Western Calvinism and Mistaken Atonement

A brief analyzed look at Calvin's words on Atonement

Today, Calvinism is in full-stride and it's boasting in the name of the Reformation (See Article: Who is Reformed?). The wonderful theology of John Calvin is a compiled work that everyone should read. Personally, I've read his commentaries once and his institutes three times. They have done me well, they have taught me numerous truths and enlighted much of my theology. Plain and simple: Calvin is a must read. 

However, the question that will be raised here is "Did Calvin hold to 5 Point [Calvinism] as presented by Dordt?". This question is probably the most assumed by the majority of Reformed holders today. The following evidence line will show you that Calvin would not have agreed in full with what Dordt [a non-ecunemical canon]. Dordt is famous for oversimplifying a sect [Neo-Calvinist] of Reformed Theology to 5 points known as the TULIP [Though this acronym wasn't introduced until much later, some think Boettner was the first].  

The point in question is Limited Atonement which teaches that God only sent His son to die for the (predestined) elect. The obvious exegesis problem is that this isn't taught explicitly anywhere in the context of scripture (thought scripture may elude to some form it). The 5 point has some obstactles to encounter with exegesis, but there is some good literature on this (both for and against). 

[As we know, not all Calvinist adhere to this point, some maybe Amyraldian and some may simply remain unknown in the point. Moderate calvinism may just be what Calvin believed.]

Rather, the term Limited Atonement is traced back to a theologian by the name of Gottschalk of Orbais was a Saxon theologian, monk and poet who is best known for being an early advocate of the doctrine of two-fold predestination. This theologian may also be the source of the inherent nature of many Reformed holders abuse of the word "heresy". Historians who focused on Gottschalk tell us that he openly used the word amongst those who disagreed with him. He was eventually excommunicated for his beliefs on Limited Atonement and Heresy. (1) 

In his Longer Confession, he tries to argue that he is staying within the orthodox view of the church fathers on the view of predestination by quoting but one: Gregory the Great. The issue with this is that there is no mention of predestination in the Early Church Fathers outside of Augustine, rather the opposite:

"He died for all apart from God, for ‘by the grace of God he tasted death for all.”  Origen, “Commentary on the Gospel According to John”

In teaching about the “great force and meaning” of the cross in “The Divine Institutes,” Lactantius argues that because of the humble way in which Christ died, there is “no one at all who might not be able to imitate him.”18 However, he recognizes that there is more to the cross than moral example. Christ is lifted up on the cross, elevated where everyone can see him, so that his passion might be known to “all” and become the “salvation of all.” 

The Early Church Fathers taught that Christ death and resurrection was for all people but would be applied to only those who believed. 

In his Longer Confession, after praying for the ability to exhibit the “truest, sincerest, and kindest love against the barking of heretics,” Gottschalk preceded in the same sentence to also pray for the ability to “beat back their teeth and biting falsity . . . whether they like it or not.”

In the following sentences, Gottschalk then warned his enemies that if they became angry with him for his theological position and labeled him a heretic, he would not hesitate to return the insult. He justified his counter-attack on his ecclesiastical opponents who charged him with heresy by identifying them as the true heretics, those who denied the predestination of the reprobate. Among his attacks on his opponents, he referred to them as liars, unbelievers, and stubborn resistors of the truth. In addition, after providing an extensive defense of his beliefs based upon patristic citations, he asserted that anyone who did not uphold the same theory of predestination as he did was undoubtedly “blind.”  

In his treatise On Predestination, Gottschalk termed those who did not believe him as “enemies of the truth,” and thus heretics. In a role reversal, Gottschalk countered his opponents’ accusation of heresy by instead implying that only those who did not agree with his teachings were the true heretics, the “stubborn unbelievers” and “enemies of the truth.” (2) (3)

Though, these "stubborn unbelievers" were the Church Fathers and other Reformers. He used only two citing of early theologians which should be seen as evidential issue. However, let's move on. 

John Calvin's Beliefs

John Calvin: "He invites the Whole World to the hope of Salvation, All Without Exception, for God so loved the World, that He gave His Only-Begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him may not perish."(Commentary on Isaiah 45:22).

John Calvin: "Our Lord Jesus Suffered for All, and there is neither great nor small who is Not Inexcusable today, for we can obtain Salvation in Him. Unbelievers who turn away from Him, and deprive themselves of Him by their malice are today Doubly Culpable. For how will they excuse their Ingratitude in Not Receiving the Blessing in which they Could share by Faith?"(Sermon on Isaiah 53).

John Calvin: "We see here that there are No Exceptions,  for the Prophet includes All.  The Whole Human Race would have Perished if Christ had Not brought Relief."(Commentary on Isaiah 53:6).

John Calvin: "The word many is Not put definitely for a fixed number,  but for a large number; for He contrasts Himself with All others. And in this sense, it is used in Romans 5:15, where Paul does Not speak of any part of men but embraces the Whole Human Race."(Commentary on Matthew 20:28).

John Calvin: "This is My Blood, Which is Shed for Many. By the word Many, He means Not a Part of the World Only, but the Whole Human Race."(Commentary on Mark 14:24).

John Calvin: "It is the Will of God that we should seek the Salvation of All men Without Exception because Christ Suffered for the Sins of the Whole World."(The Gospel According To Saint John, Commentaries, Volume 21, page 156).

