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Calvin: Still Making Points with Baptists

July 10 marks the 500-year anniversary of the birth of John Calvin, the influential Reformer, pastor, and theologian. Numerous organizations are celebrating the Calvin Jubilee this year, especially in Geneva, Switzerland, where Calvin’s ministry centered. He is rightly honored as one of the most influential individuals in church history. Nearly half a millennium later his Biblical commentaries are still in print, a testimony to the lasting quality of his scholarship.

Many Baptists still debate the merits of Calvin’s theology, using “Calvinism” as a handy label to distill five points concerning God’s salvation of sinners. These five points, a response to Arminian theology, were summarized by the Synod of Dort (1618-1619). Soon after these debates began, English Baptists were emerging across the Channel, and were already disagreeing over the extent of the atonement. General Baptists believed that Jesus’ atonement was given for all people in general, and Particular Baptists believed that Jesus’ atonement was only for the elect in “particular.”

This discussion continues today, with contemporary debates concerning John Calvin often generating more heat than light. So my article will not attempt to decide the theological accuracy of the “five points” of Calvinism. Rather, this essay will suggest that Calvin himself might find a Baptist distillation of his theology into “five points” as somewhat curious. In the process, I will discuss three conclusions that have reached a general consensus among modern Calvin scholars, and will use these three ideas as entry points into Calvin’s (1) Institutes, (2) treatises, and (3) commentaries and sermons, respectively.

Calvin’s emphasis on God’s supremacy

God’s glorious and sovereign majesty formed more of a “theological center” for Calvin than the “five points” as such (although one’s understanding of divine sovereignty and understanding of the “five points” are naturally interrelated).[1] John Calvin composed multiple editions of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, with the definitive Latin edition appearing in 1559 and the definitive French edition appearing in 1560. According to a “General Syllabus” to the Institutes, Calvin “strictly” followed the four-part structure of the Apostles’ Creed.

Calvin’s unwavering belief in unconditional election and predestination was established from the beginning of his public ministry, including the first edition of the Institutes. In subsequent revisions, Calvin transferred his discussion of election from the first book (on theology proper) to later sections (on soteriology and ecclesiology). Subsequent editions also dedicated more and more space to the doctrine of predestination. A comparison of the editions reveals a development in presentation; and no theological development takes place in a historical vacuum. Historians of theology affirm that as Calvin accorded a growing importance to predestination, “he did so under the sway of ecclesiological and pastoral preoccupations rather than in order to make it a foundation of his theology.”[2] As Paul Wernle affirmed, “It cannot be overemphasized . . . predestination is a long way from being the centre of Calvinism.”[3] This does not, of course, downplay the importance of predestination for Calvin.[4]

In 1965, Louis Cassels noted, “The distinctive theme of Calvin’s theology was the absolute sovereignty of God.”[5] The ramification of this insight is that predestination and election are important corollaries of the center of Calvin’s theology, but they are not (in and of themselves) the center itself. Many contemporary scholars agree. J. I. Packer explains, “Predestination, the eternal purpose of God concerning grace, is not, as used to be thought, the focal theme of Calvin’s theology.”[6] Frank A. James III writes, “Past interpreters often fell victim to the misconception that predestination resided at the center of his theology. However, most acknowledge today that he never discussed predestination as his most basic presupposition.”[7]

Calvin’s emphasis on God’s glorious and sovereign majesty leads to important soteriological corollaries in Calvin’s theology, of course. As Herman Hanko of the Protestant Reformed Church explains, “The deepest principle of Calvin’s theology was the absolute glory of God: soli Deo gloria. In closest relationship to this principle of God’s glory stands the truth of God’s absolute sovereignty. God is not only glorious in Himself, but He reveals His glory in all that He does. If all that He does is a revelation of His glory, then sovereignty characterizes all His works. God is the Sovereign who does all His good pleasure. And this sovereignty must be applied to the work of salvation. God is sovereign in saving sinners. He is not dependent upon them in any respect.”[8]

