Titus 2:11 in Calvin

A few days ago I discussed Titus 2:11 in Context in light of my personal Bible reading and my stumbling across this rather bothersome statement by Donald Bloesch:

The Calvinist position, especially as transmitted through Reformed orthodoxy, stands in palpable conflict with the New Testament witness.1 Titus 2:11 assures us that “the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men.” The Pauline writer of 1 Timothy contends that Jesus Christ sacrificed himself “to win freedom for all mankind” (2:6 NEB).2

In case you skipped over the footnote, Bloesch said, “In this discussion we need to bear in mind that Calvin’s position and that of later Calvinism are not identical.”

I argued that Bloesch’s statement is grossly inaccurate since a contextual reading of Titus 2:11 readily demonstrates the plausibility and, in my view, the high probability of the Calvinist’s interpretation. What I’d like to do in this post is look at Calvin’s interpretation of this text. One might get the impression from Bloesch’s footnote that Calvin would be in agreement with Bloesch and in disagreement with later Calvinism on how to handle this text.3 Is this so? Here’s what Calvin had to say:

Bringing salvation to all men, That it is common to all is expressly testified by him on account of the slaves of whom he had spoken. Yet he does not mean individual men, but rather describes individual classes, or various ranks of life. And this is not a little emphatic, that the grace of God hath let itself down even to the race of slaves; for, since God does not despise men of the lowest and most degraded condition, it would be highly unreasonable that we should be negligent and slothful to embrace his goodness.4

It’s quite clear, then, that Calvin interprets this text the same way I do—as a reference to categories or classes of believing people to whom God’s grace extends.

Perhaps Calvin agrees with Bloesch on 1 Timothy 2:6, which Bloesch also includes in his list of texts that stand in palpable conflict with the Calvinist position as transmitted through Reformed orthodoxy. Let’s take a look. Here’s what Calvin had to say:

When the Apostle calls him ἀντίλυτρον, “a ransom,” he overthrows all other satisfactions. Yet I am not ignorant of the injurious devices of the Papists, who pretend that the price of redemption, which Christ paid by his death, is applied to us in baptism, so that original sin is effaced, and that afterwards we are reconciled to God by satisfactions. In this way they limit to a small period of time, and to a single class, that benefit which was universal and perpetual. . . .

The phrase, for all, which the Apostle had used, might have given rise to the question, “Why then had God chosen a peculiar people, if he revealed himself as a reconciled Father to all without distinction, and if the one redemption through Christ was common to all?” He cuts off all ground for that question, by referring to the purpose of God the season for revealing his grace. For if we are not astonished that in winter, the trees are stripped of their foliage, the field are covered with snow, and the meadows are stiff with frost, and that, by the genial warmth of spring, what appeared for a time to be dead, begins to revive, because God appointed the seasons to follow in succession; why should we not allow the same authority to his providence in other matters? Shall we accuse God of instability, because he brings forward, at the proper time, what he had always determined, and settled in his own mind?

Accordingly, although it came upon the world suddenly and was altogether unexpected, that Christ was revealed as a Redeemer to Jews and Gentiles, without distinction; let us not think that it was sudden with respect to God but, on the contrary, let us learn to subject all our sense to his wonderful providence. The consequence will be, that there will be nothing that comes from him which shall not appear to us to be highly seasonable. On that account this admonition frequently occurs in the writings of Paul and especially when he treats of the calling of the Gentiles, by which, at that time, on account of its novelty, many persons were startled and almost confounded. They who are not satisfied with this solution, that God, by his hidden wisdom, arranged the succession of the seasons, will one day feel, that, at the time when they think that he was idle, he was framing a hell for inquisitive persons.5

Calvin doesn’t go into a lot of detail on the meaning of “all,” but there are enough hints to realize that Calvin sees Paul as referring to a universal work in terms of class and a perpetual work in terms of time, that is, by “all” Paul means all classes of people from all periods of time. He goes on to speak in terms of “all without distinction” (as opposed to “all without exception”) and “that Christ was revealed as a Redeemer to Jews and Gentiles, without distinction.” His interpretation of “all” in 2:6 becomes even clearer in light of his comments on 2:4, where he says,

Hence we see the childish folly of those who represent this passage to be opposed to predestination. “If God” say they, “wishes all men indiscriminately to be saved, it is false that some are predestined by his eternal purpose to salvation, and others to perdition.” They might have had some ground for saying this, if Paul were speaking here about individual men; although even then we should not have wanted the means of replying to their argument; for, although the will of God ought not to be judged from his secret decrees, when he reveals them to us by outward signs, yet it does not therefore follow that he has not determined with himself what he intends to do as to every individual man.

