The Extent of the Atonement and the Extent of Reformed Orthodoxy

Few theological questions today gender such impassioned debate as the question, “For whom did Christ die?” Just about every Christian has a view on this issue, and likely holds to it quite strongly. The question itself can be understood in different ways. On the broad scale, the question can be read against the backdrop of universalist readings of the atonement versus more exclusivist readings of the atonement. The universalist understanding posits that Christ’s death is universal in application: the sins of all men are already forgiven through the cross. All that is left is for unbelievers to simply recognize that they are already forgiven and justified. The exclusivist understanding, typical among evangelicals, holds that Christ’s death is limited in application: it is applied only to believers.

More narrowly, within evangelicalism a different sort of debate with regard to the extent of the atonement occurs. This debate takes the shape of general atonement versus limited atonement, and it runs down a dividing line between Calvinist and Arminian views of soteriology. While both sides agree that the atonement is limited in its application to believers, they disagree on whether God effectually intends to save the elect alone through Christ’s atonement. Arminians deny this, while Calvinists affirm it. This debate has spawned a number of books, both scholarly and not-so-scholarly, and is a source of no small contention for the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest evangelical denomination in the U.S., which allows for both Arminian and Calvinist viewpoints in their membership.

This post will narrow down the question even further. Within liberal and evangelical clashes over this question, this post assumes the evangelical position, and within Calvinist and Arminian contentions, it sides with the Calvinists. I am here concerned with the Reformed conception of the atonement, known most popularly as “limited atonement.” The question I will here explore is: Just how limited is limited atonement? Put another way: what are the bounds of Reformed orthodoxy when it comes to the question of the extent of the atonement, and what sort of variety do we find among the Reformed in how they address this question?

The idea that Reformed orthodoxy tolerates a certain degree of variety on this question and others is not altogether welcome in some quarters. Certain sectors of the Reformed world engage in a blinkered pursuit of what it is to be “truly Reformed.” Theirs is a narrow orthodoxy that stifles rather than enlivens, one which allows for little diversity and suffers from a myopic understanding of the Reformed tradition. Richard Muller, by contrast, has set out in his many works to demonstrate the broadness of orthodoxy, as he explores the breadth and the variety of the Reformed tradition. It is important that such historic diversity be borne in mind, particularly in our modern evangelical context, which is shaped by intramural Calvinist-Arminian debates and is largely unacquainted with the wealth of Reformation and Post-Reformation thought. In this sort of context, the Calvinist view can come to be over-simplified and flattened out, and one part of the Reformed tradition is associated with, and eventually equated with, the “Reformed position.”

At the same time, in pointing out the variety of views on the extent of the atonement within Reformed orthodoxy, I do not wish to give the impression that anything goes. There are indeed bounds of orthodoxy. The question here is where precisely these bounds were set, and what sort of views were meant to be allowed to run free within them. The Synod of Dort was a decisive council for the Reformed orthodox in responding to the five points of the Remonstrants, and thus articulating the Reformed view of the atonement; yet the Canons of Dort did allow for some degree of variety and latitude on many issues. Muller points out that while refuting the Remonstrants, the Canons were intentionally crafted “to be inclusive of a wide variety of Reformed views, ranging from supra- to infralapsarian and allowing both for more particularistic as well as hypothetical universalist understandings of the work of Christ.”[1] The Canons are an ecumenical document, designed to allow a certain degree of latitude, and its statements on the atonement meant to allow for both stricter and broader conceptions of its extent.

