The Development of John Calvin’s Understanding of the Extent of the Atonement

One of the subjects that scholars of church history love to debate is the position of John Calvin on the extent of the atonement. Was John Calvin a real Calvinist or did later Calvinists depart from the teaching of Calvin by teaching definite atonement? R. T. Kendall argued in Calvin and English Calvinism that Theodore Beza and the Puritans departed from Calvin on the issues of the extent of the atonement and assurance of salvation. While Kendall is completely wrong on the departure from Calvin on assurance of salvation because he ignores the different contexts each group was writing in (Calvin was arguing against Roman Catholicism’s teaching that no one can have an infallible assurance of their eternal salvation while the Puritans were writing against the dead formalism and hypocritical antinomianism of many in the Church of England which presumed that a person was saved because of infant baptismal regeneration regardless of the fruit of that person’s life), there is an element of truth in his assessment of Calvin’s doctrine of the atonement.

The truth of the matter is a bit more complicated than either side realizes. While each group claims that its interpretation of Calvin is correct, they are actually both wrong. Calvin’s understanding of the extent of the atonement developed over time. Calvin, in his early preaching and writing, was in agreement with the Catholic Church that Christ’s death was for every person who has ever lived. But later in life, he came to believe in definite atonement where only the sins of those who are saved are imputed to Christ on the cross. In fact, everyone must agree that at some point in his life Calvin held to universal atonement because he was converted out of Roman Catholicism which teaches this. If Calvin ever taught definite atonement, then the question we must answer is, “When did he change his mind on this topic?” Those who argue that Calvin never taught universal atonement believe that this change in his thinking occurred at the beginning of his ministry. I will argue here that it took place later in life. There are many quotations from Calvin that could be used to argue for his belief in universal atonement, but this one is the clearest:

“And again, has not our Lord Jesus Christ redeemed men’s souls: true it is that the effect of his death comes not to the whole world: Nevertheless for as much as it is not in us to discern between the righteous and the sinners that go to destruction, but that Jesus Christ has suffered his death and passion as well for them as for us: therefore it behooves us to labour to bring every man to salvation that the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ may be available to them” (Sermons on Job, 454).

He says that Christ suffered in his passion for both them and us. “Them” in the context of his statement must refer back to “the sinners that go to destruction.” That is, sinners who go to hell are among those for whom “Jesus Christ has suffered” in his death and passion. Calvin did not believe in postmortem evangelism so those “sinners who go to destruction” will never be among the saved portion of humanity. At this point in his ministry, Calvin believed that Christ suffered equally for both the saved and for those who perish. But we see the exact opposite taught by Calvin in his treatise on the Lord’s Supper The True Partaking of the Flesh and Blood of Christ in the Holy Supper in which he argues against the real presence view of Lutheranism and Tilemann Heshusius:

“I should like to know how the wicked can eat the flesh which was not crucified for them, and how they can drink the blood which was not shed to expiate their sins?” (Theological Treatises, 285).

The statement “Jesus Christ has suffered his death and passion as well for them as for us” versus “the flesh which was not crucified for them” and “the blood which was not shed to expiate their sins” are in complete contradiction to each other. I’m sorry, but there is no possible way you can reconcile these two groups of statements. It’s no wonder that scholars can’t come to a consensus on Calvin’s doctrine of the atonement when they each have a proof text from Calvin that seems irrefutable. But there is a simple solution to this problem that no one wants to take into consideration for some strange reason: Calvin’s understanding of the atonement developed over time just as every other person’s theology develops over time. Calvin’s theology is not immutable. Your own theological beliefs develop over time. Why can’t the same charity be extended to Calvin? Only the Word of God never changes (Matt 24:35). What is significant about this treatise on the Lord’s Supper is that it was written by Calvin in 1561, only three years before he died in 1564. It represents his mature thought while his sermons represent his early career as a reformer.

