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James White on John Calvin and the Extent of the Satisfaction

August 11, 2011

James White on the Dividing Line (08/04/2011) expressed some comments about Calvin and the doctrine of Limited Atonement.

In this post I want to address some of White’s comments and claims.

Before I start, some preliminary remarks.

1) My comments are offered in the desire and spirit that we look at this topic in both an adult and academic manner.

2) I posted on some of this at theology online, here.

3) For the transcript I am relying on the transcription of a friend.1 I have also listened to the audio and Chris has fairly accurately transcribed the section. I think Chris may have mis-heard a mumble here or there. I will tweak his transcription just a little.

Keep in mind, while we accept that this is a verbal and rambling monologue, where White could not adduce all the documentation he should produce, my aim here is to challenge the facts of his assertions. Allowances aside, even without documentation, even though this is a one-sided conversation on his part, it’s the alleged facts asserted and their various entailments that are incorrect and which this essay seeks to counter.

4) A) For the purposes of this essay, I define Limited Atonement as the limited imputation of the sins of the elect, alone, to Christ. Christ only bore the sins of the elect, Christ suffered the wrath of God for and against the sins of the elect only. B) Obviously then, unlimited atonement says that the sins of the whole human race, or all mankind were imputed to Christ, that Christ suffered the wrath of God for and against the sins of all men.

By necessary implication, to affirm A) is to deny B), and conversely, to affirm B) is to deny A). I can’t even begin to imagine how a credible thinker could seek to affirm both.2

5) I will not enter into any discussion regarding Augustine and Prosper. I’ve posted files on these two theologians which show from their own writings their commitment to an unlimited redemption, here.

The Response.

My thesis for this essay: Most of what White presented is historically and methodologically inaccurate.

Let me first get to the historical facts. I will assume that scholars like Richard Muller are more reliable guides than James White, thus, I first offer this secondary source testimony:


The question of the “L” in TULIP, of “limited” versus “universal atonement,” also looms large in the debate over whether or not Calvin was a Calvinist. This question, too, arises out of a series of modern confusions, rooted, it seems to me, in the application of a highly vague and anachronistic language to a sixteenth- and seventeenth-century issue. Simply stated, neither Calvin, nor Beza, nor the Canons of Dort, nor any of the orthodox Reformed thinkers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries mention limited atonement – and insofar as they did not mention it, they hardly could have taught the doctrine. (Atonement, after all is an English term, and nearly all of this older theology was written in Latin.) To make the point a bit less bluntly and with more attention to the historical materials, the question debated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, concerned the meaning of those biblical passages in which Christ is said to have paid a ransom for all or God is said to will the salvation of all or of the whole world, given the large number of biblical passages that indicate a limitation of salvation to some, namely to the elect or believers. This is an old question, belonging to the patristic and medieval church as well as to the early modern Reformed and, since the time of Peter Lombard, had been discussed in terms of the sufficiency and efficiency of Christ’s satisfaction in relation to the universality of the preaching of redemption. Richard A. Muller, Was Calvin a Calvinist? Or, Did Calvin (or Anyone Else in the Early Modern Era) Plant the “TULIP”? (A Lecture Sponsored by the H. Henry Meeter Center: Oct. 15, 2009), 9.3

Another academic source who also has credibility, Joel Beeke:

Robert Peterson argues that the issue of the extent of the atonement belonged more to the subsequent period of Reformed orthodoxy and was therefore largely anachronistic for Calvin. 21 Pieter Rouwendal shows, however, that the question of the atonement’s extent was dealt with in Calvin’s day, but the way that it was handled by later Reformers was foreign and anachronistic to Calvin. Joel Beeke, “The Extent of the Atonement,” in The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth 17:6 (July/August, 2009), 162.

There are a few things that can be added. Jonathan Rainbow, recall, assumes the denial of the argument White adduces to prove that Calvin held to limited atonement. He claims that Bucer taught and debated limited atonement, and given that Calvin spent three years in Strasbourg with Bucer, he would have been familiar with the debate and question (Rainbow, The Will of God and the Cross, p., 63).

The argument must cut both ways. For example, Peterson, in his Calvin and the Atonement, in the 1999 edition, turns Rainbow’s argument on its head by noting that if Rainbow is correct regarding Calvin’s knowledge of Bucer’s (alleged) position, we should expect to see affirmations of limited atonement in Calvin’s writings. This leads Peterson to say we cannot be conclusive regarding Calvin’s position. From email correspondence with Muller, he takes the same position; Calvin is “indeterminate” on this issue.

