07 December, 2019

Calvin’s Denial of Universal Redemption

Jonathan H. Rainbow

[Source: The Will of God and the Cross: An Historical and Theological Study of John Calvin’s Doctrine of Limited Redemption (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 1990), pp. 117-135. Permission has kindly been granted from Pickwick Publications for this section of the book to be posted on Common Grace: Deliberations.]

As pervasive and spontaneous as Calvin’s references to Christ’s death for the elect were, they do not yet, by themselves, constitute proof that he was a limited redemptionist. Theoretically, even a universal redemptionist like Amyraut could have said that Christ died for the elect, since in his view Christ died for every human, which certainly includes the elect. The acid test of a limited redemptionist is not whether he asserts Christ’s death for the elect, but whether he denies Christ’s death for the nonelect.

And Calvin did deny the death of Christ for the reprobate, clearly, and with feeling. We encounter this strand of his teaching, not in the Institutes but in controversial writings, and, most prominently, in Calvin’s exposition of those New Testament passages which say that Christ died for “all” or for the “world.”

Remark on the Lord’s Supper to Heshusius

This passage is not an exegetical remark but a polemical thrust which comes in a rather testy pamphlet of Calvin’s against a Lutheran theologian, Tilman Heshusius, who had entered the lists against what was, by 1561, already known as the “Calvinist” view of the Lord’s Supper. This controversy foreshadowed the bitter strife between Lutherans and Reformed which would occur in the later sixteenth century. Calvin sensed the ominous nature of the exchange; he felt himself assaulted on all sides by Lutheran controversialists—Westphal, Staphylus, and now Heshusius—and cried out in rhetorical appeal to Melanchthon, now dead.[1]  The days when a common Protestant front was conceivable had slipped away.

A lengthy discussion of the opposing eucharistic theologies is not necessary here. It is enough to say that the real point of difference between Calvin’s doctrine of the Supper and that of Heshusius is whether unbelievers can be said to truly partake of Christ’s body and blood. For Heshusius, Christ’s flesh and blood are objectively present in the elements in such a way that even the blasphemous or unbelieving communicant eats and drinks them. Such eating, of course, is not salvific on the Lutheran view, but that is not the point for Heshusius; it is to affirm in the most incontrovertible way that Christ’s body and blood are objectively present. Otherwise, he reasoned, we cannot really approach the Supper with faith. Calvin, on the other hand, said that Christ’s flesh and blood are present in the Supper by the power of the Holy Spirit; the eating of Christ is not a physical devouring but a spiritual repast; and only believers truly partake of Christ in this way. He said, then, to press this point home:

But the first thing to be explained is, how Christ is present with unbelievers, as being the spiritual food of souls, and, in short, the life and salvation of the world. And as he [Heshusius] adheres so doggedly to the words, I should like to know how the wicked can eat the flesh of Christ which was not crucified for them, or how they can drink the blood which was not shed to expiate their sins?[2]

Calvin continued by saying that this does not mean that Christ is utterly absent from the Supper even for the wicked. But he is present for them in the capacity of judge, not savior—“It is one thing to be eaten, another to be a judge.” King Saul had the Spirit after a fashion, but was nevertheless reprobate, and likewise the wicked may experience Christ in the Supper but are devoid of the special communication of the grace and virtue which is received only by the elect.  “Christ, considered as living bread and the victim immolated on the cross, cannot enter any human body which is devoid of his Spirit.”[3]

This was a forthright denial that the body of Christ was crucified for the wicked and that the blood of Christ was shed for the wicked, in short, that Christ died for the wicked. Is it possible, in light of this statement, to save Calvin for the Amyraut thesis?  M. Charles Bell tried to do so by using misdirection. He emphasized that Calvin consistently made the reception of Christ’s body and blood a matter of faith and the Spirit. This, he maintained, was the touchstone of Calvin’s doctrine in the remark to Heshusius; the passing reference to the apparent limitation of redemption is to be understood in light of it.  So Bell explained:

Calvin is not [his italics] discussing the atonement, but rather, the necessity of the presence of the Spirit and faith for the efficacy of the sacrament. He is definitely not [his italics] making a statement on the extent of the atonement.[4]

So Bell concluded that, because it can so easily be misconstrued (i.e. as a limitation of Christ’s death), this statement should be regarded as “unfortunate hyperbole.”

