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Calvin and Calvinism » Pre- and Post-20th Century Historiography on Calvin on the Extent of the Atonement

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Fundamental to the doctrine of faith in John Calvin (1509-64) is his
belief that Christ died indiscriminately for all men . . . Had not Christ died for all,
we could have no assurance that our sins have been expiated in God’s sight. . . .’1

The evidence that Calvin was a limited redemptionist is far more extensive
than the few quotations offered by writers like Murray and Helm . . . would indicate.
There is . . . a wealth of explicit and unambiguous statements in Calvin to the effect
that Christ died only for the elect. . . .2

‘Well, what was Calvin’s view?’ This is a question. I have frequently been asked when people learn that I studied Calvin’s doctrine of the atonement. They are asking, of course, whether Calvin subscribed to a doctrine of limited atonement, the view that Christ died only to save the elect, or unlimited atonement, the view that he died to save everyone. As the quotations above demonstrate, scholars have strong and contrary opinions on this matter.

I will address Calvin’s view of the extent of the atonement at the beginning of my conclusion for two reasons. First, because there continues to be great interest in the subject. Of the twenty two Calvin sources that I added to the bibliography for this edition, half deal with this issue. Second, I will discuss Calvin on the extent of the atonement, an issue he does not address in the Institutes, because after having dealt with this issue, we will be able to focus on the many things he does address in the Institutes concerning the work of Christ.

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The earlier reformers adopted general language on the subject. They held that “the redemption procured by the death at Christ was, proposed and offered to all, but apprehended by, and applied to, only those who believe.” Melancthon says in his Loci Communes “On the promises of the gospel,” “Reconciliation is offered and promised to all mankind,” and quotes John iii. 16. Calvin, when commenting on this passage says, “He has put an universal mark both that he might invite all, men promiscuously to the participation of life, and that he might leave the unbelieving without excuse.” “He shows himself to be propitious to the whole world, since he calls all without exception to believe in Christ.” On Romans v. 18, he says, “He makes grace common to all, because it is set before all, not because it is actually extended to all, for although Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world, and through the goodness of God is offered to all indifferently, yet all do not apprehend him.” Bullinger, in his 28th sermon, on Revelations v. says, “The Lord died for all; ‘but all are not partakers of redemption, through their own fault.” Zanchius, one of the highest of Predestinarians, says, “It is not false that Christ died for all men as it regards his conditional will, that is, if they are willing to become partaken of his death through faith; for the death of Christ is set before all in the gospel, and no one is excluded from it but it who excludes himself.” In the opinion of Davenant, who was deeply. conversant in that ‘kind of Literature,–the early reformers,–“so explained the ‘doctrine of election and reprobation, that they might not infringe the universality of the redemption accomplished by the death of Christ.’

John Brown (of Broughton), “Notes, Chiefly Historical, on the Question Respecting the Extent of the Reference of the Death of Christ,” United Secession Magazine, June (1841): 286. [Some reformatting; some spelling modernized; and underlining mine.]


Henry John Todd (1763-1845) on Calvin on the Atonement

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The doctrine of UNIVERSAL REDEMPTION is the constant theme of the Church of England. Calvin himself shall here corroborate this testimony of her rejoicing; and Cranmer shall be shown to have been pleased with, and even to have almost literally adopted, the corroboration. Prefixed to the New Testament in French,1 published in 1535, is a preface by Calvin; in which he thus speaks of the coming and office of the Messiah:

Ille, tot retro saeculis exoptatissimus; atque idem ilia orania cumulate praestitit, quse erant ad OMNIUM redemptionem necessaria. Neque vero intra unum Israelem tantum illud beneficium stetit, cum potius ad UNIVERSUM HUMANUM GENUS usque porrigendum esset: Quia per unum Christum UNIVERSUM HUMA.NUM GENUS reconciliandum erat Deo, uti his Novi Foederis tabuhs continetur et amplissime demonstratur.


Ad istam haereditatem (regni paterni scilicet) vocamur OMNES SINE PERSONARUM ACCEPTATIONE, Masculi, Famines, Summi, Infimi, Heri, Servi, Magistri, Discipuli, Doctores, Idiotce, Judcei, Graeci, Galli, Romani. NEMO HINC EXCLUDITUR, qui modo Christum., qualis offertur a Patre in salutem omnium, admittat, et admissum complectatur.

