Curt Daniel on Calvin and Heshusius

   Posted by: CalvinandCalvinism   in Historiography


“We now come to another important quotation from Calvin. This is the ‘very explicit denial of the universality of the atonement’ to which Cunningham appeals as the only example he could find.[1] In a refutation of the Lutheran writer Heshusius on the true partaking of the Lord’s body at the Supper, Calvin offers this argument:

But the first thing to be explained is, how Christ is present with the unbelievers, as being the spiritual food of souls, and, in short, the life and salvation of the world. And as he adheres so doggedly to the words, I should like to know how the wicked can eat the flesh which was not crucified for them? and how they can drink the blood which was not shed to expiate their sins? I agree with him, that Christ is present as a strict judge when his supper is profaned. But it is one thing to be eaten, and another to be a judge. . . . Christ, considered as the living bread and the victim immolated on the cross, cannot enter any human body which is devoid of his Spirit.[2]

We cannot ignore this example, as Davenant, Morison, Douty and Kendall do.[3] Several options are open to us at the outset. First, this paragraph could teach limited atonement. If so, then either Calvin contradicts his other statements espousing Universal atonement (perhaps without knowing it) or has changed his views on the subject.[4] After all, differences and changes are not entirely without example in Calvin. The tract was written in 1561, a late work. The second option is that affirmed by Cunningham and A.A. Hodge. They feel that this proves that Calvin did not teach Universal atonement. The ‘vague and indefinite statements’ about the atonement written in ‘a more unguarded manner’[5] must be interpreted in the light of this one explicit statement. Calvin’s other statements are then interpreted as Particularist. The third option is that the quotation above does not teach Particularism, though Calvin elsewhere teaches it. The fourth option is that neither in this place nor anywhere else does Calvin assert limited atonement. We seek to prove that the last option is the correct one.

We need not go into much depth on Calvin’s views of the Supper, for that has been done by others at considerable length.[6] We do not have access to the original propositions of Heshusius, but they can be deduced from what Calvin says in reply.

Being a Lutheran, Heshusius taught consubstantiation. This means that all who eat the bread and drink the wine at the Table do actually eat and drink Christ, for Christ is really present in, with and under the elements. Calvin, of course, does not accept Christ’s presence at the Table in this way. Christ is spiritually present, says Calvin, and therefore linked with the Word rather than with the elements. This is what Calvin is seeking to prove in the tract. Since Christ is present only in a spiritual sense, He is eaten only in a spiritual sense. And that spiritual eating is done by faith alone. No man truly eats (receives) Christ except through faith.[7] Unbelievers therefore do not eat Christ at all. They are, however, judged by Christ at the Table for their lack of faith. Their judgement for daily lack of faith is compounded when they partake of the elements because the Sacrament is the ultimate expression of personal communion between a believer and his Lord. An unbeliever pretending to be a believer thus insults Christ Himself. Christ certainly is present at the Table but He judges unbelievers because of their unbelief, not because they eat the elements and Himself.

Other passages in Calvin’s work bear special relevance to the interpretation of the passage in question. One is in the Institutes. There Calvin deals with the question of unbelievers ‘eating Christ’: ‘However, I should like to know from them how long they (the wicked) retain it (the true body of Christ) when they have eaten it’.[8] Note the same introductory phrase, ‘I should like to know. . . .’ In the Institutes quotation, what follows the introductory phrase is something that Calvin denies–that the wicked actually eat and retain Christ. He is not accepting that the wicked actually eat and retain Christ; the inquiry is rhetorical. We feel, therefore, that the instance with Heshusius must be interpreted as parallel in form and content.[9] In the Institutes quotation, the second clause (that the wicked eat and retain Christ) is asserted by the protagonist; in the Treatise quotation the second clause (that the wicked eat the flesh which was not crucified for them) is asserted by Heshusius, not by Calvin.

When Calvin says that Heshusius ‘adheres so doggedly to the words’, he refers to the Lutheran exegesis which interprets literally Scriptures like ‘Take, eat, This is my body’, (Matt. 26:26) and the verses in John 6 (esp. vss. 35, 51, 53, 54, 55, 56). It is on the basis of this literalising that Heshusius asserts that even the wicked eat Christ. But Calvin does not interpret these verses literally but spiritually. What Calvin is denying is that these verses are interpreted literally and that the wicked eat Christ. He is not denying that the flesh of Christ was crucified for the wicked. Lutherans such as Heshusius, of course, did not deny Universal atonement. Something else, therefore, is being said about the atonement and those for whom Christ died.

