with the Father, is accurately inferred from several passages of Scripture. I
      take it for granted, that if Christ satisfied our sins, if he paid the penalty due
      by us, if he appeased G-d by his obedience; in fine, if he suffered the just for the
      unjust, salvation was obtained for us by his righteousness; which is just equivalent
      to meriting.”

      Now the problem that arises for Calvin, and any Calvinist, is the statement in 1 Timothy 4:10 that Christ is the savior of all men, particularly those who believe. Consequently Calvin has to have some account of how Christ is the ‘Savior of all men’. So the question arises, how is Christ the savior of any of those not elected? My arguement would be that Calvin believed in a kind of Christus Victor theory of atonement. That is to say that Christ on the cross does win a cosmic victory over Sin which extends to all mankind. However the blood of Christ obtains the remission of sins for only the elect.

      Whether it turns out that we agree or not, I appreciate your comment and well placed challenge to my thesis. I may in fact revisit the topic again in the near future and if I do you will probably hear from me. I enjoy the dialogue, particularly with someone educated on Calvin. I’ll certainly check out your link and page.

      Thanks again!

      Taylor

  2. Hey Taylor,

    You say:
    I appreciate your comment. The purpose of my paper was to argue that although John Calvin never used the words “Limited Atonement” he did in fact teach two doctrines that lead directly to what has come to be called “Limited Atonement.” I argue these two doctrines are first, that there are a specific number of elect or those chosen for salvation.

    David: I know this will sound trite but this would be a faulty inference. But first let me define the issue. By limited atonement, I assume you mean the idea that Christ only satisfied for the sins of the elect. If we ask the question, For whose sins was Christ punished? Calvin would answer… for the sins of all men.

    Now back to your inference. The problem is, Luther, Bullinger, Musculus and many others held that God had unconditionally chosen some to life and passed by others, ordaining them to condemnation because of their sin.

    Its a faulty assumption to posit that election entails a limited satisfaction. Election can only be enlisted to prove a specific and determinative intention to save. So for Calvin, While God elects some to life, and passes by others, he also ordains to send Christ to suffer and die for the sins of all men, namely the whole human race. The particularity is in the application of the benefits of Christ death by way of the Holy Spirit, who, in accord with election, effectually gathers some to life. In this sense, it is true that Christ died with the intent that the elect would effectually saved.

    I should say tho, later that faulty assumption was posited by some of the Reformed, and more so today where its seen as an absolute connection. But in Calvin’s day, even as far back Augustine, it would be an incorrect assumption.

    You say: Secondly, that Christ’s work on the cross is sufficient for the actual remission of sins not merely the possibility for remission of sins.

    David: Something is sufficient or it is not. Sufficiency carries with it the idea of ability, able to be applicable. To have sufficient food in the pantry for the weekend, for example. “Possibility” is part of sufficiency’s meaning. Sufficiency in this sense is distinguished from efficiency. Thus, Christ’s death is sufficient for the actual remission of sins of all men, or it is not. Sufficiency here means that the application of Christ’s death is possible (ie available) for all, etc.

    You say: If I understand you correctly it is this second doctrine that you are questioning. Let me acknowledge this point is the most difficult to prove and certainly the most open to being challenged. The fact that this was the point you chose to bring up proves your knowledge of Calvin. As I stated in my paper, some of the primary evidence for my claim comes from Book two chapter XVII in Calvin’s Institutes which is title: “Christ Rightly and Properly Said to Have Merited Grace and Salvation for Us”. I believe the quote I use in the paper is this one:

    “That is Christ, by his obedience, truly purchased and merited grace for us
    with the Father, is accurately inferred from several passages of Scripture. I
    take it for granted, that if Christ satisfied our sins, if he paid the penalty due
    by us, if he appeased G-d by his obedience; in fine, if he suffered the just for the
    unjust, salvation was obtained for us by his righteousness; which is just equivalent
    to meriting.”

    David: Sure, but who is the “us”? Is the us there the elect as a class? or believers united to Christ? Secondly, does he mean only “us”? Again I know these questions may sound trite. Its perfectly true that for Calvin, Christ purchased grace for turks, Jews, and all the world, but they cast it off (John Calvin, Sermons on Timothy, Sermon 15, 1Tim 2:5-6, p., 177 and 178.) Calvin held that Christ suffered in the room and penalty of all sinners (John Calvin, Galatians 3:13).

    Put it another way, we have two propositions in Calvin.

    1) Christ merited life for us.
    2) Christ merited life for all.

    1) does not preclude 2). For Calvin, as Christ merited life for all men, he merited life for us. Calvin never limits the life merited to the elect alone. The only thing he limits is the application of it.

