Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Calvin and Luther on Universal Salvation: 1 Timothy 2:4 (Part 3)

From our exploration of Calvin’s sermon and Luther’s lectures, it is now possible to see both the similarities and the differences in their approach. First of all, it is evident that the question of “Why are some saved and not others?” was a critical issue for each theologian, and did influence their interpretations of 1 Timothy 2:3-5. It does seem that the question weighed more heavily on the mind of Calvin, and was a more explicit factor in driving his interpretation. Yet for both theologians, the fact that all men are not saved in the end, had to be reconciled with the revealed will of God that all men be saved, as it is expressed in this passage of the Bible. Both formulated a solution that “solved” the problem in the mind of each theologian.

Calvin’s solution was to make the universal “all men” into a more generic, qualified “all,” by changing the emphasis to mean “all sorts and kinds of people” rather than all individuals. The problems with this explanation were examined above, but the most significant concern is that Calvin accorded to God a will for some men to be cast away to damnation. This teaching is not found in Scripture, but is the rational formulation of theologians who want to take the next logical step from the clear Scriptural teaching that God predestines some to salvation. Calvin wanted to finish the sentence by saying that God also predestines some to damnation. But 1 Timothy 2:4 clearly says that God desires all men to be saved. Calvin circumvented this by limiting the “all.”

Luther similarly could not reconcile the fact that some are damned, with God’s apparent will for all to be saved, as expressed in 1 Timothy 2:4. Thus he proceeded with an alternate interpretation of what “salvation” meant, reducing it from it’s traditional sense (and that which is most common in Scripture) to a more secular sense of earthly welfare. He focused on the context of prayers being made for all people and rulers in the earthly realm, and posited that therefore the salvation that God desires for all men is simply an earthly matter. He thereby accomplishes the same goal as Calvin, to avoid the possibility that God’s will was averted by man in that some men are not saved eternally. Both understand God as sovereign over salvation, and having an immutable will (although they did not say so in so many words in the respective texts).

However, we saw that this relies on a conception that God’s will by necessity causes whatever it is that He wills. This is true when God is working in the manner of the law or as the omnipotent Lord, but it is not the case when God is working through the Gospel to bring people to Christ. Since in the cross Jesus paid the full atonement for sin, He brings salvation as a gift to mankind, not through coercion, but through grace. All synergism is avoided when it is correctly acknowledged that God works monergistically for our salvation in Christ, even giving faith as a gift. However, this does not preclude the rejection of salvation by unbelievers. For they are able to avert God’s will for their salvation only because He is not acting as sovereign, but through grace and means which can be resisted. In other words, we do not teach “irresistible grace.”

Despite some similarities, there were also clear differences between Luther and Calvin. Luther took this passage as referring to temporal salvation and the knowledge of the truth as a general knowledge. Calvin on the other hand said that the knowledge of the truth cannot be separated from salvation, for God says that when people “come to a knowledge of the truth they shall be saved” (Calvin 6). It appears that Luther’s solution was not even on the radar for Calvin as a possibility. Likewise, Luther avoids the “decretum horrible” by never going so far as to posit a predestination of the damned (Green 72). Ultimately that has remained the key difference between Lutheranism and Calvinism. While “consistent predestination” is maintained by classical Calvinists, Lutherans accept a “broken concept” of predestination only to salvation.

While Calvin answers the question of “Why are some saved and not others?” by double predestination, and degrading the phrase “all men” into “some men,” Luther removes this passage from the debate over universal salvation entirely, by referring it only to temporal salvation. Both interpretations created new problems of their own, and do not satisfy the question. Ultimately we cannot know the answer to the question since the Bible does not seek to answer it. Nevertheless we can speak with the Bible to the fact that believers are saved through Christ by no merits of their own, and are eternally elected to this salvation; whereas unbelievers are damned because of their own rejection of the Gospel. In the end, Calvin and Luther’s conclusions were different regarding 1 Timothy 2, but the effect of both was the same: to attempt an explanation of salvation that neither compromised God’s will, nor freed man’s will.

Works Cited

Calvin, John. “The Salvation of All Men.” Sermon on 1 Timothy 2:3-5. Found on website: http://www.bibleteacher.org/jc_9.htm Pagination given in the citations of this paper is based on the text cut and pasted into Microsoft Word.
Green, Lowell. “Luther's Understanding of the Freedom of God and the Salvation of Man : His Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:4.” Archive for Reformation History 87 (1996): 57-73.
Luther, Martin. Luther’s Works, vol. 28. Trans. by Richard J. Dinda, ed. by Hilton C. Oswald. St. Louis, CPH: 1973.


CPA said...

Really interesting stuff here. I think it's important for us Lutherans to be honest that while Luther was not a "five-point Calvinist" he also was not exactly in line with what the Formula of Concord decided on this issue, even though the Formula recommends his Bondage of the Will as a key resource. For myself, I see both the Formula and Luther's views (explored in a post here as alternative, equally Lutheran, solutions to a problem which is ultimately insoluble.

Josh Schneider said...

Yes Atwood, despite the way that Calvinists would like to enlist Luther as a 'pre-Calvinist', Luther clearly rejected foundational Calvinist tenets such as the limited atonement and irresistable grace. As for the differences between him and the Formula of Concord regarding predestination, I like my friend Wildboar's answer the best: Luther didn't consistently follow his own advice about looking at the hidden will of God; Chemnitz and the Formula of Concord were more consistent in taking that advice, and rightly avoided answering the unanswerable question--why are some saved and not others?

J.Means said...

This is a view on Tim 2:4 I've never seen expressed before. Thank you. Can you point me to any posts on the Victor Theory blog, which consider the subject of Perseverance of the Saints (aka Once Saved Always Saved)?