One delegate at the Synod of Dort who advocated for a broader view of the atonement is John Davenant (1572–1641), then Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Cambridge and eventual bishop of Salisbury.[2] Davenant held to a species of what has come to be called hypothetical universalism, which refers to “a significant strand of Reformed theologians who argued that God willed Christ’s death to be a universal cause of salvation for all men on condition that if all repent and believe, their sins will be remitted.”[3] I say he held to a species of it because it must be borne in mind that hypothetical universalism is not monolithic. Wolfgang Musculus, Girolamo Zanchi, Heinrich Bullinger, Zacharias Ursinus, David Pareus, James Ussher, Pierre du Moulin, John Cameron, Moses Amyraut, John Davenant, Richard Baxter,  and Edmund Calamy all held to some form of hypothetical universalism, but they do not agree with one another on all particulars; indeed, some of these men explicitly and strongly critiqued aspects of one another’s thought.[4] I will here briefly unpack hypothetical universalism as John Davenant espouses it, compare it to other views current in his day, and then offer biblical, theological, and historical reflections on his view.

John Davenant’s Hypothetical Universalism

John Davenant was a member of the British delegation to the Synod of Dort, and therefore he affirmed against the Remonstrants that God effectually intended to procure and apply redemption to the elect alone. In his own words, he affirms that “Christ died for the elect out of a special love and intention of both God the Father and Christ, that he might truly obtain and infallibly confer on them forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation.”[5] Christ did not do this for all but for the elect alone. Davenant thus falls within the standards of Reformed orthodoxy on the extent of Christ’s satisfaction, as set by Dort; indeed, the British delegation played a notable role in shaping the final wording of some of the articles.[6]

Davenant and the British delegation at Dort went further, however, and also affirmed that Christ “died for all, that all and every one by means of faith might obtain remission of sins, and eternal life by virtue of that ransom.”[7] Davenant, moreover, as a member of the Church of England, subscribed to the Thirty-Nine Articles, Article xxxi of which states that “the offering of Christ once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world.”[8] Davenant would go on to write two treatises that unpack his view of the extent of Christ’s satisfaction: Dissertatio de Morte Christi, quatenus ad omnes extendatur, quatenus ad solos electos restringatur [A Dissertation on the Death of Christ: how far it extends to all; how far it is restricted to the elect] and Dissertatio de Praedestinatione et Reprobatione [A Dissertation on Predestination and Reprobation]. William Cunningham, though himself not a hypothetical universalist, calls this latter work “a most thorough and masterly exposition and defence of the views ordinarily held by Calvinists in regard to election and reprobation. Indeed, we do not believe that there exists a better or more satisfactory vindication of the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination, in both its branches of election and reprobation.”[9] Here I shall explain three concepts central to Davenant’s view of the extent of Christ’s satisfaction.

Ordained Sufficiency

In Article 3 under the Second Head of Doctrine, the Synod of Dort affirms that Christ’s death is “the only and entirely complete sacrifice and satisfaction for sins, of infinite value and price, more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world.”[10] Article 8 goes on to detail how the saving efficacy of Christ’s death is limited to the elect alone. The affirmation that Christ’s death is sufficient for all and efficient for some (i.e., the elect) goes back to Peter Lombard. The “Lombardian formula” comes from the following passage from his Sententiae:

Christ therefore is the priest and also the sacrifice and ransom of our reconciliation, who on the altar of the cross offered himself not to the devil, but to God the Trinity, for all as far as the sufficiency of the ransom, but for the elect alone as far as [its] efficacy [pro omnibus quantum ad pretii sufficientiam, sed pro electis tantum quantum ad efficaciam], because he effects salvation only for those who have been predestined.[11]

Lombard affirmed that Christ died both for the elect and for all men, though in different senses. Christ died for the elect alone efficaciously, but he died for all men sufficiently. It is important to realize that in either case, Lombard was comfortable saying that Christ “died for” each group, though in different ways.

The early Reformers made use of the Lombardian formula, but it began to fall out of use among the late Reformed orthodox, as they became enmeshed in anti-Remonstrant polemics.[12] The Lombardian formula appeared to cede too much ground, and a stricter view of the extent of the atonement, exemplified by Francis Turretin and John Owen, denied any sense in which Christ died for the non-elect. The statement that Christ “died for” person x was taken to imply that Christ’s death savingly benefits person x. This strict limited atonement view would still affirm that Christ’s death was infinitely valuable and could even further affirm that Christ’s death in itself would have been sufficient to cleanse the sins of the whole world, had God intended it to do so. But since God did not intend for Christ’s death for any but the elect, this remains a strictly theoretical sufficiency. Without any divine intention for Christ’s death to benefit all men, its sufficiency to atone for the sins of all men is purely accidental and largely irrelevant.

