Christology Soteriology

Did Calvin affirm “limited atonement”?

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)

Louis continues:

 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.


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

5 replies on “Did Calvin affirm “limited atonement”?”

Dr. Tiessen

Good post but this leave me scratching my head a bit as to the difference between so called 4 and 5 point Calvinists. I thought the main difference was in who Christ died for; some Calvinists saying Christ died for all, others saying Christ died for the elect only. Likewise, some Calvinists say passages like John 3 or Hebrews 2:9 related to all kinds of men, but not each individual, whereas others will say such texts are about each individual. Is that incorrect?

While your article here does point out some overlap between 5 point and so called 4 point Calvinism (i.e. both say Christ’s death is sufficient for all, both say God’s decree’s the salvation of the elect alone…), I still see a fundamental difference between these views. Even these statements have different meanings between the two camps. So called 4 pointers say “sufficient for all”, implies Christ actually offered His blood to the Father for all, while 5 pointers say no, but He could have done so. 5 pointers say God’s decree to save only the elect means He does not desire to save the non-elect, whereas 4 pointers say He does.

God be with you,

Thank you for probing this a bit, Dan. I grant that the water is a bit murky and I may be stirring it up rather than clearing it up, but let me pursue this a bit further with you and others who may be “listening” in.

The problem may lie in one’s interpretation of the Canons of Dort. For many years, I followed the lead of John Murray (*Redemption Accomplished and Applied*), who was himself strongly influenced by Francis Turretin, and I considered that position to be “5 point Calvinism.” I defended that position in *Who Can Be Saved?*

The work of Charles Hodge and others led me to my current understanding, during the past year. I spelled that understanding out in an earlier blog post, and you may want to check that out, because I think it spells out what lies behind this shorter post. The key factor in Hodge’s critique of John Owen’s classic statement of the Orthodox understanding is the distinction between a judicial and a pecuniary understanding of Christ’s atoning work. Once Hodge got me over that hurdle, a great number of NT passages made better sense to me.

I realize that many 5 point Calvinists equate “5 point Calvinism” with the position extensively defended by John Owen and neatly restated by John Murray. Anyone who does not take that pecuniary approach, and who posits more than one divine intention for the atonement, has been dubbed “4 point.” I followed that definitional approach myself, for decades. I hear an echo of that pecuniary approach in your own understanding of 5 point Calvinism, which is quite understandable, given the history of this discussion.

What I argued in that earlier post, however, is that 5 point Calvinism should mean agreement with all the articles of Dort. I see myself in agreement with them, in fact more coherently agreement than I was in my Owenist days, and so I believe myself to be a 5 point Calvinist.

As Roger Olson posited, a 4 point Calvinism, by my own definition here, would be incoherent. What would that look like? I think that it would be a “single intent” statement, asserting that God intended (and attempted) to save the whole race, in the sacrifice of his Son. Clearly that does not cohere with the unconditional election and effectual calling, and it disrupts the Trinitarian unity of the divine saving work. But this has not been what people like Bruce Demarest have posited, as I now see, though I had considered Demarest a “4 pointer” previously.

What I suggest is that within the affirmation of Dort’s statement, we find slightly different understandings, both the judicial and the pecuniary approach. But the difference between these is not a difference between 4 and 5 point Calvinists. It is, rather, a discussion of how best to represent God’s intention in Christ’s death, particularly with regard to its accomplishment. So, the issue BETWEEN 5 pointers comes down to whether there was a single or a double intent. By contrast, genuine 4 pointers would assert a single intent which is universal, while continuing to affirm unconditional election. That portrays the Son as trying to accomplish what the Father and the Spirit do not. But who actually does this? There may be theologians doing so but none come to my mind immediately.

Arminians, on the other hand, are coherent. Their assertion with regard to the work of Father, Son and Spirit is coherent. The Father chooses all who believe, the Son dies for everyone conditionally, and the Spirit enables everyone to believe. All three of them are trying to get everyone saved, but leave it up to human beings to make their effort effective or not.

Does that clear the water up at all, Dan?

Dr. Tiessen,

Yep, that makes some sense. Dort should be the gold standard for Calvinism and I can see how you would say this view is in line with Dort (I am sure some Calvinists will disagree – but I can see your case).

And I can see why this view is different than the Arminian view’s of God’s will to save all people that include libertarian freedom in man’s ability to resist.

God be with you,

Calvin taught unlimited atonement. See his commentary on John 1:29 , John 3:16, and Romans 5:18. You see for Calvin the application of the atonement was limited (unconditional election, God creates faith through the work of the Spirit in the elect only when the word is preached) but the atonement itself was unlimited (the work of Christ on the cross was for all sinners, Christ paid the penalty for sin for all sinners). The difference between Calvin and Dort is that for Calvin the atonement precedes election, Christ died for all (all are called) and out of those that Christ died for God chooses a few (few are chosen). For Dort election precedes the atonement, God elects some and then sends his Son to redeem those that he elected. So Calvin and Dort are opposite each other, for Calvin the atonement was unlimited but election was unconditional and limited and only was possible because Christ had atoned for sin first. But for Dort election precedes the atonement, in that God elects some and subsequently atones for their sin.

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