Opposition to believer’s baptism

Calvin passionately denounced the doctrine of “believer’s baptism” as false teaching. In 1544, Calvin published his Brief Instruction for Arming All the Good Faithful against the Errors of the Common Sect of the Anabaptists. The introduction of this work contends that the Anabaptist Schleitheim Confession of Faith was composed by “ignorant persons,” since it contained “nothing beneficial for persons of learning and understanding, seeing that, in addition to being inept and haphazardly written, it sufficiently discredits itself.”[9] In writing his critique, Calvin wished to protect “all the poor faithful, who are uncultured and without letters” from what Calvin believed was “the poisonous character of the doctrine of the Anabaptists.” Calvin hoped to “guide them back to the right road,” but he also wished to protect the Reformed faithful from their “perverse opinions” and “false doctrines.”

After introductory (and sometimes ad hominem) criticisms, Calvin addressed the first article of the Schleitheim Confession of Faith, which defends believer’s baptism. The Anabaptists declared, “Baptism ought to be given to those who have been instructed in repentance, who believe that their sins have been blotted out by Jesus Christ, and who want to walk in His resurrection. Consequently it ought to be administered to those who request it for themselves, not for infants, as is done in the pope’s kingdom.”

Calvin’s quiver is full of arrows shot back in response. First, he argued from tradition that infant baptism “has always been a holy ordinance observed in the Christian church.” Second, Calvin argued that the promise God made with Abraham (“I am the God of your descendants”) also applies “to every faithful believer” in the Church Age. Therefore, when a person is saved, “the promise of salvation which is given to him is not for him alone but also for his children” and “his posterity is also made part of the family of the church.” Third, Calvin believed that infant baptism parallels the practice of infant circumcision in the Abrahamic covenant.

Calvin was willing to grant that infant baptism is not explicitly mentioned in Scripture, but he reached for one final argumentative arrow: The New Testament never explicitly mentions the administration of the Lord’s Supper to a woman either. If women are offered the Lord’s Supper because of “the institution, nature, and substance of the sacrament,” then the same reasoning can be applied to infant baptism, “inasmuch as our Lord regards [infants] as servants of His church.”

Calvin closed by referring readers to his Institutes and their “more ample explanation . . . where all the arguments are refuted in detail.”[10] The Institutes also reasoned from Jesus Christ’s invitation, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, for of such is the kingdom of God.” Moreover, the Institutes developed the notion that baptism is the sign of repentance and faith but that the sign sometimes follows the understanding (as in convert baptism) and at other times precedes the understanding (as in infant baptism). Calvin then insisted that many infants are regenerated in the mother’s womb or in early infancy, and therefore it is entirely appropriate to baptize infants.

Calvin granted that the Anabaptists would use such texts as 1 Peter 1:23 to argue that regeneration is united with the Word, and infants have not received the gospel in personal trust. While agreeing that “the word of the Lord is the only seed of spiritual regeneration,” Calvin also insisted it was “possible and easy” for God to sovereignly regenerate infants, and that it was dangerous to deny that “the Lord is able to furnish them with the knowledge of himself in any way he pleases.”[11]

Calvin and the extent of the atonement

Calvin seems to have differed from many of his theological descendants concerning “the extent of the atonement,”at least in degree of emphasis. I have worded this proposition carefully, as a “general consensus” that most contemporary scholars would concede. (Knowing that this debate is too complex to fit within the limitations of a magazine article, I have written a longer study posted at, including full citations.)

Readers are aware of the difficult question about the extent of the atonement. Did Jesus Christ die for the sins of the whole world, or did He die only for the elect? Historically, the early General Baptists believed that Jesus’ atonement was given for all people in general, and Particular Baptists believed that Jesus’ atonement was only for the elect in “particular.” The GARBC itself has never dilineated the extent of the atonement in its doctrinal statements.