John Davenant, by contrast, holds that such “mere” or “naked” sufficiency is not enough.[13] The sufficiency of Christ’s death to atone for all was not accidental but was ordained and intended by God, such that it reflects God’s love for the whole world, including the non-elect, and grounds the free offer of the gospel. As Davenant writes: “God having mercy on the fallen human race sent his Son, who gave himself as the price of Redemption for the whole world.… On this merit of the death of Christ is founded the universal Promise of the Gospel, according to which all who believe in Christ receive remission of sins & life eternal.”[14] This “universal promise” is based on the merit of Christ’s atoning work, and is itself an outflow of the evangelicum foedus [evangelical covenant] or pactum salutis [covenant of redemption], by which Davenant refers not to a pre-temporal, intra-trinitarian covenant as in later theology, but to what the Westminster Confession refers to as the “covenant of grace”—God’s gracious dealing with mankind such that man may be saved through repentance from sin and faith in Christ.[15] The ordained universal sufficiency of the death of Christ provides the basis for the free offer of the gospel and for the evangelicum foedus. If God intended that Christ’s death should in this way be sufficient for all men, then in this sense may one affirm that Christ died for all men, and that he paid the price for the sins of the whole world. He died for all such that all may by faith obtain the salvation offered them through the evangelical promise and covenant.

Efficacious and Inefficacious Intention

Davenant’s view can be further explained by considering his understanding of efficacious and inefficacious divine intention. To situate Davenant’s perspective, it is once again proper to briefly note the position of Dort. Article 8 of the Second Head of Doctrine reads thus:

For this was the most free counsel and most gracious will and intention of God the Father, that the enlivening and saving efficacy [vivifica et salvifica efficacia] of his Son’s most precious death should work itself out in all the elect, in order that God might grant justifying faith to them only [ad eos solos] and thereby lead them infallibly to salvation; that is, God willed that Christ through the blood of the cross, by which he confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem [efficaciter redimeret] from every people, tribe, nation, and language all those and only those [eos omnes et solos] who were chosen from eternity to salvation and given to him by the Father; that Christ should grant them faith, which, like the Holy Spirit’s other saving gifts, he also acquired for them by his death.[16]

While Article 3 of the Second Head of Doctrine notes the universal sufficiency of Christ’s death, Article 8 describes the limited efficacy of Christ’s death. In doing so, it calls attention to God’s free and gracious intention that Christ’s death should have “enlivening and saving efficacy” in the elect alone, and that it should “effectually redeem” all of them and them only. His death acquires the “saving gifts” of the Holy Spirit and secures the application of his death to the elect, thus purchasing for them alone an effectual redemption. This sort of language clearly renounces the Remonstrant position, but also leaves room for delegates like Davenant, who held that in addition to God’s intention for the death of Christ to effectually redeem the elect, he also intended Christ’s death to make redemption available to each and every man.

Davenant argues that God’s “gracious and saving will” can be understood in two ways: “one related to the statement of the Apostle Paul that God ‘has mercy on whom he wills’ (Rom. 9:15), the other related to the words of the Evangelist, John, ‘God so loved the world’ (John 3:16).”[17] The former passage speaks of God’s effectual and sovereign will, according to which God effects salvation infallibly for his elect. In the words of the British Suffrage, this grace of redemption is “not such a grace, by which men may bee redeemed, if they will, but by which they are in event mercifully redeemed, because God so willeth.”[18] Christ dies for the elect so as to secure the grace of their conversion, so that they may in time come infallibly to salvation by faith in his blood—i.e., he dies to effectually redeem the elect. Davenant says that this sovereign and effectual will is God’s will understood in its “proper” sense, according to which it “never fails in producing the good intended, and which the scholastics identify as belonging to the order of special Predestination.”[19]

