More Catholic than the Pope, More Reformed than Calvin

In a throwaway line in my post about Canadian Anglicanism I mentioned that some in the Church of England are “trying to be more reformed than Calvin or more catholic than the Pope while still calling themselves Anglican”. I feel I need to explain this comment a bit more.

The part about “more catholic than the Pope” is mainly about the fondness of some in the Church of England for elaborate ceremonies of kinds which the Roman Catholic Church has largely abandoned. But in another sense all Anglicans, including myself, are more catholic than the current Pope, in that we accept that there is more to the universal church than is within our own particular structures and hierarchy.

As for “more reformed than Calvin”, I was thinking of the issue of limited atonement, about which I wrote this in my latest contribution to the atonement debate:

Reuben rightly dismisses the authors’ attempt to defend the indefensible doctrine of limited atonement, indefensible because directly contradicted in the Bible.

The authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions, part of the Oak Hill connection, may be taken as examples of members of the Church of England who want to be more reformed than Calvin. Indeed, they are more than just members: Mike Ovey is the Principal of an official Church of England theological college, and was formerly a curate and so must be ordained; Andrew Sach was due to be ordained on 3oth June at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, and (unless he ran into the same issues as his fellow student Richard Wood did on that same day) has presumably now joined “the staff of St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, in central London”; Steve Jeffery was also training for ordination and intending to join “the staff of Holy Trinity, Lyonsdown, in North London”, but I can’t find anything about an actual ceremony (information from here, links added). So these three can be taken as examples of Church of England clergy, although they are far from typical of that body as a whole.

The doctrine of limited atonement, which these three support, is one of the five points of Calvinism, as defined in 1618-9 at the Synod of Dort and still accepted by many today who call themselves Calvinists or “Reformed”. But John Calvin, the reformer of Geneva, did not hold this doctrine. That is why I call such people “more reformed than Calvin”.

At this point I should back up my claim that limited atonement is “indefensible because directly contradicted in the Bible”. To show this I need look no further than what must be the best known verse in the Bible, at least to evangelicals:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

(John 3:16, TNIV)

Note that God loved the world, not just a small number of “the elect” in order to save them out of the world. And his purpose in sending his Son was not restricted to a few, but was for “whoever believes in him”. Now God of course knew that not all would believe in Jesus, and so that some would perish. But this verse makes it clear that God loved them anyway and sent his Son for them. There can be no limitation in the intention of Christ’s work on the cross.

Of course the atonement was in some sense limited in its effectiveness in that not everyone believed and benefited from it, and I might accept the term “limited atonement” if defined in this way. But this is not the form of the doctrine developed by Calvinists as a logical consequence of other parts of their teaching. According to Wikipedia,

Since, Calvinists argue, it would be unjust for God to pay the penalty for men’s sins and then still condemn them for those sins, all those whose sins were propitiated must necessarily be saved. … Since in this scheme God knows precisely who the elect are, Christ needn’t atone for sins other than those of the elect.

Since this argument does appear to be valid, but its consequence conflicts with clear biblical teaching, that implies that the premises of the argument are also in conflict with the Bible, and, for those of us who accept the authority of the Bible, must be abandoned. Unfortunately Calvinists seem to presuppose the truth of the premises here, and this blinds them to the unbiblical nature of the consequences.

However, as Doug has pointed out, there is some support for teaching “more reformed than Calvin”, in a somewhat different area but still related to the atonement, in Article II of the Articles of the Church of England. But it was probably the sloppy theology of the authors of the Augsburg Confession from which this wording is taken, rather than an unbalanced doctrine of the atonement, which led to this Article’s unfortunate wording “to reconcile his Father to us” in place of the biblical emphasis on Christ reconciling us to the Father.

Brother Slawson of Tominthebox News Network makes my point against limited atonement well, in the satirical style of that blog, when he compares the Calvinist restriction of salvation to the elect to the way in which insurance companies advertise their products with disclaimers like “Not Available to Certain Individuals”. This satire against Calvinists bites so deep that it is no wonder his brother Tom accuses him of being a secret Arminian.

0 thoughts on “More Catholic than the Pope, More Reformed than Calvin

  1. Peter,

    You forgot the “d” from Dordt (it is also missing in the wikipedia entry.) Dordt is short for Dordrecht, the town where I live (I am not proud of the TULIP conclusions.)
    At the synod also the decision was made to make the Dutch Statenvertaling (Translation of the States), our Dutch King James equivalent (this is somthing to be proud of I think…)

  2. Thank you, Ruud. I followed the Wikipedia spelling, which was obviously a mistake – or else a typical American mis-spelling of a foreign name.

    I hope you are also proud of your real floral tulips.

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