Archive for the ‘Reformed Theology’ Category

The Two Parts of the Word of God: Law & Gospel

September 27, 2011

From Reformation Ink

By Theodore Beza (1519-1605)

The following article by Theodore Beza was taken from chapter four (sections 22-30) of his book The Christian Faith, translated into english by James Clark (Focus Christian Ministries Trust, East Essex England, 1992). This book was a “best seller” during the Protestant Reformation, and appeared in 1558 under the original title of Confession De Foi Du Chretien. The current modern edition contains no copyright notice, therefore it is assumed that the articles contained within it may be freely distributed. The electronic edition of this book was scanned and edited by Shane Rosenthal for Reformation Ink. Original pagination has been retained for purposes of reference. Original title appears below. Read more»

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Propitiation in 1 John 2:2

July 21, 2011

(A Doctrinal Study on the Extent of the Atonement)

Dr. Gary D. Long

This article is “Appendix II,” entitled, Definite Atonement, Philadelphia:
Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1977, pp 85-101.

Introduction

In discussing the design or extent of the atonement, there are three key doctrinal terms which are related to the priestly sacrifice of Christ on earth, that is, to the finished work of Christ. These terms are redemption, propitiation and reconciliation. Evangelical Arminians and Calvinistic “four point” universalists or modified Calvinists 1 hold that there is a universal design of the atonement which provides salvation for all mankind without exception or which places all of Adam’s posterity in a savable state. They contend that there is a twofold application of these three doctrinal terms — an actual application for those who believe, a provisional application for those who die in unbelief. The historic “five point” or consistent Calvinist 2 asserts that these terms have no substitutionary reference with respect to the non-elect. In contrast to the former who hold to an indefinite atonement, the consistent Calvinist, who holds to a definite atonement, sees no purpose, benefit or comfort in a redemption that does not redeem, a propitiation that does not propitiate or a reconciliation that does not reconcile, which would be the case if these terms were applicable to the non-elect.

For those who have wrestled with the extent of the atonement, they are acutely aware that there are three problem verses 3 which the five point Calvinist must scripturally answer if he is to consistently sustain a biblical position before the modified Calvinist that the saving design of the atonement is intended by the triune God only for the elect. These verses are II Peter 2:1, which pertains to redemption; I John 2:2, which pertains to propitiation; and II Corinthians 5:19, which pertains to reconciliation. If the particular redemptionist can scripturally establish in any of these verses that God’s design of the atonement does not extend to the non-elect, then the theological case for the unlimited redemptionist crumples. In summary, if universal propitiation in I John 2:2 cannot be biblically established, then what purpose does a universal redemption in II Peter 2:1 or a universal reconciliation in II Corinthians 5:19 serve? Can it be true that God the Son redeemed the non-elect for whom God the Father’s wrath will never be propitiated (satisfied or appeased) by virtue of Christ’s death or that God the Father has been reconciled by virtue of Christ’s death to the non-elect upon whom His condemning wrath eternally abides (John 3:36)?

The purpose of this doctrinal appendix (the second in a series by the author on problem verses relating to the extent of the atonement) is to theologically approach I John 2:2, which relates to propitiation—the second of the three major doctrinal terms. May those who have believed through grace find this appendix of much help in their doctrinal study of the Word of God. Read more»

Calvin on 1 John 2:2

July 12, 2011

John Calvin’s Commentary on 1 John 2:2

1. My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous:
2. And he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.

2 And not for ours only He added this for the sake of amplifying, in order that the faithful might be assured that the expiation made by Christ, extends to all who by faith embrace the gospel.

Here a question may be raised, how have the sins of the whole world been expiated? I pass by the dotages of the fanatics, who under this pretense extend salvation to all the reprobate, and therefore to Satan himself. Such a monstrous thing deserves no refutation. They who seek to avoid this absurdity, have said that Christ suffered sufficiently for the whole world, but efficiently only for the elect. This solution has commonly prevailed in the schools. Though then I allow that what has been said is true, yet I deny that it is suitable to this passage; for the design of John was no other than to make this benefit common to the whole Church. Then under the word all or whole, he does not include the reprobate, but designates those who should believe as well as those who were then scattered through various parts of the world. For then is really made evident, as it is meet, the grace of Christ, when it is declared to be the only true salvation of the world.