The latter passage, John 3:16, bears witness to God’s “common love for humanity,” according to which he wills to appoint “means of grace” sufficient for all men to enjoy.[20] Due to God’s common and universal love for mankind, he appoints Christ’s death to make a satisfaction for the sins of all, such that all may benefit from it on condition that they repent and believe. It may seem odd for God to appoint means that no fallen man would lay hold of apart from God’s sovereign and effectual calling, but Davenant notes that “the Divine Will or Intention sometimes denotes merely the appointment of means to an end, although there is no determinate will in God of producing that end by those means.”[21] In this way God appoints Christ’s death as a means to all men being saved through faith in him, without himself having a determinate will to produce that end by these means. This twofold manner of divine willing falls along the traditional distinction between God’s voluntas beneplaciti [will of good pleasure] and his voluntas signi or praecepti [will of sign or of precept].[22]

Actual Remission of Sins by Faith Alone

Finally, Davenant underscores that “actual remission of sins and reconciliation with God” takes place at the point of the sinner’s conversion, and not beforehand.[23] No man’s sins are pardoned, and no man is reconciled with God, until they repent and believe. Consequently, Davenant denies “any form of eternal justification or justification at the cross.”[24] This sets Davenant against certain Lutheran and Reformed theologians who argued that the elect were justified from all eternity. It also sets him against the Remonstrants, who held “that Christ by his death has impetrated [impetraverit] for all human beings reconciliation and remission of sin.”[25] Davenant and the British delegation denied that Christ impetrated, or obtained, reconciliation or remission of sins for all men. In this sense, “impetration and application are of equal extent”: Christ impetrated redemption for the elect alone, and this redemption is applied to the elect alone.[26] As James Ussher put it, “our Saviour hath obtained at the hands of his father reconciliation, and forgiveness of sins, not for the reprobate, but elect only, and not for them neither, before they be truly regenerated, and implanted into himself.”[27]

Summary

In summary, John Davenant’s hypothetical universalism is (1) characterized by an ordained sufficiency, according to which Christ’s death pays the price that all men owe, such that all and every man may be saved through faith in him. (2) He holds to a twofold understanding of God’s gracious and saving will: first, God’s sovereign and infallible intention, whereby he ordains the death of Christ to effectually redeem the elect, corresponding to his work of predestination; second, his appointing of means to an end which he does not have a determinate will to effect, corresponding to his universal love for mankind. (3) He further holds that actual reconciliation and remission of sins occurs at the point of the sinner’s faith and repentance. Christ’s death does not obtain or impetrate reconciliation or remission of sins for any but the elect, and not even for them before they believe.

Comparison with Other Views

Davenant’s hypothetical universalism may be better understood by briefly comparing it with other views of the extent of Christ’s satisfaction current in his day. Here I will compare it to the views of the Remonstrants, John Owen, and Moses Amyraut.

Remonstrants

The Remonstrants were a subset of the Dutch Reformed church who submitted five articles of dispute to the Estates of the Netherlands in 1610. The Synod of Dort was convened as an international council to respond to these points of contention. The Remonstrants’ view of the extent of the atonement is found in their second article, and it may be summarized in two ways: first, they affirm, on the basis of texts such as 1 John 2:2, that Christ died for all and every man, so as to obtain or impetrate for all men reconciliation and remission of sins. Second, they deny that God determined to effectually redeem the elect alone, or that Christ’s death purchases the saving graces of the Spirit by which he without fail brings the elect to salvation.

