If you have read my posts regarding the extent/intent of the atonement in recent months, you will be aware that my own way of stating the situation has been changing, but I’m still working some things through. I remain convinced that my present understanding of a double intent in the redemptive work of the Godhead is coherent with the Canons of Dort. First, it was God’s intention, in the death of the Son, to make atonement for sin which is sufficient for the sins of all humankind. Secondly, God intented to apply that atoning work in the lives of the elect, through the efficacious calling accomplished by the Spirit. Thus, the death of Christ was sufficient for all but efficient only for the elect, and these were a people of God’s unconditional choosing, not the people whom God foresaw would choose to respond positively to universal enabling grace, as per Arminius.
Reformed theologians have differed in their assessment of how Calvin would have responded to the “L” of TULIP, as this came to be understood by many of the Reformed Orthodox in the 17thC. Louis McBride recently published a helpful post under the title “Was Calvin a Calvinist?” In it he gives us a very interesting selection of citations pertinent to this issue, from Richard Muller’s recent book, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation, in which Muller devotes an entire chapter to this question. Here are the excerpts from that chapter which Louis has kindly shared:
“Answering the perennial question ‘Was Calvin a Calvinist?’ is a rather complicated matter, given that the question itself is grounded in a series of modern misconceptions concerning the relationship of the Reformation to the post-Reformation orthodoxy. I propose here to examine issues lurking behind the question and work through some ways of understanding the continuities, discontinuities, and developments that took place in Reformed thought on such topics as the divine decrees, predestination, and so-called limited atonement, with specific attention to the place of Calvin in the Reformed tradition of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.” (51)
“The question at issue between Calvin and the later Reformed does not entail any debate over the value or merit of Christ’s death: virtually all were agreed that it was sufficient to pay the price for the sins of the whole world. Neither was the question at issue whether all human beings would actually be saved: all (including Arminius) agreed that this was not to be the case. To make the point another way, if ‘atonement’ is taken to mean the value or sufficiency of Christ’s death, only a very few theologians involved in the early modern debates taught limited atonement–and if atonement is taken to mean the actual salvation accomplished in particular persons, then no one involved in those debates taught unlimited atonement (except perhaps the much-reviled Samuel Huber).”(60-61)
“Historically, framed in language understandable in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there were two questions to be answered. First, the question posed by Arminius and answered at Dort: given the sufficiency of Christ’s death to pay the price for all sin, how ought one to understand the limitation of the efficacy to some? In Arminius’ view, the efficacy was limited by the choice of some persons to believe, others not to believe, and predestination was grounded in a divine foreknowledge of the choice. In the view of the Synod of Dort, the efficacy was limited according to the assumption of salvation by grace alone, to God’s elect. Calvin was quite clear on the point: the application or efficacy of Christ’s death was limited to the elect. And in this conclusion there was also accord among the later Reformed theologians.” (60-61)
Muller says the answer to “Was Calvin a Calvinist?’ “is certainly a negative. Calvin was not a “Calvinist”–but then again, neither were the ‘Calvinists.’ They were all contributors to the Reformed tradition.” Is Muller suggesting Calvin didn’t believe in limited atonement? In chapter three Muller deals extensively with the Biblical passages involved in the debate and Calvin’s contributions to them and the theology behind them.
Muller says the terms “limited” and “unlimited atonement” are “rather slippery” (105) and “ought to be avoided, indeed, removed from the historical discussion.” (106) Nonetheless some conclusions can be determined.
“Calvin taught that the value, virtue, or merit of Christ’s work served as sufficient payment for the sins of all human beings, and provided the basis for the divine promise that all who believe will be saved, assuming that believers are recipients of God’s grace and that unbelievers are ‘left without excuse’–as also did, granting different nuancings of the relation of divine intentionality to the value or sufficiency of Christ’s death, Theodore Beza, the Canons of Dort, John Davenant, Pierre Du Moulin, Moïse Amyraut, Francis Turretin, and a host of other often forgotten and sometimes maligned Reformed writers of the next two centuries, among them both particularists and hypothetical universalists. On the other hand, Calvin assumed that Christ’s work, albeit sufficient payment for the sins of the world and for securing the salvation of all human beings in even a thousand worlds, is by divine intention effective for the elect only, as did Beza, Gomarus, Du Moulin, Davenant, Turretin, and in his own way, Amyraut as well. He argued this limitation of efficacy in terms of the limited intercession of Christ, the divine intention and effective will to save only the elect, and the historical limitations of the preaching of the gospel as, he believed, intended by God–again assumptions shared by various particularists and non-Amyraldian hypothetical universalists alike.” (105)
I agree with Muller that the term “limited atonement” is “slippery” and it would be best if we all stopped using it. That is easier said than done, however, because TULIP has become well entrenched in the conversation between Calvinists, as well as between Calvinists and Arminians. It is hard to think of anyone better qualified to address this difficult question than Richard Muller, so I am thankful to Louis for having passed along the essence of what Muller has said on this particular matter in this work.
What Louis has shared from Muller confirms my sense that either double or single intent understandings with regard to the atonement cohere with the Canons of Dort, provided that the single intent is for the salvation of those whom God chooses in Christ, not the single intent to graciously enable everyone to decide how they will respond to God’s initiative (as per Arminius). I am also confirmed in my sense that my current understanding, which has moved me away from the single intent asserted by Turretin and other 17th C Reformed Orthodox theologians, has put me in a position more like Calvin’s.
All of this should make us very careful about describing as “four point Calvinists” people who affirm unconditional election and effectual calling, but who assert that the atonement was robustly sufficient for all, such that anyone could be saved if they were to believe. This understanding best grounds the free offer of the gospel.