In this article, I will concentrate on Calvin’s view of the atonement as seen in in his sermons and commentaries. Scholars readily agree that Calvin taught the “free offer” (general call) of the gospel to all people. For instance, in his commentary on Romans, Calvin declared, “The gospel invites all to partake of salvation without any difference,” for “Christ is there offered.”[12] And in his commentary on John, Calvin wrote that Christ “offers salvation to all indiscriminately and stretches out His arms to embrace all, that all may be the more encouraged to repent.”[13]

In addition, scholars unanimously agree Calvin taught that the Spirit effectually works in only the elect. Calvin explained: “Moreover, let us remember that although life is promised generally to all who believe in Christ, faith is not common to all. Christ is open to all and displayed to all, but God opens the eyes only of the elect that they may seek Him by faith.”[14] (See also other examples in my longer online study.)

The real debate begins when interpreters discuss Calvin’s view of the extent of the atonement. Did Calvin believe Christ’s sacrifice was intentionally provided for all in some sense; or, did Calvin believe salvation was universally offered but without a coordinate universal provision in some sense? At face value, Calvin certainly appears to have coordinated a universal provision of Christ with the universal offer. In his commentary on Romans 5:18, Calvin affirmed, “Although Christ suffered for the sins of the world, and is offered by the goodness of God without distinction to all men, yet not all receive Him.”[15] In his commentary on Galatians 5:12, Calvin declared, “God commends to us the salvation of all men without exception, even as Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world.”[16]

Calvin seemingly drew implications from Christ’s sufferings “for all.” A sermon on Isaiah 53 warned, “Our Lord Jesus suffered for all and there is neither great nor small who is not inexcusable today, for we can obtain salvation in Him. Unbelievers who turn away from Him and who deprive themselves of Him by their malice are today doubly culpable. For how will they excuse their ingratitude in not receiving the blessing in which they could share by faith? . . . Let us not fear to come to Him in great numbers, and each one of us bring his neighbours, seeing that He is sufficient to save us all.”[17]

Calvin’s sermon on 2 Timothy 2 declared, “For it is no small matter to have the souls perish which were bought by the blood of Christ.”[18] Similarly, a sermon on Ephesians exhorted, “Also we ought to have good care of those that have been redeemed with the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. If we see souls which have been so precious to God go to perdition, and we make nothing of it, that is to despise the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[19] Calvin could even state, “So we must beware, or souls redeemed by Christ may perish by our carelessness, for their salvation to some degree was put into our hands by God.”[20] Calvin clearly was not as guarded in his wording as many later “high” Calvinists tended to be.[21]

Reformed interpreters have expressed differing opinions concerning such evidence. Some have labored to prove that Calvin espoused “limited atonement” as understood today, in spite of the materials assembled to the contrary. Scholarly “five-point Calvinists” such as Paul Helm, Jonathan Rainbow, and Roger Nicole have argued that the overall tenor of Calvin’s systematic theology points toward limited atonement.[22] Other interpreters, such as R. T. Kendall, Brian Armstrong, and Alan Clifford, have argued that Calvin himself was a so-called “Amyraldian” or “four-point Calvinist.”[23]

And some have concluded that the question is ultimately unanswerable. Last year (2008), Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing issued an essay arguing that Calvin himself was “ambiguous or contradictory” and “noncommittal on the extent of the atonement,” although “the position of limited atonement is a logical extension of Calvin’s thought.”[24] Last fall, an article in the Westminster Theological Journal concluded that Calvin held to neither the “particular” view nor the “unlimited” view as construed today, but rather he maintained the “classic view” which simply left the question “For whom did Christ die?” rather open-ended.[25] P. L. Rouwendal, the Reformed author of this provocative article, argued that the attempt to fit John Calvin himself within post-Calvin debates is an “anachronism” and therefore a poor example of historical scholarship.

For the sake of argument, let us concede that Calvin may have believed in “limited atonement” as it is usually construed today, although he did not explicitly emphasize it (either because the question itself is “anachronistic” or because of Calvin’s own “lack of precision”). Nevertheless, a corollary still follows from such a restrained conclusion, since it implicitly acknowledges that the emphatic “high” Calvinists of later generations differed from Calvin himself at least in the manner of emphasis (if not in substance). In such a framework, Calvin himself would seemingly view a Baptist (or any other) reduction of his theology to the “five points of Calvinism” as somewhat simplistic.