Many “universal Calvinists” try to get around the force of this statement by Calvin by saying that he is describing the beliefs of the unbeliever rather than his own beliefs. In other words, the unbeliever does not believe that Christ’s blood was shed to expiate his sins while Calvin does. But why would an unbeliever want to partake of the Lord’s Supper if he does not believe Christ has died for him? Who are these professing Christians who do not believe that Christ’s blood was shed to expiate their sins? The Libertines believed that Christ died for them and used that as an excuse for their unrepentant sin. Merely believing in the truth that Christ was crucified for sinners does not save, it is trusting in Christ alone for salvation which evidences itself by good works.

Calvin’s argument is that Christ is not present in the Lord’s Supper in the same way Lutheranism does because then unbelievers would partake of Christ in the Supper. Christ is only spiritually present in the Eucharist for those who believe, not for those who are lost. Because Christ was only crucified for believers, only believers can spiritually feed on the body and blood that was shed for them. Unbelievers do not feed upon Christ’s body and blood because it was not crucified for them. Therefore, Christ cannot be physically or substantially present in the supper or else they would feed on Christ. The Lutheran view of the Supper is a reductio ad absurdum because it would mean that those who are not saved truly feed on Christ in the Supper in the same way that those who are saved do.

Calvin is arguing from definite atonement to a spiritual view of the Lord’s Supper as opposed to a real presence one in which unbelievers do feed on Christ. His argument is, “Because the cross is limited in its extent, those who feed on Christ must be limited in extent which requires a spiritual eating instead of a physical one or else more people would feed on Christ than Christ was crucified for.” This is why Lutherans such as R. C. H. Lenski rightly understand that Calvin is affirming definite atonement in this quotation because they know the background of the debate and how definite atonement is used as an argument against their view of the Supper. The Lutherans can see what the universal Calvinists cannot because they understand what the debate was about. If Calvin believed in universal atonement at this point in his life, he could not make this argument. No one who believes in universal atonement could or would ever use these words and Calvin does not make any qualification in his words or clarify that he is talking about the unbeliever’s viewpoint instead of his own. But Calvin’s argument is not watertight since many unbelievers do come to faith in Christ later in life proving that Christ certainly did suffer for them.

A similar development can be seen in John Bunyan who taught universal redemption in Reprobation Asserted but then changed his mind because of his interaction with his friend John Owen:

“Now then, his intercession must, as to length and breadth, reach no further than his merits. For he may not pray for those for whom he died not. . . . But this, I say, his intercession is for those for whom he died, with full intention to save them” (Christ a Complete Savior in Works of John Bunyan, 1:235).

The opposite development can be seen in Martin Luther who taught definite atonement early in his career in his commentary on Romans 8:28 but later embraced universal atonement:

“Christ did not die for absolutely all, for he says: ‘This is my blood which is shed for you’ (Luke 22:20) and ‘for many’ (Mark 14:24) – he did not say: for all – ‘to the remission of sins’ (Matt 26:28)” (Lectures on Romans, 252).

As to what I think of this debate, Romans 8:32 is decisive. Paul declared that God will give all things to those for whom he gave up his Son. If God has given us the greater, how will he not also give us the lesser? If he has given us his very own Son, how will he not also give us salvation? The great truth of Christ’s death on behalf of those who trust in him is the foundation of the believer’s assurance of salvation. Because Christ has died for me, I cannot be lost because Christ has paid the penalty for my sins. But if there are some for whom the Father gave up his Son but will not be given all things, then Paul’s argument is invalid “since it might be replied to him, that God might deliver up his Son for persons, and yet not freely give all things with him to them” (John Gill, The Cause of God and Truth, 102). And I don’t believe the Holy Spirit can make logically invalid arguments.


Sunday Meditation – A Life of Faith

“In affliction we learn the lesson of the necessity of living by faith and not feeling or perception. God teaches this by the uncertainty of life’s changes: hope today, and tomorrow at the point of death; good news today, and bad tomorrow; comfort here, and soul-wounding terror there. . . . Thus God teaches the necessity of a life of faith through our disappointments. O the bitter disappointment without faith to provide support! Faith is never disappointed; God is always better than our expectation (2 Tim. 4:17). He only lives an unchangeable life who by faith can trust in an unchangeable God. We have lived too long trusting in a life of feelings and reason. And to patch up a life between faith and feelings is not a life of faith at all. If we do not live all by faith, we do not live at all by faith. God allows us to be tried and vexed with secondary causes, and then, when we have spent all upon physicians of not value, we will resolve for Christ. By this mutability and disappointment of the earthly God teaches his people the excellence of a life of faith. Alas, the best of men are but a little breathing clay! Only trust in God is able to make men happy. Can anything be too hard for a creating God? And as he can, so he will. Men may prove unfaithful, but God will never prove unfaithful.”