Source

Calvin and Beza

July 11, 2011

The Extent of the Atonement

Taken from W. Cunningham, “Calvin and Beza,” British and Foreign Evangelical Review 10 (1861) 641-702. Reprinted in The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation (Edinburgh: Clark, 1862) 395-402.

By William Cunningham

III. It has been contended very frequently, and very confidently, that Calvin did not sanction the views which have been generally held by Calvinistic divines, in regard to the extent of the atonement,—that he did not believe in the doctrine of particular redemption, that is, that Christ did not die for all men, but only for the elect, for those who are actually saved,—but that, on the contrary, he asserted a universal, unlimited, or indefinite atonement. Amyraut, in defending his doctrine of universal atonement in combination with Calvinistic views upon other points, appealed confidently to the authority of Calvin; and, indeed, he wrote a treatise entitled, “Eschantillon de la Doctrine de Calvin touchant la Praedestination,” chiefly for the purpose of showing that Calvin supported his views about the extent of the atonement, and was in all respects a very moderate Calvinist. Daillee, in his “Apologia pro duabus Synodis,” which is a very elaborate defence, in reply to Spanheim, of Amyraut’s views about universal grace and universal atonement, fills above forty pages with extracts from Calvin as testimonies in his favour. Indeed, the whole of the last portion of this work of Daillee, consisting of nearly five hundred pages, is occupied with extracts, produced as testimonies in favour of universal grace and universal atonement, from almost every eminent writer, from Clemens Romanus down to the middle of the seventeenth century; and we doubt if the whole history of theological controversy furnishes a stronger case of the adduction of irrelevant and inconclusive materials. It was chiefly the survey of this vast collection of testimonies, that suggested to us the observations which we have laid before our readers in our discussion of the views of Melancthon.1

It is certain that Beza held the doctrine of particular redemption, or of a limited atonement, as it has since been held by most Calvinists, and brought it out fully in his controversies with the Lutherans on the subject of predestination; though he was not, as has sometimes been asserted, the first who maintained it. It has been confidently alleged that Calvin did not concur in this view, but held the opposite doctrine of universal redemption and unlimited atonement. Now it is true, that we do not find in Calvin’s writings explicit statements as to any limitation in the object of the atonement, or in the number of those for whom Christ died; and no Calvinist, not even Dr Twisse, the great champion of high Supralapsarianism, has ever denied that there is a sense in which it may be affirmed that Christ died for all men. But we think it is likewise true, that no sufficient evidence has been produced that Calvin believed in a universal or unlimited atonement. Of all the passages in Calvin’s writings, bearing more or less directly upon this subject,—which we remember to have read or have seen produced on either side,—there is only one which, with anything like confidence, can be regarded as formally and explicitly denying an unlimited atonement; and notwithstanding all the pains that have been taken to bring out the views of Calvin upon this question, we do not recollect to have seen it adverted to except by a single popish writer. It occurs in his treatise “De vera participatione Christi in coena,” in reply to Heshusius, a violent Lutheran defender of the corporal presence of Christ in the eucharist. The passage is this:—”Scire velim quomodo Christi carnem edant impii pro quibus non est crucifixa, et quomodo sanguinem bibant qui expiandis eorum peccatis non est effusus.”2 [“I should like to know how the wicked can eat the flesh of Christ which was not crucified for them, and how they can drink the blood which was not shed to expiate their sins.” — Ed] This is a very explicit denial of the universality of the atonement. But it stands alone,—so far as we know,—in Calvin’s writings, and for this reason we do not found much upon it; though, at the same time, we must observe, that it is not easy to understand how, if Calvin really believed in a universal atonement for the human race, such a statement could ever have dropped from him. We admit, however, that he has not usually given any distinct indication, that he believed in any limitation as to the objects of the atonement; and that upon a survey of all that has been produced from his writings, there is fair ground for a difference of opinion as to what his doctrine upon this point really was. The truth is, that no satisfactory evidence has been or can be derived from his writings, that the precise question upon the extent of the atonement which has been mooted in more modern times, in the only sense in which it can became a question among men who concur in holding the doctrine of unconditional personal election to everlasting life, ever exercised Calvin’s mind, or was made by him the subject of any formal or explicit deliverance. The topic was not then formally discussed as a distinct subject of controversy; and Calvin does not seem to have been ever led, in discussing cognate questions, to take up this one and to give a deliverance regarding it. We believe that no sufficient evidence has been brought forward that Calvin held that Christ died for all men, or for the whole world, in any such sense as to warrant Calvinistic universalists,—that is, men who, though holding Calvinistic doctrines upon other points, yet believe in a universal or unlimited atonement,—in asserting that he sanctioned their peculiar principles.

