“Four-point” and “five-point” Calvinism defined

Reflecting on Dan’s question regarding my previous post (“Did Calvin affirm ‘limited atonement’?”) and my response to him, I have concluded that my glossary definitions of “four-” and “five-point Calvinism” need revision and a bit of expansion. I am posting those definitions here because I welcome comment on them.

“Five-point Calvinism”

“Five-point Calvinism” is the affirmation of the conclusions of the Synod of Dort. In the past century or so, the 5 points have commonly been referred to by the acronym TULIP, referring to total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints.

With regard to the third of these points, concerning the atoning work of the Son, there were two approaches among the delegates to Dort and a consensus was achieved between them which accommodated both their views. Together, they asserted the universal sufficiency of Christ for all people and its particular effectiveness for the elect.

Dort stated that Christ’s death was “of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world” (Art. III). This grounded the free offer of the gospel “to all persons promiscuously and without distinction.” (Art. V). Although many people do not repent or believe in Christ and “perish in unbelief,”  “this is not owing to any defect or insufficiency in the sacrifice offered by Christ upon the cross, but is wholly to be imputed to themselves” (Art. VI).

Dort also stated that “it was the will of God, that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby he confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation, and given to him by the Father; that he should confer upon them faith, which, together with all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit, he purchased for them by his death” (Art. VIII). (It is at this point that Arminians disagree with Calvinists.)

The two perspectives present at Dort, and incorporated in its Canons, have continued within Calvinism. These can be described as follows:

 1) The atoning work of Christ should be understood in pecuniary terms and it had a single intent. That is to say, Christ died with the single purpose of redeeming the elect, and his death should be viewed as a payment for the sins of those individuals, satisfying the Father’s righteous demands. All for whom Christ died must therefore be saved.

 2) The atoning work of Christ should be understood in judicial terms and it had a double intent. That is to say, Christ died with a purpose concerning the provision of his atoning work and a purpose concerning the application of that work. The first represents the universal sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work, and the second represents the effective application of that work in the salvation of the elect. In this view, the atonement is conceived in judicial (rather than pecuniary) terms. Jesus died to make perfect satisfaction for human sin, bearing the curse of the law and of the Father’s wrath against sinners, so that God can justly vindicate all to whom the benefits of Christ’s death are then applied. In this regard, he died “for all.”

Within Calvinism, proponents of the second (double intent) perspective have frequently been dubbed “four-point Calvinists.” This is historically unjustified and it is both misleading and confusing. The term “four-point Calvinism” should be reserved for those who, like Arminians, affirm a single, universal and provisional, intent for the atonement. These people disagree with Dort’s perspective as enunciated in Article VIII (see above).

“Four-point Calvinism”

“Four-point Calvinism” affirms the T, U, I, and P of TULIP [see “five-point Calvinism”], but it rejects the assertion of the Canons of Dort that “it was the will of God, that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby he confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation’ (Art. VIII). On this issue, it agrees with Arminianism that there was a single intent for the atonement and that it was universal and provisional.

Brief comments

I see my definitions here as an important correction of the common practice of calling “four-point Calvinists” those who completely affirm the Canons of Dort but who follow the double intent perspective.

I am currently convinced that the double intent perspective is actually most true to the wording of the Canons, because it takes most seriously the universal sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work. I further believe that this perspective grows most naturally out of the language of the New Testament. It allows Calvinists to take at face value the universality of biblical texts which speak of Christ’s atoning, redemptive and propitiatory work in universal terms, in keeping with the exegesis of early Reformed theologians such as Zwingli and Calvin himself.

Having been persuaded of Calvinist soteriology by John Murray, I held the single intent perspective for many years. This pushed me to demonstrate that the universal sounding texts actually had more limited reference, as I did in an appendix of Who Can Be Saved? I am not denigrating that work, as though it were totally implausible. I have very high regard for fellow Calvinists who read the texts that way, but I now think that it is unnecessary. A robust affirmation of the universal sufficiency of Christ’s death, in judicial and provisional terms, allows us to read the universal texts most naturally. This will remove an unnecessary stumbling block in our conversation with Arminians, and allow us to focus on the key issue regarding the reason for the effectiveness of Christ’s death in the case of those who believe and are saved.

The big question in my mind is whether “four-point Calvinism” as I have defined it actually exists, at least in clearly articulated theological form. This position looks incoherent to me. Who affirms it? I’ll be keeping my eyes and ears open in days ahead, but I welcome any anecdotes, quotations, testimonies or stories that show actual exemplars of this position.

