Topic: “Calvin”

Predestination, the Atonement, and Perseverance Among the Reformers

This short essay was written for Church History: Reformation to Modernity. I trust it will at least not bore you to tears.

The first hundred years of the Reformation saw the rapid proliferation of a wide variety of views on the nature of salvation, and thus the most thorough development of the doctrine of soteriology in history. Luther and Zwingli both dealt with the topic to some extent, (re)introducing the notion of justification by faith alone and righteousness by imputation. It was not until the second and following generations of the Reformation, however, that the particular issues of predestination, the extent of the atonement, and perseverance of the saints became significant issues for debate. Once they had come up, however, the topics became painfully divisive in the Reformed tradition, leading to schism over and over again in the centuries that followed. Did God actively elect the saints to heaven and preserve them while actively electing the reprobate to hell (double predestination), actively elect the saints to heaven and preserve them while simply allowing the reprobate to continue on their rebellious course for hell (single predestination), or passively elect the saints on the basis of his foreknowledge of their free choice and perseverance? Was the atonement intended to extend to all men, or only to some; and was its effect applied generally or only specifically to the elect?

At the fount of the discussion stood John Calvin. Calvin argued for an Augustinian view of the means of salvation. Interestingly, though approaching the issues of predestination, the extent of the atonement, and perseverance in the generally more systematic Institutes of the Christian Religion than Augustine ever had, he ultimately was little less ambiguous than the Father had been. With Augustine, he clearly affirmed predestination, and with Augustine it is unclear whether he affirmed single or double predestination. Similarly, there are currents in his writing that suggest both general and limited views of the atonement. The topics are simply never addressed clearly in his writings, for it was the Institutes that prompted future generations to answer these questions. On perseverance, however, he was clearer: God does preserve all the elect and all those who have made credible professions of faith and are seeking to walk with God may be confident of their salvation.

Calvin’s immediate heir in Geneva, Theodore Beza, set about further systematizing Calvin’s doctrine in the many years between Calvin’s death and his own. He affirmed double predestination, establishing it as a position with lasting influence in the Reformed tradition to this day. In consequence, he also clearly affirmed the perseverance of the elect—but, curiously, he also broke with Calvin by rejecting assurance and suggesting that Christians ought to regularly question their salvation. He also clearly articulated the limited atonement position, arguing decisively that God intended Christ’s death only for the elect.

Beza’s most famous student, Jacob Arminius, was also his most famous opponent. In the latter years of his life, the Dutch pastor-turned-professor began openly questioning the reigning Bezan interpretation of Calvin. Against Beza, Arminius claimed that the atonement was unlimited and applied to all men, not only the elect. Further, he rejected both single and double predestination and argued that God’s choosing of the elect was based on their free choice and perseverance to the end of their lives. Thus, in his view, God did not cause salvation in a monergistic act that decisively changed a human’s heart, but supplied prevenient grace that enabled all men to respond to the gospel when it was preached. This in turn led him to argue that perseverance was also not guaranteed by God, but dependent on the continuing effort and faithfulness of men: the elect were those who persevered, not those whom God kept from falling away. Like Beza, Arminius claimed he was the true heir to Calvin’s theology.

Moise Amyraut sought to find a middle way that recognized both God’s sovereign election and a general atonement. Thus, he embraced single predestination (against Beza’s more radical double predestinarian position), and accordingly embraced a robust view of God’s sustaining the believer to persevere. On the other hand, he agreed with Arminius that the atonement was in at least some sense general and intended for all men. Since he nonetheless acknowledged God’s predestination of some men, Amyraut posited two wills in God. One was the public will, that all men be saved, which corresponded with the intended universal extent of the atonement. The other was his secret, electing will, which corresponding with the actual, limited effect of the atonement. He acknowledged that his view was less logically tight than either Arminius’ or Beza’s formulations, but maintained that his was the most Scriptural (as well, unsurprisingly, as the one most in line with Calvin).

I find Calvin and Amyraut’s restraint on the topic admirable. There are too many passages in Scripture which speak of God’s will that all men be saved for me to embrace double predestination, and too many passages that speak clearly of God’s special election of the saints based not on anything in man but solely in his gracious will for me to embrace Arminius’ views. There is clearly a degree of tension in (our ability to understand) Scripture’s teaching on these matters, and so it seems to me that restraint is best. I thus find myself a Calvinist who holds the five points confidently but with strong sympathies for Amyraut’s position and even stronger sympathies for his recognition that the Scriptures do not present us with a tidy explanation of this difficult topic. With Calvin, I refuse to make predestination the centerpiece of my theology, preferring rather to focus on the glory of God and the life of the church.