Thomas Case

Why Did John Call Jesus the Logos?

There has been a great deal of debate in New Testament scholarship over John’s use of Logos or Word in the Gospel of John. Logos is a unique title for Jesus in John 1 and Revelation 19. But why did John call Jesus this? Some have speculated that John was influenced by Greek philosophy and therefore John does not represent the views of the earliest Jewish Christians, but the later Gentile ones who corrupted the message of Jesus by teaching that he is God. This was a common argument in the “history of religions” school in the nineteenth century, especially at the University of Göttingen (can anything good come out of Germany?). But we do not need to go to the works of Philo or any pagan Greek writings to find out why John chooses to use the word Logos for Jesus.

The background of the term Logos is not Greek, but Hebraic. Logos is the Greek equivalent of the Aramaic word Memra which also means word. The Jewish people at the time of Jesus had lost the ability to speak Hebrew because of the Babylonian exile. They instead adopted the language of the Babylonians which is Aramaic. The Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible is known as the Targum which was commonly used in first century Israel. Memra is the name for God in the Targum when God is spoken of anthropomorphically. The Jewish Encyclopedia defines Memra as:

“The creative or directive word or speech of God manifesting His power in the world of matter or mind; a term used especially in the Targum as a substitute for ‘the Lord’ when an anthropomorphic expression is to be avoided.”

An example of this is in Genesis 3:8 which speaks of “the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.” The Targum uses Memra to translate YHWH instead of the normal way it abbreviates the divine name. The Word was walking in the garden in the cool of the day. Since God is not a man, the description of him walking is an anthropomorphism or manifestation of himself in a way that man can comprehend. This is the word that is used whenever the Old Testament speaks of God being grieved as in Genesis 6 and 1 Samuel 15. Another example is Isaiah 44:24 which speaks of the Lord stretching out the heavens. But in the Targum it reads: “I stretched out the heavens through my Word” which corresponds with John 1:3 when it says that all things were made through him.

That Memra was the word used to describe God anthropomorphically makes perfect sense in light of John’s teaching that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). God the Word actually became man in the incarnation, not just anthropomorphically. Discovering the true background of Word in John shows us that John believed that the Word is God in the same sense that YHWH is God. I wish that more people knew about the glorious background of John’s use of Logos in the Targum.

Sunday Meditation – A Conscience Tender toward Sin

“Affliction also draws the soul into sweet and near communion with God. Outward prosperity is a great obstruction to our communion because we inordinately let out our affections to earthly things, and we allow them to come between God and our hearts and interrupt that sweet and constant traffic and fellowship. . . . The least sin yet has the nature of sin in it, as the least drop of poison is poison. . . . But now, affliction deadens the heart to the world and makes the conscience tender towards sin. Affliction helps us to pray: ‘Lord, you made my heart for yourself, and it is restless until it can rest in you. Return unto your rest, O my soul!'”

Thomas Case

The Law of Continence in the Early Church

The law of continence states that all clergy, even for those who are married, must abstain from all sexual relations. This is part of the official canon law of the Catholic Church. Ironically, one of the main arguments for this position is taken from Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:5 on sexual relations in marriage:

“Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”

Paul says that those who are married may abstain from sexual relations for the purpose of prayer. But the argument goes that because priests are always offering up the sacrifice of prayer to God, they must always abstain from sexual relations. The church father Origen argues:

“I will express what the words of the Apostle mean, but I am afraid that some will be saddened. Do not refuse yourselves to each other, unless through a mutual agreement for a given occasion, so as to free yourselves for prayer, and then come together again; it is therefore certain that perpetual sacrifice is impossible for those who are subject to the obligations of marriage. . . . I therefore conclude that only the one vowed to perpetual chastity can offer the perpetual sacrifice” (23rd Homily on Numbers).