The problem with this interpretation is that Calvin was quite obviously discussing the extent of redemption. It is valid to point out, as Bell does, that Calvin in the same context emphasized the role of faith and the Spirit in the proper reception of the Supper. But there is no reason to suppose that this cancels out the force of what Calvin said about the extent of Christ’s sacrifice. Bell is posing an “either-or”: either the wicked do not eat Christ because they do not have faith and the Spirit, or they do not eat Christ because Christ did not die for them. But Calvin’s theology combined rather than severed these things, and in the passage he was clearly saying that the wicked do not eat Christ both because they do not have the Spirit and because Christ did not die for them. The remark makes perfect sense in its plain and intended meaning.

Bell also said that if Calvin was in fact asserting limited redemption here, then he was contradicting what he has said earlier in the tract about the sacrament being offered to the wicked. Calvin did indeed say that the sacrament is offered to the wicked.[5]  But there is no contradiction in this. Bell simply did not take account of the distinction in Calvin’s theology between something being “offered” and something being truly given. Salvation is offered to the reprobate in the preaching of the gospel, and the body and blood of Christ are offered to the reprobate in the Supper. But salvation and the blessings of the Supper are given only to the elect. And Calvin’s assertion that Christ was not sacrificed for the reprobate was simply part of his explanation of why they do not and cannot receive Christ in the Supper. Just as God offers the gospel to those whom he has not chosen, so he offers the body and blood of Christ to those for whom Christ did not die.

Calvin said: “I should like to know how the wicked can eat the flesh of Christ which was not crucified for them.”  No intelligent universal redemptionist would have said this, even in a hyperbolic flurry, far less a theologian like Calvin, who weighted every word.

Comment on John 12:32

“And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32). We have seen the important role that this verse played in the discussions of redemption before Calvin. Universal redemptionists brought it up, and limited redemptionists always had to explain it.

Calvin dealt first with the words, “If I am lifted up.” He said:

Christ, being lifted up on the cross, shall gather all men to himself, in order that he may raise them from earth to heaven. The evangelist says, that Christ pointed out the manner of his death; and, therefore, the meaning undoubtedly is, that the cross will be, as it were a chariot, by which he shall raise all men, along with himself, to the Father.

Calvin followed the gospel writer’s intent, interpreted “lifting up” as a metaphor for Christ’s crucifixion, and even affirmed twice—echoing the gospel’s language—that this applies to “all men.” Then he went on to interpret the phrase “I will draw all men to myself”:

The word “all,” which he employs, must be understood to refer to the children of God, who belong to his flock. Yet I agree with Chrysostom, who says that Christ used the universal term “all” because the church was to be gathered equally from among Gentiles and Jews, according to that saying, “There shall be one shepherd, and one sheepfold” (John 10,16). The old Latin translation has “I will draw all things to me”; and Augustine maintains that we ought to read it in that manner; but the agreement of all the Greek manuscripts ought to have greater weight with us.[6]

Calvin had read Augustine on this verse. And, like Augustine, he interpreted “all” in a limited way: it applied only to “the children of God who belong to his flock.” The term flock, as we have seen, was for Calvin a synonym for the elect. Obviously, the only conceivable motive for this kind of comment is to preclude the doctrine of universal redemption.

But Calvin’s doctrine had another dimension. When he construed “all men” as the elect, he was considering Christ’s death in its bearing on individuals. But he also recognized that the use of the universal term must have a positive purpose. If Jesus did not intend to teach that he would by his death draw every individual human being to himself, then why did he say “all”? Calvin found the answer to this in the interpretation suggested by Chrysostom, that “all” is a reference to Jews and Gentiles. This did not mean for Calvin that every Jew and every Gentile is included, as it undoubtedly did for Chrysostom, but there is still a universalistic intent to which Calvin sought to do justice. So his exegesis, like Augustine’s, was designed to protect both the particularism of salvation and the universalism of the verse. This dual concern will appear again and again.