It is true that Calvin has intimated more than once his conviction, that the position laid down by some of the schoolmen, viz., that Christ died “sufficienter pro omnibus, efficaciter pro electis,” [“sufficiently for all, efficiently for the elect” — Ed] is sound and orthodox in some sense. But then he has never, so far as we remember or have seen proved, explained precisely in what sense he held it, and there is a sense in which the advocates of particular redemption can consistently admit and adopt it.3 It is true also, that Calvin has often declared, that the offers and invitations of the gospel are addressed by God, and should be addressed by us, indiscriminately to all men, without distinction or exception; and that the principal and proximate cause why men to whom the gospel is preached finally perish, is their own sin and unbelief in putting away from them the word of life. But these are principles which the advocates of particular redemption believe to be true, and to be vitally important; and which they never hesitate to apply and to act upon. It is quite fair to attempt to deduce an argument in favour of the doctrine of a universal atonement, from the alleged impossibility of reconciling the doctrine of an atonement, limited as to its objects or destination in God’s purpose or intention, with the universal or unlimited offers and invitations of the gospel, or with the ascription of men’s final condemnation to their own sin and unbelief. But as the generality of the advocates of a limited atonement deny that the inconsistency of these two things, or the impossibility of reconciling them, can be proved, and profess to hold both, it is quite unwarrantable to infer, in regard to any particular individual, that because he held the one, he must be presumed to have rejected the other. And there is certainly nothing in Calvin’s general character and principles, or in any thing he has written, which affords ground for the conclusion, that the alleged impossibility of reconciling these two things, would,—had he been led to investigate the matter formally,—have perplexed him much, or have tempted him to embrace the doctrine of universal atonement, which is certainly somewhat alien, to say the least, in its general spirit and complexion, to the leading features of his theological system. And this consideration is entitled to the more weight for this reason, that this difficulty is not greater than some others with which he did grapple, and which he disposed of in a different and more scriptural way,—or rather, is just the very same difficulty, put in a different form, and placed in a somewhat different position.

There is not, then, we are persuaded, satisfactory evidence that Calvin held the doctrine of a universal, unlimited, or indefinite atonement. And, moreover, we consider ourselves warranted in asserting, that there is sufficient evidence that he did not hold this doctrine; though on the grounds formerly explained, and with the one exception already adverted to, it is not evidence which bears directly and immediately upon this precise point. The evidence of this position is derived chiefly from the two following considerations.

