Calvin and Universalism

Here’s a good one:

For were it not that the reprobate, through their own fault, turn life into death, the Gospel would be to all the power of God to salvation, (Romans 1:16) but as many persons no sooner hear it than their impiety openly breaks out, and provokes against them more and more the wrath of God, to such persons its savor must be deadly, (2 Corinthians 2:16.)

~ Commentary on Matthew 16:19

So, if it weren’t for the reprobate, universalism would be true. Just a sentence earlier, Calvin states that condemnation is “accidental” to the gospel message, since its essence is salvation. Condemnation comes from a rejection of this message once heard.

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Eucharist as Absolution

Commenting on Mark 14:24, Calvin writes:

Which is shed for many. By the word many he means not a part of the world only, but the whole human race; for he contrasts many with one; as if he had said, that he will not be the Redeemer of one man only, but will die in order to deliver many from the condemnation of the curse. It must at the same time be observed, however, that by the words for you, as related by Luke–Christ directly addresses the disciples, and exhorts every believer to apply to his own advantage the shedding of blood. Therefore, when we approach to the holy table, let us not only remember in general that the world has been redeemed by the blood of Christ, but let every one consider for himself that his own sins have been expiated.

Now that’s a pastoral application! The sacraments are gospel. Each of us, in particular, are called to believe that our sins have been expiated, and the Eucharist is a promise that this is true.

This all works because of Calvin’s definition of faith. For him, it includes assurance. You are sure that Christ paid for your sins. The gospel is objective. It is what you place your faith in.

In other words, it isn’t that your faith is sure in itself, that you yourself have already been regenerated or that you have “true faith”, but rather you are sure that the message is true, and that being sure just is faith.

Now Pastors, go preach this. Go show this.

Edward Reynolds and the Grounding of Faith in the Free Offer

While going through that on which faith is grounded, Reynolds lists the free love of God, the example of other sinners saved, and then the free offer. He writes:

Because there is a generality and unlimitedness in the invitation unto Christ, “Come unto me, all that are weary.– Let every one that will, come.” There is in Christ erected an office of salvation, a heavenly chancery of equity and mercy, not only to moderate the rigour, but to reverse and revoke the very acts of the law. Christ is ‘set forth,’ or proposed openly as a sanctuary and ensign for the nations to fly unto; and he hath sent his ambassadors abroad to warn, and to invite every man. As a fountain is open for any man to drink, and a school for any man to learn, and the gate fo a city for any man to enter, and a court of equity for any man to relieve himself;– so Christ is publicly and universally set forth as a general refuge from the wrath to come, upon no other condition than such a will as is not only desirous to enjoy his mercy, but to submit to his kingdom, and glorify the power of his spirit and grace in new obedience.

Life of Christ, pg. 454-455 in The Whole Works of the Edward Reynolds Vol. 1 (Soli Deo Gloria)

Reynolds goes on to add the priority of grace in the conversion of the sinner, as well as our duty to faith. These are the reasons we are to believe and the grounds upon which faith builds.

Intriguing Zanchius Quotes

Reading Zanchius is difficult. Sometimes I have to admit I don’t know what he is saying. Other times I have a basic understanding of it. Given his use of “sacramental speech” and his commitment to the free offer of the gospel, these two quotes perk my interest:

VII. Everie one ought stedfastlie to beleeve he is elect in Christ, yet we may be more assured by the feeling of our faith in Christ.

Hence it is manifest, although no man in generall ought to exempt himself out of the number of the elect, sith the scripture doeth not so, but rather stedfastlie to trust that, when he is called to Christ, he is called according to the eternall decree and election of God. Yet, if any man will be more assured of his certaine election, he must run to his faith and the witnes of his conscience, whether he perceive that he truely beleeveth in Christ and whether he carrie a sincere love towards God and his neighbor. Yea, if he finde himself herein not altogether soundlie and thoroughlie setled, yet let him not desparre, but desire of God that he will helpe his unbeleefe, hoping that he may in time be better assured.

~ Confessions of the Christian Religion 3.VII

And also:

I. The gospell, what it is.

Concerning the gospell therefore, according to the signification received and used in the church, we beleeve that it is nothing else but the heavenly doctrine concerning Christ, preached by Christ himselfe and the apostles, and contained in the bookes of the Newe testament, bringing the best and most gladsome tidings to the world, namely, that mankinde is redeemed by the death of Iesus Christ, the onely begotten Sonne of God. So that there is prepared for al men, if they should repent and beleeve in Iesus Christ, a free remission of al their sinns, salvation, and eternal life. Wherefore it is fitlie called of the apostle: ‘The gospel of our salvation’.