Calvin’s explanation of “all men” was obviously in line with Augustine’s universalism of kinds; the substance of his exegesis was Augustinian. Yet, he mentioned Augustine only to take issue with his preference of texts,[7] and gave most of the credit for his view of “all men” to Chrysostom. This can only be because Chrysostom, and not Augustine, saw the real emphasis of “all” as the eradication of the barrier between Jew and Gentile. Augustine, strangely, mentioned many types of human groups and classes but said nothing about Jew and Gentile. Calvin was always aware that this great transition from the ethnic particularism of the Old Testament to the ethnic universalism of the New is taking place in the redemptive work of Christ. His exegesis of John 12:32 was therefore a skilful blending of Chrysostom’s exegesis with Augustine’s theology.

Sermon on II Timothy 1:9-10 (1555)

The text of II Timothy 1:9-10 says:

[God] saved us and called us to holiness, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace, which he gave to us in Christ Jesus before eternal times, and has now manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.

This text furnished Calvin with a basis on which to expand, in a sermon of 1555, not only on the doctrine of election, but on the conjunction of election and the work of Christ. Paul, Calvin said, here joins together the grace of Jesus Christ with the eternal counsel of God.[8]  This is to be seen both in the fact that election takes place, as Paul states, “before eternal times,” and in the fact that election is revealed by the manifestation of Christ in history. Because Christ is the revelation of God’s election, he is the mirror in which we must contemplate our own election.[9]  So several of the themes of Calvin’s concept of the relationship of Christ and election, surveyed earlier, came to light in this sermon.

In this context, Calvin took time to emphasize to his listeners that the objects of God’s saving work in this text are the faithful, and only the faithful. This meant, of course, the elect. He did this to meet a possible objection to his interpretation of the text.

Besides, we note that St. Paul does not speak here of anyone but the faithful (fideles). For there are certain buffoons who, to blind the eyes of the ignorant and other like themselves, want to cavil here that the grace of salvation is given to us because God ordained that his Son should be the Redeemer of the human race, but that this is common to all, and indiscriminate.[10]

The objectors, whom Calvin raked with an ad hominem argument as “buffoons,” would see in this passage a saving purpose of God which extends to every human being. Their reason for this, explained Calvin, is the belief that Christ came to be the Redeemer of every human being; if this is true, and if, as the Timothy text states, Christ’s coming is the manifestation of God’s eternal saving purpose, then God’s purpose too must be for the salvation of every human being. So these “buffoons” deduce a universality of the saving will of God from the doctrine of the universal redeemerhood of Christ. This was no imagined line of reasoning: it had been made as early as the time of Augustine and as recently as the time of Bucer.

We must notice that Calvin went part way with the argument. He agreed that Christ is the “Redeemer of the human race”; this was one of his own favorite titles for the Mediator. It was not the language he objected to, but the content placed into it. For Calvin understood “human race” as the assembly of the elect from every kind of humanity. So he parted ways with the opposing point of view when it construed “Redeemer of the human race” to mean “all in common and indiscriminately.” The adversative mais marked this point of divergence in the sermon—“but that this is common to all in common and indiscriminately.” Paul, said Calvin, is not saying that Christ is the Redeemer of every man without exception. Such an assertion is in fact a “cavil”:

But St. Paul spoke in another way, and his doctrine cannot be marred by such glosses and childish things. For it is plainly stated that God has saved us. Does this refer in general to all, and without exception? No, only the faithful are in view.[11]

Calvin limited the application of the whole text to the elect. God’s eternal purpose in Christ is for the elect, and the manifestation of Christ in history is for the elect. The reprobate are not in view at all. Therefore, the cavil that Christ is the Redeemer of all men without exception is overturned. And to deny that Christ is the Redeemer of “all in common and indiscriminately” is surely tantamount to denying universal redemption.

This becomes even plainer if we consider how Calvin did not answer the objection which he himself proposed in the sermon. If he had been, as Amyraut thought, a universal redemptionist, he would have accepted the statement of the other side as a true one—that Christ is indeed the Redeemer of every man. But he would then have proceeded to explain that this fact does not militate against predestination, since Christ’s redemptive work executes a different purpose from God’s election, and that it is therefore improper to argue from universal redemption to universal election. He would have answered, in other words, that although redemption is universal, election is particular. He would have divided the question. This Calvin emphatically did not do. He accepted the assumption that election and redemption are linked as parts of one saving purpose, and limited the extent of both to the elect, the faithful.