But I say nothing on that subject, because it has nothing to do with this passage; for the Apostle simply means, that there is no people and no rank in the world that is excluded from salvation; because God wishes that the gospel should be proclaimed to all without exception. Now the preaching of the gospel gives life; and hence he justly concludes that God invites all equally to partake salvation. But the present discourse relates to classes of men, and not to individual persons; for his sole object is, to include in this number princes and foreign nations.6

It seems clear, then, that it is inappropriate to speak of Calvinism as being in palpable conflict with these texts, where a plausible and contextually sensitive interpretation is readily available and, in my view, to be preferred on exegetical grounds, that is, without bringing systematic theology to bear (in which case the interpretation becomes even stronger). It also seems clear that, at least on these three texts, Calvin sides with Reformed orthodoxy and against Donald G. Bloesch.

More: See also my previous post: Titus 2:11 in Context.


  1. In this discussion we need to bear in mind that Calvin’s position and that of later Calvinism are not identical. See Clifford, Atonement and Justification, pp. 69–110.
  2. Donald G. Bloesch, Jesus Christ: Savior & Lord (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1997), 168.
  3. I grant that there may be some differences between Calvin’s theology and that of later Calvinists. I also grant that perhaps Bloesch wasn’t intending to suggest that Calvin took the more universal interpretation of all of these texts, but his statement at least seems to suggest that Calvin might be on his side.
  4. Calvin’s Commentaries, Tit 2:11.
  5. Ibid., 1 Ti 2:6.
  6. Ibid., 1 Ti 2:4.

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7 Responses to Titus 2:11 in Calvin

  1. Brian May 3, 2007 at 9:42 am #

    I surveyed Calvin when I worked through the relevant passages on the extent of the atonement earlier this year. Even though I ended up on the Gen Atonement side, I was convinced by reading Calvin on these texts that he held to Def Atonement.

    The closest support of Gen Atonement I found in Calvin were his comments on Romans 5:19:

    He makes this favour common to all, because it is propounded to all, and not because it is in reality extended to all; for though Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world, and is offered through God’s benignity indiscriminately to all, yet all do not receive him.

    and John 1:29 (note the “all without exception” toward the end of the quote):

    And when he says, the sin OF THE WORLD, he extends this favour indiscriminately to the whole human race; that the Jews might not think that he had been sent to them alone. But hence we infer that the whole world is involved in the same condemnation; and that as all men without exception are guilty of unrighteousness before God, they need to be reconciled by him.

    But both of these quotes could be interpreted in a way consistent with Def Atonement, and since Calvin, contrary to what we would expect from a supporter of Gen Atonement, consistently interprets texts (like the two you noted above) consistent with Def Atonement, it seems to be best to assume that Calvin was consistent rather than inconsistent with himself.

    To clinch things, Roger Nicole provides this quote from Calvin:

    “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” (“On Partaking of the Flesh and Blood,” Calvin: Theological Treatises, ed. J. K. S. Reid, cited by Roger Nicole, “John Calvin’s View of the Extent of the Atonement,” WTJ 47:2 (Fall 1985): 200).

  2. Phil Gons May 3, 2007 at 5:55 pm #

    Thanks for the comments, Brian. I haven’t studied Calvin’s view on the extent of the atonement in enough detail to speak dogmatically, but everything I have come across seems to fit within a definite atonement framework, even if it is not as rigid as some later Calvinists like Owen.