As I have shown above, Davenant opposes aspects of what the Remonstrants affirm, and affirms what they deny. While agreeing that Christ can be spoken of as dying for all and every man, Davenant denies that Christ’s death obtains [impetrasse] reconciliation or remission of sins for any but the elect. And along with Dort, Davenant affirms that God willed that the death of Christ should effectually and infallibly redeem the elect by purchasing for them a “to-be-applied redemption” and by obtaining the saving graces of the Spirit by which the elect would come to enjoy salvation.[28]

John Owen

The next two positions are within the Reformed camp. Both, with Davenant, oppose the Remonstrants and affirm the Canons of Dort, and yet their views on the extent of Christ’s satisfaction differ from Davenant’s in important respects. First we may consider John Owen, whose rigorous treatise on the extent of the atonement, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, is well-known and often viewed as the definitive treatment of definite atonement. Owen’s view may be described as strict limited atonement, in that it further limits the atonement beyond what Dort affirms. It must be remembered that the Canons of Dort, as a consensus document, allow for both stricter and broader views.

Owen’s position may be summarized as follows: Christ dies for the elect alone, and in no sense for the non-elect.[29] For Christ to die for person x implies that person x is redeemed from their sins. While affirming that Christ’s death is sufficient such that it could have been made a price or ransom for all, Owen holds that “its being a price for all or some doth not arise from its own sufficiency, worth, or dignity, but from the intention of God and Christ using it to that purpose,” and God did not intend the death of Christ to be a price or ransom for any but the elect.[30] To illustrate this, Owen uses his “double payment” argument: it would be unjust for God to inflict punishment twice for the same sin. If Christ died for all the sins of all men, then it would be unjust for God to damn any man; therefore, Christ died for all the sins of the elect alone, since they alone are freed from their sins by his death.

Davenant’s position is broader by comparison. Davenant does not hold that Christ dying for person x implies that person x is saved, but simply that Christ bore the penalty that person x owes, and his death is intended in some sense to benefit them. While Owen focuses only upon divine predestination, or the first and “proper” sense of God’s will, Davenant speaks also of God’s universal love and indeterminate will for all to be saved, according to which he appoints means sufficient for all on condition of faith. Davenant differs from Owen’s double-payment argument, holding that no justification or reconciliation or remission occurs at the cross, but only at the point of faith, while the cross purchases the saving graces of the Spirit that bring the elect to faith. Christ pays the infinite price that all men owe, and on this basis all men may be saved through faith in him. Davenant is able to affirm this while also affirming that Christ purchased an effectual redemption for the elect.

Moses Amyraut

Finally, Davenant’s hypothetical universalism may be compared to the theology of Moses Amyraut, or Amyraldianism. The relationship between Amyraldianism and hypothetical universalism more generally is not always duly appreciated. Some treat Amyraldianism and hypothetical universalism as synonymous, while others treat Amyraldianism as the broader category into which hypothetical universalism falls. Hypothetical universalism predates Amyraut, however, and is the broader category; Amyraldianism is a species of hypothetical universalism, not vice versa.[31] And while some hypothetical universalists may match up more with Amyraut than others, Richard Muller correctly notes that “Davenant can hardly be called a forerunner of Amyraut!”[32]

Amyraut did hold that there is a sense in which Christ died for all men, and thus far is he a hypothetical universalist, but his view is distinguished by a few characteristics. Amyraut held to a particular ordering of the divine decrees: within the decree of absolute predestination, first there was a conditional decree to save all men if they believe in Christ; then there was an unconditional decree to grant faith only to certain persons.[33] Consequently, he affirmed two decrees and predestinations. Amyraut also held to a “universal grace,” the concept that due to God’s universal love and justice all men everywhere must have sufficient knowledge to lead them to trust in God’s mercy and receive remission of sins, the Holy Spirit, and eternal life, apart from the name of Christ.[34]

Davenant differs from Amyraut on the order of decrees and on universal grace. With regard to the former, Davenant “allowed only a single saving intention in the eternal, effective will of God.”[35] Conditionality and hypotheticals are matters of the temporal order and not of absolute divine predestination. Regarding the latter issue, Davenant denies a fully universal grace: “the condition, If they are willing to believe in Christ, cannot be fulfilled by man, unless God wills to send them preachers of the gospel.… There are, therefore, multitudes who cannot be saved, because they cannot believe in Christ.”[36] The grace of Christ and of salvation is limited to where the gospel is proclaimed. Davenant’s critiques of Amyraldianism may be surmised from his De Gallicana controversia D. Davenantii sententia, where he critiques the views of hypothetical universalist John Cameron, under whom Amyraut studied.