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20 Responses to “Four-point” and “five-point” Calvinism defined

  1. Stan Fowler says:

    Terry,
    I’m very much in agreement with your fresh definition of terms–thanks for articulating it. I’ve been a dual-intent proponent of particular redemption for some time, for the reasons that you have stated. I concluded a long time ago that almost all who react negatively to “limited atonement” are in reality rejecting unconditional election, and I’ve always tried to steer the discussion to that point. On that point, I’m not sure that there are any 4-point Calvinists as you now define the term. It would seem to be an incoherent position, given the difficulty of affirming a particular intent in God’s eternal purpose and denying a particular intent in the historical outworking of that purpose.

  2. Godismyjudge says:

    Dr. Tiessen,

    I guess I would push back on that definition of 4 point Calvinism just a little, mainly because my instincts tell me some people are 4 point Calvinists.

    Maybe 4 point C involves a conditional divine will. God offers salvation desiring that people accept and be saved. God wants Himself to do something (save us), but He also wants us to do something (accept the offer). The 4 point C could then say for some reason even though God has this desire, He chooses only to save some. That’s an absolute desire and a desire about God’s action alone, not one conditioned on man’s actions. So the 4 point C isn’t denying God intends to effectively apply the atonement to the elect alone – they end up compliant with Dort’s article 8 on the atonement.

    However they probably go against Dort’s rejection of errors point 6: “Who make use of the distinction between obtaining and applying in order to instill in the unwary and inexperienced the – opinion that God, as far as he is concerned, wished to bestow equally upon all people the benefits which are gained by Christ’s death”. So 4 point Calvinism does go against one of Dort’s points.

    In contrast to Dort compliant unlimited atonement, the 4 point Calvinist says God conditionally desires the salvation of all. Put another way, the 4 point Calvinists move past saying “God desires the atonement to be provided for all” to saying “God desires the atonement to be applied to all on the condition of faith”. Maybe a touchstone verse would be John 3:17 – God sent His Son… to save the world through Him. The 4 point C could say this means God conditionally wants to save everyone. The Dort compliant unlimited atonement advocate would either say the world means only elect or that this only means God wants to provide for salvation, but not to end up saving.

    As an illustration, say 3 doctors want to perform implant operations that will revive patients in comas. The first doctor picks 5 of her patents, gets 5 implants ready (though she could get more ready), offers implants to all, but then performs the operation for the 5 she chose. The second doctor, gets enough implants for all her patients, offers implants to all, but then chooses 5 patients and performs the operation. The third doctor gets enough implants for all patients, offers implants to all with the desire that all accept the offer and be revived, but then then chooses 5 patients and performs the operation.

    The first doctor represents “limited atonement”. The second represents “Dort compliant unlimited atonement” and the third “4-pointCalvinism”. I am guessing there are plenty of folks who fit this kind of 4 point Calvinism.

    God be with you,
    Dan

    • Terrance Tiessen says:

      Dan, thank you for responding to my request for clarification of how a 4 point Calvinist position could be formulated. I am having a bit of difficulty conceiving clearly what you describe so perhaps you can help me out.

      I hear you proposing that a 4 point Calvinist affirms the particular divine intention (which keeps this position from simply being Arminianism), but that it goes beyond the robust affirmation of the universal sufficiency of the provision in Christ’s death (which a dual intent 5-point position asserts), to state that God desires everyone to be saved in a conditional way. Do you equate that desire with intention, perhaps as an expansion of the provisional intent? Would you say, for instance, that God provides an atoning sacrifice that is sufficient for the salvation of all human beings, that the effectiveness of the provision is dependent upon appropriation by individuals through faith, and that God intends that everyone will believe?

      If that is your meaning, I don’t see how it goes together with your affirmation that God has eternally intended to effectually apply (i.e., “I”) Christ’s atoning work to those whom he elected (i.e., “U”). Perhaps intends is too strong a word in the last clause, and you want to stick with “desires,” as in “and that God desires that everyone will believe.” But if “desires” has the sense of “God command,” than your position does not differ from dual intent 5-point Calvinism. They too believe that God not only makes an atonement sufficient for everyone to be saved but also that he “commands everyone everywhere to repent of their sins and turn to him” (Acts 17:30). Since you agree with them that God only gives faith to those whom he has chosen in Christ, I don’t yet understand the alternative you are proposing.

      Your illustration of the doctor is not yet helping me to get a handle on your formulation. You wrote: “The third doctor gets enough implants for all patients, offers implants to all with the desire that all accept the offer and be revived, but then chooses 5 patients and performs the operation.” I see the universal sufficiency in the securing enough implants for everyone (which was also true in the dual intention 5 point construct), but I don’t understand your statement that the doctor “offers implants to all with the desire that all accept the offer.” I can see how an Arminian would say this because they insist that God does desire equally for everyone that they appropriate Christ’s work. But, since the doctor who illustrates your 4 point Calvinist then chooses to implant only 5 patients, what does his desire that all will accept the offer mean?

