William Cunningham (1805-1861) on Calvin and Heshusius

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III. It has been contended very frequently, and very confidently, that Calvin did not sanction the views which have been generally held by Calvinistic divines, in regard to the extent of the atonement,-that he did not believe in the doctrine of particular redemption, that is, that Christ did not die for all men, but only for the elect, for those who are actually saved,–but that, on the contrary, he asserted a universal, unlimited, or indefinite atonement. Amyraut, in defending his doctrine of universal atonement in combination with Calvinistic views upon other points, appealed confidently to the authority of Calvin; and, indeed, he wrote a treatise entitled, Eschantillon de la Doctrine de Calvin touchant la Pdestination, chiefly for the purpose of showing that Calvin supported his views about the extent of the atonement, and was in all respects a very moderate Calvinist. Daillee, in his Apologia pro duabus Synodis, which is a very elaborate defense, in reply to Spanheim, of Amyraut’s views about universal grace and universal atonement, fills above forty pages with extracts from Calvin in as testimonies in his favour. Indeed, the whole of the last portion of this work of Daillee, consisting of nearly five hundred pages, is occupied with extracts, produced as testimonies in favor universal grace and universal atonement, from almost every eminent writer, from Clemens Romanus down to the middle of the seventeenth century; and we doubt if the whole history of theological controversy furnishes a stronger case of the adduction of irrelevant and inconclusive materials. It was chiefly the surrey of this vast collection of testimonies, that suggested to us the observations which we hare laid before our readers in our discussion of the views of Melancthon.1

It is certain that Beza held the doctrine of particular redemption, or of a limited atonement, as it has since been held by most Calvinists and brought it out fully in his controversies with the Lutherans on the subject of predestination; though he was not, as has sometimes been asserted, the first who maintained it. It has been confidently alleged that Calvin did not concur in this view, but held the opposite doctrine of universal redemption and unlimited atonement. Now it is true, that we do not find in Calvin’s writings explicit statements as to any limitation in the object of the atonement, or in the number of those for whom Christ died; and no Calvinist, not even Dr Twisse, the great champion of high Supralapsarianism, has ever denied that there is a sense in which it may be affirmed that Christ died for all men. But we think it is likewise true, that no sufficient evidence has been produced that Calvin believed in a universal or unlimited atonement. Of all the passages in Calvin’s writings, bearing more or less directly upon this subject,–which we remember to have read or have seen produced on either side,–there is only one which, with anything like confidence, can be regarded as formally and explicitly denying an unlimited atonement; and notwithstanding all the pains that have been taken to bring out the views of Calvin upon this question, we do not recollect to have seen it adverted to except by a single popish writer. It occurs in his treatise De Vera participatione Christi in cœna, in reply to Heshusius, a violent Lutheran defender of the corporal presence of Christ in the eucharist. The passage is this:–Scire velim quomodo Christi carnem edant impii pro huibus non est crncifixg et quomodo sanguinem bibant qui expiandis eorum peccatis non eat effusus.2 This is a very explicit denial of the universality of the atonement. But it stands alone,–so far as we know,–in Calvin’s writings, and for this reason we do not found much upon it; though, at the same time, we must observe, that it is not easy to understand how, if Calvin really believed in a universal atonement for the human race, such a statement could ever have dropped from him. We admit, however, that he has not usually given any distinct indication, that he believed in any limitation as to the objects of the atonement; and that upon a survey of all that has been produced from his writings, there is fair ground for a difference of opinion as to what his doctrine upon this point really was. The truth is, that no satisfactory evidence has been or can be derived from his writings, that the precise question upon the extent of the atonement which has been mooted in more modern times, in the only sense in which it can become a question among mm who concur in holding the doctrine of unconditional personal election to everlasting life, ever exercised Calvin’s mind, or was made by him the subject of any formal or explicit deliverance. The topic was not then formally discussed as a distinct subject of controversy; and Calvin does not seem to have been ever led, in discussing cognate questions, to take up this one and to give a deliverance regarding it. We believe that no sufficient evidence has been brought forward that Calvin held that Christ died for all men, or for the whole world, in any such sense as to warrant Calvinistic universalists,–that is, men who, though holding Calvinistic doctrines upon other points, yet believe in a universal or unlimited atonement,-in asserting that he sanctioned their peculiar principles.