Reflections on Davenant’s View

Having described Davenant’s view and how it compares and contrasts with the views of the Remonstrants, John Owen, and Moses Amyraut, I shall now offer brief biblical, theological, and historical reflections on Davenant’s view.

Biblical

Central to the intramural Reformed debate over the extent of Christ’s satisfaction is the question of how to best understand the “world” texts: texts where the language of God’s salvific desire or Christ’s sacrifice is used with universal language, such as “all,” “world,” and “every.” Such texts include Ezek 18:23; 33:11; John 1:29; 3:16; 1 Tim 2:4; 1 John 2:2. There are three basic options for how we might deal with such texts:

Option 1: Christ died for the mundum electorum [world of the elect]. This interpretation would take a general or universal text as simply a general or universal way of speaking about the elect. This is the approach of strict limited atonement to most world-texts, and to every world-text pertaining to Christ’s sacrifice.

Option 2: Christ died for each and every man in some sense. When John, for example, says that Christ is the “propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world” (1 John 2:2, NKJV), this view would be open to the interpretation that Christ is a propitiation both for believers and for all men, though in different senses: effectually for believers, such that they do in fact benefit from it, and sufficiently or availably for all, such that they can benefit from it by faith.

Option 3: Postmillennial eschatology. This is the idea that Christ’s death will cover the sins of the whole world when the whole world is converted before his return. This position was advocated by B. B. Warfield and R. L. Dabney.

It is important to see that none of these options need cancel the others out at the conceptual level. One may affirm the theological truth of all three of these, or only a couple of them. At the level of biblical exegesis, one will have to treat each universal-sounding text on its own merits, and seek to discern which use best coheres with the text in its context. One is not obliged to treat every universal-sounding text in the same way. Lee Gattiss helpfully illustrates this by demonstrating from Reformed annotations on Scripture how various Reformed groups treat a number of different world-texts.[37] His samplings demonstrate that there was variety among and within the Reformed over how to best interpret a particular world-text.

Theological

One of Davenant’s key theological ideas is that there is a twofold sense to God’s salvific will. His salvific will may be considered as his sovereign, infallible voluntas beneplaciti, or it may be considered as his non-determinative voluntas signi or praecepti. According to the former, God wills Christ to die to secure an effectual redemption for his elect, while according to the latter God wills Christ to secure the potential of redemption for all, offered to all on the condition of faith and on the basis of the infinite merit of the price he paid in his death.

One potential objection to Davenant’s view on this point is that it breaks up the Trinity’s unity and seems to set the Son against the Father and Spirit.[38] The Father, after all, has chosen a particular people for salvation from before the foundation of the world, while the Spirit’s work is to grant regeneration and faith to the elect, so that they are infallibly brought to salvation. Davenant’s view states that the Son dies not just for the elect, but also somehow for all men generally, which puts him at cross-purposes with the Father and the Spirit.

This objection seems to fail, however. The Triune God—Father, Son, and Spirit—desires the effectual salvation of the elect alone, and the Triune God—Father, Son, and Spirit—desires and offers salvation to all. In other words, it is not only the Son who possesses a voluntas signi or praecepti according to which he desires the salvation of all and appoints means for them to be saved, yet without a determinate will to bring about that end by those means. Texts like Ezek 18:23 and 33:11 seem to be equally true of all three members of the Trinity, or God without specification. The Pharisees reject the Father’s purpose (Luke 7:30), and the Father stretches out his arms all day to a disobedient and contrary people (Rom 10:21 [= Isa 65:2]). Likewise, unbelievers resist the Spirit (Acts 7:51), saints grieve the Spirit (Eph 4:3), and the Spirit yearns jealously (Jas 4:5). This twofold manner of the divine will is a matter of the singular, shared Divine will, and so it is true of all members of the Trinity.