1st. Calvin consistently, unhesitatingly, and explicitly denied the doctrine of God’s universal grace and love to all men,—that is, omnibus et singulis, to each and every man,—as implying in some sense a desire or purpose or intention to save them all; and with this universal grace or love to all men the doctrine of a universal or unlimited atonement, in the nature of the case, and in the convictions and admissions of all its supporters, stands inseparably connected. That Calvin denied the doctrine of God’s universal grace or love to all men, as implying some desire or intention of saving them all, and some provision directed to that object, is too evident to any one who has read his writings, to admit of doubt or to require proof. We are not aware that the doctrine of a universal atonement ever has been maintained, even by men who were in other respects Calvinistic, except in conjunction and in connection with an assertion of God’s universal grace or love to all men. And it is manifestly impossible that it should be otherwise. If Christ died for all men,—pro omnibus et singulis,—this must have been in some sense an expression or indication of a desire or intention on the part of God, and of a provision made by Him, directed to the object of saving them all, though frustrated in its effect, by their refusal to embrace the provision made for and offered to them. A universal atonement, or the death of Christ for all men,—that is, for each and every man,—necessarily implies this, and would be an anomaly in the divine government without it. No doubt, it may be said, that the doctrine of a universal atonement necessitates, in logical consistency, a denial of the Calvinistic doctrine of election, as much as it necessitates an admission of God’s universal grace or love to all men; and we believe this to be true. But still, when we find that, in point of fact, none has ever held the doctrine of universal atonement without holding also the doctrine of universal grace,—while it is certain that some men of distinguished ability and learning, such as Amyraut and Daillee, Davenant and Baxter, have held both these doctrines of universal atonement and universal grace, and at the same time have held the Calvinistic doctrine of election; we are surely called upon in fairness and modesty to admit, that the logical connection cannot be quite so direct and certain in the one case as in the other. And then this conclusion warrants us in maintaining, that the fact of Calvin so explicitly denying the doctrine of God’s universal grace or love to all men, affords a more direct and certain ground for the inference, that he did not hold the doctrine of universal atonement, than could be legitimately deduced from the mere fact, that he held the doctrine of unconditional personal election to everlasting life. The invalidity of the inferential process in the one case is not sufficient to establish its invalidity in the other; and therefore our argument holds good.

2d. The other consideration to which we referred, as affording some positive evidence, though not direct and explicit, that Calvin did not hold the doctrine of a universal atonement, is this,—that he has interpreted some of the principal texts on which the advocates of that doctrine rest it, in such a way as to deprive them of all capacity of serving the purpose to which its supporters commonly apply them. If this position can be established, it will furnish something more than a presumption, and will almost amount to a proof, that he did not hold the doctrine in question. As this point is curious and interesting, we may adduce an instance or two in support of our allegation. In commenting upon 1 Tim. ii. 4, “Who will have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” Calvin says:—”Apostolus simpliciter intelligit nullum mundi vel populum vel ordinem a salute excludi, quia omnibus sine exceptione evangelium proponi Deus velit. Est autem evangelii praedicatio vivifica, merito itaque colligit Deum omnes pariter salutis participatione dignare. At de hominum generibus, non singulis personis, sermo est; nihil enim aliud intendit quam principes et extraneos populos in hoc numero includere.” [for the English translation click here»Ed.] Again, in commenting upon 1 John ii 2, “And He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world,” he says:—”Qui hanc absurditatem (universal salvation) volebant effugere, dixerunt sufficientur pro toto mundo passum esse Christum, sed pro electis tantum efficaciter. Vulgo haec solutio in scholis obtinuit. Ego quanquam verum esse illud dictum fateor, nego tamen praesenti loco quadrare. Neque enim aliud fuit consilium Joannis quam toti ecclesiae commune facere hoc bonum. Ergo sub omnibus reprobos non comprehendit, sed eos designat qui simul credituri erant, et qui per varias mundi plagas dispersi erant.” [for the English translation click here»Ed.] He gives the very same explanation of these two passages in his treatise on “Predestination.”4 Now this is in substance just the interpretation commonly given of these and similar texts, by the advocates of the doctrine of particular redemption; and it seems scarcely possible, that it should have been adopted by one who did not hold that doctrine, or who believed in the truth of the opposite one.