These opinions of Calvin in 1535, Dr. Winchester2 has judiciously observed, might, upon reflection, have taught him more moderation towards those, who differed from his later system. Let us now hear Cranmer fifteen years after him.3

Almighty God, without respect of person, accepteth the oblation and sacrifice of priest and lay person, of kyng and subject, of maister and servaunt) of man and woman, of yonge and olde, yea of English, French, Scot, Greek, Latine, Jewe, and Gentile; of every man according to his faithful and obedient heart unto him, and that through the sacrifice propitiatory of Jesu Christ.”

Henry John Todd, Original Sin, Free-Will, Grace, Regeneration, Justification, Faith, Good Works, and Universal Redemption as Maintained in Certain Declarations of our Reformers (London: Printed for F.C and J. Rivington, 1818), xlvi-xlviii. [Spelling original; some reformatting; footnote values modernise; and footnote content original.] [Note: Todd appears to be a somewhat hostile non-Calvinist.]

[Credit to Tony for the find.]


1The whole Bible was also published in French, in the translation of which Calvin is said to have had a considerable share. It is known by the names of the Olivetan and of the Protestants Bible.

2Dissert, on the 17th Art. p. 16.

3Defence of the True and Catholike Doctrine of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ, &c. made by the most revereude father in God, Thomas, archbyshop of Canterbury, &c. 1550. fol. 1 14,


Samuel H. Cox (1793-1880) on Calvin on the Extent of the Atonement

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26. It is rather surprising to see certain limitarians1 sometimes arrogate to themselves, at least by implication, the honor of exclusive Calvinism, as well as exclusive orthodoxy. They are certainly in an error there, if what Calvin believed and taught may be viewed as the criterion of what Calvinism is. In his institutes of the Christian religion, written (when about 35 years of age) in his theological youth, although they were less express on the point than his subsequent writings, I recollect no sentence which determines any thing in favor of restrictive views of the nature of atonement. In his commentary, which was his maturer work and the rich mine whence many modern writers have taken their second-hand wisdom, and which has never (so far as I know) been rendered into English and published, his sentiments are full, frequent, conclusive, in favor of a full atonement. It may be well to transcribe a few of these. I could easily give more.

1 John, 2: 3, where Christ is said to be “the propitiation–for the sins of the whole world.” Calvin says indeed that “he would not stoop to answer the ravings of those who hence declare all the reprobate and even the devil himself to be the ultimate subjects of salvation. A portion so monstrous deserves no refutation. But others, who have no such purpose, affirm that Christ suffered sufficiently for all men; but efficiently for the elect alone. And this solution of the matter is commonly received in the schools. I question however its relevancy to the present passage, while I confess its absolute truth.” Hence (1) Calvin believed the fulness of the atonement, and made it a part of his Christian confession. (2) Just as obviously is it no modern speculation; since it had obtained in the schools of protestant orthodoxy, even commonly, three hundred years ago. I subjoin his own words. Sed hic movetur quaestio, quomodo mundi totius peccata expientur. Omitto phreneticorum deliria, qui hoc praetextu reprobes omnes, adeoque Satanam ipsum in salutem admittunt: tale portentum refutatione indignum est. qui hane absurditatem volebant effugere, dixerunt; Sufficienter pro toto mundo passum esse Christum: Bed pro eleetis tantum efficaeiter Vulgo haec solutio in scholis obtinuit. Ego quanquam verum esse illud dictum fateor; nego tamen praesenti loco quadrare.

2 Pet. 2:1. “Even denying the Lord that bought them.” He says “those therefore who, despising restraint, have abandoned themselves to all licentiousness, are deservedly said to deny Christ by whom they were redeemed. Moreover, that the doctrine of the gospel may remain safe and entire in our hands, let us fix it in our minds that we have been redeemed by Christ to this very end–that he may be at once the Lord of our life and our death: and so let us propose to ourselves this end, that to him we may live, and to him we may die.” His words are–Qui igitur excusso freno in omnem licentiam se projiciunt, non immerito dicuntur Christum abnegare a quo redempti sunt. Proinde ut salva et Integra evangelii doctrina apud nos maneat, hoc animis nostria infixum sit, tedemptos esse nos a Christo ut vitae simul et mortis nostrae sit Dominus: itaque nobis hunc finem esse propositum ut illi vivamus ac moriaraur.

