The question at issue between Calvin and the later Reformed does not entail any debate over the value or merit of Christ’s death: virtually all were agreed that it was sufficient to pay the price for the sins of the whole world. Neither was the question at issue whether all human beings would actually be saved: all (including Arminius) were agreed that this was not to be the case. To make the point another way, if “atonement” is taken to mean the value or sufficiency of Christ’s death, no one taught limited atonement — and if atonement is taken to mean the actual salvation accomplished in particular persons, then no one taught unlimited atonement (except perhaps the much-reviled Samuel Huber).

Historically, framed in language understandable in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there were two questions to be answered. First, the question posed by Arminius and answered at Dort: given the sufficiency of Christ’s death to pay the price for all sin, how ought one to understand the limitation of its efficacy to some? In Arminius’ view, the efficacy was limited by the choice of some persons to believe, others not to believe, and predestination was grounded in a divine foreknowledge of the choice. In the view of the Synod of Dort, the efficacy was limited according to the assumption of salvation by grace alone, to God’s elect. Calvin was quite clear on the point: the application or efficacy of Christ’s death was limited to the elect. And in this conclusion there was also accord among the later Reformed theologians.

Second, there was the question implied in variations of formulation among sixteenth-century Reformed writers and explicitly argued in a series of seventeenth century debates following the Synod of Dort, namely, whether the value of Christ’s death was hypothetically universal in efficacy. More simply put, was the value of Christ’s death such that, it would be sufficient for all sin if God had so intended — or was the value of Christ’s death such that if all would believe all would be saved. On this very specific question Calvin is, arguably, silent. He did not often mention the traditional sufficiency-efficiency formula; and he did not address the issue, posed by Amyraut, of a hypothetical or conditional decree of salvation for all who would believe, prior to the absolute decree to save the elect. He did frequently state, without further modification, that Christ expiated the sins of the world and that this “favor” is extended “indiscriminately to the whole human race.” Various of the later Reformed appealed to Calvin on both sides of the debate. (Only a very few writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth century argued that Christ’s death was sufficient payment only for the sins of the elect.) Later Reformed theology, then, is more specific on this particular point than Calvin had been — and arguably, his somewhat vague formulations point (or could be pointed) in several directions, as in fact can the formulae from the Synod of Dort.

Richard A. Muller, Was Calvin a Calvinist? Or, Did Calvin (or Anyone Else in the Early Modern Era) Plant the “TULIP”?, (pp., 9-10); (accessed 6 November 2009).

[Notes: 1) Muller’s point here supports and echoes my earlier comments here, namely: “Dort’s contention is against those who teach that Christ died for all men equally, such that he died for no man effectually or especially. Dort denies that proposition. Nowhere in Dort does one find a denial of an unlimited aspect to the expiation and redemption (as taught by the classic Patristic, Medieval and Reformation fathers). The theology of Luther, Zwingli, Bullinger, Musculus, Calvin, Vermigli and countless others is not precluded by Dort.” 2) We can now supplement that comment by noting Muller’s point that Dort’s dispute was over the efficacy of the expiation. 3) Thus both the Davenantian/Amyraldian and Owenic constructions (with their underlying theologies) of the Sufficiency-Efficiency formula are consistent with Dort. On this, see Muller’s other pertinent comments here.]

This entry was posted on Friday, November 6th, 2009 at 7:58 am and is filed under Reformed Confessions and the Extent of the Atonement. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.

One comment


Nice post . . . very enlightening.

November 6th, 2009 at 2:50 pm