Let it be observed, that our object is not to show, that we are warranted in adducing the authority of the great name of Calvin as a positive testimony in favour of the doctrine of particular redemption,—of a limited atonement,—as it has been generally held by Calvinistic divines; but rather to show, that there is no adequate ground for adducing him, as has been done so frequently and so confidently, on the other side. To adduce Calvin as maintaining the doctrine of particular redemption, could scarcely, upon a full and impartial survey of the whole circumstances of the case, be regarded as warrantable. It is evident that he had never been led to examine this precise question, in the form which it afterwards assumed in controversial discussion, and to give an explicit deliverance upon it. He seems to have attached little or no importance to any definite doctrine about the extent of the atonement. In his “Antidote” to the earlier sessions of the Council of Trent, he passes by without comment or animadversion the fourth chapter of the sixth session, although it contains an explicit declaration that Christ died for all men; and he does this not tacitly, as if per incuriam, but with the explicit statement,—”tertium et quartum caput non attingo,”—as if he found nothing there to object to. He was in no way sensitive or cautious about using language, concerning the universality of the offers and invitations, or,—in the phraseology which then generally prevailed, the promises of the gospel,—and concerning the provisions and arrangements of the scheme of redemption, which might have the appearance of being inconsistent with any limitation in the objects or destination of the atonement. And it is chiefly because the great body of those who have been called after his name,—even those of them who have held the doctrine of a definite or limited atonement,—have followed his example in this respect, believing it to have the full sanction of Scripture, that Daillee and others have got up such a mass of testimonies from their writings, in which they seem to give some countenance to the tenet of universal redemption, even at the expense of consistency. But this is no reason why Calvinists should hesitate to follow the course, which Scripture so plainly sanctions and requires, of proclaiming the glad tidings of salvation to all men indiscriminately, without any distinction or exception, setting forth, without hesitation or qualification, the fulness and freeness of the gospel offers and invitations,—of inviting, encouraging, and requiring every descendant of Adam with whom they come into contact, to come to Christ and lay hold of Him, with the assurance that those who come to Him He will in no wise reject. The doctrine of particular redemption,—or of an atonement limited, not as to its sufficiency, but as to its object, purpose, or destination,—does not, either in reality or in appearance, throw any greater obstacle in the way of preaching the gospel to every creature, than the doctrines which all Calvinists hold, of the absolute unconditional election of some men to eternal life, and of the indispensable necessity and determining influence of the special agency of the Holy Spirit in producing faith and conversion. The difficulty of this whole subject lies in a department which belongs to God’s province, and not to ours. He has imposed upon us the duty of making Christ known to our fellow-men, not only as able, but as willing and ready, to save unto the uttermost all that come unto God by Him; and this duty we are bound by the most solemn obligations to discharge, without let or hindrance, without doubt or hesitation; assured that God, while exercising His own sovereignty in dealing with His creatures, will, in His own time and way, fully vindicate the consistency and the honour of all that He has done Himself, and of all that He has required us to do in His name.

Notes

1. Supra, p. 205
2. Tractatus Theologici. Opera, torn. p. 731.
3. When the subject of the extent of the atonement came to be more fully and exactly discussed, orthodox Calvinists generally objected to adopt this scholastic position, on the ground that it seemed to imply an ascription to Christ of a purpose or intention of dying in some sense for all men. For this reason they usually declined to adopt it as it stood, or they proposed to alter it into this form,—Christ’s death was sufficient for all, efficacious for the elect. By this change in the position, the question was made to turn, not on what Christ did, but on what His death was; and thus the appearance of ascribing to Him personally a purpose or intention of dying, in some sense, for all men, was removed.
4. Niemeyer, pp. 259 and 286.

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John Calvin’s View of the Extent of the Atonement

July 10, 2011

From the Westminster Theological Journal 47:2 (1985) 197-225.

By Dr. Roger Nicole

This topic has received considerable attention in the recent past, perhaps in view of R. T. Kendall’s very controversial book Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649.1 An effort is made here to summarize the debate and to provide a brief evaluation.

…Our conclusion, on balance, is that definite atonement fits better than universal grace into the total pattern of Calvin’s teaching. Read more»

How Many Points?

July 7, 2011

How many points does one have to believe to be a Calvinist?