John Calvin, the illustrious Genevan reformer, is truly worthy of honor during this quincentenary of his birth. But in any Baptist view, he is not honored for the entirety of his theology. Even the most “Calvinistic” Baptists oppose the reformer’s positions on infant baptism, the “sacraments,” the nature of the church, church polity, and church and state. Furthermore, contemporary scholarship reveals that the historical reality is far more complex than a simplified handful of “five points.” The deeper one digs in historical study, the more one appreciates the fact that God has providentially worked through the complexities, intricacies, and shortcomings of ecclesiastical history (even through those who are not “just like us”). Calvin himself would heartily agree with such an admiration of divine providence. Moreover, Calvin would undoubtedly remind us to focus upon God Himself and His glorious sovereignty during this 500-year jubilee.

Paul Hartog (PhD, Loyola University of Chicago) is cochair of the Division of Bible and Theology at Faith Baptist Bible College, Ankeny, Iowa. Read his longer study on this subject at


[1] “As a matter of fact, most leading scholars today maintain that there is no one single key to unlock the door of Calvin’s theology” (Richard Gamble, “Current Trends in Calvin Research, 1982-90,” in Calvinus Sacrae Scripturae Professor, ed. Wilhelm Neuser [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994], 106).

[2] Fran├žois Wendel, Calvin (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), 264.

[3] Quoted in Wendel, Calvin, 265.

[4] See the strong words in John Calvin, Institutes III.21.4.

[5] 5. Louis Cassels, What’s the Difference? A Comparison of the Faiths Men Live By (Doubleday, 1965), chapter 5.

[6] 6. As cited in Herman Hanko, “The Doctrine of Predestination in Calvin and Beza,” Protestant Reformed Theological Journal 22 (1989), 14.

[7] Frank A. James III, “It Was Both a Horrible Decree and Very Sweet Fruit: Calvin on Predestination,” Christian History 12 (October 1986), 24.

[8] 8. Hanko, “Doctrine of Predestination,” 15.

[9] Material in this section quotes John Calvin, Treatises against the Anabaptists and against the Libertines, ed. and trans. Benjamin Wirt Farley (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1982), 36-55.

[10] Calvin, Treatises against the Anabaptists, 55.

[11] Calvin, Institutes 4.16; from Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 2, ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1324-1359.

[12] John Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and to the Thessalonians, trans. Ross Mackenzie (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), 27.

[13] John Calvin, The Gospel according to St John 11-21 and the First Epistle of John, trans. T. H. L. Parker (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961), 52.

[14] John Calvin, The Gospel According to St John 1-10, trans. T. H. L. Parker (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959), 75.

[15] Calvin, Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and to the Thessalonians, 118.

[16] John Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians, trans. T. H. L. Parker (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 99.

[17] John Calvin, Sermons on Isaiah 53, trans. T. H. L. Parker (London: James Clarke, 1956), 141.

[18] John Calvin, Sermons on Timothy and Titus, trans. Arthur Golding (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1983), 817.

[19] John Calvin, Sermons on Ephesians, trans. Arthur Golding (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1973), 521.

[20] John Calvin, The Epistles of James and Jude, trans. A. W. Morrison (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 318.

[21] I am using “high” Calvinism of coalesced “high orthodox” Calvinism. I acknowledge that such labels, including “Amyraldian,” “five point,” and “four point” Calvinism lack uniform definitional clarity.

[22] Paul Helm, Calvin and the Calvinists (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982); Roger Nicole, “John Calvin’s View of the Extent of the Atonement,” Westminster Theological Journal 47 (1985): 197-225; Jonathan Rainbow, The Will of God and the Cross (San Jose: Pickwick, 1990).

[23] 23. R. T. Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979); Brian Armstrong, Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969); Alan Clifford, Calvinus: Authentic Calvinism, a Clarification (Norwich: Charenton Reformed, 2007).

[24] Peterson, “Calvin,” 247. According to Peterson, Calvin still “maintained the intrinsic efficacy of the atonement.”

[25] P. L. Rouwendal, “Calvin’s Forgotten Classical Position on the Extent of the Atonement: About Sufficiency, Efficiency, and Anachronism,” Westminster Theological Journal 70 (2008): 317-335.

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