Comment on Colossians 1:20

In his comment on Col. 1:20 Calvin faced the biblical statement that God through the death of Christ has reconciled “all things” to himself. Here the Greek is indisputably panta, all things, so there was no need for Calvin to discuss, as in the case of John 12:32, whether all things or all humans are intended. But the issue is in the end the same, since “all things” must surely include human beings. Therefore both Augustine and Bucer had felt compelled to explain the verse in a particularistic way.

The first question which Calvin handled in this text is, to what kinds of things panta refers, since it includes heavenly as well as earthly things. He concluded that it refers to rational beings, men and angels. After considering briefly how it is that angels are reconciled to God, since they did not experience a fall analogous to man’s, he turned to another related question: does the universal term “all things” teach that Christ’s work of reconciliation extends even to the demons?

Should anyone, on the pretext of the universality of the expression, move a question in reference to devils, whether Christ is their peacemaker also, I answer: No, not even of the ungodly.[12]

Christ is not the peacemaker (pacificator) of demons, no, not even of ungodly men (impiorum). The term pacificator arises out of the immediate context of the Colossians text, which states that Christ made peace through the blood of his cross, and could only be in Calvin’s mind a designation of the death of Christ. The term impii was one of Calvin’s terms for the reprobate (just as pii, correspondingly, was a term for the elect). Calvin’s answer to the question whether Christ died also for the demons was an argument a fortiori: if Christ did not die for the ungodly, then how much more impossible is it that he died for the demons? That Christ did not die for the reprobate was not argued here by Calvin. It was assumed.

Calvin was not by this saying that the demons and the reprobate are in exactly the same situation before God. He recognized that the “benefit of redemption is offered to the latter but not to the former.” The gospel is preached to non-elect men but not to Satan and the demons. Still, this is tangential to the main point of the text:

This, however, has nothing to do with Paul’s words, which include nothing else than this, that it is through Christ alone that all creatures who have any conjunction with him cleave to him.[13]

This was an obvious echo of the exclusive universalistic exegesis of Augustine.  Paul, said Calvin, does not intend to include every single rational creature with the scope of Christ’s reconciliation. Rather, his intent is to exclude every other reconciler and savior except Christ. All creatures who are reconciled to God, whether men or angels, are reconciled through Christ and in no other way.

Calvin’s exegesis followed closely the Augustinian pattern, reflected also in Bucer, of interpreting “all things” to mean elect human beings and the holy angels. But Calvin did not insist, as had Augustine, that the number of the elect must make up the number of fallen angels. He did, with Bucer, bring to the text a concern to deny that “all things” includes the demonic world. There can be no question that his exegesis was determined by the motivation which had also influenced Augustine and Bucer: to limit Christ’s redemption to the elect.

Comment on John 11:51

In John 11:51 the Jewish high priest Caiaphas utters the following words: “Do you not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish?” Then comes the gospel writer’s explanatory gloss:

He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one.

The text deals directly with the question, for whom Jesus would die; we recall that the Strassburg Anabaptists had adduced it in favor of universal redemption. Calvin’s comment on it displayed certain themes that have already been noted and shows again that in his mind the death of Christ was only for the elect.

Hence, also, we infer that the human race is scattered and estranged from God, until the children of God are assembled under Christ their Head. Thus, the communion of saints is a preparation for eternal life, because all whom Christ does not gather to the Father remain in death, as we shall see again under the seventeenth chapter. For the same reason Paul also teaches that Christ was sent, in order “that he might gather together all things which are in heaven and in earth” (Eph. 1,10). Therefore, that we may enjoy the salvation brought by Christ, discord must be removed, and we must be made one with God and with angels, and among ourselves. The cause and pledge of this unity was the death of Christ, by which he drew all things to himself; but we are daily gathered by the gospel into the fold of Christ.[14]