Historical

Finally, a couple historical notes are in order. First, hypothetical universalism should not be viewed as outside of the bounds of Reformed orthodoxy. The Synod of Dort intended to allow for it, as did Westminster.[39] Indeed, if one takes the Canons of Dort as establishing the official standard for the Reformed conception of definite atonement, then hypothetical universalism is in fact one species of definite atonement. One may distinguish definite atonement into the broader sort, such as Davenant espouses, and the stricter sort, such as John Owen advocates for.

Second, hypothetical universalism should not be treated as monolithic. Not only is there diversity with regard to the Reformed tradition, such that hypothetical universalism falls within Reformed orthodoxy, but there is also diversity among hypothetical universalists. In this post I have limited myself to Davenant’s conception of hypothetical universalism, but there is some difference in terminology and approach among its various proponents. They cannot all be lumped together with one person. Amyraldianism could be regarded as a species of hypothetical universalism, but Davenant’s views are not identical to Amyraut’s views, and he has strong critiques of Amyraut’s mentor, John Cameron. Hypothetical universalism predates the English Reformers as well, in the writings of Wolfgang Musculus, Girolamo Zanchi, Heinrich Bullinger, Zacharias Ursinus, David Pareus, and James Ussher.

Conclusion

The extent of the atonement is a controversial issue among evangelicals today, which is primarily due to the tensions between the dominant Arminianism that has long characterized American evangelicalism and the so-called “Reformed resurgence.” In popular-level polemics, theological precision and historical awareness can be lacking, lost in the oversimplifications and emotional rhetoric. One unhappy result is that the Reformed view of the atonement comes to be oversimplified and identified with the views of one or two prominent Reformed theologians, the most famous of whom is perhaps John Owen. The strict view of limited atonement has come to be viewed as the Reformed view. Some Calvinists who oppose this strict view, such as Bruce Ware or Mark Driscoll, have articulated a “multiple intentions” or “unlimited-limited” or “four-point Calvinism” view of the cross, but without due engagement with and utilization of the rich and varied heritage of hypothetical universalism found among the Reformed. Today’s Reformed opponents of strict limited atonement would have much to learn from in the writings of Davenant, Ussher, Pareus, and the like.

In fact, a study of Davenant’s views within his historical context offers challenges to both sides of our modern debates over the extent of the atonement. Lee Gatiss states it well: “The question …  must be whether … Hypothetical Universalists today are as careful to avoid the slippery slope of Arminianism as the British at Dort were, and whether the Reformed are as willing now as they were at Dort to tolerate a certain amount of diversity within their robust internal debates.”[40] Both sides of this are important. Here, as elsewhere, a better and deeper acquaintance with the church’s past would give the church needed perspective, guidance, and wisdom in the present.


[1]Richard Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 283.

[2]Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition, 127.

[3]Michael Lynch, “Interview on the Atonement and Hypothetical Universalism,” Reformation21 Blog, 12 August 2015, http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2015/08/interview-on-the-atonement-and.php.

[4]John Davenant critiqued John Cameron, and Pierre du Moulin strongly opposed Moses Amyraut. This latter point is significant because some historical accounts equate hypothetical universalism with Amyraldianism and present du Moulin as an opponent to hypothetical universalism. E.g., Brian G. Armstrong, Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy: Protestant Scholasticism and Humanism in Seventeenth-Century France (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969). Richard Muller shows that this is wrong on both counts: hypothetical universalism is a broader category than Amyraldianism, and du Moulin did hold to a version of the former. Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition, 126–60.

[5]Acta Synodi Nationalis (Leiden: 1620), 2.78, quoted in Lee Gatiss, “The Synod of Dort and Definite Atonement,” in From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 155.

[6]Gatiss, “The Synod of Dort and Definite Atonement,” 157.

[7]Acta, 2.79, quoted in Gatiss, “The Synod of Dort and Definite Atonement,” 156.