It is true that Calvin has intimated more than once his conviction, that the position laid down by some of the schoolmen, viz.,  that Christ died sufficienter pro omnibus, efficaciter pro electis, is sound and orthodox in some sense. But then he has never, so far as we remember or have seen proved, explained precisely in what sense he held it, and there is a sense in which the advocates of particular redemption can consistently admit and adopt it.3 It is true also, that Calvin has often declared, that the offers and invitations of the gospel are addressed by God, and should be addressed by us, indiscriminately to all men, without distinction or exception; and that the principal and proximate cause why men to whom the gospel is preached finally perish, is their own sin and unbelief in putting away from them the word of life.’ But these are principles which the advocates of particular redemption believe to be true, and to be vitally important’; and which they never hesitate to apply and to act upon. It is quite fair to attempt to deduce an argument in favour of the doctrine of a universal atonement, from the alleged impossibility of reconciling the doctrine of an atonement, limited as to its objects or destination in God’s purpose or intention, with the universal or unlimited offers and invitations of the gospel, or with the ascription of men’s final condemnation to their own sin and unbelief. But as the generality of the advocates of a limited atonement deny that the inconsistency of these two things, or the impossibility of reconciling them, can be proved, and profess to hold both, it is quite unwarrantable to infer, in regard to any particular individual, that because he held the one, he must be presumed to have rejected the other. And there is certainly nothing in Calvin’s general character and principles, or in any thing he has written, which affords ground for the conclusion, that the alleged impossibility of reconciling these two things, would,–had he been led to investigate the matter formally,–have perplexed him much, or have tempted him to embrace the doctrine of universal atonement, which is certainly somewhat alien, to say the least, in its general spirit and complexion, to the leading features of his theological system. And this consideration is entitled to the more weight for this reason, that this difficulty is not greater than some others with which he did grapple, and which he disposed of in a different and more scriptural way,–or rather, is just the very same difficulty, put in a different form, and placed in a somewhat different position.

There is not, then, we are persuaded, satisfactory evidence that Calvin held the doctrine of a universal, unlimited, or indefinite atonement. And, moreover, we consider ourselves warranted in asserting, that there is sufficient evidence that he did not hold this doctrine; though on the grounds formerly explained, and with the one exception already adverted to, it is not evidence which bears directly and immediately upon this precise point. The evidence of this position is derived chiefly from the two following considerations.

1st. Calvin consistently, unhesitatingly, and explicitly denied the doctrine of God’s universal grace and love to all men,–that is, omnibue et singulis, to each and every man,–as implying in some sense a desire or purpose or intention to save them all; and with this universal grace or love to all men the doctrine of a universal or unlimited atonement, in the nature of the case, and in the convictions and admissions of all its supporters, stands inseparably connected. That Calvin denied the doctrine of God’s universal grace or love to all men, as implying some desire or intention of saving them all, and some provision directed to that object, is too evident to any one who has read his writings, to admit of doubt or to require proof. We are not aware that the doctrine of a universal atonement ever has been maintained, even by men who were in other respects Calvinistic, except in conjunction and in connection with an assertion of God’s universal grace or love to all men. And it is manifestly impossible that it should be otherwise. If Christ died for all men,–pro omnibus et singulis,–this must have been in some sense an expression or indication of a desire or intention on the part of God, and of a provision made by Him, directed to the object of saving them all, though frustrated in its effect, by their refusal to embrace the provision made for and offered to them. A universal atonement, or the death of Christ for all men,–that is, for each and every man,–necessarily implies this, and would be an anomaly in .the divine government without it. No doubt, it may be said, that the doctrine of a universal atonement necessitates, in logical consistency, a denial of the Calvinistic doctrine of election, as much as it necessitates an admission of God’s universal grace or love to all men; and we believe this to ‘be true. But still, when we find that, in point of fact, none has ever held the doctrine of universal atonement without holding also the doctrine of universal grace,–while it is certain that some men of distinguished ability and learning, such as Amyraut and Daillee, Davenant and Baxter, have held both these doctrines of universal atonement and universal grace, and at the same time have held the Calvinistic doctrine of election; we are surely called upon in fairness and modesty to admit, that the logical connection cannot be quite so direct and certain in the one case as in the other. And then this conclusion warrants us in maintaining, that the fact of Calvin so explicitly denying the doctrine of God’s universal grace or love to all men, affords a more direct and certain ground for the inference, that he did not hold the doctrine of universal atonement, than could be legitimately deduced from the mere fact, that he held the doctrine of unconditional personal election to everlasting life. The invalidity of the inferential process in the one case is not sufficient to establish its invalidity in the other; and therefore our argument holds good.