      I hope you can see my problem. I can not put together the universal desire of which you speak with the prior intention not to implant in every case. Arminianism is coherent, and 5 point Calvinism is coherent, but I am struggling to see the coherence in your proposal. Do you see where I am stuck? Can you help me?

      Thanks.

  3. Godismyjudge says:

    Dr. Tiessen,
    I am not sure if this matters, but I am more Molinist than Calvinist.

    Desires is a better word than intends here. And this divine desire is more than a command. It’s more like Paul’s desire not to sin (Romans 7:15) or my desire to eat cake when I am on a diet. If all things were equal, I would act on my desire, but all things are not equal. It’s velleity. And so in a similar sense, God desires Christ’s blood to be applied to the non-elect, but He has a stronger desire for a greater good accomplished by His overall plan.

    Now even an Owens type Calvinist could say God desires that all men believe. But Owens could not say that God desires Christ’s blood be applied to the non-elect. That’s because Christ did not pay the price for their sins, nor was an offering made for them. Since an atonement for the non-elect does not exist, God cannot desire to do something with it.

    God be with you,
    Dan

    • Terrance Tiessen says:

      Thank you, Dan. It is helpful to know your theological location, which indicates that your effort to enunciate a 4 point Calvinist perspective is done from outside that position.

      Your statement (“God desires Christ’s blood to be applied to the non-elect, but He has a stronger desire for a greater good accomplished by His overall plan”) would be affirmed by many Calvinists. It fits well within a Molinist perspective too. I am thinking, for instance, of W. L. Craig’s proposal that God has chosen the optimal world, the one in which the optimal number of people are saved, within the overall good of the world chosen.

      I have liked the suggestion that synergists and monergists both use a form of the “greater good” theodicy. Calvinists and Arminians both believe that God wants everyone to be saved, but there is something he desires more. For Calvinists that is generally identified as God’s own glory, and for Arminians it is libertarian freedom (hence their common appeal to the free will defence).

    • David Maver says:

      Hello Dan,

      ‘Owen type Calvinists’ would not believe that God has conflicting desires and have a particular order of importance but that all His perfections are harmonious.
      There is also no way Owen believed that God ‘desired’ the salvation. In man’s salvation God speaks by will of decree and if God is immutable He would not decree what He never intended.
      I have heard a lot about a ‘third will’ or the will of disposition. However the nature of God is what God is in Himself not what He is in respect to the creature. Therefore when God expresses his nature toward His creature it is no longer a statement about the nature of God but what He wills by way of decree.
      Owen comments;
      ‘They [the Remonstrants] affirm that God is said properly to expect and desire divers things which yet never come to pass. ‘We grant,’ saith Corvinus, ‘that there are desires in God that never are fulfilled,’ Now, surely, to desire what one is sure will never come to pass is not an act regulated by wisdom or counsel; and, therefore, they must grant that before he did not know but perhaps so it might be. ‘God wisheth and desireth some good things, which yet come not to pass,’ say they, in their Confession; whence one of these two things must need follow, —either, first, that there is a great deal of imperfection in his nature, to desire and expect what he knows shall never come to pass; or else he did not know but it might, which overthrows his prescience.’

      and also;

      ‘That God hath any natural or necessary inclination, by his goodness, or any other property, to do good to us, or any of his creatures, we do deny. Everything that concerns us is an act of his free will and good pleasure, and not a natural, necessary act of his Deity, as shall be declared.’

  4. Godismyjudge says:

    Agreed. Libertarian freedom was at least a major part of the greater good God accomplishes in allowing evil.

    God be with you,
    Dan

  5. Dave Emme says:

    If the Remonstrants taught Limited Atonement-would Calvinists?

  6. Don Schell says:

    RE: Godismyjudge (Nov 27, 2012), his affirmation of the sin-bearing sacrifice seems to render irrelevant the idea of “universal sufficiency”. Might it be more apropos of a perfect sacrifice to think in terms of “intrinsic sufficiency”?

  7. Fred Large says:

    My position is very simplistic. First, for Christ’s blood to be sufficient for anyone it must be capable of sufficiency for all. Second, either grace is applied to all, those God chose, or those who choose God. My saying “I chose God” defies salvation being of grace and makes it a work of mine.

