Limited Atonement and the “C” word. (Calvinism)

With endorsements from the likes of Tony Lane, Martin Foord, Curt Daniel and Robert Lightner, my weak voice is hardly needed as an impetus to read and consider Paul Hartog’s “Calvin on the Death of Christ: A Word for the World” – but I’ll give you my 2 rusty pennies anyway. I venture that partially (in the interest of full disclosure) because I interacted with Dr. Hartog before the book was finished and thus my name appears in the Acknowledgements. Feel free to question my objectivity. Though in this case, I don’t think that’s really an issue. And I most heartily encourage you to read this volume carefully as an important contribution to a hotly debated and contentious discussion.

For those of us within the Reformed/Calvinistic branches of American Evangelicalism, discussion of the nature of what is most commonly (though certainly unhelpfully) termed “limited atonement”, is an ongoing reality. For myself, this came to a head a number of years ago. Having come into a “Calvinistic” soteriology, I was taught what is most often portrayed as THE Reformed presentation of “Calvin’s T.U.L.I.P.” A misnomer on several fronts. First off because Calvin never formulated the T.U.L.I.P. If you are unfamiliar with that acronym, it stands for Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace and the Preservation or Perseverance of the Saints. Commonly referred to as “The 5 Points of Calvinism.” More recent studies have shown that the T.U.L.I.P. is in fact a 20th Century invention traceable to a sermon by Dr. Cleland Boyd McAfee in 1905. Thus it did not emerge either directly from Calvin, nor (as is thought by many) from the Synod of Dordt.

But secondly, (speaking to the issue at hand) a strict view of Limited Atonement (such as advanced most powerfully and convincingly by John Owen among others) was never “THE” Reformed or Calvinistic view. As though one could not claim to stand within Reformed orthodoxy unless they embraced the notion that Christ died ONLY for the elect. Massive amounts of recent scholarship by Robert Muller, Curt Daniel, Carl Trueman, Alan Clifford, Michael Lynch and many others have disproved that idea without question. So it is the likes of Archbishop Ussher, Willam Twisse, Edmund Calamy, Richard Vines, Edwards Reynolds and above all John Davenant – are all examples of men who supported views other than strict Limited Atonement even at the Westminster Assembly.

If you want the most robust accounting in this regard – especially in treating how Calvinistic Southern Baptists debated this – you cannot afford to neglect David Allen’s magisterial The Extent of the Atonement: A Historical and Critical Review. It is unparalleled in setting the historical record straight.  

All that said, those on both sides of the Limited Atonement debate inevitably try to marshal Calvin to their side. Hartog points out how this is really not useful on serval counts. First off, Calvin is not the last word on Reformed theology. Hartog writes: “Calvin cannot be elevated as the plumb-line of Reformed theology, and Reformation theology was a work in progress.” There were many voices of the Reformation and John Calvin was but one. Second, Calvin himself would have gagged on the notion that people would ever appeal to anything bearing his name, like “Calvinism.” He never set out to create such a thing and would have been repulsed by it. His Institutes were simply an attempt to provide the everyday Christian with a digest of generally received Reformed thinking. Thirdly, it is anachronistic to make Calvin weigh in on a debate which was not raging at the time he wrote and ministered. And lastly, which is at the heart of Hartog’s book – Calvin’s own writings with their inherent tensions prevent one from saying Calvin held to a strict view of Limited Atonement.

Painstakingly combing though Calvin’s works, Hartog mounts the Herculean task of endeavoring to let Calvin speak for himself – and never requiring him to anachronistically endorse later positions. As Dr. Hartog notes in his introduction: “It is evident that Calvin never discussed the question of the extent of the atonement as a separate doctrinal point.” (See: Kennedy, “Was Calvin a Calvinist?” 194.) Or, in my terms, Calvin never spoke of the atonement in quantitative terms. Quantity, is the wrong category.

Now if you were only to read Chapter 2 and Hartog’s attempt to “elucidate what I perceive to be the complex structure of Calvin’s theology through a series of twelve issues and how he seems to address them through his own writings” – you will strike a vein of solid gold. This is profoundly useful as it serves as an incredible digest of Calvin’s thought.

1. “Will all individuals ultimately be saved? Calvin responds with a firm negative.” Whatever his views on the universal applicability of the atonement – he was no “universalist.”

2. “Who is beckoned in the offer of the gospel? Calvin firmly supports the general offer of the gospel with its universal promises.”

3. “Why is it not everyone believes? [Because] “not everyone is efficaciously drawn by the Holy Spirit.”

4. “What distinguishes these specific individuals (whom the Spirit efficaciously draws) from all others?” “The gracious, eternal, unconditional election of God sets them apart.”

5. “Does this mean that the elect are saved by Christ’s work in the cross even prior to their belief?” “No…God, through his Spirit, effectually applies Christ’s work to the elect when they believe, but they are not saved until they believe.”

6. “Does this mean that the provision of Christ’s sacrifice is limited to the elect alone, since God eternally intended to apply Christ’s work ultimately to the elect alone?” “No, because Calvin seems in some sense to coordinate a universal provision of Christ’s sacrifice with the general call of the gospel: “God commends to us the salvation of all men without exception, even as Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world.”

7. “Is the fact that the provision of Christ is universally offered important to the elect themselves? Yes. “The Holy Spirit does not “create” faith in the elect ex nihilo as if it were some kind of a substance or material or object or property. Faith is a confident, relational trust in God’s promises centered in the person and work of Christ.”

8. “Are there ramifications of Christ’s all-sufficient, universal provision in the ministry of evangelism? Yes. “If we wish to serve our Master, that is the way we must go about it. We must make every effort to draw everybody to the knowledge of the gospel.”

9. “Do unbelievers despise the grace that is offered to them? Yes, affirms Calvin. He asserts that “the obstinacy of men rejects the grace which has been provided and which God willingly and bountifully offers.”

10. “In our finite comprehension of matters, may we distinguish between our understanding of a revealed will in the universal promises of the gospel and a secret will in God’s eternal decree? Yes, concedes Calvin cautiously, if we understand that we thereby manifest our human, limited comprehension—as God’s will is truly unified, being “one and undivided.”

11. “So then did Christ die for all people or for the elect? In view of the totality of Calvin’s materials, he would seemingly answer, “Yes,” with further explanations. Christ died intentionally as a sufficient expiation and redemption for the sins of all humanity, and he died intentionally for the efficacious salvation of the elect in particular.”

12. “If Christ suffered as a provision for all humanity (as understood through one intentional aspect), and the Spirit works efficaciously only in particular individuals (the elect), does this mean the Trinity is not unified in redemption? No. “Calvin declares, “For it was God who appointed His Son to be the Reconciler [or Propitiation] and determined that the sins of the world should be expiated by His death.” “For however proud men may be, they are the possession of the devil, until they are regenerated by the Spirit of Christ. For in the word world is here embraced the whole human race.”

And then in each of these, Calvin is quoted meticulously, contextually and copiously.

Make no mistake, this book is not about the Limited Atonement debate itself. It is about how Calvin gets unfairly backread into that debate by modern theologians. And in the process, it decisively (in my opinion) takes the “Calvin missile” out of the arsenal of those who argue he taught “Limited Atonement” as it is portrayed today.

Weighing in at just over 200 pages, Paul Hartog’s “Calvin on the Death of Christ: A Word for the World” is lucid, succinct, thorough, refreshing and important.

My recommendation? Tolle Lege – take up and read!

Right away.      

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