2d. The other consideration to which we referred, as affording some positive evidence, though not direct and explicit, that Calvin did not hold the doctrine of a universal atonement, is this,–that he has interpreted some of the principal texts on which the advocates of that doctrine rest it, in such a way as to deprive them of. all capacity of serving the purpose to which its supporters commonly apply them. If this position can be established, it will furnish
something more than a presumption, and will almost amount to a proof, that he did not hold the doctrine in question. As this point is curious and interesting, we may adduce an instance or two in support of our allegation. In commenting upon 1 Tim. ii. 4, “Who will have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” Calvin says:–Apostolus simpliciter intelligit nullurn mundi vel populum vel ordinem a salute excludi, quia omnibus sine exceptione evangelium proponi Deus velit. Est autem evangelii pnedicatio vivisca, merito itaque colligit Deum omnes pariter salutis participatione dignare. At de hominum generibus, non singulis personis, sermo est ; nihil enim aliud intendit quam principes et extraneos populos in hoc numero includere. Again, in commenting upon 1 John ii 2, ” And He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world,” he says:–Qui hanc absurditatem (universal salvation) volebant effugere, dixemnt sutficientur pro toto mundo passum esse Christum sed pro electis tantum efficaciter. Vulgo hsec solutio in scholis obtinuit. Ego quanquam vernm esse illud dictum fateor, nego tamen praesenti loco quadrare. Neque enim aliud fuit consilium Joannis quam toti ecclesise commune facere hoc bonum. Ergo sub ornnibw repmbos non comprehendit, sed eos designat qui mmul credituri erant, et qui per varias mundi plagas dispersi erant. He gives the very same explanation of these two passages in his treatise on Predestination.4 Now this is in substance just the interpretation commonly given of these and similar texts, by the
advocates of the doctrine of particular redemption; and it seems scarcely possible, that it should have been adopted by one who did not hold that doctrine, or who believed in the truth of the opposite one.

Let it be observed, that our object is not to show, that we are warranted in adducing the authority of the great name of Calvin as a positive testimony in favour of the doctrine of particular redemption,–of a limited atonement,–as it has been generally held by Calvinistic divines; but rather to show, that there is no adequate ground for adducing him, aa has been done so frequently and so confidently, on the other side. To adduce Calvin as maintaining the doctrine of particular redemption, could scarcely, upon a full and impartial survey of the whole circumstances of the case, be
regarded as warrantable. It is evident that he had never been led to examine this precise question, in the form which it afterwards assumed in controversial discussion, and to give an explicit deliverance upon it. He seems to have attached little or no importance to any definite doctrine about the extent of the atonement. In his “Antidote” to the earlier sessions of the Council of Trent, he passes by without comment or animadversion the fourth chapter of the sixth seasion, although it contains an explicit declaration that Christ died for all men; and he does this not tacitly,

aa if per incuriam, but with the explicit statement,–tertium et quartum capt non attingo,–as if he found nothing there to object to. He was in no way sensitive or cautious about using language, concerning the universality of the offers and invitations, or,–in the phraseology which then generally prevailed, the promises of the gospel,–and concerning the provisions and arrangements of the scheme of redemption, which might have the appearance of being inconsistent with any limitation in the objects or destination of the atonement. And it is chiefly because the great body of those who have been called after his name,–even those of them who have held the doctrine of a definite or limited atonement,–have followed his example in this respect, believing it to have the full sanction of Scripture, that Daillee and others have got up such a mass of testimonies from their writings, in which they seem to give some countenance to the tenet of universal redemption, even at the expense of consistency. But this is no reason why Calvinists should hesitate to follow the course, which Scripture so plainly sanctions and requires, of proclaiming the glad tidings of salvation to all men indiscriminately, without any distinction or exception, setting forth, without hesitation or qualification, the fulness and freeness of the gospel offers and invitations–of inviting, encouraging, and requiring every descendant of Adam with whom they come into contact, to come to Christ and lay hold of Him, with the assurance that those d o come to Him He will in no wise reject. The doctrine of particular redemption,–or of an atonement limited, not as to its sufficiency, but as to its object, purpose, or destination,–does not, either in reality or in appearance, throw any greater obstacle in the way of preaching of the gospel to every creature, than the doctrines which dl Calvinists hold, of the absolute unconditional election of some men to eternal life, and of the indispensable necessity and determining influence of the special agency of the Holy Spirit in producing faith and conversion.