The point of Calvin’s exposition was to capture the universalistic thrust of the gospel writer’s words, which extend the effect of Jesus’ coming beyond the Jews to the Gentiles. Calvin used the terms “human race” and “all things” to denote this: it is the human race which is scattered and in need of gathering; Christ was sent to gather all things; and Christ by his death drew all things to himself. Calvin identified this redemptive ingathering with the cosmic unification spoken of in Eph. 1:10—and, it should be noted, by extension, with that of Col. 1:20, a parallel passage. Christ’s work is the removal of the “discord” which exists in a sinful world between God and man, and between man and man. Heaven and earth, Creator and rational creatures, nations and individuals have been set at odds by sin; Christ knits them back together by his death.

This begins almost to sound like Origen’s vision of apokatastasis, the concept of the total restoration of all creation, and its implication, universal salvation. But it was not. Calvin was no universalist, and indicated even in this passage that there are some whom Christ does not gather into the fold. And this immediately compels the interpreter to recognize that when Calvin spoke of “the human race” and “all things” he did not mean every individual human being. The unification is achieved as the “children of God are assembled under Christ their head.” In Calvin’s mind, the gathering of the elect from all humanity, and especially from Jew and Gentile, is effectively and representatively the reunification of the human race itself. That the reprobate are lost does not affect this assertion. The reprobate come almost to be regarded, from an eschatological if not from an ontological point of view, as non-creation. For God in Christ is nothing less than the Redeemer of the human race and of the world. Calvin would not weaken the force of this; neither would he allow that Christ is the gatherer, by his death, of every individual man.

The gathering of the elect, Calvin said, is a process spread out over time, which takes place as the gospel is proclaimed and believed. But it has a deeper source, which is the death of Christ itself, the “cause and pledge” (causa et pignus). The sense of this is, that because Christ gathered the elect to himself in death, they will be gathered in the process of history until the unification is complete.

In light of all that Calvin said here, his reminder that there are some whom Christ does not gather certainly rules out the possibility that he died for every individual person.[15]

Comments on I John 2:2

“And he is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but for those of the whole world” (I John 2:2). If there is any text in the New Testament which teaches universal redemption, this surely must be it. Augustine had interpreted “whole world” in this verse to mean the Catholic church as it is spread throughout the whole earth, the “mountain” which has filled the whole earth, the church which Christ has bought with his own blood.[16]  It was clear in Augustine’s comments on the verse that “whole world” did not mean every member of the human race, but rather the predestined. Still, what Augustine said about the verse did not so much emphasize the limitation of the death of Christ to the predestined as it did the universality of “whole world.” Augustine used “whole world” offensively against those whom he perceived to be schismatics, whose great sin was to limit the church to a localized group and thus destroy its catholicity.

The situation was somewhat different for Bucer, and also for Calvin. For obvious reasons they did not use the verse exactly as Augustine had. In the sixteenth century the verse was being used against predestinarianism and limited redemption, and the need was to emphasize the limited scope of the phrase, “whole world.” Bucer had argued, against Hoffmann, that it must be understood of the elect. Calvin faced a similar challenge from a Sicilian monk named Georgius. This man, about whom very little is known, had the distinction of being the only opponent of Calvin’s to directly attack the reformer’s predestinarianism with one of the universal redemption texts of the New Testament. The significance of this will be discussed later.

Calvin’s thoughts on this verse came in two explanations written closely together in time, in his commentary on I John (1551), and in De Aeterna Praedestinatione (1552). Having this stereo version of his exegesis is both helpful and complicating, for, although the context and aim of his remarks in both places were the same, the fact that in one place he was commenting and in the other polemicizing caused him to emphasize different aspects of his doctrine. First, his remarks in the commentary:

Here a question may be raised, how have the sins of the whole world been expiated? I pass by the dotages of the fanatics, who under this pretense extend salvation to all the reprobate, and therefore to Satan himself. Such a monstrous thing deserves no refutation. They who seek to avoid this absurdity have said that Christ suffered sufficiently for the whole world, but efficiently only for the elect. This solution has commonly prevailed in the schools. Though I allow that what has been said is true, yet I deny that it is suitable to this passage; for the design of John was no other than to make this benefit common to the whole church. Then under the world “all,” he does not include the reprobate, but designates those who should believe as well as those who were then scattered though various parts of the world. For then the grace of Christ is really made clear in a fitting way, when it is declared to be the only true salvation of the whole world.[17]

