“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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