  8. Bill says:

    Well, this is an excellent post and really it is something that needs to be heard. The vast majority of confessional reformed theologians today do not support the double salvific intent in the atonement as you outlined it. Even though Paul teaches that Christ is the savior of all men (universal saving grace) but especially of those who believe (the application of this universal saving grace), 1 Timothy 4:10 . With that said myself coming from a lutheran perspective I consider biblical the double intent view of the Reformed, which I think Calvin and Ursinus held as well. However those in the reformed camp that hold to the single intent I would consider them in error.

    That clarified. From a lutheran point of view I do not see a need for a double intent on the atonement, I think it is sufficient to say that Christ died for all sinners, as John 3:16 teaches. The universality of the atonement should not be watered down, its universal grace is universal, and not particular to the elect. With that said the application of that grace through the preaching of the gospel is particular, not everyone believes. But Christ’s death on the cross, is an objective work and it was for all men, so that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but will have everlasting life. Lutherans call it objective justification and it is universal, there is no double intent, it was for all men. Christ died equally for Peter and Judas, for Moses and Pharaoh. The holy spirit then applies this salvation through the preaching of the word in a subjective manner to the elect alone. In lutheranism this is called subjective justification (which occurs when a sinner receives the objective justification won by Christ on the cross by faith).

    So redemption accomplished (the atonement in John Murray’s language) is universal for every man according to lutherans, but redemption applied is particular to the elect when the come to faith.

  9. Bill says:

    Zacharias Ursinus actually held the lutheran view of the atonement. The atonement for Ursinus had a a single purpose, the redemption and atoning of sin of all mankind (every man). For Ursinus the application of the atonement was particular to the elect alone, but the atonement in itself, the blood that Christ shed for the sin of the world, was for both elect and reprobate. I believe Calvin held to that view as well. Unfortunately both Dort and the Westminster confession departed from the biblical view that Ursinus espoused in his commentary on the Heidelberg catechism. See this link here for Ursinus unlimited atonement position as set out in the Heidelberg catechism, which is consistent with lutheranism. Zacharias Ursinus actually held the lutheran view of the atonement. The atonement for Ursinus had a a single purpose, the redemption and atoning of sin of all mankind (every man). For Ursinus the application of the atonement was particular to the elect alone, but the atonement in itself, the blood that Christ shed for the sin of the world, was for both elect and reprobate. I believe Calvin held to that view as well. Unfortunately both Dort and the Westminster confession departed from the biblical view that Ursinus espoused in his commentary on the Heidelberg catechism. See this link here for Ursinus unlimited atonement position as set out in the Heidelberg catechism, which is consistent with lutheranism. http://www.puritanboard.com/f30/heidelberg-catechism-unlimited-atonement-32286/

  10. Andrew says:

    Thank you for your clear explanation. I think I also feel that double intent best fits scripture. Would this be the same as Amyraldism?

    I think I would also say that we need to live and choose as Arminians but believe as Calvinists. The holiness of God comes first, but he seems to also want us to make free-will choices, “choose today who you will serve”, even if the result is always His divine plan.

    The fundamental problem is in our trying to fit God’s unsearchable and unknowable ways into human philosophical systems. This may sound a little wishy-washy, but we can waste a lot of time debating systematic theology when we are supposed to be obeying.

    • Terrance Tiessen says:

      Andrew, my view falls into the same general category as Amyraldianism – often called “hypothetical universalism.” But Amyraldianism was particularly a theory regarding the order of the decrees, and I do not follow Amyraut on this, so I do not class my understanding as Amyraldianism. The difference is probably not that great, however. We both believe that Jesus’ death provided an atonement, propitiation, and expiation sufficient for all the sins of all human beings. But it results in forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemption, only for those who believe or appropriate God’s gracious provision.

    • Bill says:

      Andrew, Amyraldism is one form of unlimited atonement You do not need to be an amyraldian to affirm the double intent in the atonement. It’s better to stay with the Reformed confessions.

      Ursinus commentary on the Heidelberg catechism can be accessed here http://www.seeking4truth.com/ursinus/zutblcont.htm A couple of quotes from the objections to some of the answers I quote below from this commentary I just provided the link to :

      20. Q. Are all men, then, saved by Christ just as they perished through Adam?
      A. No. Only those are saved who by a true faith are grafted into Christ and accept all His benefits.[1]

      Obj. 2. All those ought to be received into favor for whose offences a sufficient satisfaction has been made. Christ has made a sufficient satisfaction for the offenses of all men. Therefore all ought to be received into favor; and if this is not done, God is either unjust to men, or else there is something detracted from the merit of Christ. Ans. The major is true, unless some condition is added to the satisfaction; as, that only those are saved through it, who apply it unto themselves by faith. But this condition is expressly added, where it is said, ” God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16Open in Logos Bible Software (if available).)