Here is a direct limited redemptionistic answer to the old argument that the universality of “whole world” must include every human being. Calvin also threw in, for good measure, the argument that if “whole world” is absolutely universal it must include the devil as well, familiar already from his exegesis of Colossians 1:20. As in his comment on Colossians 1:20, Calvin lumped the reprobate together with the devil and argued from the assumption that what is true of one must be true of the other as well. The doctrine that Christ’s expiation is for the reprobate (and by extension the devil) was the Calvin a “monstrous thing,” one of the deliria phreneticorum. It is very likely that Calvin had in mind the Anabaptists here, since “fanatics” was one of his stock terms for the radicals. If so, then his remarks here were a late reverberation of the theological contests with the Strassburg radicals.

Against the assertion of universal redemption, Calvin stated that the expiation of Christ “does not include the reprobate,” but extends to “the whole church” and to “those who should believe.” Again we see the dual effort to limit Christ’s death to the elect while at the same time preserving a universalistic emphasis. There was a clear echo of Augustine’s exegesis, as well as of his concept of exclusive universalism when Calvin summed up what he had said by saying that Christ is the “only true salvation of the world.” His handling of the verse did not correspond at all to what we should expect if he had been, as Amyraut and others have claimed, a predestinarian universal redemptionist. He did not accept the idea that Christ’s death extends to the reprobate; he did not accept the division of election and redemption into two different decrees. His answer remained firmly in the Augustinian limited redemptionist tradition.

We need to say something too about Calvin’s interesting comments on the sufficient-efficient scheme, but it will help first to place in view his other rebuttal of Georgius, from the 1552 treatise:

[Georgius] thinks he argues very acutely when he says: Christ is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, and hence those who wish to exclude the reprobate from participation with Christ must place them outside the world. For this, the common solution does not avail, that Christ suffered sufficiently for all, but efficaciously only for the elect. By this great absurdity, this monk has sought applause in his own fraternity, but it has no weight with me. Wherever the faithful are dispersed throughout the world, John extends to them the expiation wrought by Christ’s death. But this does not alter the fact that the reprobate are mingled with the elect in the world. It is incontestable that Christ came for the expiation of the sins of the whole world. But the solution lies close at hand, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). For the present question is not how great the power of Christ is or what efficacy it has in itself, but to whom he gives himself to be enjoyed. If possession lies in faith and faith emanates from the Spirit of adoption, it follows that he only is reckoned in the number of God’s children who will be a partaker of Christ. The evangelist John sets forth the office of Christ as nothing else than by his death to gather the children of God into one (John 11:52).[18]

Again the question revolves around the meaning of “whole world.” To Georgius this had to mean every individual. To Calvin, however, it did not. Rather, the teaching of the verse is that the expiation of Christ’s death is extended to the “faithful” (fideles) as they are scattered throughout the whole world, and to the “children of God” (Dei filios), Calvin’s language for the elect. The office of Christ is “nothing else than by his death to gather the children of God into one.” This is a description of the doctrine of John 11:51, which, as has already been noted, Calvin would expound in the next year (1553) in a limited redemptionistic sense.

So the conclusion of this second passage was also that the reprobate are excluded from the “whole world.” But the reply to Georgius penetrates a bit deeper into Calvin’s theological thinking about the extent of redemption. The benefits of Christ’s death come, in the end, only to those who believe (here Calvin adduced John 3:16), and therefore, because faith is the gift of the Spirit to the elect alone, only to the elect. This emphasis on the application of redemption to the elect through faith once more misled M. Charles Bell into an Amyraldian interpretation of Calvin’s thought. According to Bell, Calvin rejected the doctrine of Georgius

not in light of the extent of the atonement, but of faith. Because faith is the interpreting factor in this passage, Calvin can state that under the term “all” John “does not include the reprobate,” but refers to all who would believe.[19]

Bell was saying that Calvin’s restriction of this verse to the elect does not apply to the death of Christ itself but to its application. He was, in other words, viewing Calvin as the forerunner of Amyraut.

