Definite Atonement and Calvin’s Commitments
By Paul Helm
Calvin did not commit himself to any version of the doctrine of definite atonement. This, at least, is what I think. His thought is consistent with that doctrine, that is, he did not deny it in express terms. But (by other things that he most definitely did hold to) he may be said to be committed to that doctrine. The distinction is an important one in order to avoid the charge of anachronism. Calvin lived earlier than those debates that led to the explicit formulation of the doctrine of definite atonement in Reformed theology. He did not avow it in express terms, but nor did he deny it. But (I shall argue) in his lifetime he held to certain positions which taken together may presume the doctrine. Note that such a conclusion is not equivalent to an affirmative answer to the question ‘Had Calvin been present at the Synod of Dordt, would he have given his assent to the doctrine of definite atonement?’ A ‘Yes’ to this would leave open the question of whether in the interval between Calvin’s last published word and the early years of the seventeenth century his doctrinal commitments may have changed. That may or may not be a reasonable assumption to make.
Calvin, not being a universalist, could be said to be committed to definite atonement, even though he does not commit himself to definite atonement. And, it could be added, there is a sound reason for this. There was no occasion for Calvin to enter into argument about the matter, for before the Arminian controversy the extent of the atonement had not been debate expressly within the Reformed churches. (18)
A person may be committed to a doctrine without committing himself to it. How so? Because the proposition or propositions that a person believes may have logical consequences that that person does not realise, (even though such consequences may, to later students, be as plain as a pikestaff). Why may this be so? Perhaps through a simple failure of logical perception, by simply not noticing that p and q entail r, or that accepting the truth of p and q raise the probability of r to a high degree. Or perhaps because such logical consequences had not been brought to that person’s attention, perhaps because he had better things to do. One result of controversy may be that those in the controversy, and bystanders too, come to have their noses rubbed in some of the logical consequences of the positions being argued over. (Think of the connection Christ drew between ‘God is the living God’ and ‘Abraham, having died, nevertheless lives on and will be resurrected’ (Matt. 22.29-32). Or consider early Christological debates and the role that they played in refining understanding of the person and natures of Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, seeing that p entails q might make a person affirm q. Or seeing that p entails qmight provide a reason for him to deny p. The question, Was Calvin committed to definite atonement? may lead to us asking another question: Is it plausible to believe that, had the fully developed doctrine of definite atonement being available to Calvin, he would have embraced it? Or would he have back-peddled to a vaguer or to a contrary view? But in asking and attempting to answer such questions the mists and fogs of anachronism begin to form.
One commentator has called this distinction between being committed to and committing oneself to a ‘mystery’. But to my way of thinking there does not seem to be anything that is in the least mysterious about it. To use the language of philosophers, belief is referentially opaque; it is not closed under entailment.
A case study – Calvin’s Sermon on I Timothy 2.4
To Illustrate further the intelligibility and the plausibility of the distinction between being committed to, and committing oneself to, I shall consider Calvin’s sermon on I Timothy 2. 4 (in John Calvin’s Sermons on Timothy and Titus, facsimile edition, Banner of Truth, 1983). Calvin preached these sermons in 1554-5 and they were originally published in 1561, the English translation being published in 1579. The sermon considered to be considered here covers pages 148-160. The text is: ‘[God our Saviour] desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.’
As you might expect, Calvin is chiefly concerned with giving his views on the sense and reference of ‘all men’ and in the course of discussing this he commits himself to the following claims. (The English has been slightly updated, but not by much).
(1) Saint Paul speaketh not here of every particular man, but of all sorts, and of all people. (149)
(2) Saint Paul ‘s meaning is not that God will save every particular man, but he saith that the promises which were give to one only people, are now stretched out through all the world. (149)
(3) As Saint Paul speaketh now of all nations so speaketh he of all estates, as if he should say, that God will save Kings and magistrates, as well as the least and baser sort. (150)
(4) It is good to beat down the follie, or rather the beastliness of them that abuse this place of Paul, to make the election of God, a thing of naught, and utterly to take it away. (150)
(5) These beastes….pretend that it standeth in the choice of men to save themselves, and that God letteth us alone, and waiteth to see whether we will come to him or not, and so receiveth them that come unto him. (150-1)
(6) How can it be that we may be partakers of that salvation which is offered unto us in the Gospel, unless God draw us to it by his holy spirit?(151)
(7) And what are they, that the father giveth to Jesus Christ? They whom he hath chosen, and whom he knoweth to be his. Seeing the case standeth so, that God hath given us to his son to be kept and defended, because he had chosen us before, and Jesus Christ promiseth and witnesseth that none of us shall be lost, but that he will bestow all the might and power of his Godhead to save and defend us, is not this a comfort surpassing and surmounting all the treasures in the world? (154)
(8) For….the gate of Paradise is opened unto us, when we are so called to be partakers of that redemption, which was purchased for us by our Lord Jesus Christ. (156)
These are selective quotations, to be sure, but also representative quotations. What is Calvin committed to by them? I suggest the following propositions:
1. The ‘all men’ of the text means all sorts of men, geographically and socially (1), (2), (3)
2. The text, so interpreted, is consistent with God’s election of some to eternal life (4)
3. Salvation does not depend merely on the will or choice of man. (5)
4. No-one can partake of salvation unless God’s Spirit draw him. (6)
5. Those whom the Father gives to Jesus Christ are (only) those whom he has chosen, whom he knows to be his. (7)
6. Christ promises that none of those chosen beforehand will be lost. (7)
7. Our calling to be partakers of the redemption purchased for us by our Lord Jesus Christ opens to us the gate of Paradise. (8)
But by what he is committed to in 1 – 7 is Calvin also committed to the idea that Christ atoned for a definite number of men and women? Calvin says that the Father gives the chosen to be Christ’s, and that Christ promises that none of these chosen beforehand will be lost. Those chosen beforehand are called (by God’s spirit, not by their own independent choice), to be partakers of the redemption purchased for them by Christ.
Is Calvin here teaching definite atonement? Almost, but not quite. Propositions 5, 6, 7 and 8 are consistent with definite atonement. But do they entail definite atonement? Perhaps they do. But do they entail that Calvin believed them to entail definite atonement? I don’t think so. And this is why: because Calvin does not say, nor say anything equivalent to saying, that Christ purchased redemption only for those who are chosen, those who are called and who partake of his redemption. To say that Christ purchased salvation and that only those who are chosen are saved may be to presume that Christ intentionally purchased salvation only for those who are saved. But that’s not the same thing as saying that this is what Christ did.
It’s that close.
Paul Helm was educated at Worcester College, Oxford, and was for many years a member of the Philosophy Department of the University of Liverpool. From 1993-2000 he was the Professor of the History and Philosophy of Religion, King’s College, London. In 2001 he was appointed J.I. Packer Chair of Philosophical Theology at Regent College, Vancouver. He is presently a Teaching Fellow there. Helm is the author of numerous journal articles and books. Some of his most well-know books include Calvin and the Calvinists,Faith and Reason, The Trustworthiness of God, The Providence of God, Eternal God, The Secret Providence of God, The Trustworthiness of God (with Carl Trueman), John Calvin’s Ideas, Calvin at the Centre, and Calvin: A Guide for the Perplexed.