White should keep up with more recent scholarship. Rouwendal’s article has been out for some years now: he rejects the sort of reasoning White presents.4 Indeed, in that article, Rouwendal notes that both Helm and Nicole are wrong in their claims that Calvin held to limited atonement.5 And while he does also say Kendall and Clifford are wrong on their side, it must be kept in mind that the thesis attributed to Clifford and Kendall is not the same as our thesis.

Also the more recent article by Kevin D. Kennedy, “Hermeneutical Discontinuity between Calvin and later Calvinism,”6 needs to be read by those who adopt White’s position.

Now to James White. White is responding to the claim that neither Augustine, Prosper or Calvin held to Limited Atoneemnt. The monologue:


Sigh… [laughter] This is called historical anachronism. Limited atonement, quote unquote, was not an issue for either of them.

I find these claims odd and irrelevant.

1) Let’s grant that “Limited Atonement” was not an “issue” for them, an issue of debate or an issue of contention, what does that give us? Not a lot. Let’s agree that “Limited Atonement” was, likewise, not an issue for Luther, the question is, can we still discern his position on the extent of the satisfaction? If White is right, why shouldn’t White’s assertion apply to Luther as well? James Swan has rightly argued that Luther, as Reformer, held to unlimited atonement.7

Likewise, despite protestations to the contrary, we can discern the position of Calvin’s other contemporaries, such as Musculus, Bullinger.

The point is, just because a given author did not engage in literary or oral debate upon a topic, it does not mean they had no firm or definite opinion on the topic. We can take this back to Aquinas, who likewise never engaged in a debate over the extent of the atonement and yet his position regarding its extent is easily discernible.

2) White is stuck in a contradiction. On the one hand he wants to say that putting such questions into the mouth of John Calvin is anachronistic, yet, he, James White, claims to argue that Calvin held to limited atonement. On its face, that’s contradictory.

I think what he should say is, ‘that though the Limited Atonement debate is anachronistic to Calvin, the “doctrine,” materially, was not.’ This in principle is the very thing we say, albeit, the converse of it: the doctrine of unlimited atonement is materially present.

So then, what becomes of this mantra-like charge that Limited Atonement in Calvin is  “anachronistic”? Any value it may have is over-played and in this over-use, is actually debased as a workable help in our investigation. While it may be good to know that the 17thC form of the debate over the extent of the satisfaction was not debated in Aquinas’ time and context, how that helps us to actually and concretely understand Thomas’ doctrine of the nature and extent of the satisfaction is minimal.

3) White’s thesis is falsified by the fact that Musculus, in his Common Places, dedicates an entire chapter arguing for universal redemption. In this chapter, Musculus is clearly aware of some who may find the concept of universal redemption objectionable. Beyond dispute, we can see that while the formal debates over limited atonement arose in the decades after Calvin, the material elements were known and discussed in Calvin’s time and by Calvin’s own friends and co-workers in the Swiss Reformation.


And it seems that Mr. Comis and Dr. Fernandes had come to an agreement beforehand that, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, Calvin didn’t believe in limited atonement.’ Well, hmm. While that was not a primary issue for Calvin in any sense…in the matter…

1) Exactly so. That we see nothing in Calvin affirming limited atonement, or in the extant writings of any Reformer (with the slimmest possible exception of Bucer), tells us that it was not affirmed. The question of the extent of the satisfaction never became a point of contention between the Reformed and the Catholics, or the Reformed and the Lutherans, until later. What came later was a question over the extent of the efficacy of the satisfaction (see Kimedoncius, for example).

This later debate between the Reformed and some Lutherans in the 1580s period was an extension of the earlier debate between the orthodox and the Universalists, and between the orthodox and early Socinians, who claimed that all men would be saved. These men universalized the efficacy of the satisfaction to all mankind, even to demons. We see some of this in Calvin’s debate with Pighius and co. The orthodox (whether Catholic, Lutheran or Reformed) limited the efficacy to the believers.

2) It is out of this question that the Arminian question evolved. The Arminians denied that Christ died for anyone with any effectual intention. The response of Dort was not to deny that Christ died for all as to the sufficiency of the satisfaction, but to affirm that he did, indeed, die for some as to the efficiency of the satisfaction. Dort does not affirm limited atonement as defined by Owen or by White. On this, see the recent articles by Jonathan Moore,8 Lee Gatiss,9 Richard Muller,10 and others.