But this interpretation takes the verse completely out of context and ignores the significance of the phrases “for a limited time” and “but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” Paul only intended this to be a temporary abstaining from sexual relations in marriage. Where is Origen getting the idea of a perpetual sacrifice anyway? By turning this verse into an argument in favor of perpetual continence in marriage, he is making the exact opposite argument that Paul was.

The Council of Elvira at the beginning of the fourth century mandated that all clergy abstain from sexual relations:

“It has seemed good to absolutely forbid the bishops, the priests, and the deacons, i.e., all the clerics in the service of the sacred ministry, to have relations with their wives and procreate children; should anyone do so, let him be excluded from the honor of the clergy” (Canon 33)

The First Council of Arles in 314 followed the same practice:

“Moreover, concerned with what is worthy, pure, and honest, we exhort our brothers in the episcopate to make sure that priests and deacons have no [sexual] relations with their wives, since they are serving the ministry everyday. Whoever will act against this decision will be deposed from the honor of the clergy” (Canon 29).

Eusebius of Caesarea, a disciple of the teachings of Origen, followed his master:

“It is fitting, according to the Scripture, that a bishop be the husband of an only wife. But this being understood, it behooves consecrated men, and those who are at the service of God’s cult, to abstain thereafter from conjugal intercourse with their wives. As to those who were not judged worthy of such a holy ministry, Scripture grants them [conjugal intercourse] while saying quite clearly to all that marriage is honorable and the nuptial bed is without stain, and that God judges profligates and adulterers” (Demonstratio Evangelica 1.9).

One of the arguments for complete continence was that sexual relations under the Old Covenant made one ceremonially unclean. The priests had to go through ceremonies to make themselves clean again. But because priests under the New Covenant must serve God every day, they do not have the time to go through the cleansing rituals as the old priests did. As Ambrosiaster argues:

“Now there should be seven deacons, several priests (two per church), and only one bishop for each city, which is why they must abstain from any conjugal relations; they have to be present in church every day, and they do not have the necessary time to purify themselves properly after conjugal unions, as the priests of old used to do” (Commentary on 1 Timothy).

Pope Siricius affirms that this is the teaching of the Western Church at the end of the fourth century:

“Moreover, as it is worthy, chaste, and honest to do so, this is what we advise: let the priests and Levites have no intercourse with their wives, inasmuch as they are absorbed in the daily duties of their ministries” (Cum in Unum Decretal).

It was believed that sexual relations were defiling and impure, even within marriage. As Ambrose says:

“But ye know that the ministerial office must be kept pure and unspotted, and must not be defiled by conjugal intercourse” (De officiis ministrorum 1.258).

This attitude that sexual relations were defiling helped create the environment in which the belief that Mary was a perpetual virgin became widespread. As Pope Siricius wrote:

“You had good reason to be horrified at the thought that another birth might issue from the same virginal womb from which Christ was born according to the flesh. For the Lord Jesus would never have chosen to be born of a virgin if he had ever judged that she would be so incontinent as to contaminate with the seed of human intercourse the birthplace of the Lord’s body, that court of the Eternal King” (Letter to Bishop Anysius).

The Council of Carthage, influenced by the theology of Augustine who believed that sexual desire, even in marriage, was a necessary evil coming out of original sin (On Marriage and Concupiscence 1.8, 19), continued to uphold the law of continence:

“It is fitting that the holy bishops and priests of God as well as the Levites, i.e. those who are in the service of the divine sacraments, observe perfect continence, so that they may obtain in all simplicity what they are asking from God; what the Apostles taught and what antiquity itself observed, let us also endeavour to keep. The bishops declared unanimously: It pleases us all that bishop, priest and deacon, guardians of purity, abstain from conjugal intercourse with their wives, so that those who serve at the altar may keep a perfect chastity” (Canons 3-4).

“Moreover since incontinence has been charged against some clergymen with regard to their own wives it has seemed good that bishops, presbyters, and deacons should according to the statutes already made abstain even from their own wives; and unless they do so that they should be removed from the clerical office. But the rest of the clergy shall not be forced to this but the custom of each church in this matter shall be followed” (Canon 70).

