Atonement: Calvin

March 23, 2010 — 11 Comments


[This post is part of the Atonement series]

It should be a rule, and I say this in all seriousness, that you cannot call yourself a Calvinist until you have read the Institutes of the Christian Religion in its entirety (or at least a good bulk of it). I say this of course condemning myself, since I would place myself in the category of “Calvinist” but am only now reading through them myself for the first time.

Until the beginning of this school year, I had read more in John Owen (and Edwards for that matter) than John Calvin. The former of course is considered a Calvinist, but since this system is named for John Calvin, it should only make sense that you shouldn’t take his name if you’ve never read what he’s written.

It’s kinda like people that call themselves “Christians,” but really know nothing of Christ himself. We tend to get annoyed with such people, because they usually exhibit rampant hypocrisy. And while a person is probably not the same kind of hypocrite who wants to be a Calvinist but hasn’t read Calvin himself, there are a couple of other issues at stake.

For starters, there is the issue of what Calvinism is known for: TULIP

In case you’re unfamiliar, here’s what is stands for:

  • Total Depravity (everyone is born unchangeable bad at heart)
  • Unconditional Election (God chooses some in his mercy to save)
  • Limited Atonement (Christ’s death only atoned for those who were chosen)
  • Irresistible Grace (Once God, in Christ, draws a person, they cannot resist)
  • Perseverance of the Saints (those who persevere to the end are these elect people)

For once, I was not overtly technical in what appears parenthetically above. Hopefully if you are in fact not familiar with TULIP, that can give you a grasp on what someone is generally affirming by saying they are a “Calvinist.” There is more to Calvinism than affirming the above points, but is there less?

Well, Calvin seemed to think so. What is conspicuously missing from the Institutes is any affirmation of “L.” I had heard this in passing before, but didn’t really grasp it myself until reading through that particular section of the Institutes the week before Spring Break. He doesn’t explicitly deny limited atonement there, but he doesn’t affirm it in any sense.

To be sure, Calvin clearly affirms penal substitutionary atonement (something we will come back to on here in a few days), but he doesn’t particularly delineate the scope of that atonement. Since he doesn’t outright deny limited atonement, some scholars feel that it is necessarily entailed by the fact that he holds to penal substitutionary atonement. This is similar to the thinking that John Owen evinces in his dilemma (see here). Given penal substitution, it seems hard not to affirm limited atonement to avoid universalism.

Others think that limited atonement logically flows from Calvin’s thought elsewhere, primarily based on his thoughts on 1 Timothy 2:4 and 1 John 2:2. This is still a bit different however, than affirming that Calvin explicitly taught limited atonement as TULIP being synonymous with Calvinism would suggest.

What gets interesting still for Calvinists that dogmatize limited atonement (it tends to be an arguing point) is that there is little if no evidence of any first generation Reformer teaching it. That doesn’t in and of itself mean that the doctrine is in fact wrong. It is just interesting that none of the Reformers taught it, specifically that Calvin didn’t seem to keen on it. To see just how thoroughly this can be documented, see the index here.

We’ll keep wrestling with the issues, but it seems interesting at least that Calvin, by most accounts, was only a 4 point Calvinist himself. Now to be fair, the “points” were not something Calvin singled out in his teaching as distinctive, but were rather what his opponents singled out. TULIP is just a shorthand for the summary of the Canons of the Synod of Dort (ca. 1618-19) which was a response to the Remonstrance (the objection of Arminians). TULIP was never meant to offer a summary of Calvinism (or indeed all that Calvin taught), but was just what was considered at stake in that particular controversy.

Hopefully I didn’t lose you with the brief history lesson, but it is helpful to see that TULIP is by no means Calvin’s own invention, and also, that shortly after the Reformation, limited atonement was in some sense considered a doctrine to defend.

Now, to bring this full circle, and back to the original contention. If you want to seriously call yourself a Calvinist, you need to have actually read Calvin’s magnum opus. The reason seemingly adduced so far is that Calvin doesn’t actually teach explicitly what his followers sometimes dogmatically argue for.

In actually reading Calvin, his humility and dependence on God is seen much more clearly than if you’ve just studied his thought from afar. In seeing and absorbing that, some Calvinists might actually become more irenic in their writing and in their reasoning with others who disagree with them. This is not of course to say that reading Calvin will make you more humble or less disagreeable. I’m sure there are plenty of Calvinists who have read Calvin and are just as contentious as they would be otherwise.

My concern is more for my own generation of younger Calvinists who lack the spiritual maturity of many authors we read, and while absorbing their truths, we miss their attitudes. What’s more is that Calvinism is somewhat trendy right now. It is in some circles, “cool to be a Calvinist.” But one can memorize TULIP and explain it pretty well, and still be both theologically shallow and spiritually immature. What’s even worse is that one can very well be a 5 point Calvinist and still be unregenerate.

Hopefully that is a chilling thought. It should serve as a reminder that doctrinal purity does not always necessitate having a heart that is pure before God. That comes by being clothed in Christ’s righteousness and not by academic prowess. I need to be reminded of this more often than not.

What about you?


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

11 responses to Atonement: Calvin

  1. Nate,
    Well done…I am actually planning on downloading the Institutes onto the kindle before our 8 hour drive this Thursday. Looking forward to reading the posts that follow this thought.

    • Check the version of the Institutes you are getting. I would recommend the Battles/McNeill translation, but there are several others available. You’ll probably find book 1 the most insightful as far as apologetics are concerned, but his discussion of the atonement is at the end of book 2.


  2. I agree with you in that people really need to read Calvin’s Institutes of Christian Religion. I am just reading it for the first time and it is very enlightening on Calvin and his view on “Calvinism”. I have also enjoyed quoting to my parents different parts and showing them Calvin is not the evil heretic people make him out to be.

    Good Stuff!!

    • I would say most people who are strongly against Calvin either have never actually read his writings, or they have encountered a few too many people who were disciples of Calvin but were total jerks. Sometimes I think people idolize men like Calvin and other Reformers more so than do Christ, something Calvin at least would probably have a hard time with.

      Good luck working your way through the rest of the Institutes!


  3. Hey there,

    You are totally right there. The strongest and clearest evidence from Calvin on unlimited expiation from the Institutes probably come from 2.16.2. and 3.1.1.

    Btw, in order to post a comment I had to log in to my old wordpress blog. If you stay with that, a lot of folk wont be able to comment.

    Thanks and take care,

  4. Great post Nate. I do have to agree with you. Having been on the hard-edged side for decades, and having pulled back on limited atonement over the past 5 years (painfully in some respects due to reaction from others) – I have often lamented that if I could just get people to read Calvin – much of this would disappear as a shibboleth. Too bad the system which bears his name does not treat the topics as he would. Keep up the good work.

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