I think that those…and I know exactly who they are who have been gathering citations from Calvin primarily from the commentaries. Not from the Institutes, but from the commentaries.

1) What lies behind this is White’s assertion that Calvin’s Institutes must regulate all of Calvin’s other writings. This is shallow reasoning in terms of historical analysis. Calvin scholars like Muller have noted that we cannot take Calvin’s comment regarding the priority of the Institutes absolutely.

What is more, there is nothing in the Institutes that regulates or qualifies or expands upon the topic of the extent of the satisfaction, or anything which limits it, apart from the statements which limit the efficacy of the satisfaction to the believer. Indeed, Calvin in his Last Will and Testament expressly states that he has sought to present biblical truth in his sermons, commentaries and tracts: Calvin himself did not imagine his other works to be inferior or uncertain testimonies of his theology.

2) What is profoundly ironic and academically hypocritical in White’s claim is that while White and co., will play up the idea that we should be deriving our theology of Calvin’s doctrine of the extent of the satisfaction (primarily?) from the Institutes, however, the critical go-to comments they cite to argue that Calvin held to limited atonement are from his commentaries and from a tract, not from the Institutes. White does not even apply his own hermeneutic which he tries to thrust upon and demand of others.

So, again I think, the ‘Institutes have priority’ line is hollow and unproductive.


And there are other quotes to be drawn from the commentaries that [mumbling?] just the opposite…

If he could present some of these, that would be good. White is just uninformed regarding the overwhelming evidence in Calvin’s writings which speak to unlimited expiation and redemption. I have to think that this ignorance is willful: that is, he chooses to remain uninformed and academically outdated, and he chooses to just deny the evidential value of Calvin’s own statements.


might be interpreting Calvin in the same way they…because they tend to be hypo-Calvinists, really the squishy kind that…’well yeah I believe in election’ but when you really push ’em…ehhh, you know they’re not really overly strong on it.

At this point White engages in an ad hominem (to the man) remark11 which has no bearing on the issues regarding Calvin on the extent of the satisfaction. The one remark that is assessable is his reference to some being “hypo”-Calvinists, that is, sub-Calvinists, on the extent of the atonement (I assume). That label begs the question and contradicts White’s own claim that we can’t inject the “extent ” debate and “issue”  into Calvin. How can he know someone is beneath Calvin?


Uhh, I have a feeling they’re interpreting even brother Calvin in the same way that they would interpret numerous Biblical texts as well. Be that as it may, to just simply state this…this was not…there is no place in John Calvin where he says the doctrine of limited atonement is false.

What force does that have? If White is right, that Limited Atonement was not an issue (of debate?), why should one look for evidence for express denial of limited atonement? But again, that Calvin may not have expressly denied “limited atonement” formally, he could still have denied it materially.

For example, and Kennedy brings this out in his most recent article (above), that in terms of The Many passages, Calvin goes out of his way to note that “the many” means not a part of the human race, but all of the human race, not some men, but all men, etc, etc.12


And it’s interesting, the men who knew him the best were very clear on the subject and you’d just simply have to accuse them of being…well, those second generation…they always go against the…go farther than the originals, etc., etc.

1) This is more of the same. White demonstrates an ignorance of the historical facts. The ‘men who knew him best’? Do any of them document Calvin’s commitment to limited atonement? No. Did any of them document a commitment, on their own part, to unlimited redemption? Yes, Musculus, Bullinger and others. Indeed, some of the earliest extant secondary source comments on Calvin on the extent question affirm that Calvin held to an unlimited satisfaction, not a limited satisfaction. None of these secondary source affirmations were ever challenged by contemporaries, to my knowledge.

We can’t even say that limited atonement just appeared after Calvin’s death, because we know that there were many proponents of unlimited satisfaction in the 1580s and beyond, such as, Paraeus, Ursinus, Kimedoncius. Limited Atonement as expressed in Owen’s Death of Death, for example, was a product of theological evolution and mutation over many years.

2) A good question which should be put to White is this: Does he concede that any of the original Reformers held to unlimited expiation?

If he can concede this, say Luther, then one might begin to have a platform by which one could examine his methodology and criteria by which he grounds his historical claims regarding Calvin. However, until we get a commitment from White on something like this, I cannot foresee any possibility of meaningful dialogue.