From the Calvin Theological Journal, Vol. 28 (1993): 425-33 via Riddleblog

By Richard A. Muller

Calvinism or, better, Reformed teaching, as defined by the great Reformed confessions does include the so-called five points. Just as it is improper, however, to identify Calvin as the sole progenitor of Reformed theology, so also is it incorrect to identify the five points or the document from which they have been drawn, the Canons of Dort, as a full confession of the Reformed faith, whole and entire unto itself. In other words, it would be a major error — both historically and doctrinally — if the five points of Calvinism were understood either as the sole or even as the absolutely primary basis for identifying someone as holding the Calvinistic or Reformed faith. In fact, the Canons of Dort contain five points only because the Arminian articles, the Remonstrance of 1610, to which they responded, had five points. The number five, far from being sacrosanct, is the result of a particular historical circumstance and was determined negatively by the number of articles in the Arminian objection to confessional Calvinism.

These historical and theological comments would seldom if ever be disputed by a member of a confessionally Reformed denomination. It is virtually a truism that the Canons of Dort do not stand by themselves as the confession of the church — and that they exist in order to clarify disputed points in the church’s full confession of faith as represented by the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism. It is also the case that the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism are substantially in agreement with the confessional standards of other branches of the Reformed church, whether the Geneva Catechism or the First and Second Helvetic Confession of the Swiss Reformation or the Scot’s Confession and the Westminster standards of the British and American Presbyterian and Reformed churches. And beyond the confessional consensus, there is a broad theological agreement that built toward the confessional teaching of the Reformed churches in the sixteenth century and has continued to build upon it since that time — from Calvin’s Institutes to Kuyper’s Dictaten Dogmatiek and beyond.

Any of these documents, in addition to standing in substantial agreement on the so-called five points — total inability to attain one’s own salvation, unconditional grace, limited efficacy of Christ’s all-sufficient work of satisfaction, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints — also stand in substantial agreement on the issues of the baptism of infants, the identification of sacraments as means of grace, and the unity of the one covenant of grace from Abraham to the eschaton. They also — all of them — agree on the assumption that our assurance of the salvation, wrought by grace alone through the work of Christ and God’s Spirit in us, rests not on our outward deeds or personal claims but on our apprehension of Christ in faith and on our recognition of the inward work of the Spirit in us. Because this assurance is inward and cannot easily or definitively be externalized, all of these documents also agree that the church is both visible and invisible — that it is a covenanted people of God identified not by externalized indications of the work of God in individuals, such as adult conversion experiences but by the preaching of the word of God and the right administration of the sacraments. Finally, they all agree, either explicitly or implicitly, that the “thousand years” of Revelation 20 is the kingdom of grace established by Christ at his first coming that extends until his Second Coming at the end of the world.

There are, therefore, more than five points and — as far as the confessions and the Reformed dogmaticians from Calvin to Kuyper are concerned — there cannot be such a thing as a “five-point Calvinist” or “five-point Reformed Christian” who owns just those five articles taken from the Canons of Dort and who refuses to accept the other “points” made by genuinely Reformed theology. The issue here is more than simple confessional allegiance. The issue is that the confessions and the classical dogmatic systems of Reformed theology are not an arbitrary list of more or less biblical ideas — they are carefully embodied patterns of teaching, drawn from Scripture and brought to bear on the life of the church. They are, in short, interpretations of the whole of Christian existence that cohere in all of their points. If some of the less-famous points of Reformed theology, like the baptism of infants, justification by grace alone through faith, the necessity of a thankful obedience consequent upon our faith and justification (the “third use of the law”), the identification of sacraments as means of grace, the so-called amillennial view of the end of the world, and so forth, are stripped away or forgotten, the remaining famous five make very little sense.

…The larger number of points, including but going beyond the five of Dort, is intended, in other words, to construe theologically the entire life of the believing community. And when that larger number of points taught by the Reformed confessions is not respected, the famous five are jeopardized, indeed, dissolved —and the ongoing spiritual health of the church is placed at risk.

