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Pieter Rouwendal on Calvin and Heshusius

December 15, 2008

Rouwendal:

1. Reply to Heshusius

According to Roger Nicole and Paul Helm, Calvin states explicitly in his reply to Tilemann Heshusius that Christ had not died for unbelievers.45

In the dispute between Calvin and Heshusius concerning the Lord’s Supper, Heshusius defended the corporeal presence of Christ. One of Calvin’s contra-arguments was:

I would like to know how the ungodly can eat from Christ’s flesh that was not crucified for them, and how they can drink from the blood that was not shed to reconcile their sins.46

These words seem to be a powerful argument to ascribe the doctrine of particular atonement to Calvin, and so they were used by those who argued for this position. But is this really such a powerful argument? We need to observe something before arriving at such a conclusion.

First, these words are a single, isolated remark in a tract that deals with quite another subject. Hence, they cannot be viewed as a thoughtful rejection of universal redemption. Second, it is neither fair nor realistic to use this single sentence in order to ignore the many sentences wherein Calvin stated that Christ died for the whole world. Third, it should be noted that even though Calvin states here that Christ did not die for (some) ungodly, no clear doctrine of particular redemption is offered here. Fourth, one should take notice of Calvin’s word choice, as well as the context wherein he uses them. The words Calvin chooses do not deny that Christ died for all men, but rather that he died for the ungodly. The context does not deal with justification (for Calvin surely maintained that it was for the justification of the ungodly that Christ died, and hence, that Christ died for the ungodly), but rather with the Lord’s Supper. Calvin’s intention was to make clear that Christ is not corporally present. In the immediate context of the quoted sentence, he uses the argument that if Christ were present corporally, the ungodly would eat his flesh and drink his blood, which Calvin deemed impossible. Hence, it is not implausible to interpret the quoted words as follows: “I would like to know how the ungodly can eat from Christ’s flesh, and how they can drink the blood of which they have no part through faith.”47 Another (maybe even more plausible) interpretation would be that since the context is about eating and drinking the flesh and blood of Christ by faith, Calvin here had in mind the efficiency of Christ’s death, so that the quotation can be read as follows: “I would like to know how the ungodly can eat from Christ’s flesh that was not crucified for them effectively, and how they can drink from the blood that was not effectively shed to reconcile their sins.”

Source: P.L. Rouwendal, “Calvin’s Forgotten Classical Position on the Extent of the Atonement: About Sufficiency, Efficiency, and Anachronism,” Westminster Theological Journal 70 (2008): 330-331. [Footnote values original; underlining mine.]

[Note: This an exceptionally interesting article that argues for a basic three-fold classification schema of Particularism, Hypothetical Universalism and the Classical position (the Prosper-Lombard trajectory) within Reformed theology. It seems to me that his schema fits well with Richard Muller’s divisions of Particularism, Speculative-Amyraldian Hypothetical Universalism, and Non-Speculative Hypothetical Universalism. Acknowledging this three-fold categorization takes our scholarship past the dated dichotomies of Nicole and Helm.]


45Nicole, “Calvin’s View,” 303; Helm, Calvin and the Calvinists, 21.

46CO, 9:484: “. . . scire velim quomodo Christi carnem edant impii, pro quibus non est crucifixa, et quomodo sanguinem bibant, qui expiandis eorum peccatis non est effusus.”

47Curt Daniel drew a similar conclusion, which is added to the 2d ed of Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism, Appendix 2,231-38.

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