    You say: Now the problem that arises for Calvin, and any Calvinist, is the statement in 1 Timothy 4:10 that Christ is the savior of all men, particularly those who believe. Consequently Calvin has to have some account of how Christ is the ‘Savior of all men’. So the question arises, how is Christ the savior of any of those not elected? My arguement would be that Calvin believed in a kind of Christus Victor theory of atonement. That is to say that Christ on the cross does win a cosmic victory over Sin which extends to all mankind. However the blood of Christ obtains the remission of sins for only the elect.

    David: I really think this is a big mis-read of Calvin. Christus Victor theory in Calvin there may be, but its grounded in his assent to a penal satisfaction for all men. And on 1 Tim 4:10 Calvin opts for Augustine’s bad reading that soter there means preserver. Calvin therefore claimed that Christ is the (common grace) preserver of all men.

    You say: Whether it turns out that we agree or not, I appreciate your comment and well placed challenge to my thesis. I may in fact revisit the topic again in the near future and if I do you will probably hear from me. I enjoy the dialogue, particularly with someone educated on Calvin. I’ll certainly check out your link and page.

    David: No worries. All I can say is that Calvin, Luther, Bullinger and Musculus and many other Reformers (Lutheran and non-Lutheran) held to both election and unlimited satisfaction (for all the sins of all men). For the Reformed, specifically, particularity functioned in election one the one hand, and the effectual call on the other.

    Thanks
    David

    • David I checked out your website and some of your posts/files. Quite a resource for Calvin. Anyone reading this interested in furthering their knowledge of Calvin should absolutely visit your site.

      After reading your comments and doing some thinking of my own, I’ve reached the conclusion that I agree with a lot of what you’re saying. I gleaned from your website that you are a “moderate” Calvinist, and consequently the objections you are raising make a lot more sense. Although I wouldn’t consider myself a moderate Calvinist I am content to find common ground on the basis that we are both “Calvinists” in some fashion. I did find it interesting that you affirm the Synod of Dort and WCF but not Limited Atonement. (Pardon me if this is not correct.) But as with any new perspective, I am only interested to hear more, so I made note of some of the writings your mentioned.

      In regard to your latest comment, forgive me for lacking the adaquate time to reply in full. However lest it seem like I am “sneaking” out let me say that I am comfortable doing so largely because I agree with the majority of what you said. In particular,

      “Its a faulty assumption to posit that election entails a limited satisfaction. Election can only be enlisted to prove a specific and determinative intention to save. So for Calvin, While God elects some to life, and passes by others, he also ordains to send Christ to suffer and die for the sins of all men, namely the whole human race. The particularity is in the application of the benefits of Christ death by way of the Holy Spirit, who, in accord with election, effectually gathers some to life. In this sense, it is true that Christ died with the intent that the elect would effectually saved.”

      There are a couple things I’d like to hear more from you on, but I will wait until the semester comes to an end and I get my life back to start the converstation. All in all, I greatly appreciate your participation, this blog is after all a pursuit of Truth and you have certainly helped at least myself in that quest. I look forward to future conversations, I’ll probably be using you as a resource in my next essay on Calvin.

      Taylor

  3. Hey Taylor,

    You say: I did find it interesting that you affirm the Synod of Dort and WCF but not Limited Atonement. (Pardon me if this is not correct.) But as with any new perspective, I am only interested to hear more, so I made note of some of the writings your mentioned.

    David: Dort is the easy one. At Dort there were a number of folk who held that Christ both died for all the sins of all men (a vicarious satisfaction for all the sins of all men) and unconditional election and its attendant doctrines. These were the English delegates (all having various shades of opinion), the Bremen delegates, and some of the other individual German delegates. And between them was a broader body. On the other extreme wing was the supralapsarians. Supralapsarianism was actually pretty dominant at this time in Reformed theology among those that held to a limited satisfaction.

    The thing with Dort was that it was written in such a way as to allow all sides, all opinions on the extent question to sign on. There are some works on this. You can see the titles in my further reading page. Gattis, G. Michael Thomas. And one I have not yet listed but should, is the work by Anthony Milton: The British delegation and the Synod of Dort (1618-1619). Richard Muller has some good material on this as well. Jonathan Moore has some fairly helpful material, too, even tho he is opposed to the position personally and his bias comes through in some of his wording.