~ Confessions 13.I

Now if we put systematic qualifications to the side, since those are always the boogers, and just start talking this way, what would we have?

Limited Atonement

As Dabney points out, the very term “atonement” is unclear. What do we mean by this word? It comes from the older English, literally at-one-ment, which would imply reconciliation. We can also recall various “atonement models,” which include Christus Victor, the ransom theory, and penal substitution. Dabney, as well as Warfield, also include postmillennialism in many of their understandings of the “world” passages, and thus we could add the cosmic eschatological atonement to our list.

Most people, however, (at least in Reformed circles) usually mean “expiation” when they say atonement. If this is the definition, then we most certainly do not hold to “limited atonement.” Dort is clear on this matter:

Since, however, we ourselves cannot give this satisfaction or deliver ourselves from God’s anger, God in his boundless mercy has given us as a guarantee his only begotten Son, who was made to be sin and a curse for us, in our place, on the cross, in order that he might give satisfaction for us.

It continues:

This death of God’s Son is the only and entirely complete sacrifice and satisfaction for sins; it is of infinite value and worth, more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world.

And it gives a reason for this infinite value. It is not due to an amount of deeds, but rather the value of the single divine person:

This death is of such great value and worth for the reason that the person who suffered it is–as was necessary to be our Savior–not only a true and perfectly holy man, but also the only begotten Son of God, of the same eternal and infinite essence with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Another reason is that this death was accompanied by the experience of God’s anger and curse, which we by our sins had fully deserved.

This is, consequently, one reason why we need to have proper Christology prior to engaging in the question over the “extent of the atonement.” Christ’s “merit” or his “worth” ultimately stems from his deity, a fact that Calvin was keenly aware of (see here and here).

This infinite satisfaction is to preached to the whole world:

Moreover, it is the promise of the gospel that whoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish but have eternal life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be announced and declared without differentiation or discrimination to all nations and people, to whom God in his good pleasure sends the gospel.

Notice that the call is to believe in Christ crucified. The Marrow Men of a later period would implore people to believe that “Christ is dead for you.” Similarly, Luther, Calvin, and the vast majority of the Reformed orthodox taught that to believe the gospel was to believe that you were forgiven. Faith is a particular thing. To doubt is not to believe, and thus the inclusion of assurance within the definition of faith by the early Reformed and Continental Confessions is fully consistent with their understanding of the free offer of the gospel. It really was for everyone.

Dort squarely places the blame for damnation on the unbelievers:

However, that many who have been called through the gospel do not repent or believe in Christ but perish in unbelief is not because the sacrifice of Christ offered on the cross is deficient or insufficient, but because they themselves are at fault.

At this point is important to review the 1st head of doctrine. So far I’ve been in the 2nd, but at this point we need the context. Dort initially begins with this:

Since all people have sinned in Adam and have come under the sentence of the curse and eternal death, God would have done no one an injustice if it had been his will to leave the entire human race in sin and under the curse, and to condemn them on account of their sin. As the apostle says: The whole world is liable to the condemnation of God (Rom. 3:19), All have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23), and The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23).

It then gives the message of God’s love:

But this is how God showed his love: he sent his only begotten Son into the world, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

And again, Dort states the free offer:

In order that people may be brought to faith, God mercifully sends proclaimers of this very joyful message to the people he wishes and at the time he wishes. By this ministry people are called to repentance and faith in Christ crucified. For how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without someone preaching? And how shall they preach unless they have been sent? (Rom. 10:14-15).

We must note once more that the faith is in Christ crucified. That is what, or perhaps who, sinners are called to put their trust in. The very fact that you are preaching to them gives the implication that the message is for them.

And to prevent any impious and blasphemous doctrine from cropping up around the truth of particular election, which all Calvinists and Augustinians affirm, Dort adds this qualifier:

The cause or blame for this unbelief, as well as for all other sins, is not at all in God, but in man.

Also:

The fact that some receive from God the gift of faith within time, and that others do not, stems from his eternal decision. For all his works are known to God from eternity (Acts 15:18; Eph. 1:11). In accordance with this decision he graciously softens the hearts, however hard, of his chosen ones and inclines them to believe, but by his just judgment he leaves in their wickedness and hardness of heart those who have not been chosen. And in this especially is disclosed to us his act–unfathomable, and as merciful as it is just–of distinguishing between people equally lost. This is the well-known decision of election and reprobation revealed in God’s Word. This decision the wicked, impure, and unstable distort to their own ruin, but it provides holy and godly souls with comfort beyond words.