Rom. 5: 18. “Therefore, as by one offence [sentence came] upon all men unto condemnation, so by the righteousness of one [sentence came] upon all men unto justification of life.” Stuart’s translation. Calvin says, ” The apostle here makes it the common grace of all, because to all it is exhibited, though to all it is not realized in eventual fact. For although Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world, and to all without discrimination is he offered by the benignity of God, yet all men do not apprehend him.” His words are–Communem omnium gratiam facit,’ quia omnibus exposita est, non quod ad omnes extendatur re ipsa: nam etsi passus est Christus pro peccatis totius mundi atque omnibus indifierenter Dei benignitate offertur, non tamen omnes apprehendunt.

Matt. 26 : 28. “For this is my blood of the new testament, [covenant], which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” He says, “Under the word many Jesus Christ designates not a part of the world only but the total human race. Therefore, when we approach ‘the table of the Lord, not only should this general thought occur to our mind, that the world has been redeemed by the blood of Christ, but each for himself ought to consider that his own sins have been expiated.” I give his words. Sub multorum nomine non partem mundi tantum designat sed totum humanum genus. Ergo dum ad suam mensam accedimus, non solum haec generalis cogitatio in mentem veniat, iredemptum Christi sanguine esse mundum; sed pro se quisque reputet peccata sua expiata esse.

Samuel H. Cox, Quakerism Not Christianity: Or, Reasons for Renouncing The Doctrine of Friends (New York: Printed by D. Fanshaw, 1833), 665-666. [Italics original; some reformatting; footnote value and content mine; and underlining mine.]


1“Limitarian” was a 19th century term used by some writers to denote proponents of limited atonement. See for example, Welsh’s use of the same here.


George Payne (1781-1848) on Calvin on the Extent of the Atonement

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On the other hand, let us contemplate the state of the ease, as it must have existed, had there been any limitation in the sufficiency of tl)e atonement itself–had Christ so died for some men only, as that his death would have been incompetent to the salvation of all men. In that case there would have been an obvious difference in the conduct of God, as moral governor, in relation to individuals involved in the same condemnation. The sentiment opposed supposes that the original lapse of the species” was followed by no new and merciful dispensation,–by no “accepted time,” during which God will hear the supplication of all who implore mercy in the name of his Son,–and, at the expiration of which, will render to all, in his rectoral character, according to their reception or rejection of the salvation which had been exhibition to them;–but that, without the intervention of any such dispensation,–a dispensation which might afford an opportunity for a difference of final state being awarded according to the rules of moral government,–many are left to suffer the sentence of the law which all have broken, while others, guilty of the same crime, are pardoned.

Though we do not admit human authority in religion, it may be well to remember that the sentiments which I have expressed in reference to the sufficiency of the atonement, have been held by individuals whose praise is in all the churches. I refer to a few, beginning with Calvin himself; for it is his final opinion on this point which is to be regarded as his real opinion. In his Exposition of the holy Scriptures, written Subsequently to his Institutes, he says, with reference to Matt. xxvi. 28, “Sub multorum nomine non partem mundi tantum designat, sed totum humanum genus.” Again, on Rom. v. 18, Communem omnium gratiam facit, quia omnibus exposita est, non quod ad omnes extendatur re ipsa. Nam etsi passus est Christus pro peccatis totius mundi, atque omnibus indifferenter, Dei benignitate offeretur; non tamen omnes apprehendunt.” In his last will, also, drawn up by himself about a month before his death, he refers to the blood of Christ, and adds, that it was “effuso pro humani generis peccatis.”

George Payne, Lectures on Divine Sovereignty, Election, the Atonement, Justification, and Regeneration (London: James Dinnis, 62, Paternoster Row, 1838), 219-220. [Some spelling modernized and underlining mine.]

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