Cunningham probably wishes to insert a comma after ‘flesh’, viz.: ‘I should like to know how the wicked can eat the flesh, which was not crucified for them’. This would make a subordinate clause with a separate assertion, as if there were possibly two sentences: ‘. . . how the wicked can eat the flesh. The flesh was not crucified for them’. But that is not what Calvin is saying. This punctuation would make it more probable that it was Calvin who was making the assertion in the second clause of the inquiry. But we have argued that this clause belongs to Heshusius. What then is he saying?

To answer this we turn to another important parallel. In his Commentary on I. Cor. 11:24, Calvin notes:

. . . the Supper is a mirror which represents Christ crucified to us, so that a man cannot receive the Supper and enjoy the benefits, unless he embraces Christ crucified.[10]

Here Calvin says that true eating is dependent upon embracing Christ crucified. Often he defines this as believing that Christ was crucified for oneself. For instance:

For it is not enough that Jesus Christ suffered in His person and was made a sacrifice for us; but we must be assured of it by the Gospel; we must receive that testimony and doubt not that we have righteousness in Him, knowing that He has made satisfaction for our sins. [11]

Calvin says the same thing in his comments on Mark 14:24, which describes the Last Supper:

So when we come to the holy table not only should the general idea come to our mind that the world is redeemed by the blood of Christ, but also each should reckon to himself that his own sins are covered.[12]

Calvin says that the faith which truly partakes of Christ’s body at the Table is the same faith which justifies.[13] This faith is grounded in the Gospel and the atonement. We are to renew that faith at the Table by faith in the Word about the cross. This means that we again believe that Christ satisfied for our sins and thereby covered them. This is embracing Christ crucified: believing that Christ died for us. Without this faith, there is no true partaking at the Table. This is contrary to the Particularist theory. Particularism denies that saving faith believes that Christ was crucified for oneself; consequently it further denies that this conviction is necessary for the true partaking of Christ at the Table. This represents a radical departure from Calvin on the Sacrament of the Supper.

We would paraphrase the words in the Treatise quotation as follows: ‘I should like to know how the wicked can eat the flesh of Christ if they do not believe that Christ was crucified for them’. It is Heshusius, not Calvin, who claims that a person can truly eat without this faith. This is not to make Heshusius a Particularist. Not at all. But Heshusius and Particularists share the conviction that one need not believe that Christ was crucified for oneself in order to partake truly of the Supper and Christ.

What about Calvin’s words here about the Spirit? How do we explain them? Calvin is simply saying that there is no true eating without the Spirit within oneself, for the plain reason that there is no faith without the Spirit. This is also brought out in the Commentary on I Cor. 11:27. There Calvin argues that without the Spirit, no one truly eats Christ.[14] Some weak believers eat unworthily but they still do eat, for even weak believers have the Spirit and are united to Christ. [15] The wicked may have historical faith that Christ died but this is not enough truly to partake of Christ. But this is not disputed by Cunningham.

Cunningham’s only support, then, actually teaches the very opposite. Calvin taught that one must believe that Christ died for oneself and that the only way we can know this is for the Gospel to tell us. Though the Gospel does not specify individuals (this man or that man) or particular men, it does say that Christ died for all men. The believer knows that he is a man and therefore that Christ died for him. Saving faith accepts this. The conclusion is that without a Universal atonement no man can know by the Gospel that Christ died for him. In this sense we can agree with Kendall’s introductory sentence to his first chapter: ‘Fundamental to the doctrine of faith in John Calvin (1509–64) is his belief that Christ died indiscriminately for all men.’”[16]

Relevant sources from Dr. Daniel’s Bibliography

Barclay, Alexander The Protestant Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. Glasgow, 1927.

Bell, Merton Charles, Jr., Saving Faith and Assurance of Salvation in the Teaching of John Calvin and Scottish Theology. Ph.D. thesis, Aberdeen University, 1982.

Calvin, John, Letters of John Calvin. 4 vols. Edited and translated by Jules Bonnet. New York, 1858, 1972.