Dort adds more:

Moreover, Holy Scripture most especially highlights this eternal and undeserved grace of our election and brings it out more clearly for us, in that it further bears witness that not all people have been chosen but that some have not been chosen or have been passed by in God’s eternal election– those, that is, concerning whom God, on the basis of his entirely free, most just, irreproachable, and unchangeable good pleasure, made the following decision: to leave them in the common misery into which, by their own fault, they have plunged themselves; not to grant them saving faith and the grace of conversion; but finally to condemn and eternally punish them (having been left in their own ways and under his just judgment), not only for their unbelief but also for all their other sins, in order to display his justice. And this is the decision of reprobation, which does not at all make God the author of sin (a blasphemous thought!) but rather its fearful, irreproachable, just judge and avenger.

In the later section on “rejecting the gospel,” Dort states:

The fact that many who are called through the ministry of the gospel do not come and are not brought to conversion must not be blamed on the gospel, nor on Christ, who is offered through the gospel, nor on God, who calls them through the gospel and even bestows various gifts on them, but on the people themselves who are called. Some in self-assurance do not even entertain the Word of life; others do entertain it but do not take it to heart, and for that reason, after the fleeting joy of a temporary faith, they relapse; others choke the seed of the Word with the thorns of life’s cares and with the pleasures of the world and bring forth no fruits. This our Savior teaches in the parable of the sower (Matt. 13).

Let us clearly note that Dort says that Christ is offered through the gospel. Christ is the gospel. And reprobation is a way of describing the truth that certain people will reject the gospel (or never hear it- in the absence of preacher, in which case their sin is ample ground for condemnation).

When dealing with assurance it is worth noting that Dort begins with the the promises of God. The gospel is the primary ground of assurance:

Accordingly, this assurance does not derive from some private revelation beyond or outside the Word, but from faith in the promises of God which he has very plentifully revealed in his Word for our comfort, from the testimony of the Holy Spirit testifying with our spirit that we are God’s children and heirs (Rom. 8:16-17), and finally from a serious and holy pursuit of a clear conscience and of good works. And if God’s chosen ones in this world did not have this well-founded comfort that the victory will be theirs and this reliable guarantee of eternal glory, they would be of all people most miserable.

It seems that Dort understands the testimony of the Holy Spirit to be directly associated, if not fully identified, with the revealed Word of God, since it excludes private revelation. Thus we are not relying on how we feel the Spirit to be working, but rather in the Spirit’s objective testimony in the Word.

This is why assurance is included in the definition of faith. Dort later acknowledges that believers can fall into times of doubt, but assurance is still objective, and it is part of what doubters are called back to. Believe it because it is the case.

This understanding of the atonement is consistent with Dabney’s teaching which I posted yesterday, and I think it is of immense importance that we understand this today.  The decree to call specific individuals is limited, but the expiation provided by Christ’s death is unlimited.  Since Christ’s death infinitely satisfies God’s wrath and the decree is secret, thus we have no access to it, we should point all men to Christ crucified.  We should ask them to believe that Christ is for them.  They must repent and believe, and the thing that they are to believe is that Christ has brought them salvation.  Whenever doubt arises, the gospel is there to combat it.  Just say no to hyper-Calvinism.

Dabney on Unlimited Expiation

Dabney is certainly sympathetic to the Amyraldians. He doesn’t agree with Hodge’s criticisms, though he does believe that the Amyraldian solutions fail to achieve what they set out to do. For Dabney, the “limitation” of the atonement (this is a word he doesn’t much care for either) comes in the covenant of redemption and not in the content of Christ’s expiation. Dabney critiques the Amyraldians for failing to affirm that Christ purchases effectual calling for the elect, but I have to admit that I’m having trouble understanding how the purchase of effectual calling relates with the expiation, of which Dabney admits is unlimited. It seems to me that the covenant of redemption is wholly bound up in God’s secret will, and thus we ought not say too much about how it comes about. I think that Dabney comes out pretty close to “hypothetical universalism,” whatever that actually is. Perhaps Flynn will enlighten us all.

To begin with, he notes the genuine offer of the gospel to all, stating that God really does desire, in a true sense of that word, that even the reprobate would be saved, even though He has not decreed it to come about. Dabney says that limited atonement is analogous to election, but is quick to state, “redemption is limited precisely by the decree, and by nothing else” (Systematic Theology pg. 527).

