The PostBarthian

Jesus is the Savior of Whole World: Animals, Plants and Rocks (Part 1)


"And he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only
but also for the sins of the whole world." (NRSV 1 John 2:2)

Jesus is the Savior of the Whole World, but what is the maximum inclusion set of this statement? Is the "whole world" at most a select few pious men? Or may we hope for the restoration of all things, including animals, plants and rocks? In this three part series, I've chosen three great Reformed Theologians to answer this question in the order of increasing maximal inclusion: John Calvin, Karl Barth and Jürgen Moltmann.


John Calvin exemplifies the lower bounds of inclusion by defining the "whole world" as a subset of humanity. Calvin wrote in his Commentary on 1 John 2:2: "Then under the word all or whole, he does not include the reprobate, but designates those who should believe as well as those who were then scattered through various parts of the world." Calvin's pessimistic hope that Christ's death would atone for only a minority of humanity was later ossified in the Reformed Church as the Doctrine of Limited Atonement. Karl Barth has demonstrated that Calvin believed that as little as twenty percent of humanity would be saved in the following quotation from the Church Dogmatics II/2:

But in the Institutio, too, we read: "Almost every meeting of a hundred people will be the same: about twenty undertake the prompt obedience of faith, the other will either have no thought of it, or laugh, or hiss, or abominate it." (III, 24, 12). "Experience teaches that God wills that those whom he calls to himself come to their senses, just as he does not touch the hearts of all" (III, 24, 15). Indeed, the whole exposition begins with the methodologically only too revealing words: "The covenant of life is not preached equally among all men, and among those to whom it is preached it does not find the same place in equal measure or with equal permanence. In that diversity the wonderful depth of the divine judgment offers itself. For there is no doubt that even this variety serves the will of God's eternal election. If it is plain that it happens by God's approval that salvation is offered to some on the one hand, but others are kept from approaching him. Here, great difficult questions arise, which cannot be explained, except that pious minds must hold to what there is to hold concerning election and predestination established." (III, 21, 5). The answer to these questions is then strikingly given in the famous definition: "All are not created in the same condition, but eternal life is ordained for some, and eternal damnation for others." (III, 21, 5).

Barth, Karl. "Church Dogmatics Study Edition 10" Ed. T. F. Torrance and G.W. Bromiley. II.2 The Doctrine of God. Trans. G. W. Bromiley, J.C. Campbell, Iain Wilson, J. Strathearn McNab, T.H.L. Parker, W.B. Johnston, Harold Knight, J.L.M. Haire, R.A. Stewart: T & T Clark, 2009. 39. Print. [39]

Despite Calvin's pessimistic twenty percent definition for maximal inclusion, there are glimpses of Universalism through Calvin's writings (including the Institutes of the Christian Religion) that indicated that Calvin may have hoped for far more than twenty percent of humanity. I dare suggest that Calvin indulged (perhaps on sunny days?) in the hope that all people would be saved!

One such glimpse of Universalism is in Calvin's exposition of the Lord's Prayer within the petition "Thy Kingdom Come" in the Institutes (III, XX, 41-42). J.T. McNeill comments on these paragraphs that "Calvin's conception of the victory and future universality of Christ's Kingdom throughout the human race, a topic frequently introduced in the commentaries" (Note #76).

To summarize: we should wish God to have the honor he deserves; men should never speak or think of him without the highest reverence. To this is opposed the profanity that has always been too common and even today is abroad in the world. Hence the need of this petition, which ought to have been superfluous if even a little godliness existed among us. But if holiness is associated with God's name where separated from all other names it breathes pure glory, here we are bidden to request not only that God vindicate his sacred name of all contempt and dishonor but also that he subdue the whole race of mankind to reverence for it.

Now since God reveals himself to us partly in teaching, partly in works, we can hallow him only if we render to him what is his in both respects, and so embrace all that proceeds from him. And his sternness no less than his leniency should lead us to praise him, seeing that he has engraved marks of his glory upon a manifold diversity of works, and this rightly calls forth praises from every tongue. Thus it will come about that Scripture will obtain a just authority among us, nor will anything happen to hinder us from blessing God, as in the whole course of his governance of the universe he deserves. But the petition is directed also to this end: that all impiety which has besmirched this holy name may perish and be wiped out; that all detractions and mockeries which dim this hallowing or diminish it may be banished; and that in silencing all sacrileges, God may shine forth more and more in his majesty.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Ed. John T. McNeill. Trans. Ford Lewis. Battles. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1960. 904. Print. []


Therefore, after we have been bidden to ask God to subject and finally completely destroy everything that casts a stain upon his holy name, there is now added another similar and almost identical entreaty: that "his Kingdom come" [Matt. 6:10].

But even though the definition of this Kingdom was put before us previously, I now briefly repeat it: God reigns where men, both by denial of themselves and by contempt of the world and of earthly life, pledge themselves to his righteousness in order to aspire to a heavenly life. Thus there are two parts to this Kingdom: first, that God by the power of his Spirit correct all the desires of the flesh which by squadrons war against him; second, that he shape all our thoughts in obedience to his rule.

Therefore, no others keep a lawful order in this petition but those who begin with themselves, that is, to be cleansed of all corruptions that disturb the peaceful state of God's Kingdom and sully its purity. Now, because the word of God is like a royal scepter, we are bidden here to entreat him to bring all men's minds and hearts into voluntary obedience to it. This happens when he manifests the working of his word through the secret inspiration of his Spirit in order that it may stand forth in the degree of honor that it deserves. Afterward we should descend to the impious, who stubbornly and with desperate madness resist his authority. Therefore God sets up his Kingdom by humbling the whole world, but in different ways. For he tames the wantonness of some, breaks the untamable pride of others. We must daily desire that God gather churches unto himself from all parts of the earth; that he spread and increase them in number; that he adorn them with gifts; that he establish a lawful order among them; on the other hand, that he cast down all enemies of pure teaching and religion; that he scatter their counsels and crush their efforts. From this it appears that zeal for daily progress is not enjoined upon us in vain, for it never goes so well with human affairs that the filthiness of vices is shaken and washed away, and full integrity flowers and grows. But its fullness is delayed to the final coming of Christ when, as Paul teaches, "God will be all" [1 Cor 15:28]

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Ed. John T. McNeill. Trans. Ford Lewis. Battles. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1960. 905. Print. []

Karl Barth may be correct that Calvin's hope was limited to only one in five people, yet I have hope that this glimpse of universalism and others like it through Calvin's writings, allows for a maximal inclusion that includes all people.

Next, we will consider Karl Barth's maximal inclusion, that will expand our hope beyond Calvin's twenty percent.

Image Source: By Maharaja Mahatab Chand Bahadur (1820 - 1879) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Posted by Wyatt

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  1. I dunno man. 1 in 5 seems pretty high for Mr. Calvin. “All” doesn’t really mean “all” for him elsewhere – why should it here?

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