Was Calvin a Calvinist?

The first time I heard this question I thought the person was just trying to be cute. The intent of the question is to ask if John Calvin would adhere to what commonly goes by “Calvinism” today. In other words, would he call himself a Calvinist? The rub in the question usually surrounds the “L” in the acrostic TULIP or “limited atonement.” Those who respond in the negative to our question say that Calvin believed in unlimited atonement but his followers developed the doctrine of limited atonement but this doctrine was never sanctioned, accepted, or taught by Calvin himself. In fact they point to passages where they believe he explicitly states his acceptance of unlimited atonement. My own opinion on the subject was heavily influenced by Paul Helm’s book Calvin and the Calvinists who taught that there is a stronger continuity between Calvin and his followers than is made by some. In particular, he responds to some of the views set forth by R.T. Kendall.

Renowned reformed scholar Richard Muller addresses this question in his new book Calvin and the Reformed Tradition. Indeed, he devotes an entire chapter to this question. Here are just a few excerpts from the chapter:

“Answering the perennial question ‘Was Calvin a Calvinist?’ is a rather complicated matter, given that the question itself is grounded in a series of modern misconceptions concerning the relationship of the Reformation to the post-Reformation orthodoxy. I propose here to examine issues lurking behind the question and work through some ways of understanding the continuities, discontinuities, and developments that took place in Reformed thought on such topics as the divine decrees, predestination, and so-called limited atonement, with specific attention to the place of Calvin in the Reformed tradition of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.” (51)

“The question at issue between Calvin and the later Reformed does not entail any debate over the value or merit of Christ’s death: virtually all were agreed that it was sufficient to pay the price for the sins of the whole world. Neither was the question at issue whether all human beings would actually be saved: all (including Arminius) agreed that this was not to be the case. To make the point another way, if ‘atonement’ is taken to mean the value or sufficiency of Christ’s death, only a very few theologians involved in the early modern debates taught limited atonement–and if atonement is taken to mean the actual salvation accomplished in particular persons, then no one involved in those debates taught unlimited atonement (except perhaps the much-reviled Samuel Huber).”(60-61)

“Historically, framed in language understandable in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there were two questions to be answered. First, the question posed by Arminius and answered at Dort: given the sufficiency of Christ’s death to pay the price for all sin, how ought one to understand the limitation of the efficacy to some? In Arminus’ view, the efficacy was limited by the choice of some persons to believe, others not to believe, and predestination was grounded in a divine foreknowledge of the choice. In the view of the Synod of Dort, the efficacy was limited according to the assumption of salvation by grace alone, to God’s elect. Calvin was quite clear on the point: the application or efficacy of Christ’s death was limited to the elect. And in this conclusion there was also accord among the later Reformed theologians.” (60-61)

Muller says the answer to “Was Calvin a Calvinist?’ “is certainly a negative. Calvin was not a “Calvinist”–but then again, neither were the ‘Calvinists.’ They were all contributors to the Reformed tradition.” Is Muller suggesting Calvin didn’t believe in limited atonement? In chapter three Muller deals extensively with the Biblical passages involved in the debate and Calvin’s contributions to them and the theology behind them.

Muller says the terms “limited” and “unlimited atonement” are “rather slippery” (105) and “ought to be avoided, indeed, removed from the historical discussion.” (106) Nonetheless some conclusions can be determined.

“Calvin taught that the value, virtue, or merit of Christ’s work served as sufficient payment for the sins of all human beings, and provided the basis for the divine promise that all who believe will be saved, assuming that believers are recipients of God’s grace and that unbelievers are ‘left without excuse’–as also did, granting different nuancings of the relation of divine intentionality to the value or sufficiency of Christ’s death, Theodore Beza, the Canons of Dort, John Davenant, Pierre Du Moulin, Moïse Amyraut, Francis Turretin, and a host of other often forgotten and sometimes maligned Reformed writers of the next two centuries, among them both particularists and hypothetical universalists. On the other hand, Calvin assumed that Christ’s work, albeit sufficient payment for the sins of the world and for securing the salvation of all human beings in even a thousand worlds, is by divine intention effective for the elect only, as did Beza, Gomarus, Du Moulin, Davenant, Turretin, and in his own way, Amyraut as well. He argued this limitation of efficacy in terms of the limited intercession of Christ, the divine intention and effective will to save only the elect, and the historical limitations of the preaching of the gospel as, he believed, intended by God–again assumptions shared by various particularists and non-Amyraldian hypothetical universalists alike.” (105)

This is an important book for those with an interest in Calvin and the Reformed tradition. The book comes from Baker Academic. It is a paperback with 288 pages and sells for $39.99. Put this one on your Christmas list.

Richard A. Muller (PhD, Duke University) is P. J. Zondervan Professor of Historical Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the author of numerous books, including The Unaccommodated Calvin, After Calvin, and Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics. He also serves as the editor for the Texts and Studies in Reformation and Post-Reformation Thought series.


About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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3 Responses to Was Calvin a Calvinist?

  1. Thank you for the quotes. I recently listened to a talk where the speaker concluded that Calvin wasn’t a Calvinist, partly because of the L and a little because of the extent of the T. Also, we base our theology on his Institutes, but Calvin didn’t write them as a distinct theology. It’s a teaching and distillation of Christian doctrine, much of it already formulated by Augustine, who he quotes liberally. Although I have way too many books to read, this would be interesting also. I’m very reticent to call myself a Calvinist and try to use Reformed. But I really would have to call myself a Calvinist too, I think. This book would clear more things up.


  2. Also, how would you compare Muller with Helm?


    • Louis says:

      It’s been several years since I’ve read Helm, but he and Muller both see more continuity than discontinuity. I’m sure there are nuances between them but it has been too long since I’ve read Helm to help with those. Helm writes primarily as a philosopher and Muller as a historian. Anyone writing today on the subject might get away with ignoring Helm (though she shouldn’t) but she cannot afford to ignore Muller. This is a tour de force. Ignoring Muller on this point simply reveals a disinterest in seriously wrestling with the issues.


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