      37. Q. What do you confess when you say that He suffered?
      A. During all the time He lived on earth, but especially at the end, Christ bore in body and soul the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race …

      Obj. 4. If Christ made satisfaction for all, then all ought to be saved. But all are not saved. Therefore, he did not make a perfect satisfaction. Ans. Christ satisfied for all, as it respects the sufficiency of the satisfaction which he made, but not as it respects the application thereof; for he fulfilled the law in a two-fold respect. First, by his own righteousness; and secondly, by making satisfaction for our sins, each of which is most perfect. But the satisfaction is made ours by an application, which is also two-fold; the former of which is made by God, when he justifies us on account of the merit of his Son, and brings it to pass that we cease from sin; the latter is accomplished by us through faith. For we apply unto ourselves, the merit of Christ, when by a true faith, we are fully persuaded that God for the sake of the satisfaction of his Son, remits unto us our sins. Without this application, the satisfaction of Christ is of no benefit to us.

    • Bill says:

      Andrew, yes you are right that calvinists when they preach the gospel can affirm everything that arminians affirm (first intent) and more (second intent). There is a double intent as John Piper has discovered, and calvinists can affirm as far as the atonement is concerned everything arminians affirm. This article by the Gospel Coalition summarizes it perfectly, http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2010/06/24/limited-atonement/

    • Bill says:

      Andrew, yes you are right that calvinists when they preach the gospel can affirm everything that arminians affirm (first intent) and more (second intent). There is a double intent as John Piper has discovered, and calvinists can affirm as far as the atonement is concerned everything arminians affirm. Justin Taylor wrote about this at the Gospel Coalition, “A primer on limited (or definite) atonement”. You can google it and read it, it’s a short article. i am not allowed to link, otherwise I would have to save you time.

  11. Baptist Joshua on YouTube says:

    I used to call myself a four point Calvinist, because I did not believe in limited atonement. But then I studied the uses for “atonement” in scripture and learned that the ATONEMENT was definitely for the elect only, and yet other things seem to have been accomplished by his death. I believe his death condemns all men further, even though they are not atoned by it, save the elect alone.

    But here I greatly differ from the 5 point Calvinist: What is commonly called “perseverance” of the saints is wholly unbiblical. That is, the teaching that once you are saved, you will never turn away from God or sink into sin. The Bible is full of examples of Christians doing just so. King Solomon, Jonah(rejecting God’s will), etc. I do believe in Eternal Security. So I name the 5th point of Calvinism as Preservation of the Saints. That is, eternal security. My own Grandfather was a Christian and a Baptist fill in Pastor, and when he got older, he got a copy of the New Scofield notes and believed the lies that there were errors in the King James Version. He turned from God and became an “atheist,” though those of us in the family who knew him knew he was really just angry with God. One thing that really got to him :^) was that he threw away a vacuum cleaner that would not work. I felt bad about it being thrown away because it looked fine, but would not run. I prayed and asked God to fix it, plugged it in, turned it on, and it ran for years! He would regularly send me updates: “Well, I used that prayed for vacuum today.” :^) Being Christians does not make us immune to sin. Christians can turn away.

    • Wm Tanksley says:

      I’m not sure what your point is about Limited Atonement; I definitely don’t agree that the Atonement works to condemn people. I believe the point of John 3 is that God didn’t send His Son to condemn the world; rather, before Christ came people stood condemned, and they remain condemned by the same judgment both before and after rejecting Christ.

      The fifth point as classically understood by Calvin and his followers is precisely as you’ve explained it; the belief you’re arguing against is often called “once saved always saved”, in order to establish the difference. Anyhow, I agree with you there.

      • Baptist Joshua on YouTube says:

        Atonement is reconciliation by the mediation of Christ. His propitiation. So atonement, per se, is limited to the elect. But other things may have been accomplished at his death. His death may serve to further condemn men. E.g. His blood is on their hands. I agree with once saved always saved, which based on my experience means eternally secure. If one is saved, he is saved. He cannot lose his salvation. His adoption happened! He may turn from God but he is still his son. Nothing can undo it. What I disagree with is what is nowadays perhaps incorrectly referred to as “Perseverance of the Saints.” I do not believe that if a person turns away/backslides, that they were NEVER saved. King Solomon did this. King David backslid. Murdered. Lied. Committed adultery. Was willing to allow a Hittite(saved?) to raise his child. Etc. He was saved nonetheless. My own Grandfather was saved, and a former fill in Pastor, but when he was old, turned from God because he believed the Bible to have errors/contradictions. The Bible does not, at least in the originals and King James version. The modern illicit ones do. Thank you for your comments. :^)

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