Dabney gets into the more specific question of the content of Christ’s death, and his distinctions are very helpful:

Now Christ is a true substitute. His suffereings were penal and vicarious, and made a true satisfaction for all those who actually embrace them by faith. But the conception charged on us seems to be, as though Christ’s expiation were a web of the garment of righteousness, to be cut into definite pieces, and distributed out, so much to each person of the elect; whence, of course, it must have a definite aggregate length, and had God seen fit to add any to the number of elect, He must have had an additional extent of web woven. This is all incorrect. Satisfaction was Christ’s indivisible act, and inseparable vicarious merit, infinite in moral value, the whole in its unity and completeness, imputed to every believing elect man, without numerical division, subtraction or exhaustion.
(528)

Dabney also adds, “Remember, the limitation is precisely in the decree, and no where else.” He states the the real limitation is in the personal relationships decreed to come about. His conclusion is of vast importance:

The only New Testament sense the word atonement has is that of katallage, reconciliation.  But expiation is another idea.  Katallage is personal.  Exilasmos [expiation] is impersonal.  Katallage is multiplied, being repeated as often as a sinner comes to the expiatory blood: exilasmos is single, unique, complete; and, in itself considered, has no more relationship to one man’s sins than another.  As it is applied in effectual calling, it becomes personal, and receives a limitation.  But in itself, limitation is irrelevant to it.  Hence, when men use the word atonement, as they so often do, in the sense of expiation, the phrases, “limited atonement,” “particular atonement,” have no meaning. Redemption is limited, i.e., to true believers, and is particular. Expiation is not limited.
(528)

Now Dabney’s discussion is wholly concerned with penal substitution. There is no mention made of Christus Victor, which, were such written today, would be a glaring omission, but in Dabney’s day the neglect was standard and can perhaps be forgiven.

As I understand it, the “limited” only applies to the secret will of God and the covenant of redemption. Being secret, it seems a hard doctrine to preach directly to people, and I think Dabney admits as much. The entire issue is basically one of the via negativa. Given that it was a rejection of a contrary proposal, this makes good sense.

The gospel is part of God’s revealed will though, and as such I think we are free to speak of it to all. Dabney is more reserved on what this looks like, although I can’t see wherein he and I would really disagree, especially if broader atonement models are figured in. That Christ has satisfied God’s wrath and in him is peace and reconciliation ought to be the very object of our faith. That is what we are to believe. In Christ, we are reconciled to God.

How Can God Both Desire Your Salvation and Condemn You?

R L Dabney answered this question by an analogy:

The direction in which the answers are conceived to lie may be best indicated by an analogical instance. A human ruler may have full power and authority over the punishment of a culprit, may declare consistently his sincere compassion for him, and may yet freely elect to destroy him. A concrete case will make the point more distinct. Chief-Justice Marshall, in his Life of Washington (Vol. 4., Chap. 6.), says with reference to the death-warrant of the rash and unfortunate Major André “Perhaps on no occasion of his life did the commander-in-chief obey with more reluctance the stern mandates of duty and of policy.” In this historical instance we have these facts: Washington had plenary power to kill or to save alive. His compassion for the criminal was real and profound. Yet he signed his death-warrant with spontaneous decision. The solution is not the least difficult either for philosophy or common sense. Every deliberate rational volition is regulated by the agent’s dominant subjective disposition, and prompted by his own subjective motive. But that motive is a complex, not a simple modification of spirit. The simplest motive of man’s rational volition is a complex of two elements: a desire or propension of some subjective optative power, and a judgment of the intelligence as to the true and preferable. The motive of a single decision may be far more complex than this, involving many intellectual considerations of prudence, or righteous policy, and several distinct and even competing propensions of the optative powers. The resultant volition arises out of a deliberation, in which the prevalent judgment and appetency counterpoise the inferior ones. To return to our instance Washington’s volition to sign the death-warrant of André did not arise from the fact that his compassion was slight or feigned; but from the fact that it was rationally counterpoised by a complex of superior judgments and propensions of wisdom, duty, patriotism, and moral indignation. Let us suppose that one of André’s intercessors (and he had them, even among the Americans) standing by, and hearing the commanding general say, as he took up the pen to sign the fatal paper, “I do this with the deepest reluctance and pity,” should have retorted, “Since you are supreme in this matter, and have full bodily ability to throw down that pen, we shall know by your signing this warrant that your pity is hypocritical.” The petulance of this charge would have been equal to its folly. The pity was real; but was restrained by superior elements of motive. Washington had official and bodily power to discharge the criminal; but he had not the sanction of his own wisdom and justice. Thus his pity was genuine, and yet his volition not to indulge it free and sovereign.


