Rainbow on Calvin, the Will of God and the Gospel Offer

Here is a short section from Jonathan Rainbow’s work The Will of God and The Cross: An Historical and Theological Study of John Calvin’s Doctrine of Limited Redemption.

The Universal Offer of the Gospel

Calvin clearly articulated a universal saving will of God that was conditional on faith, which consisted of the universal offer of the gospel through preaching … Calvin stressed that the gospel, and in it the benefits of Christ’s passion and death, are offered to all men.  In such contexts Calvin made it clear that “all” means all men individually.  Calvin the Latinist provided Calvin the theologian with a variety of terms to articulate this doctrine:  the gospel is offered (offertur) to all, propounded (proponitur) to all, set forth (expositum esse) to all, and proclaimed (publicando) to all.  These terms all denoted for Calvin the public preaching of the gospel through the agency of men.  By this agency God invites (invitare) and calls (vocare) all men to salvation.  That “all” means all individual men Calvin indicated by the adverbs indifferenter, promiscue, and sine exceptione which almost always occurred in such statements.

Calvin usually coupled his affirmations of this universal gospel offer with the reminder that only the elect actually receive the gospel.  For the public offer of the gospel comes always with the demand for faith, and only the elect have faith.  So Calvin saw God here operating in two circles of human beings, one the larger circle of all to whom the gospel is publically offered through preaching, and the other smaller circle of those who believe, the elect.  This preached word is a kind of net cast into humanity at large which catches the elect and lets the reprobate slip back through.  So there was in this sense in Calvin’s theology a “twofold will” of God.  [C.f. commentaries on Ezek 18:23, 2 Pet 3:9, Matt 23:37.] … The universal offer of the gospel for Calvin was only and simply the public preaching of the gospel to all men; it was the will of God “which is manifested by the nature of the word, and is merely to invite by the outward voice of  man.”  If asked how such an offer can be made to every individual when God’s saving work and will do not extend to every individual, Calvin would not pretend to know.  It is simply how God reveals himself.


Now whilst Rainbow does not say everything that can be said in this short section he draws out a number of vital points:

  • It is impossible to say the older reformed theologians ment only present/command by offer – look at the actual terms Calvin uses (including invite).
  • For Calvin the gospel is a particular offer to every hearer.
  • For Calvin it is possible to speak of the (revealed) will of God for the salvation of all.
  • Calvin accepts the testimony of scripture and does not reject it because he cannot rationalise it i.e. he understands the finite cannot comprehend the infinite, that is the distinction between archetypal and ectypal theology.

9 Responses to “Rainbow on Calvin, the Will of God and the Gospel Offer”

  1. cath Says:

    What a lovely name to write about covenant theology with 🙂

  2. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Yes, there is a certain “fitness” to the name!

  3. David Says:

    Hey Donald,

    I started some critiques of Rainbow’s historical method on Theology Online; however, TO is down right now. Rainbow skews his historical sources in his “interpretation” of them, and in the fact of whom he leaves out of the discussion.

    But that aside, take a look at page 171:

    “The assumption in the case of unbelievers was one which dovetailed with the universal saving will of God revealed in preaching: God loves all sinners and wills all sinners to be saved. This, we have seen, was not for Calvin theologically true. But it was an assumption which has to made concerning Christian activity toward the world of men outside the church.”

    David: Let me know if that is not saying that Calvin merely assumed that God loves all men, etc, for the sake of some extrinsic activity, but that he didn’t actually believe it was biblical true? 🙂 Rainbow uses this to justify his reading of Calvin on the extent of the redemption.

    It is a fundamentally flawed book because of stuff like this.


  4. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Hi David

    Trust all is well with you.

    It’s hard to make sense of what Rainbow writes there. I assume it is a very clumsy way of stating the priority of the secret over the revealed will. I know you dont like Rainbow’s take on things!


  5. David Says:

    Hey Donald,

    I am plodding along. I hope you are doing well too.

    The way I read Rainbow, if we take the way he interprets Calvin language of ‘unbelieving souls redeemed by Christ,’ and apply that to the snippet I posted, Rainbow really does want to posit that Calvin claimed that we are to assume and so act as if they are redeemed, or that God loves and desires their salvation, even though we know he, God, actually doesn’t. I think Rainbow seriously wants argue that the “assumption” is warranted because in some sense, the redemption, and I by extension the love of God and the divine desire for their salvation, should be for them. See his telling summary on page 173. The summary goes back to his appeal to the judgement of charity (pp., 164-) and draws in other ideas that Calvin posits this alleged assumption in order to motivate prayer, etc.

    The problem is that its all just gloss and speculation. I have just posted Lever on this today as a matter of fact.

    Anyway, I know this is not quite subject of your post. I just thought challenge Rainbow’s credentials as a sound interpreter of Calvin and to point out that Rainbow himself clearly has some sort of tacit hypercalvinist presupposition going on the background (ie that he could imagine that Calvin didn’t actually believe that God loves all men and desires their salvation). For this tacit background stuff has to impact what Rainbow says regarding Calvin and the offer.

    I hope all that makes sense.


  6. cath Says:

    Alas, the rainbow fades 😦

  7. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Hi David

    Thanks, yes, the point of the post was to highlight Rainbow admitting several things that Calvin clearly taught on the free offer. This is significant as Rainbow is regarded as a solid authority by those who deny the very things he points out here. Wheter he gave with the right and took away with the left is a queation I will now ponder some more. I did not intend to, nor am I now :-), debating on Rainbow’s overall thesis.

    Hi Cath

    Whether the Rainbow fades depends on more than his take on Calvin on the free offer and is part of the larger debate on the extent of the atonement, where theologically I am, of course :-), a Durhamite (although that should have no bearing on the recounting of historical theology).

  8. David Says:

    Hey Donald,

    I meant to post this comment last week. I respect your opinion and research, so please do let me know what you come up with regarding Rainbow.

    I went and read again his sections on Calvin on the will of God and couldn’t find him affirming in Calvin a general willing that all men be saved by revealed will. I might have missed something tho. I did see a footnote citation/reference to Calvin 2 Peter 3:9 and another verse, but without any comment.


  9. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Hi David

    Sorry for the delayed response – I was away and only got back last night. The section quoted above which references the will and the gospel offer is from p149-151.


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