The difficulty of this whole subject lies in a department which belongs to God’s province, and not to ours. He has imposed upon us the duty of making Christ known to our fellow-men, not only as able, but as willing and ready, to save unto the uttermost all that come unto God by Him; and this duty we are bound by the most solemn obligations to discharge, without let or hindrance, without doubt or hesitation; assured that God, while exercising His own sovereignty in dealing with His creatures, will, in His own time and way, fully vindicate the consistency and the honor of all that He has done Himself, and of all that He has required as to do in His name.

William Cunningham, “Reformers and Theology of the Reformation,” in Collected Works (Edinburgh: T. And T. Clark, 1862), 1:395-402. [Some reformatting; footnote values modernized; footnote content original; some spelling modernized; and underlining mine.]

[Notes: 1) Cunningham’s point that one should not put much weight upon Calvin’s comment to Heshusius is correct for the reasons he notes, and for more. A) It is the case that only two pages earlier in this tract, Calvin says this:

Still he insists, and exclaims that nothing can be clearer than the declaration, that the wicked do not discern the Lord’s body, and that darkness is violently and intentionally thrown on the clearest truth by all who refuse to admit that the body of Christ is taken by the unworthy. He might have some color for this, if I denied that the body of Christ is given to the unworthy; but as they impiously reject what is liberally offered to them, they are deservedly condemned for profane and brutish contempt, inasmuch as they set at nought that victim by which the sins of the world were expiated, and men reconciled to God. [Selected Works, 2:525.]

We know from Calvin’s writings that this expression, and forms like it, that Christ “expiated the sins of the world” was a common and standard technical phrase indicating that Christ suffered for all sins and that for all sinners, all mankind, all men, and so forth. B) We know, too, that Calvin in the comment to Heshusius refers to the wicked, and not to reprobate, and for this Rouwendal rightly dismisses this comment as alleged positive proof that Calvin held to a limited expiation. C) We also have the mass of evidence from Calvin where he positively identifies the universal extent of the redemption, expiation and satisfaction of Christ. Clearly Cunningham either ignored the positive evidence or was ignorant of it (even the evidence that was available in his time: note Cunningham’s complete silence to Calvin’s well-known comment on Romans 5:18, as well as his comments on Isaiah 53:12, Matthew 20:28, etc (see here). Given that we are now aware of all the evidence, Cunningham’s uncertainty and rejection of the positive evidence is completely unwarranted. 2) With regard to 1 Timothy 2:4, Cunningham has no support here, as Calvin held that the will of God identified by Paul is the revealed will, which expresses its desire that all men of all ranks and stations. Calvin’s comments here in no way delimit the extent or nature of the expiation, at all. 3) Regarding Calvin’s interpretation of 1 John 2:2, I believe this has been adequately addressed by Ball, Kennedy, and Clifford. Indeed, given that the comment to Heshusius has little weight (as Cunningham says) and that on 1 Timothy 2:4, Calvin in no way limits the expiation, all that is left for Cunningham, in terms of direct positive statement, is Calvin’s exegesis of 1 John 2:2.  4) Lastly, essentially Cunningham then posits a series of inferential assertions alleging incongruity between unlimited atonement and the apparent absence in Calvin’s mind that God desire and intends to save all men (among other things). However, here again Cunningham has misunderstood Calvin, specifically his distinction of the Secret and Revealed will. He has also plainly misunderstood Calvin’s own sentiments regarding God’s intent in John 3:16, which speaks of God’s love and desire and intention, in sending Christ into the world in order to save the world, or again, Calvin’s stress on Christ’s mission to save all men, reprobate included.  In the end, Cunningham’s survey of Calvin’s broader theology is at best shallow, at worst, just plain incorrect, and should, therefore, be rejected.]


1Supra, p 205.

2Tractatue Theologici. Opers, tom. p. 731.

3When the subject of the extent of the atonement came to be more fully and exactly discussed, orthodox Calvinists generally objected to adopt atthis scholastic position, on the ground that it seemed to imply an ascription to Christ of a purpose or intention of dying in some sense for all men. For this reason they usually declined to adopt it 8a it stood, or they proposed to alter it into this form,–Christ’s death was sufficient for all, efficacious for the elect. By this change in the position, the question was made to turn, not on what Christ did, but on what His death was; and thus the appearance of ascribing to Him personally a purpose or intention of dying, in some sense, for all men, was removed.

4Niemeyer, pp. 269 and 286.

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