Calvin, John, Tracts and Treatises. With a short life of Calvin by Theodore Beza. 3 vols. Translated by Henry Beveridge. Edited by Thomas F. Torrance. Grand Rapids, 1958. See pp. 215 – 216 below from Calvin’s other works cited.

Cunningham, William, The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation. Edinburgh, 1862, 1967.

Doyle, Robert Colin, The Context of Moral Decision Making in the Writings of John Calvinthe Christological Ethics of Eschatological Order. Ph.D. thesis, Aberdeen University, 1981.

Helm, Paul, Calvin and the Calvinists. Edinburgh, 1982.

Hodge, Archibald, A., The Atonement. London, 1868.

Kuiper, R.B., For Whom Did Christ Die? Grand Rapids, 1959.

Lane, A.N.S. ‘Calvin’s Doctrine of Assurance’, Vox Evangelica, vol. XI, 1979, pp. 32–54.

Strong, Augustus Hopkins, Systematic Theology. Philadelphia, 1907.

Wallace, Ronald S., Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament. Edinburgh, 1953.

Source: Curt Daniel, Hyper-Calvinism and John Gill (Ph.D. diss., University of Edinburgh, 1983), p. 817–823. The above extract is taken from: R. T. Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649, (Oxford: Paternoster Press, 1977), 231-238.


[1] Reformers, p. 396. This is probably one of the ‘explicit statements’ Engelsma refers to without quoting (p. 75). After stating that ‘This is a very explicit denial of the universality of the atonement,’ Cunningham adds ‘But it stands alone-so far as we know-in Calvin’s writings, and for this reason we do not found much upon it’ (Reformers, p. 396). This seems to contradict what he said earlier on the same page: ‘We do not find in Calvin’s writings explicit statements as to any limitation in the atonement, or the number of those for whom Christ died’. And later on the same page: ‘He has not usually given any distinct indication, that he believed in any limitation as to the objects of the atonement’. Some critics might be forgiven for supposing that it is Cunningham and not Calvin who fails to give distinct and consistent affirmation on the subject in question. Note further that in dismissing Daille’s evidence he castigates him with respect to ‘consistency’ (p. 401). The quotation is mentioned in Lane, p. 30; A A Hodge, The Atonement, p. 360; Helm, Calvin, p. 21; Letham, vol. I, p. 126; Bell, pp, 15-17; and others. It strikes us as very strange indeed that those such as Cunningham could search so widely among the many writings of Calvin-as we assume they have-and can only produce this solitary quotation which, from their point of view, is obscure at best. Cunningham may sense the embarrassment of this difficult situation by confessing that it stands alone and should not weigh for much. It would be stronger still if in fact this is the only hint at all in which Calvin touches on the whole }softlinequestion of extent. This is why we again stress the absolute importance of repeated, explicit quotations. Surely to argue on the basis of this solitary quote, no matter what it means, against the flood of the rest of the testimony is precarious at best.

[2] We quote from the Tracts and Treatise (CTS edition), vol. II, p. 527. This was the translation available to Cunningham and Hodge, although the former quotes the Latin and the latter offers what seems to be his own translation. Lane and Helm refer to the more recent translation in J.K.S. Reid, Theological Treatises, p. 285.

[3] Kendall briefly refers to Cunningham’s article but has been chided in reviews for failing to discuss this quotation. Cunningham: ‘We do not recollect to have seen it adverted to except by a single popish writer’ (Reformers, p. 396).

[4] Lane seems to imply this (p. 30) as well as Strong (p. 778)-only the latter does so in reverse, that Calvin changed from Particularism to Universalism. In this, Strong is followed by those such as Baker who rely on his evidence, which has been shown to be faulty.

[5] Hodge, The Atonement, pp. 359 – 360. Cf. Helm, Calvin, p. 13. Is it possible that Calvin’s ‘unguarded manner’ is due to his less Scholastic approach? Kendall and others contend that Particularist Calvinists rely on Scholastic logic. Crisp’s bold style is certainly not Scholastic; we feel that it has more in common with that of Luther and that of Calvin. See Chapter 11 above.

