Brief Thoughts on Calvin’s Extent of the Atonement
In the book, Whosoever Will, Dr. Kevin Kennedy writes an article on the extent of the atonement of Jesus Christ in the thinking of John Calvin. It is a fascinating chapter. The writer does a good job of demonstrating that there is much confusion over whether Calvin taught that the atonement was for only the elect (as Calvinists today teach) or whether he taught that Jesus died for all. He points out that one of his own Frenchmen not too many years after the Synod of Dort, Moise Amyraut, begin to raise questions about whether Calvin would agree with Calvinism that Dort had produced. Amyraut taught unconditional predestination but based upon a universal atonement – a position he claimed was true to Scripture and to John Calvin. Bear in mind that Calvin had been dead for 55 years when the Synod of Dort ruled against Arminianism in 1618-1619. By then much of what was being taught as Calvinism could not have been based on the teachings of John Calvin. Amyraut taught that Calvinism had gone beyond the writings of Calvin.
Other Calvinists have come along who likewise claim that Calvin did not teach a limited atonement. R.T. Kendall wrote a classic book, Calvin and English Calvinism in 1649 in which he argues that Calvin held to an unlimited atonement. Dr. Kennedy did his own dissertation on the subject of Calvin and the atonement and he also argued like Kendall that from the writings of Calvin, it would seem he taught an unlimited atonement.
How do Calvinists handle this? Kennedy points out that they often use logic to answer this. They point out that Calvin held to a view of God’s sovereignty that means He controls and is the cause of all things. Every minute detail of the universe is in direct control and cause from God. God sovereignly choose whom He would save by His sovereign power. Therefore, since Calvin held to this and since he taught that Jesus died as our substitute for sin and to bear the wrath of God, Calvin must have held to a limited atonement since this logically makes sense.
The problem is the writings of Calvin. Dr. Paul Helm, who defends Calvinism’s teaching on limited atonement, acknowledges that Calvin is not easy to nail down when it comes to the atonement. Again, Helm can only use logic as he writes, “Calvin, not being a universalist, could be said to be committed to definite atonement, even though he does not commit himself to definite atonement.”
Kennedy goes on to write that if Calvin did hold to a limited atonement then we should find in his writings him doing what Calvinists today do, building a case for limited atonement by first showing that the passages that seem to imply unlimited atonement (such as the Puritan John Owen’s infamous doing of John 3:16) are meant only for the elect and then secondly, we should find Calvin doing the frequent Calvinist exercise of taking the passages that speak of “the many” (Matthew 20:28) or “the sheep” (John 10:11) and putting them together to build a case that Jesus died only for “the many” and those are “His sheep” or “His people” (Matthew 1:21) or “the Church” (Acts 20:28) instead of the whole world. Instead, Calvin doesn’t do this at all. In fact, he seems to do what those of us who do hold to an unlimited atonement do and that is we look at the bulk of Scripture as teaching that 1) Jesus did die for His people, His sheep, His elect, His church, for Paul the Apostle (Galatians 2:20) but 2) He also died for all that all may be saved through faith in Him (1 Timothy 4:10).
Time nor space does not permit me to list all the references that Kennedy goes through in this chapter directly from Calvin’s works to show that he not only presents a strong unlimited atonement viewpoint but that he even defends himself against those who would say otherwise. My point here is that just as Lutheranism doesn’t always reflect Martin Luther’s teachings and the Methodist Church today largely doesn’t represent John Wesley’s teachings, so I believe that Reformed theology doesn’t reflect clearly the teachings of John Calvin.
I encourage you to get the book and read Kennedy’s chapter. It is well worth your time.