[8]Thirty-Nine Articles, https://www.britainexpress.com/History/tudor/39articles-text.htm, accessed 25 November 2018.

[9]William Cunningham, The Reformers; and the Theology of the Reformation, vol. 1 of Collected Works of the Rev. William Cunningham, D.D., Principal and Professor of Church history, New College, Edinburgh (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1862), 205. There is currently no English translation of Davenant’s De Praedestinatione et Reprobatione. It remains in Latin, along with many other treasures of the Reformation and Post-Reformation eras.

[10]Hæc mors Filii Dei est unica et perfectissima pro peccatis victima et satisfactio, infiniti valoris et pretii, abunde sufficiens ad totius mundi peccata expianda. Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1877; repr. 1977), 561.

[11]Peter Lombard, Sententiae in IV libris distinctae, III, d. xx, c. 5.1.

[12]Jonathan D. Moore, “The Extent of the Atonement: English Hypothetical Universalism versus Particular Redemption,” in Drawn into Controversie: Reformed Theological Diversity and Debates Within Seventeenth-Century British Puritanism, ed. Michael A. G. Haykin and Mark Jones (Göttingen; Oakville, CT: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011), 125.

[13]Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition, 133n29.

[14]John Davenant, Touching the Second Article, in Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition, 134.

[15]Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition, 135.

[16]Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, 562.

[17]Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition, 136. These are Muller’s words.

[18] The Collegiat Suffrage of the Divines of Great Britain, Concerning the Five Articles Controverted in the Low Countres […] (London: Robert Milbourne, 1629), 46.

[19]Davenant, De Gallicana controversia D. Davenantii sententia, 289, quoted in Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition, 139.

[20]Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition, 136.

[21]Davenant, De Gallicana controversia D. Davenantii sententia, 289, quoted in Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition, 139.

[22]Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition, 157.

[23]Michael Lynch, “Confessional Orthodoxy and Hypothetical Universalism: Another Look,” in Beyond Calvin: Essays on the Diversity of the Reformed Tradition, ed. W. Bradford Littlejohn and Jonathan Tomes (n.p.: The Davenant Press, 2017), 135.

[24]Lynch, “Confessional Orthodoxy,” 135.

[25]Petrus Bertius, Scripta Adversaria Collationis Hagiensis […] De Divina Praedestione et Capitibus ei adnexis (Brittenburg: Johannes Patius, 1615), 123: ut per mortem crucis impetraverit reconciliationem et remissionem peccatorum omnibus hominibus, quoted in Lynch, “Confessional Orthodoxy,” 136.

[26]Lynch, “Confessional Orthodoxy,” 137.

[27]James Ussher, “An Answer to Some Exceptions,” in Works, 17 vols. (Dublin: Hodges and Smith, and Co., 1864), 12:563–64, quoted in Lynch, “Confessional Orthodoxy,” 136–37.

[28]Lynch, “Confessional Orthodoxy,” 141.

[29]Owen denies “that Christ died for any but those who shall certainly be brought unto him by the ministration of the gospel.” John Owen, Salus Electorum, Sanguis Jesu; or, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, in The Works of John Owen (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1993), 10:127.

[30]Owen, Death of Death, in Works, 10:296.

[31]Contra Amar Djaballah, “Controversy on Universal Grace,” in From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 166.

[32]Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition, 157.

[33]Donald Macleod, “Definite Atonement and the Divine Decree,” in From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 423.

[34]Djaballah, “Controversy on Universal Grace,” 197.

[35]Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition, 140.

[36]Davenant, De Gallicana controversia D. Davenantii sententia, 292, quoted in Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition, 143.

[37]Gattiss, Synod of Dort and Definite Atonement, 161–64.

[38]This is one of Donald Macleod’s critiques in Christ Crucified: Understanding the Atonement (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2014), 126.

[39]For the argument that hypothetical universalism is within the bounds of Westminster, see Lynch, “Confessional Orthodoxy,” 127–48.

[40]Gatiss, “Synod of Dort and Definite Atonement,” 163.

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