I think there’s much to be said about a consistency on Calvin’s part that goes beyond this, but the point is that was not one of his debates, so to read back into either Augustine or Calvin conclusions…that’d be like saying, ‘well you know Calvin was really against Federal Visionism’…that’s a modern thing, that’s not something that…you’d…the only meaningful type of argument you could make would be:

Exactly so. While Calvin did not formally debate or deny “Limited Atonement,” however, in terms of his own positive theological propositions respecting the nature and extent of the satisfaction, he denied it. What is more, he affirmed the critical points which limited atonement denies. To invert Helm’s argument, it is clear that Calvin was committed to an unlimited atonement.


Well, I find in Calvin certain teachings that would be inconsistent with a modern Federal Visionist understanding or something like that. That’s the only fair thing you can say. But to read something back into history like this and make this kind of just blanket statement, I think is just utterly unwarranted

Exactly right. For this same reason, though, we can identify statements and propositions and ideas in Calvin’s writing which preclude a commitment to limited atonement.13

To conclude.

While we cannot say that Calvin denied “Limited Atonement” we can say that he denied limited atonement, materially, as a doctrine, and he did this by denying the proposition(s) that Christ suffered only for some men, some part of the race, and not all of the race, and by his positive assertions that Christ suffered for all men, that he redeemed the world, that men whom he has redeemed are finally cast into hell.

Unfortunately, I’ve found that interacting with White and Turretfan seems pretty much pointless. They have an ability to stare down in complete denial any evidence (primary or secondary) which contradicts them. It’s a form of extreme investigative fideism, the sort that characterizes the evolutionist. No matter what evidence is adduced from any Reformer, Turretinfan, for example, will foolishly insist that he did not teach that, or, that we, for our part, are taking the given Reformer out of context. For his part, White defaults to Nicole’s outdated claims regarding Calvin, or to his anonymous “Calvin scholar” and to Calvin’s famous statement to Heshusius.14 In terms of academic investigation and interaction, after a while these sorts of evasions can only produce a meaningless one-sided monologue.

Unless White wants to engage in specific citations from Calvin’s writings, and while he avoids documenting a specific workable methodology, and while he chooses to only argue along broad generalizations (which are unprovable for the most part), interaction and dialogue are pretty much pointless.  Having said that,  I do readily invite any calm adult and academic discussion of the historical facts of the matter.

David Ponter


1Chris Duncan.

2Granted that a credible thinker may actually entail himself in a contradiction, but that’s not what I find incredible in the manner described above.

3Thanks to Tony Byrne for collating this material.

4Pieter, L. Rouwendal, “Calvin’s Forgotten Classical Position on the Extent of the Atonement.” Westminster Theological Journal 17 (2008): 317-335.

5As defined by them, and which is the same as the definition of limited atonement supplied in my preamble.

6Kevin D. Kennedy, “Hermeneutical Discontinuity between Calvin and later Calvinism,” Scottish Journal of theology 64 (2011): 299-312.


8See Moore’s article in the newly published work, Drawn into Controversie, ed., by Michael A.G. Haykin, and Mark Jones. Moore argues, along with Muller and Gatiss, that neither Dort nor the Westminster Confession preclude the sort of hypothetical universalism advocated by Davenant and Calamy. Moore’s article is a good rebuttal of the theses advocated by White and Turretinfan, and others.

9Gatiss, Lee, Shades of opinion within a generic Calvinism: The Particular Redemption Debate at the Westminster Assembly.


11To state this in the most charitable manner I can, this is a sort of “attack the credibility of the messenger” argument.


13Keep in mind, limited atonement as defined in the preamble.

14 A number of times in the past, White has uncritically referred to Calvin’s remark to Heshusius. For academic rebuttal see, Rouwendal; and more generally, Calvin and Heshusius. I should note, too, that White may reply to me that I should go and read his remarks in his Potter’s Freedom regarding Calvin on the extent of the atonement. I have read it, but the problem is, it’s just a regurgitation of Roger Nicole’s outdated article, which scholars like Pieter Rouwendal have already debunked. And Nicole himself easily assumed that one could discern the doctrine of Limited Atonement in Calvin’s theology, even though the doctrine was never formally debated.  White, himself, has not set out a proper methodology wherein his assertions regarding the alleged anachronisticity of attempts to retroject the later Limited Atonement debate into Calvin can be tested and evaluated; or even just more generally, how we should evaluate the specific data (even the so-called conflicting data) found in Calvin regarding the extent of the satisfaction.

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