[Notes: The following is an extract from Tony Lane’s article ‘The Quest for the Historical Calvin.” While Lane specifically addresses Calvin here (which is very insightful in and of itself), this quotation is useful in that Lane addresses a secondary question regarding the oft alleged false dilemma regarding the atonement. Lastly, for formatting, I have retained the footnote values from the source article. For John Calvin’s view of the extent of the atonement, see Over the counter viagra.]


On what grounds is it claimed that Calvin believed in limited atonement? First, he held to the efficacy of the cross. It is the ‘effectual completion of salvation.’22But in the context this implies that the work of salvation is objectively accomplished by the cross and Calvin later makes it clear that this is of no we to us unless the Holy Spirit apply it to us personally. ‘So long as we are without Christ and separated from him, nothing which he suffered and did for the salvation of the human race is of the least benefit to us.’23 Calvin does not appear to be taking the Calvinist line that the cross itself guarantees the subjective appropriation of salvation by the elect. Secondly, it is argued that the logic of Calvin’s position demands limited atonement.24 But to deduce such a doctrine by logical extrapolation is to indulge in speculation beyond what is revealed, to which Calvin was vigorously opposed. Furthermore, such deductions are based on one aspect only of Calvin’s teaching, the particular or limited aspect, while there is also a universal aspect in his teaching.25 Logical deductions from the latter aspect could equally lead to a doctrine of universal atonement. Thirdly, it is argued that because only the elect are saved and because Christ’s death procures salvation, Christ died for the elect alone.26 But this overlooks the distinction, noted above, between the objective work of Christ and the subjective application of it by the Holy Spirit. Similarly, the advocates of limited atonement love to pose the dilemma: does the work of Christ merely make salvation possible, without making certain the salvation of anyone, or does it effectually guarantee the salvation of the elect, for whom alone Christ died? Calvin’s position is well summarized by the retort of Professor James Torrance: our salvation is made certain, not merely possible, by the combined work of Father, Son and Holy Spirit ( i.e. not by the cross alone, taken in isolation). Fourthly, it is argued that many ‘universal’ statement in Calvin are either quotation from Scripture or reference to the universal call of the gospel.27 But Calvin presumably agreed with scriptural passages which he quoted and he based the universal offer of the gospel on the revealed will of God that he desires the salvation of all.

Extracted from: Tony Lane, “The Quest for the Historical Calvin,” Evangelical Quarterly 55 (1983): 100-101.


22Inst . 2.16.13, cited by P. Helm, art. cit., 180f. Cf. R. Nicole, op. cit., 19.

23Inst. 3.1.1, my italics.

24W. R. Godfrey, art. cit., 137f.: P . Helm, art. cit.. 18-22, where the argument concerns more what Calvin ought to have believed; R. Nicole, op. cit., 18.

25Cf. section III.3, below.

26P. Helm. op. cit., 16-18.

27W. R. Godfrey, art. cit., 137f.; R. Nicole, op. cit., 20.

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One comment


Here is another example of a false-dilemma fallacy. This mode of argument is so common and sometimes the most vulnerable to counter-challenge, and yet a lot of argumentation is based on this mode of objection.

Christ either died merely to make men savable, or he died to effect the infallible salvation of the elect.

This is an argument that works like this: It’s either A or B. Not A, therefore B.

Why these sorts of false-dilemma arguments are so vulnerable is that they are based on reductionism and caricature. They posit only two options, as if it’s either/or. However, if there is a C, a tertius quid, it becomes a matter of both-and, or something else entirely.

It has been my experience that many who posit simplist either/ors will then dig in their heels and just refuse to allow a place for the tertius quid. But either/or arguments generally lose their “efficacy” before others as soon as the qualification is tabled.

I should add, tho, many who first table a false-dilemma fallacy will probably try to sustain it by positing secondary entailment arguments or slippery-slope arguments. But more often than not, I have not seen these as successful either.

Take care,

July 29th, 2008 at 9:12 am

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