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Law and Gospel

June 30, 2011

In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin distinguished three uses, or purposes, in the Law: (1) the pedagogical use (to convict of sin and lead us to Christ); (2) the civil use (to restrain evil in society); and (3) the didactic use (to guide the elect in doing the will of God).

Calvin wrote:

“That the whole matter may be made clearer, let us take a succinct view of the office and use of the Moral Law. Now this office and use seems to me to consist of three parts.

First, by exhibiting the righteousness of God,—in other words, the righteousness which alone is acceptable to God,—it admonishes every one of his own unrighteousness, certiorates, convicts, and finally condemns him… (Inst. 2.7.6)

The second office of the Law is, by means of its fearful denunciations and the consequent dread of punishment, to curb those who, unless forced, have no regard for rectitude and justice… (Inst. 2.7.10)

The third use of the Law (being also the principal use, and more closely connected with its proper end) has respect to believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already flourishes and reigns. For although the Law is written and engraven on their hearts by the finger of God, that is, although they are so influenced and actuated by the Spirit, that they desire to obey God, there are two ways in which they still profit in the Law. For it is the best instrument for enabling them daily to learn with greater truth and certainty what that will of the Lord is which they aspire to follow, and to confirm them in this knowledge…” (Inst. 2.7.12)

Francis Turretin on the Threefold Office of Christ

April 5, 2011

The writings of John Calvin, especially his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559), established a pattern which would become widespread within Reformed Christology. The significance of Christ was explored using the model of the “threefold office,” which depicted him as prophet, priest and king. As a prophet, Christ declared the will of God; as a priest, he made atonement for sins; and as king, he rules over his people. The noted seventeenth-century Genevan theologian Francois Turrettini, [Ed. also known as Francis Turretin] a major exponent of the Reformed tradition, here sets out this understanding more fully, in a text originally published in Latin in 1679. See also 5.15;5:16.

Source: Institutio theologiae elencticae, topic 14, q. 5; in Institutio theologiae electrical, 3 vols (Rome: Trajecti, 1734), vol. 2, pp. 424-7.

“The office of Christ is nothing other than a mediation between God and humanity, which he was sent into the world by the Father and anointed by the Holy Spirit to carry out. It embraces all that Christ was required to achieve during his mission and calling in relation to an offended God and offending humanity (erga Deus offensum et hominess offendentes), reconciling and uniting them to each other…This mediatorial office of Christ is distributed among three functions, which are individual parts of it: the prophetic, priestly and kingly. Christ sustained these together rather than separately, something which he alone was able to do. For what would, in the case of other people, be divided on account of their weakness (as no mortal could discharge them alone, so great are their dignity and responsibility) are united in Christ on account of his supreme perfection. There could indeed be people who were both kings and priests (such as Melchizedek) or kings and prophets (such as David), or priests and prophets (as in the case of some high priests) – but there is no other who perfectly fulfilled all three. This was the reserved for Christ alone, in that he was able to uphold the truth which is embodied in these types…The threefold misery of humanity resulting from sin (that is, ignorance, guilt, and the oppression and bondage of sin) required this threefold office. Ignorance is healed through the prophetic office, guilt through the priestly, and the oppression and bondage of sin through the kingly. The prophetic light scatters the darkness of error; the merit of the priest removes the guilt and obtains reconciliation for us; the power of the king takes away the bondage of sin and death. The prophet shows God to us; the priest leads us to God; and the King joins us together with God, and glorifies us with him. The prophet illuminates the mind by the spirit of enlightenment; the priest soothes the heart and conscience by the spirit of consolation; the king subdues rebellious inclinations by the spirit of sanctification.”

The above was taken from Alister E. McGrath, (Editor) (1995), The Christian Theology Reader, (Oxford/Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1995), 153-54.