[6] Three notable studies should be consulted; McDonnell, John Calvin, the Church and The Eucharist; Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament; and Barclay, The Protestant Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. See also the relevant sections in the biographies and general studies of Calvin. Fortunately, Calvin himself wrote at length on the subject, so the researcher has a plethora of material to study.

[7] Cf. Institutes, IV, 17, 33; Comm on John 6, etc. Though we eat Christ by faith, faith itself is not the eating (Comm on John 6:35), for ‘spiritually to eat the flesh of Christ is something greater and more excellent than to believe’ (Tracts and Treatises, vol. II, p. 553) and ‘eating differs from faith, inasmuch as it is an effect of faith’ (ibid., p. 283).

[8] IV, 17, 33. In at least two other places in his works Calvin uses this phrase ‘I should like to know’ with reference to the Supper. ‘I should like to know to what end Christ invites us to partake of his flesh and blood in the Supper, if it be not that he may feed our souls’ (Tracts and Treatises, vol. II, p. 378). Note that the second clause includes what Calvin denies (‘if it be not . . .’). Later he says this: ‘I should like to know whether, according to them, this communion belongs indiscriminately to unbelievers as well as to believers’ (ibid., p. 415). Again he rejects what is in the query, for Calvin holds that the communion belongs only to believers.

[9] In the Treatises quotation, Battles/Reid correctly omit the question mark which the CTS translator inserts. Both are, in fact, sentences which are rhetorical enquiries. Recognizing the form of the construction, we feel, is vital. For example, Alan Clifford (in private correspondence) exegetes the passages differently from ourselves while denying that the passage restricts the atonement in the way thought by Cunningham and Helm. Clifford feels that the clause ‘as he adheres so doggedly to the words’ means that ‘the flesh’ in the second clause refers to the literal element in the Supper rather than that which was crucified for them. He paraphrases the passage thus: ‘If our Lord’s words are to be taken literally, are we to imagine that the actual bread and the actual wine about which he spoke were crucified? How can the wicked (or anyone else for that matter) eat that “blood” since the elements themselves were not “crucified” for their sins. Christ himself was crucified for them, not the symbolic elements.’ Clifford sees the debate at this juncture as centering around Consubstantiation rather than faith, if we understand him rightly. There is something to be said for his interpretation, but we feel it does not do full justice to the rhetorical construction, the flow of Calvin’s argument, or the parallel passages. Doyle seems to follow our interpretation: ‘Calvin is using a stunning piece of hyperbole, which for its potency depends, in turn, on a belief in a universal scope of the atonement’ (p. 277). And yet Doyle hesitates on this, adding that this is a ‘blunt denial’ that Christ died for the wicked and that ‘here Calvin flatly contradicts himself, perhaps due to the heated and protracted nature of the controversy he is conducting with Heshusius’ (pp. 276-277). Unfortunately, Doyle does not elaborate his views. Bell also thinks that this is hyperbole (p. 17).

[10] Comm on I Cor. 11:24. Cf. Kendall, p. 18. The mirror motif is prominent in Calvin’s works. Christ is the mirror of God and man; only through Christ does man know God and thereby know himself. Christ is the mirror of election, therefore He is also the pledge of salvation (Predestination, p. 127). He is also the mirror and pledge of divine love and grace (Comm on John 15:9) and the Gospel is the mirror in which we see Christ (Letters, vol. III, p. 23). Hence, one knows Christ and God through the Gospel but this faith must include the persuasion ‘Christ died for me’ because the mirror also shows us ourselves. The supper is, as it were, a visible picture of the Gospel and therefore true partaking includes faith that Christ died for oneself. ‘Now our heavenly Father, to succour us in this, gives us the Supper as a mirror, in which we may contemplate our Lord Jesus Christ, crucified to take away our faults and offences’ (Tracts and Treatises, vol. II, p. 168). And ‘the Supper is given us as a mirror in which we may contemplate Jesus Christ crucified in order to deliver us from condemnation’ (ibid., p. 169). Similarly, ‘the Supper is a solemn memorial of the redemption which has been purchased for us’ (ibid., p. 210). Since redemption is by grace, the sacraments are ‘mirrors in which we may contemplate the riches of the grace which God bestows upon us’ (Institutes, IV, 14, 6).

