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Pieter Rouwendal on Calvin on the Extent of the Atonement

December 14, 2008

Sub-Title: Rouwendel’s critique of Paul Helm on John Calvin

Pieter Rouwendal has published an interesting article on Calvin and the extent of the atonement. Now, Rouwendal’s thesis is complex and I don’t want to misrepresent it. I will restrain myself at this point from attempting to paraphrase his conclusions. The reader can read the entire essay for themselves. It is a very good essay which must be read carefully and more than once.

It appears that apart from Rouwendal’s claims, he takes a sort of tentative agnostic approach to Calvin on this question. He seems to argue that there are no good grounds for supposing that Calvin taught universal atonement (in what we now know as universal atonement in the Arminian sense), as there are no good grounds that Calvin taught limited atonement (333). Of course, I think there are good grounds to believe Calvin taught unlimited expiation (which is not the same as universal atonement as per the Arminian schema), and no grounds for the “limited atonement”. It is really good to see his critique of the Nicole-Helm side of the question. I just believe that there are good grounds to suppose that his critique of the arguments that Calvin held to an unlimited expiation and redemption are not that compelling. Rouwendal admits that his thesis should be subject to further verification and falsification (335), and, indeed, that is what academic historical theology is all about.

Rouwendal, though, is to be credited for seeking to be balanced, and for his critique of some of the arguments adduced by Nicole and Helm. This is something that struck me. The arguments by Nicole and Helm are always cited as near infallible and timeless statements regarding Calvin, which dispatch, for ever more, any attempt to read Calvin differently (vis a vie Turretinfan and company’s, recent attempts to trot out–to use one of Turretinfan’s choice phrases–Helm and Nicole again). It is refreshing to see a more realistic appraisal Nicole and Helm’s arguments.

Today I will post Rouwendal’s response to Helm. Later I will post his response to Nicole. Finally, I will post some of his responses to the other side of the question, as well as his brief treatment of the famous Heshusius quote. Rouwendal’s treatment of the Heshushius quotation is good, albeit brief.


2. Actual Remission A second argument is that Christ’s death procured actual remission of sin for the elect only.48 Although this is true, thus being a convincing argument not to interpret Calvin as a universalist, it is also no more convincing to prove him to be a particularist as using his previously quoted reply to Heshussius in response to the many “all men” passages. But it again fits harmoniously in Calvin’s classical position.

3. Salvation for the Elect Alone Another argument offered by Helm is that according to Calvin only the elect have their sins remitted.49 This again is true, but it does not convince us of Calvin’s particularism. For even Amyraldians and Arminians will affirm this tenet.

4. Christ’s Intention Helm argues that it was actually Christ’s intention to die for the elect.50 Most of his arguments for this view are not convincing. He argues, for example, that Calvin taught election, that the elect are given to Christ and engrafted into Christ, that Christ has his peculiar people, and so forth, but all these things do not prove positively that it was Christ’s intention to die only for the elect. Helm fails to prove this; he just concludes it by reasoning from other passages in Calvin. And although other parts in Calvin’s theology seem to point to particular redemption, Calvin himself did not teach this doctrine. In the end, Helm can say nothing more than that Calvin “could be said to be committed to definite atonement, even though he does not commit himself to definite atonement.” This is, to say the least, a weak conclusion. Although Helm proves that Calvin did not teach universal atonement, he certainly does not prove that he taught definite atonement. And although Helm makes plausible that the development of the doctrine of definite atonement was in line with most parts of Calvin’s theology, he fails to make plausible that Calvin really was committed to this doctrine. Just one quotation seems to say, or at least imply, that Christ died only for the elect. It is a passage wherein Calvin stated that “Christ was so ordained to be the Savior of the whole world, as that He might save those that were given unto Him by the Father out of the whole world.”51 But again, this is not enough to set aside the universal passages, and it fits perfectly in the classical position.

P.L. Rouwendal, “Calvin’s Forgotten Classical Position on the Extent of the Atonement: About Sufficiency, Efficiency, and Anachronism,” Westminster Theological Journal 70 (2008): 331-332. [Footnote values original.]


48 Helm, Calvin and the Calvinists, 14-16.

49 Ibid., 16-18.

50 Ibid., 18-22.

51 CO 8:298: “Christum sic toti mundo ordinatum esse in salutem, ut eos servet qui a patre illi dati sunt.”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Martin T permalink
    January 22, 2009 9:14 pm

    I’m reading Rouwendal now. It is interesting and the balance is good as you say – refeshing even. Now I haven’t read it twice as you suggest but, unless I’m mistaken, he seems to think that Clifford argues for universal atonement rather than the Classical position which he does in fact affirm.

  2. Flynn permalink*
    January 26, 2009 10:43 am

    Hey Martin,

    I think what Rouwendal is sensitive too are sweeping statements that ring black and white. He sees Clifford-Kendal on the one side, and Helm-Nicole, on the other, as importing their own assumptions into Calvin. This fear of retrojecting later opinions is powerful. To some degree they are right, as we have seen the damage done by Nicole’s “interpretation” of Calvin.

    And the other impression I get is that they are coming from the perspective of high Calvinist assumptions on the atonement, so it requires extra effort to allow for the possibility of Calvin holding to a contrary position. I sense a sort of psychological resistance, which, in their minds, is a fair reaction to excessive claims. Some of Kendall’s sweeping claims regarding the Puritans, as a class, being opposed to Calvin theologically, has caused damage in a way comparable to what Nicole has done. These men are very very sensitive to these personal subjective dynamics being retrojected into the 16thC primary source.

    Other than that, I feel your pain.


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