John Calvin: "When he says, the Sin of the World,  he Extends this Favor Indiscriminately to the Whole Human Race."(Commentary on John 1:29).

John Calvin: "He has employed the Universal term Whosoever, both to Invite All Indiscriminately to Partake of Life, and to cut off Every Excuse from Unbelievers. Such is also the Import of the term World, which He formerly used; for though nothing will be found in the World that is Worthy of the Favor of God, yet He shows Himself to be Reconciled to the Whole World, when He Invites All men Without Exception to the Faith of Christ."(Commentary on John 3:16).

John Calvin: "Under the term World is here included the Whole Human Race."(Commentary on John 14:30).

John Calvin: "Under the term World are, I think, included not only those who would be Truly Converted to Christ but Hypocrites and Reprobates."(Commentary on John 16:8).

John Calvin: "Under the term World, Christ here includes All that is opposed to the Salvation of Believers, and especially All the corruptions which Satan abuses for the purpose of laying snares for us."(Commentary on John 16:33).

John Calvin: "We must also note the Universal word Whosoever. For God admitteth All men unto Himself Without Exception, and by this means doth He invite them to Salvation, as Paul gathereth in the tenth chapter to the Romans, and as the prophet had set it down before, Thou, Lord, which hearest the prayer, unto Thee shall All flesh come (Psalm 65:2). Therefore, forasmuch as No man is Excluded from Calling upon God, the Gate of Salvation is set Open unto All men; neither is there any other thing which keepeth us back from entering in, except our own unbelief." (Commentary on Acts 2:21).

John Calvin: "Christ Suffered for the Sins of the Whole World, and is Offered by the Goodness of God Indiscriminately to All, yet Not All Receive Him."(Commentary on Romans 5:18).

John Calvin: "God commends to us the Salvation of All men Without Exception, even as Christ Suffered for the Sins of the Whole World."(Commentary on Galatians 5:12).

John Calvin: "To bear, or, take away sins, is to free from guilt by His satisfaction those who have sinned. He says the sins of many, that is, of All, as in Romans 5:15. It is yet certain that Not All receive benefit from the death of Christ, but this happens because their unbelief prevents them."(Commentary on Hebrews 9:28).

John Calvin: "Even denying The Lord that Bought them. Though Christ may be denied in various ways, yet Peter, as I think, refers here to what is expressed by Jude, that is, when the Grace of God is turned into lasciviousness; for Christ Redeemed us, that He might have a people separated from all the pollutions of the World, and devoted to holiness and innocence. They, then, who throw off the bridle, and give themselves up to all kinds of licentiousness, are Not unjustly said to deny Christ by Whom they have been Redeemed."(Commentary on 2 Peter 2:1).

John Calvin: "Some old copies have, "Christ, Who alone is God and Lord." And, indeed, in the Second Epistle of Peter, Christ alone is mentioned, and there He is called Lord. But he means that Christ is denied, when they who had been Redeemed by His Blood, become again the vassals of the Devil and thus render void as far as they can that incomparable Price."(Commentary on Jude 1:4 in reference to 2 Peter 2:1).

John Calvin: "As to the duration of the Whole World, we must think exactly the same as of the life of Every Individual; for God by prolonging time to each, sustains him that he may Repent. In the like manner, He does not hasten the end of the World, in order to give to All time to Repent. So wonderful is His love towards Mankind, that He would have them All to be Saved, and is of His Own Self-prepared to bestow Salvation on the Lost."(Commentary on 2 Peter 3:9).

There are many more but for the sake of your attention, we can move onto the experts who studied Calvin's life at the academic level. It is wise to note that Calvin undoubtedly held to a level of predestination and foreknowledge that contained within it a theology of “limited” or “perfect” atonement. It is however, not correct to relate this down to the Dortian points.

World Renown Professor of Historical Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, and World's Foremost Historical Authority on Calvin, Calvinism, and Reformed Theology, Reformed Scholar Richard A. Muller (aka The Reformed Standard): "Calvin certainly never spoke of 'limited atonement'. Like TULIP itself, the term is an Anglo-American creation of fairly recent vintage. Simply stated, the term 'limited atonement' would have been unintelligible to Calvin. Was Calvin a 'Calvinist'? The answer is certainly a negative. Calvin was not a 'Calvinist'."(Calvin and the Reformed Tradition, pages 59, 69, 74).

World Renown Calvin Biographer & Reformed Scholar Alister McGrath: "It may be stressed that at no point does Calvin himself suggest that Christ died only for the elect."(A Life of John Calvin, page 216).

Well known Calvinist Steven Lawson admits: "Unlike Augustine, Gottschalk taught that Christ died only for the elect. Gottschalk provided the first clear articulation and defense of a particular redemption in church history."(Gottschalk by Steven Lawson).

In the realm of "evidence-based belief," this is a substantial amount of evidence that should ring volumes to today's Reformed community. We must be careful not to attribute various theological ideas to various theologians without first reading their material. 

Therefore, if you call yourself a "Calvinist" make sure you've read Calvin. In a similar light, you wouldn't expect a Christian to NOT read Christ. Be diligent about your beliefs, your defenses and your theology. Intellectual and Theological honesty must be of most importance; staying true to the Scriptures even if it means de-tagging yourself from a certain popular name.