John Calvin’s View of the Extent of the Atonement -- By: Roger R. Nicole

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 47:2 (Fall 1985)
Article: John Calvin’s View of the Extent of the Atonement
Author: Roger R. Nicole

John Calvin’s View of the Extent of the Atonement

Roger Nicole

This topic has received considerable attention in the recent past, perhaps in view of R. T. Kendall’s very controversial book Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649.1 An effort is made here to summarize the debate and to provide a brief evaluation.

It is often stated—and with considerable propriety—that Calvin did not write an explicit treatment concerning the extent of the atonement, in fact did not deal with this precise issue in the terms to which Reformed theology has been accustomed. It must be owned, of course, that the question had received some attention before Calvin. Notably Gottschalk in the ninth century had given express support to definite atonement2 and the scholastics had discussed the topic and advanced a partial resolution in asserting that Christ’s death was “sufficient for all men and efficient for the elect.”3 Calvin alludes to and endorses this distinction but views it as insufficient for a proper analysis of 1 John 2:2.4 Nevertheless a full

discussion of the scope of the atonement is not found in Calvin’s writings, and the assessment of his position in this area has been varied.

Certain other Reformed theologians, contemporaries of Calvin or flourishing in the late sixteenth or the beginning of the seventeenth century, expressed a clear endorsement of definite atonement: e.g. Peter Martyr, H. Zanchius, T. Beza, J. Piscator, W. Ames, R. Abbot.5 As far as we know, they did not assert that they were conscious of differing with Calvin on this score, nor did Calvin take issue in writing with any of those who formulated the view during his life-time.

One of the earliest writers to claim that Calvin espoused universal atonement was Moyse Amyraut (1596–1664) who in his Eschantillon de la doctrine de Calvin touchant la predestination6 quoted certain passages from Calvin’s commentaries in support of his own position on universal atonement. Amyraut’s friend and supporter Jean Daillé (1594–1670) later published some 43 pages of excerpts from Calvin’s works which he deemed in line with universal grace.7 A number of these

excerpts relate to the design of the atonement, but i...

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