[11] Sermons on Isaiah, p. 117 (cf. pp. 128, 131). See also Comm on John 3:16, ‘faith embraces Christ with the efficacy of His death’. Similarly, Sermons on Deuteronomy, p. 299. See chapter IX, Section C and below.

[12] Comm on Mark 14:24. Note the explicit Universalism (see above). The Commentary on the parallel in Matt. 26:26 adds little to our discussion at this point except to reaffirm that true eating is by faith. Cf. Sermons on Galatians, pp. 106-107.

[13] The faith of justification is ‘not doubting but that our sins are forgiven us for our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake’, with special reference to the atonement, meaning faith that says ‘I believe in Christ who died for me’ (Sermons on Deuteronomy, p. 167). The Roman Catholic error of justification is reflected in its wrong view of the Supper and its statements about faith and the atonement. The Mass re-crucifies Christ and thereby rejects the only atonement. Faith, therefore, becomes impossible because the Mass is substituted for the atonement. ‘By means whereof the death and passion of our Lord Jesus Christ was utterly defaced, in spite of the redemption that he had wrought. Inasmuch that if it be admitted that Jesus Christ was sacrificed daily; it is all one to reject the benefit that was purchased us by his death and passion’ (Sermons on Deuteronomy, p. 311).

[14] Also: ‘Indeed the death of Christ was death for the whole world, and that is surely supernatural’ (Comm on Heb. 8:2). Christ is portrayed in the Supper, therefore ‘We maintain that in the sacrament Christ is eaten in no other way but spiritually’ (Tracts and Treatises, vol. II, p. 374). In order for one to eat spiritually one must have the Holy Spirit. Calvin therefore rebukes those who ‘insist that Christ is received by the wicked, to whom they do not concede on particle of the Spirit of Christ’ (ibid., p. 234). And in a nearly exact parallel to the passages in dispute, Calvin again stresses the place of the Spirit: ‘And in fact it were grossly absurd to hold that Jesus Christ is received by those who are entire strangers to him, and that the wicked eat his body and drink his blood while destitute of his Spirit. . . . Their offence then is that they rejected Christ when he was presented to them’ in the Gospel (ibid., p. 158). They eat unworthily not because they eat elements which portray what was not crucified for them, but because they do not have the Spirit, because they do not believe that Christ was crucified for them, and because they do not believe the Gospel. Cf. Institutes, IV, 17, 33.

[15] Union to Christ is vital to true partaking, for it is associated with believing that Christ died for oneself (cf. Gal. 12:20). Calvin explains: ‘We confess that the holy supper of our Lord is a testimony of the union which we have with Jesus Christ, inasmuch as not only he died and rose from the dead for us, but also truly feeds and nourishes us with his flesh’ (Letters, vol. III, p. 376). Also, ‘under the symbols of bread and wine an exhibition of the body and blood of Christ is held forth; and we are not merely reminded that Christ was once offered on the cross for us, but that sacred union is ratified to which it is owing that his death is our life’ (Tracts and Treatises, vol. II, p. 574). This principle is shown in the reverse in the example of Judas. He was at the Supper and ate the elements but he did this wickedly because he was never in union with Christ, neither did he truly believe in Him. Therefore Judas did not feed on Christ, as Peter did. Most Particularists deny that Judas was at the Table (see Chapter IX), but Calvin explicitly says that he was (e.g., Tracts and Treatises, vol. II. pp. 93, 234, 297, 370-371, 378; Comm on Matt. 26:21, John 6:56). Kuiper mentions that Calvin felt that Judas was there but not in union with Christ, but Kuiper fails to see the problem (For Whom Did Christ Die?, p. 66). The problem for Particularists is that at the Supper Christ said, ‘This is my body, which is broken for you’. If Judas was there, Christ therefore said that He died for him. And if He died for Judas, then it was not for the elect alone, for Judas was not elect. But this was no problem for Calvin. Luther, another Universalist, also held that Judas was present. But Bucer questions this, adding that in any case the words of the ‘Bold Proclamation’ did not apply to Judas. See Common Places, pp. 330-332; and chapter IX above.

[16] Kendall, p. 13. Kendall’s study on Calvin and the atonement is very brief but it is the first chapter of what has proven to be a very controversial book. Yet evidently he saw some of the implications of Calvin’s doctrines of faith and assurance which we have investigated in this paper.

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