Even the revered Council of Chalcedon which gave us a beautiful declaration concerning the two natures of Christ taught that any monk who marries is to be excommunicated from the church:

“It is not lawful for a virgin who has dedicated herself to the Lord God, nor for monks, to marry; and if they are found to have done this, let them be excommunicated. But we decree that in every place the bishop shall have the power of indulgence towards them” (Canon 16).

For Jerome, marriage was only good for making more virgins:

“Marriage is allowed in the Gospel, yet that those who are married cannot receive the rewards of chastity so long as they render their due one to another. If married men feel indignant at this statement, let them vent their anger not on me but on the Holy Scriptures; nay, more, upon all bishops, presbyters, and deacons, and the whole company of priests and Levites, who know that they cannot offer sacrifices if they fulfill the conjugal act. . . . Therefore, as I was going to say, the virgin Christ and the virgin Mary have dedicated in themselves the first fruits of virginity for both sexes. The apostles have either been virgins or, though married, have lived celibate lives. Those persons who are chosen to be bishops, priests, and deacons are either virgins or widowers; or at least when once they have received the priesthood, are vowed to perpetual chastity” (Letter 48 to Pammachius).

Epiphanius followed the same view:

“But the man who continues to live with his wife and sire children is not admitted by the Church as a deacon, priest or bishop, even if he is the husband of an only wife; [only] he who, having been monogamous, observes continence or is a widower; [this is observed] especially where the ecclesiastical canons are exact” (Panarion, Heresy 59).

The First Council of Toledo forbids bishops, priests, and deacons from having children even though Paul assumed that many overseers would have children (1 Tim 3:4-5):

“It seems good that the deacons be men who have kept their integrity by leading chaste and continent lives; even if they have wives, let such men be established in the ministry; however, if there are some who, even before the Lusitanian bishops had pronounced the interdict, did not observe continence with their wives, let them not be granted the honor of the priesthood; if a priest, before the said interdict, had children, let him not be admitted to the episcopate” (Canon 1).

Pope Innocent I followed Siricius in mandating continence for priests and deacons:

“Moreover, the Church must absolutely maintain what is worthy, pure, and honest, to wit: the priest and deacon must have no relations with their wives, because they are very busy every day with the necessities of their ministry” (Letter to Victricius of Rouen).

The Council of Orange taught that men cannot become deacons unless they make a vow of perpetual chastity:

“It pleases us that married men are not ordained anymore to the diaconate unless, with the firm intention of changing their lives, they have first made a profession of chastity. But if someone is found who, after having received the Levitical blessing, does not observe continence with his wife, let him be forbidden to exercise his ministry” (Canons 21-22).

Pope Leo the Great argues on the basis of 1 Corinthians 7:29 that married men in the priesthood must not have relations with their wives:

“Indeed, if those who do not belong to the Order of clerics are free to enjoy carnal relations and beget children, we must, in order to manifest what is the purity of a perfect continence, not permit carnal relations even to the subdeacons, ‘so that those who have a wife be as if they did not have one’ and those who do not have one remain single. If it befits this order – the fourth starting from the top – to observe [continence], how much more so the first, second and third must observe it; let no one be deemed apt for the Levitical or priestly dignity or for the supreme dignity of the episcopate if it is found that he has not yet put an end to conjugal pleasure” (Letter to Anastasius of Thessalonika).

Pope Gregory the Great leaves no doubt that this is the official teaching of the Western Church:

“Three years ago it was absolutely forbidden to subdeacons of the Churches of Sicily, according to the customs of the Roman Church, to have relations with their wives. . . . This is why it seems good to me to request that all the bishops from now on should not allow themselves to ordain as subdeacon someone who would not have [first] promised to live in chastity…as to those who, on their part, [still] refused to abstain from relations with their wives after interdiction, we oppose their admission to the sacred Order, since no one can have access to the alter if his chastity has not been tested and recognized before receiving the ministry” (Letter to Peter, Subdeacon of Sicily).