The Triple Cure: Jesus Christ – Our Prophet, Priest, and King

April 4, 2011

By Kim Riddlebarger

It was John Calvin who brought the munus triplex, or the so-called “threefold office” of Christ into prominence. Picked up by most of the subsequent Reformed tradition, and adopted by many Lutheran theologians as well, the threefold office presents Jesus Christ as prophet, priest, and king, who in his saving work, fulfilled all the anointed offices of the Old Testament. (1) Calvin adopted this model to accomplish several things. First, it helped him give shape to his overall Christology, which focuses primarily on Christ’s work in terms of being mediator of a covenant of redemption, the one chosen by God to be the savior of the elect. Second, he used the threefold office to bind together Christ’s person as the eternal Son of God, fully human and fully divine, to his work as redeemer, as seen in his names “Christ” and “Messiah,” which themselves are indicative of his being the “anointed one.” (2) This means that for Calvin, “the Son of God, therefore, is not properly called Christ apart from his office, for it is there, in his official capacity, that he manifests as the true fulfillment of the offices of the Old Testament his threefold work as prophet, priest, and king.” (3) This model also offers an excellent way to connect redemptive history to systematic theology. Since Christ’s three offices, prophet, priest, and king, “represent the three offices of ancient Israel to which men were appointed as servants of God,” Calvin could connect the incarnation directly to Christ’s work as mediator. This means that “the prophet, the king, and the priest are united in Christ, are perfected, and are thereby fulfilled and brought to conclusion in the one who is both king and priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” (4) In the threefold office, Calvin offers an excellent and compelling way to make sense of a large block of diverse biblical data.

Later Reformed theologians, such as Francis Turretin, introduce the threefold office of our Lord as the divinely revealed solution to the threefold disease of ignorance, guilt, and pollution described above. It is Christ, as prophet, priest, and king, who offers the threefold cure to our fatal disease. Read more»

The Canons of Dort

March 21, 2011

Council of the National Synod of the Reformed Church. Remontrants sit at the table.

The Decision of the Synod of Dort on the Five Main Points of Doctrine in Dispute in the Netherlands is popularly known as the Canons of Dort. It consists of statements of doctrine adopted by the great Synod of Dort which met in the city of Dordrecht in 1618-19. Although this was a national synod of the Reformed churches of the Netherlands, it had an international character, since it was composed not only of Dutch delegates but also of twenty-six delegates from eight foreign countries.

The Synod of Dort was held in order to settle a serious controversy in the Dutch churches initiated by the rise of Arminianism. Jacob Arminius, a theological professor at Leiden University, questioned the teaching of Calvin and his followers on a number of important points. After Arminius’s death, his own followers presented their views on five of these points in the Remonstrance of 1610. In this document or in later more explicit writings, the Arminians taught election based on foreseen faith, universal atonement, partial depravity, resistible grace, and the possibility of a lapse from grace. In the Canons the Synod of Dort rejected these views and set forth the Reformed doctrine on these points, namely, unconditional election, limited atonement, total depravity, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of saints.

The Canons have a special character because of their original purpose as a judicial decision on the doctrinal points in dispute during the Arminian controversy. The original preface called them a “judgment, in which both the true view, agreeing with God’s Word, concerning the aforesaid five points of doctrine is explained, and the false view, disagreeing with God’s Word, is rejected.” The Canons also have a limited character in that they do not cover the whole range of doctrine, but focus on the five points of doctrine in dispute.

Each of the main points consists of a positive and a negative part, the former being an exposition of the Reformed doctrine on the subject, the latter a repudiation of the corresponding errors. Each of the errors being rejected is shaded in gray. Although in form there are only four points, we speak properly of five points, because the Canons were structured to correspond to the five articles of the 1610 Remonstrance. Main Points 3 and 4 were combined into one, always designated as Main Point III/IV.

This translation of the Canons, based on the only extant Latin manuscript among those signed at the Synod of Dort, was adopted by the 1986 Synod of the Christian Reformed Church. The biblical quotations are translations from the original Latin and so do not always correspond to current versions. Though not in the original text, subheadings have been added to the positive articles and to the conclusion in order to facilitate study of the Canons.

© 1987, CRC Publications, Grand Rapids MI. http://www.crcna.org. Reprinted with permission.