A Question I Was Asked:

'Was Calvin the Father of Limited Atonement Teaching?'

My Response:

I personally think it would be somewhat harsh to accuse John Calvin himself of that.

If one carefully goes through all of his writings both limited and unlimited atonement teaching can certainly be found, but with the latter seeming to predominate in his later life.

But Limited Atonement teaching has its real origin in Augustine who lived back in the 5th century AD. Moreover, his position hardened due to his interactions with Pelagius. Pelagius aroused the ire of Augustine because he seemed to teach a works-based approach to salvation. In Pelagius, man has it within himself to come to God, to learn of his teachings, and to impose discipline upon himself thereby fashioning himself for salvation. Augustine was very quick to see the obvious error in this schema and he strongly taught the grace which he found to be strong within the writings of Paul the Apostle. So Augustine came to emphasize grace. Unfortunately he probably eventually came to somewhat over-emphasize it. We must always strive to keep the correct biblical balance in anything which we teach because sometimes it is simply balance which separates biblical truth from error.

The 16th century Protestant Reformers saw a mess within Catholic practice of the time with the veneration of relics, the selling of indulgences and much else which was hardly biblical. They wanted to get back to the full teaching of grace within Augustine and Paul. But they knew they had to be somewhat selective about Augustine because much of what he wrote was certainly legalistic; so there is contradiction within the writings of Augustine: grace is stressed but so are certain errors including the sacramental approach to enjoying God's blessings and favours. But limited atonement starts to be outlined in Augustine in a manner which was in opposition to the more 'open atonement' position of the 'church fathers.'

So the reformers went back to Augustine in order to re-magnify the vital doctrine of grace in opposition to some of the behaviour and practices of 16th century Catholicism.

Much later on, 17th century Calvinism sought to harden the teaching on grace. Covenant Theology was also introduced during this period. This brand of Calvinism and hyper-Calvinism almost came to the point where the need to even preach the Gospel was seriously questioned: after all, the 'elect' will come to God no matter what, so why worry? At this time much of the strength in Calvin's writings was actually weeded out by these people. His most vital (and eminently biblical) teaching on the Lord's Day/Sabbath, for example, was thrown out, as was his late-life movement toward unlimited atonement. The most extreme, fatalistic and pessimistic position on human salvation was adopted from Augustine (which he himself surely inherited from Manichaeism).

Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609), reacted to the excesses within this form of theology. He wrote many books and treatises on theology and is especially known for his opposition to the five points of Calvinism, although in actuality he truly objected to only three: unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace. Today we would say that he was correct in objecting to the unbiblical harshness of 5 point Calvinism, but that he subsequently went too far. Arminianism came to uphold the following points:

So I think that this outlines why it is somewhat harsh to view 'Limited Atonement' as being a phenomenon we can entirely put down to John Calvin himself. Truth is: much within the Reformed theology which had a sort of origin in 17th century Europe, at places like the University of Leyden, before becoming more formally organised in the United States within Presbyterian theology, and especially by the so-called 'Princeton theologians,' would have been more than a little strange to John Calvin himself.
Robin A. Brace, April, 2008.