“Many reports have informed us that there was a custom in the past, among you, permitting subdeacons to have relations with their wives. So that no one will again have the audacity to act in such a way, an interdiction was brought by Servus-Dei, deacon of our See, on the authority of our predecessor: those who were already united to wives had to choose between two things: either to abstain from conjugal relations or not to have the presumption to exercise their ministry under any pretext” (Letter to Leo, Bishop of Catania).

Isidore of Seville, considered to be the last of the church fathers, held the same view:

“Because they touch the sacred mysteries, it has seemed good to the Fathers that these men [subdeacons] be chaste and keep continence with their wives and be free of any carnal impurity” (De Ecclesiasticis Officiis).

The Council of Trullo, which the Eastern Church considers to be an infallible ecumenical council, requires that all bishops refrain from sexual relations:

“Moreover this also has come to our knowledge, that in Africa and Libya and in other places the most God-beloved bishops in those parts do not refuse to live with their wives, even after consecration, thereby giving scandal and offense to the people. Since, therefore, it is our particular care that all things tend to the good of the flock placed in our hands and committed to us – it has seemed good that henceforth nothing of the kind shall in any way occur. And we say this, not to abolish and overthrow what things were established of old by Apostolic authority, but as caring for the health of the people and their advance to better things, and lest the ecclesiastical state should suffer any reproach. . . . But if any shall have been observed to do such a thing, let him be deposed” (Canon 12).

The First Lateran Council of 1123, one of the infallible ecumenical councils of Roman Catholicism, taught that priests and deacons who marry must dissolve their marriages:

“We absolutely forbid priests, deacons, subdeacons, and monks to have concubines or to contract marriage. We decree in accordance with the definitions of the sacred canons, that marriages already contracted by such persons must be dissolved, and that the persons be condemned to do penance” (Canon 21).

But how would all of these people respond to the argument against clerical continence based on Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 9:5 that he has a right to take along a believing wife? A common response is that Paul is not speaking of marriage in this verse, but bringing along his wife on his missionary journeys. Clement of Alexandria argues that all of the apostles lived in continence even though they were all married:

“Even Paul did not hesitate in one letter to address his consort. The only reason why he did not take her about with him was that it would have been an inconvenience for his ministry. Accordingly he says in a letter: ‘Have we not a right to take about with us a wife that is a sister like the other apostles?’ But the latter, in accordance with their particular ministry, devoted themselves to preaching without any distraction, and took their wives with them not as women with whom they had marriage relations, but as sisters, that they might be their fellow-ministers in dealing with housewives” (Stromata 3:53).

But if Paul was married and yet refused to engage in sexual relations with his wife, then he would be going against his very own instructions in 1 Corinthians 7:5 that continence in marriage is only to be temporary and not a permanent state of affairs. How absurd would it be for Paul to live in continual continence as a married man and then teach against such a practice! When Paul speaks of taking along a believing wife, he is not talking about taking her on a missionary journey, but using the verb as a metaphor to describe marriage. Paul was not married: “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am” (1 Cor 7:8). Some argue that Paul is not talking about a wife in 1 Corinthians 9:5, but a female companion who would help provide for his needs. But this is simply not what the text says. The Catholic NAB translation accurately translates the verse: “Do we not have the right to take along a Christian wife, as do the rest of the apostles, and the brothers of the Lord, and Kephas?” Cephas, or Peter, was married as indicated by Matthew 8:14 which mentions his mother-in-law.

Modern Catholics who believe that there is nothing wrong with a married priest having sexual relations with his wife are in disagreement with the teachings of Popes Leo, Gregory, Innocent, Siricius, the First Lateran Council, and canon law. There is a contradiction between this ancient law defended by multiple popes and the present practice of the Catholic Church which allows for priests who were already married when they converted to Catholicism to continue to have relations with their wives. This is one more example of papal fallibility since Pope John Paul II never required these married priests to abide by the law of continence when they converted from Episcopalianism to Catholicism and joined their priesthood. Modern Catholicism also does not require deacons who are married to abstain from sexual relations in contrast to the teachings of these popes. The popes of old would be rolling over in their graves if they knew about this departure from their established tradition.