    I wonder what those who argue that Calvin held to general atonement would do with that quote that Nicole cites. Perhaps they would argue that Calvin changed his position. Any ideas? If you ever come across a Calvin scholar who holds that Calvin believed in general atonement and who comments on this quote, please let me know.



  3. obsequium January 21, 2008 at 7:32 pm #

    Calvin was a wicked man.

    “Yet he does not mean individual men, but rather describes individual classes, or various ranks of life.”

    His sin is thinking beyond what is written (1 Corinthians 4:6). The text does not say this, so Calvin makes God a liar.

    Here’s a thorough article that goes through each of the five points of Calvinism, showing how Arminians and Calvinists both believe a false gospel: http://www.atruechurch.info/calvinarmin.html

  4. Phil Gons January 23, 2008 at 7:44 am #

    Nonsense. Calvin was perhaps the best exegete of his time. Arminius admitted as much. Finding the meaning of a text is not a matter of taking some English words and going with the first thing that comes to mind. There are hundreds of texts of Scripture that are mutilated because of such a naive strategy. We need more exegetes like Calvin in our day.

  5. Forensicsoftware April 26, 2008 at 6:35 pm #

    ALL MEN, means all men. In Adam ALL died, so in Christ ALL shall be made alive. You say that the ALL men in Adam is universal. Question: what about than ALL will be made alive in Christ, is this also universal?

  6. Robert April 27, 2008 at 3:12 pm #

    Are you making a joke or are you serious?

    All, is the word “pas” in Greek. Not only does it almost never not mean “everyone who ever lived or will ever live” but it can mean the following:

    1) to totality with focus on its individual components, each, every, any

    2) any entity out of a totality, any and every, every

    3) marker of the highest degree of someth., all

    4) to a high degree of completeness or wholeness, whole

    5) everything belonging, in kind, to the class designated by the noun, every kind of, all sorts of,

    Isn’t that last one interesting…hmmm…every kind of, all sorts of, belonging to a class designated by the noun.

    The fact is that “all means all!” is a naive statement.

    In the book of Titus alone the word “pas” is used in several different ways…the context always dictating the meaning:

    Titus 2:9
    9 Slaves are to be subject to their own masters in everything, to do what is wanted and not talk back,

    Here, it’s used to say that slaves are to be subservient to their masters. Is it REALLY everything that they’ll ever do?

    Titus 3:15

    15 Everyone with me greets you. Greet those who love us in the faith. Grace be with you all.

    Here the group “everyone” is limited to those who are with Paul, and the “all” at the end is NOT “everyone who ever lived or will ever live without distinction”

    Though both words are “pas” the context limits the scope of the word. The second “pas” is limited to the group he’s writing to.

    Titus 2:14
    14 He gave himself for us to set us free from every kind of lawlessness and to purify for himself a people who are truly his, who are eager to do good.

    Here Christ gave himself to set us free from “all” or “every kind of lawlessness” depending on your translation. Is this every kind of lawlessness that ever could be conceived or is it speaking of “lots of different kinds of lawlessness?

    Titus 2:15

    15 So communicate these things with the sort of exhortation or rebuke that carries full authority. Don’t let anyone look down on you.

    Here it’s talking about the kind of authority that Titus is supposed to communicate with.

    Titus 3:2
    2 They must not slander anyone, but be peaceable, gentle, showing complete courtesy to all people.

    Are they REALLY supposed to look in the Middle Eastern White pages and show courtesy to everyone on the planet or to the class known as all kinds of people without exception?

    As you can see, Paul uses this word “pas” in several different ways in Titus alone, and context tells us what the scope is.

    You have a preconceived idea that God wants everyone who ever lived on the planet or who will ever live on the planet, which colors your understanding of this word.

    You have to let scripture tell you what the author intended, not read into it.

    The fact is, that we use universal words in a limited context all of the time don’t we?

    Can you see that I just did that? I used the all inclusive word “all” but meant it in a more limited context…which meant “many times” didn’t it? But you unconsciously knew from my context what I meant right?

    does that make sense?

  7. Phil Gons May 7, 2008 at 9:38 pm #

    Nice work, Robert. You’ve illustrated nicely how all is always limited in some sense by its context.