    Dort properly speaking does not address the extent question, but the intent question. If we speak of intent, the question is: Did Christ die with the intent to effectually save some and not others. All the Dort delegates said yes. Where they differed was on the nature of the satisfaction and that relative to its sufficiency. Remember the Arminian thesis as set out at Dort was that Christ died for no man especially or effectually, as opposed to others. All Dort has to affirm is the negation of that. It did not want or have to resolve the extent question. All this is pretty well documented by Muller, Milton, Moore, and Davenant

    As to the WCF. Here it has to be a matter of interpretation. The leading English Presbyterians were all moderate in their view the extent of the satisfaction, such as Seaman, Marshall, Vines, Calamy, Scudder, Ford, and others. At the time, these were the leaders of English Presbyterianism and many like Scudder were considered the elder-statesmen of English Presbyterianism. According to one source at the time, approx., one third of the delegates held to an unlimited satisfaction doctrine. This is probably true due to the influence of the Anglican tradition. The sort of purity and uniformity we imagine today of the WCF and its assembly probably only existed in Scotland at the time. And even then came at a cost nor is it exactly correct.

    There are two statements in the WCF which are taken to prove limited satisfaction, 3:6, and 8:8. Actually 3:6 is easier. In the grammar the closing descriptor is connected to the string with an “and”: 3:6: Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, *and* saved, but the elect only. What this means then is that none but the elect are justified and adopted and sanctified *and* saved, etc. So this is not a problem.

    We are pretty safe in assuming this on the grounds that Owen in his Savoy Confession, which he basically copied from the WCF but added bits here and there, deliberately changed the final conjunction to an “or” which would preclude the moderate position.

    The second one is trickier for sure: 8:8: To all those for whom Christ hath purchased redemption, he doth certainly and effectually apply and communicate the same; making intercession for them, and revealing unto them, in and by the Word, the mysteries of salvation; effectually persuading them by his Spirit to believe and obey, and governing their hearts by his Word and Spirit; overcoming all their enemies by his almighty power and wisdom, in such manner, and ways, as are most consonant to his wonderful and unsearchable dispensation.

    Here is where interpretation has come into play. Given that so many like Calamy signed off to the WCF, either they were not what we now call system-subscriptionists or they were able to interpret it in a way compatible to their beliefs. It is probably the case that the subjects here was assumed to be the elect, as per articles 5-6 and 1. Article 6 especially focuses on the efficacy issue: The Lord Jesus, by his perfect obedience, and sacrifice of himself, which he, through the eternal Spirit, once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of his Father; and *purchased,* not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for all those whom the Father hath *given* unto him.

    Further, In my introduction to the C&C I say that I subscribed to the system of the WCF. In my opinion and that of folk like Muller, the restrictive reading must be seen as a reflection of a later Calvinism or later sense of “orthodoxy” probably more in tune with a19thC mind-set and not a mid-17thC English mind-set.

    You say: There are a couple things I’d like to hear more from you on, but I will wait until the semester comes to an end and I get my life back to start the converstation. All in all, I greatly appreciate your participation, this blog is after all a pursuit of Truth and you have certainly helped at least myself in that quest. I look forward to future conversations, I’ll probably be using you as a resource in my next essay on Calvin.

    David: Sure. To just close out, the thing to keep in mind that neither “Augustinianism” or “Calvinism” was uniform or monolithic. In terms of Augustinian theology in the middle ages you had various wings from Prosper and Leo on one said, and Fulgentius to Gottschalk on the other. It wrong to attempt to grade these developments as if Augustine was the absolute or proper or true measure, by which others are judged. While Augustinian thought had boundaries, many Augustinians in the middle ages felt thoroughly free to tweak, modify or nuance their theology, even modifying specific exegetical points at times. Within a boundary, it was seen as a fluid theology, which could evolve. Thus, technically, it is wrong to say that Gottschalk was the “true” Augustinian, but Prosper was the deviant (as Rainbow does). This is too simplistic. 1) Contra Rainbow, Augustine did hold to an unlimited satisfaction and redemption, while Gottschalk did not. By all contemporaries Prosper was understood to be the authoritative exponent of Augustine in his day. Rather, this *historian* should be about attempting to identify what Augustinianism looked like relative to a given author.

    The holds for early Predestinarians of the 16thC. Luther held to both, election and unlimited satisfaction. Bullinger, Musculus, Zwingli and many others, likewise. It would be bad history to use either Augustine or Calvin as some sort of gold-standard or measure. And so within early Calvinism of the second half of the 16thC, there were those who held to limited satisfaction alongside those holding to unlimited. At times they got on well, at times they didnt. But all parties were considered within the realm of Reformed orthodoxy.

    Anyway, feel free to email or talk further.

    Thanks,
    David
    http://calvinandcalvinism.com/?page_id=8466

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