Sunday Meditation – The Rule of Holiness

“There is a divine supernatural principle wrought in us in regeneration that enables the soul to perform duties of holiness. We cannot learn it; it can only be taught by God. The beauty and glory of it is absolutely inexpressible. It includes conformity to God, likeness to Christ, compliance with the Holy Spirit, interest in the family of God, fellowship with angels, and separation from darkness and the world. Holiness consists of our actual obedience unto God, which is revealed to us in his Word. Indeed the Word of God is the only adequate rule for all holy obedience. It is not to be found in our own imaginations or our inclinations. All that is commanded in the Word belongs to our obedience, and nothing else is binding. We are strictly directed neither to add to it nor subtract from it. We are to do not only what is commanded, but all that is commanded, and nothing more. If not commanded, it is not a part of our obedience. The inbred light of nature yet unremaining in us may give us direction as to moral good and evil, but this light must be subordinate to the Word and is not the final rule of gospel holiness. The law grace writes in our hearts must answer to the law written in God’s Word. God promised that his Spirit and Word always accompany one another. The Spirit does not work anything in us but what the Word first requires of us. All the internal workings of our soul are to be regulated by the Word. The Word is the sole rule of our holiness. What we are and what we do; all is answerable to the Word of God; and so far are we holy and no further. Whatever acts of devotion or duties of morality may be performed, they are only a part of our satisfaction if they conform with the Word of God.”

John Owen

Are Clergy Allowed to Marry?

If you ask the question, “Are pastors allowed to be married?” in Protestant circles, you will no doubt be greeted by strange looks as if you were an alien from another planet. Protestants have never required their ministers to be unmarried. In contrast, Roman Catholicism believes in priestly celibacy and Eastern Orthodoxy practices episcopal celibacy where bishops are not allowed to marry while priests are. These three groups all come to different conclusions because they each have different starting points. I have discovered in my study of Christian theology that one’s conclusions are almost always determined by the presuppositions that one brings to the debate. If we believe that the Bible is the sole infallible rule of faith, then we will not believe in clerical celibacy because no such thing is taught in Scripture. If we believe in papal infallibility, then priests must be unmarried unless they were already married when they converted to Catholicism because the pope says so. If we believe in the infallibility of the ecumenical councils as Eastern Orthodoxy does, then bishops cannot be married because canon 12 of the Council of Trullo forbids such a practice.

But what all three of these groups have in common is a commitment to the truth of the Christian Scriptures. If we begin first by examining what the Bible has to say on this matter, the case for allowing clergy to be married is open and shut. Paul, as an apostle, says that he was allowed to be married in 1 Corinthians 9:5: “Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?” Paul assumed that many overseers in the church would be married given the requirement that an elder be a “one-woman man” who is sexually faithful to only one woman in his life (1 Tim 3:2). Many pastors had children as well (1 Tim 3:3-4). Sexual relations within marriage are not defiling, but holy in God’s sight (1 Cor 7:5; Heb 13:4). Paul warns of a day when false teachers would forbid others from marrying:

“Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth” (1 Tim 4:1-3).

Not allowing others to marry and requiring people to abstain from certain foods is legalistic and demonic. Paul warns against this kind of man-made religion with its ascetic practices:

“If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations – ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used) – according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Col 2:20-23).

To demand of others that they remain unmarried goes beyond Scripture and elevates the tradition of man to the authority of God’s Word. We have no right to demand of others what is not taught in Scripture as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4:6: “I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another.” Since there is no biblical warrant for required celibacy, it must be rejected. A religion which forbids certain people from getting married binds the consciences of men to human tradition instead of God’s Word.

The primary argument from Scripture in favor of clerical celibacy is taken from Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7 that singleness is better in many ways than marriage for the purpose of serving God. But Paul is talking about the entire church in this chapter, not just ministers of the gospel. If a person must be unmarried to become a pastor because of these verses, then all Christians should be unmarried. There is a world of difference between saying that singleness is better in many ways for the purpose of pastoring versus actually requiring that people be single to serve as pastors. The belief in clerical celibacy does not come from Scripture, but from a worldview that denigrates marriage and sexual relations within it as a necessary evil. May we never go beyond Scripture and identify something as sinful which the Bible never does.