Certainly aware of objections, Dabney proceeded to answer them in this lengthy essay. One of the more interesting aspects of the essay is Dabney’s criticism of Thomistic versions of divine simplicity. Hodge agreed with him in this respect, though it seems a historical oddity.

Here is his response to that issue:

The attempt to illustrate the action of the divine will from the rise of rational volition in man, has doubtless been prejudiced by the scholastic explanations of God’s absolute simplicity. They would have us believe, not only that this excludes all composition and aggregation of quantitative parts, but all true distinction of essence and attributes. They would have the idea of God as absolutely devoid of construction in thought as his substance is of construction in reality. We must, in his case, identify essence and attributes. God is actus purus [pure impulse]. Any attribute is God; and hence one attribute is differentiated from another only by our apprehension of it. With him cognition and effectuation are identical. It does not satisfy them to say that God is an infinite monad, as the rational human soul is a finite monad; and that his attributes, like man’s essential powers of intelligence, sensibility, and will, are not limbs or parts attached to the spirit, but essential modes of functions with which it is endued. They require us to identify God’s attributes with his essence in a way inconceivably closer than we do man’s essential powers with his essence. Now, if this speculation be correct, the attempt to apprehend the action of the divine will by the human must be wholly erroneous. There could be no such distinction, as is true of man, between motive and volition, or between the optative powers and the power of choice. Nor could there be any sense whatsoever in which God’s subjective motive could be complex.
    But we deny that the speculation is correct, susceptible of proof, or possible to be valid to the human mind. Evidently the cognition of such a being is inaccessible to man’s intelligence. The only way he has of knowing substance is through its attributes; and the only cognition we have of it is as the intuitive notion, which the reason necessarily supplies, of the subjectum to which the attributes perceived must be referred. Hence, to require us to think substance as literally identical with each attribute rationally referred to it, is to forbid us to think it at all. Again, reason forbids us to think different attributes as identical. We intuitively know that thought is not conation, and conation is not sensibility; it is as impossible to think these actually identical in God as in ourselves. Last, this speculation brings us too near the awful verge of pantheism. Were it true, then, it would be the shortest and most natural of steps to conclude that God has no other being than the series of activities of the several attributes with which they seek to identify the being. Thus we have the form of pantheism next to the gulf of nihilism. If the attributes are identical with the being of God and with each other, and if it be thus shown that God’s thought makes the object thereof, then, since God is eternally, necessarily, and infinitely intelligent, these results must rigidly follow: That all objective being known to God must be also as eternal and necessary as God; and that it must be as infinite as he is. What more would Spinoza have desired to found his mathematical proof of pantheism? The speculation is not true any more than it is scriptural. The Bible always speaks of God’s attributes as distinct, and yet not dividing his unity; of his intelligence and will as different; of his wrath, love, pity, wisdom, as not the same activities of the Infinite Spirit. We are taught that each of these is inconceivably higher than the principle in man which bears the corresponding name; but if the Scriptures do not mean to teach us that they are distinguishable in God, as truly as in man, and that this is as consistent with his being an infinite monad as with our souls’ being finite monads, then they are unmeaning.


A great essay if you’ve got the fortitude. Dabney should be read more often!

Dabney’s Solution to the Lapsarian Debate

This is worth quoting in detail. I’m very intrigued by Dabney’s particular understanding of divine simplicity, as he and Hodge were both very critical of the more Thomistic definition.

The attempt to illustrate the action of the divine will from the rise of rational volition in man, has doubtless been prejudiced by the scholastic explanations of God’s absolute simplicity. They would have us believe, not only that this excludes all composition and aggregation of quantitative parts, but all true distinction of essence and attributes. They would have the idea of God as absolutely devoid of construction in thought as his substance is of construction in reality. We must, in his case, identify essence and attributes. God is actus purus [pure impulse]. Any attribute is God; and hence one attribute is differentiated from another only by our apprehension of it. With him cognition and effectuation are identical. It does not satisfy them to say that God is an infinite monad, as the rational human soul is a finite monad; and that his attributes, like man’s essential powers of intelligence, sensibility, and will, are not limbs or parts attached to the spirit, but essential modes of functions with which it is endued. They require us to identify God’s attributes with his essence in a way inconceivably closer than we do man’s essential powers with his essence. Now, if this speculation be correct, the attempt to apprehend the action of the divine will by the human must be wholly erroneous. There could be no such distinction, as is true of man, between motive and volition, or between the optative powers and the power of choice. Nor could there be any sense whatsoever in which God’s subjective motive could be complex. Continue reading