Once again, as in his analysis of Calvin’s remark to Heshusius, Bell had something right and something wrong. He was correct that Calvin’s argument here centered around the application of the benefits of Christ’s death though faith to the individual elect. But he drew precisely the opposite conclusion from this fact from that which Calvin drew. Bell reasoned that because faith comes only to the elect, the expiation of Christ itself can still be universal in scope (although Calvin never said this). Calvin, in contrast, argued that because the benefits of Christ’s death are in the end applied only to the elect, any speculation about the death of Christ which abstracts it from its actual effects is moot. The real point for Calvin was “not how great the power of Christ is or what efficacy it has in itself”—that is, how many people the death of Christ, considered in terms of its intrinsic virtue, could conceivably save—“but to whom he gives himself to be enjoyed.” The real point for Calvin, in other words, was the intention of God. Augustinian soteriology always comes back to this in the end. If God intends to gather only the elect to himself through the death of Christ, then it is pointless to think of the death of Christ in any other way. Calvin affirmed that only those who will actually be partakers of Christ (i.e. the elect) are the children of God; he said in the next sentence that the exclusive task of Christ is to gather these children of God, those who will one day be joined to Christ, to God through his death.

For Calvin, the limited scope of the application of redemption closed the scope of redemption itself. It is the divine intention which defines the extent of Christ’s act of propitiation. And at this juncture Calvin’s thinking was resting firmly on the more basic consideration that there are not two divine saving wills, one universal and one particular, but one divine saving will which is directed to the elect and only to the elect. The work of Jesus Christ, Calvin believed and insisted, derives its saving power not from some immanent mechanism—as if it would have somehow saved men even if God the Father had not wanted men saved—but precisely because God ordains, accomplishes, and wills to accept it.

This focus on the will of God marks Calvin as a “strict constructionist” Augustinian. It also explains why he avoided the scholastic sufficient-efficient distinction as an adequate solution to the problem posed by I John 2:2 (“the common solution does not avail”). Calvin did not reject the device completely (“I allow that what has been said is true”), because there was, as we have seen, a way to construe this device in a limited redemptionist fashion. Wyclif had done so, and some of Calvin’s own pupils and followers, men who were without any doubt limited redemptionists, would do so as well.[20] Why was Calvin dissatisfied with it in the exegesis of this text?

Because the formula, whether in its Thomistic or its “Wyclifian” form, does precisely what Calvin was arguing against as he rebutted Georgius: it provides a way of speaking and thinking about the sacrifice of Christ as if it could be somehow detached from its divinely intended effect. It was no part of Calvin’s concern to find some theoretical way to posit that Christ died for every person, as Wyclif had done. Certainly Calvin believed that Christ’s death could have redeemed a thousand worlds, not to mention every human being.[21] But this is entirely beside the point. He did not believe that that was the content of the term “whole world” in I John 2:2. For the extent of Christ’s expiation is to be perceived from its effect, which is the expression of the divine will. Here, as always, the Augustinian axiom that what God wills must come to pass, and that what comes to pass is God’s will, loomed in the background. And the effect of this expiation comes only to the elect. That settles it. So John’s words, “the whole world,” mean the “whole church,” the “faithful,” and the “children of God.” Like Bucer, Calvin bypassed the subtleties of the scholastics and returned to the straightforward particularism of Augustine and Gottschalk.

Reply to Pighius

Albert Pighius,[22]  in his attack on Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, had used the concept of the universality of redemption (though no specific verses) to argue against predestination. When Calvin, in 1552, came to respond, he paraphrased the objection thus:

That the gospel must preach Christ as the Redeemer of the whole world and of all indiscriminately appears to contradict particular election.[23]

This will be recognized as the argument of those whom Calvin called “buffoons” in his sermon on II Timothy 1:9-10, that the universal redeemerhood of Christ negates particular election. It is quite probable that in the sermon Calvin had this argument of Pighius in mind. His answer in the treatise was terse and completely clear:

I respond briefly, that Christ is ordained for the salvation of the world in this manner, namely, that he saves those that are given to him by the Father; he is the life of those whose head he is; he receives those into the blessings of his fellowship whom God by the goodness of his grace has adopted to himself as heirs.[24]

This answer arose out of Calvin’s Christology and out of his doctrine of the unity of the work of the Father and the Son and of the unity of Christ with the elect. Christ’s redeemerhood extends to those given to him by the Father (the John 6:37 theme again), those whose head he is, and those adopted (“adoption” here, as often, was for Calvin a synonym for election) by the grace of God. Calvin, in short, defined the “salvation of the world” as the salvation of the elect. And salvation here, as the work of Christ, surely includes his death. A universal redemptionist in the mold of Amyraut would hardly have responded to Pighius this way; there would have been no need to do so.


1. Ioannis Calvini Opera Quae Supersunt Omnia, 59 vols., ed G. Baum, E. Cunitz, and E. Reuss (Brunswick and Berlin, 1863-1900), 9:461. After this cited as CO.

2. CO, 9:484-5.

3. CO, 9:485.

4. M. Charles Bell, “Calvin and the Extent of the Atonement,” Evangelical Quarterly 55 (April 1983), p. 120.

5. CO, 9:483.

6. Comm. on John 12:32, CO, 47:294.

7. Modern New Testament text criticism would agree with Calvin here against Augustine that pantas (all men) is the better reading. Cf. Nestle-Aland, Novum Testamentum Graece, 26th ed., (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelstiftung, 1979), p. 292.

8. CO, 54:54.

9.  CO, 54:54.

10. CO, 54:59.

11. CO, 54:59.

12. CO, 52:89.

13. CO, 52:89.

14. CO, 47:275.

15. Augustine’s treatment of this text was just as particularistic as Calvin’s but said nothing about the death of Christ (Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina, 36:432-3).

16. Contra Secundum Juliani Responsionem Opus Imperfectum, Migne, Patrologiae Cursus Completus, Series Latina, 35:1984.

17. CO, 55:310.

18. CO, 8:336.

19. Bell, pp. 118-9.

20. Zacharias Ursinus, the chief author of the Heidelberg Catechism and one of those who are usually designated as “Reformed scholastics,” spoke of the sufficiency of Christ for every man in this sense: “It may be granted that the ransom of Christ is, because of its own worth, sufficient for the redemption of a thousand worlds. Nevertheless, it is properly offered only for those for whom Christ prayed, that is, for the elect alone” (Explicationum Catecheticarum D. Zachariae Ursini Silesii [Neostadii Palatinorum: Matthei Harnisch, 1595], Part 2, p. 204).  Kendall thought that the sufficient-efficient distinction had only the meaning given to it by limited redemptionists like Ursinus. He therefore drew the wrong conclusion from Calvin’s avoidance of it in I John 2:2 (cf. R. T. Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649 [Oxford: The University Press, 1979], p. 16).

21. Even at the high point of “Reformed scholasticism,” the Reformed were ready to grant the sufficiency of Christ’s death for all in this sense. The patently limited redemptionist Canons of Dort, for example, say that Christ’s death was “of infinite value and worth, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the entire world” (Acta Synodi Dordrechti Habitae (Dort, 1620), 2:3.  This did not mean for the authors of the Canons that Christ did so expiate the sins of every person. Amyraut’s precursor, John Cameron, seemed to have recognized the double denotation of the word “sufficient” (cf. Brian Armstrong, Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy: Protestant Scholasticism and Humanism in Seventeenth Century France [Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1969], p. 59.

22. Albert Pighius, a Dutch Catholic, published De Libero Arbitrio et Gratia Divina in 1542 both Calvin’s and Bucer’s predestinarianism. Pighius died suddenly in 1542, before Calvin’s first response, Defensio Sanae et Orthodoxae Doctrina … (1543) was published. In the 1552 De Aeterna Predestinatione Calvin again did polemical battle with the dead Pighius.

23. De Aeterna Predestinatione, in CO, 8:298.

24. CO, 8:298.

1 comment:

  1. study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman who needs not be ashamed; rightly dividing the word of truth. II Timothy 2:15