Atonement discussions can often be improperly prejudiced from the onset. Initially when I became Reformed the two options were limited expiation or Arminianism. I didn’t agree with Arminianism, so naturally I went with limited expiation. Later I learned that within “Calvinism” there were other options, most notably “hypothetical universalism” which is equated with “Amyraldianism.” The temptation is to fall into another either/or dillemma. Both “Amyraldians” and “High Calvinists” often make this mistake.
The need of the hour is to avoid these sorts of labels. We need a historical vision of a sort of “variegated Calvinism,” if you will. I think John Davenant provides us a good example of just that.
Anthony Milton includes Davenant’s “On the controversy among the French Divines” in his The British Delegation and the Synod of Dort. This is most helpful because Davenant is speaking directly to the subject of Cameron’s teachings and the claims of the Saumur School. Davenant lists their positions, which I’ll give below, and then he shows his own opinions, and wherein they might overlap and wherein they might differ. In the end it is clear that Davenant is his own man, and he understands himself as an English Churchmen first and foremost, with all other positions taking a secondary place of importance.
Davenant begins his treastise by giving the position of the French and the position of the High Calvinists. Both parties seem to agree that the English and Bremen delegates teach the same doctrine as the French Divines. The French use this as support. The High Calvinists use this as reason to demand that the Synod of Dort reject the English and Bremen delegates as well as the French Divines.
There are some who so contend for the particular election in Christ, through the mere good pleasure of God, of some certain persons, and their effectual and irrevocable calling to grace and glory, that at the same time they assert, that Christ having died for all men individually with some general intention, God, by His universal grace, founded on His death, which was sufficient in itself, and by a suitable invitation, and calling to repentance, although in different ways, gives to all individually that they may be saved if they will: so that it arises from themselves alone, and the hardness of their heart repelling the means of salvation, if they are not saved. Which was the opinion of D. Cameraon B. M., and, as it appears to them, of the Deputies from England the Republic of Bremen at the Synod of Dort.
There are, on the other hand, those who deny that Christ died for all men individually, with the intention of saving them, and that God really wills that all men individually should be saved. They wish that the opinion of the Deputies from England and Bremen on this subject should ge rejected by the Synod of Dort, or referred to an opposite Synod: and think the opinion of Cameron and his disciples as pure Arminianism, a hydra of errors, opposed to the Synod of Dort, a subversion of the nature of the Divine law, of the Gospel, of the necessity of the Christian religion, to e expelled from the Reformed Churches.
The Opinion of the Divines of England, the most celebrated in the whole Christian world, is requested on this controversy, as it appears that this might conduce not a little towards confirming the peace of the Reformed Church in France.
This last portion may only be a general formality and a bit of flowery language, but I think it also shows the desire of the English to be seen as an independent school from both the French and the Dutch.
Davenant continues with an examination of Cameron’s teaching saying:
The gracious and saving will of God toward sinners is to be considered as effectually applying to some persons, of His special mercy, the means of saving grace, according to that saying of the Apostle, He hath mercy on whom He will: or as appointing sufficiently for all, of His common philanthropy, the means of saving grace, applicable to all for salvation, according to the tenor of the Covenant of grace, as the Evangelist has said, God so loved the world, etc. Those whom the Divine Will, or good pleasure embraces under the first description, on them it always confers the means of saving grace in this life, and the end of grace, that is life eternal, or glory in the world to come (Rom. viii. 28-9 and Eph. i. 3-5 etc.). Those whom the Divine Will embraces under the latter description, on them it sometimes confers the means of saving grace, and sometimes does not: but it never confers the end of grace, that is, eternal life.
In this opinion, which is said to have been that of D. Cameron, the first member of the sentence is legitimately constructed, if he understands that particular election, mere good pleasure, and effectual calling to grace and glory, depend in such a manner on the Divine Will, that it does not separate this Divine Will from the foreseen acts of the human will. For he who does this, falls into the error of the Semi-pelagians.
The second member of the sentence is involved and perplexed with so many ambiguous forms of speaking, that is difficult to determine its truth or falsehood, without first dividing it into portions
Davenant begins to go through the various propositions considered to be Cameron’s theology. He takes up three statements: “Christ died for all men individually with some general intention,” “That God by His universal grace founded in the death of Christ which was sufficient in itself, and by a suitable invitation and calling to repentance, although in different ways, grants to all men individually, that they may be saved if they will,” and “It is through men themselves alone, and the hardness of their hearts that they are not saved.” Davenant can both grant validity to each of these propositions, as well as criticize them, depending on how they are understood and which other doctrines are also affirmed.
As to whether Christ died for all men individually with some general intention, Davenant says:
Christ is rightly said to have died for all men, inasmuch as on His death is founded a covenant of salvation, applicable to all men while they are in this world. Nor can He be said to have died for each individually, inasmuch as His death may profit each for salvation, to the tenor of the new Covenant, none being excluded. On the other hand, it cannot profit any individual, contrary to the tenor of that Covenant, although he should be of the elect.
Davenant then goes on to explain the difference between God’s general will and His simple will. The simple will is that which God actually causes to come to pass. It can only be special and limited. The general will is God’s general benevolence and His providing a universal call to “Repent and believe.” This will is for all. As long as this distinction is kept in mind, Davenant sees no reason to reject the statement that “Christ died for all men individually with some general intent.”
Davenant does not find the next two propositions nearly as appropriate. He denies the propriety of the term “universal grace.” He also states that the condition “if they are willing to believe in Christ” is true as a condition for all, but that it cannot be fulfilled by all. In fact, many people will never hear the gospel preached and thus they cannot “will” to be saved.
Davenant also sees a danger in merely saying “It is through men themselves alone, and the hardness of their hearts that they are not saved.” It is true, Davenant thinks, that men are solely to blame for their just condemnation, but he also wants to make it clear that no heart is too hard for God to soften if He wishes. Davenant finally states, “I think, therefore, that the opinion of Cameron was badly expressed here.”
Davenant concludes his treatise with this:
I know that the opinion of the English Divines given at the Synod of Dort, neither establishes universal grace, nor acknowledges that apt and sufficient means of salvation are granted to all men individually upon whom the Gospel hath not shone.
Lastly, I think that no Divine of the Reformed Church of sound judgement, will deny a general intention or appointment concerning the salvation of all men individually by the death of Christ, on this condition- If they should believe. For this intention or appointment of God is general, and is plainly revealed in the Holy Scriptures, although the absolute and not to be frustrated intention of God, concerning the gift of faith and eternal life to some persons, is special, and is limited to the elect alone.
What makes this interesting to me is that it shows Davenant considers himself to hold to the Dortian position, rightly understood of course (which is to say, with some of the English changes), and he in no way understands himself to be of the school of the French divines. He neither condemns them nor fully subscribes to them, and in his generous manner, Davenant tries to read Cameron in the best light. There are still necessary qualifications that he thinks Cameron needs to make.
This also shows that the English considered themselves to be Reformed and to be a distinct school from the French and the Dutch. While on friendly terms with both, they are dependent on neither.
Perhaps more interesting for the larger discussion though is what Davenant’s view of Cameron says about our current historical awareness. Is it true to say that Davenant, as Roger Nicole writes, “held to a hypothetical universal redemption position” along with “Richard Baxter, James Ussher, Lazarus Seaman, John Arrowsmith, Moses Amyraut, John Preston, Stephen Marshall, and others.”? I guess we’d have to say no, it isn’t.
Well actually, what we should say is that there is no such thing as hypothetical universalism. Davenant was clearly a man of influence, and as he states, the English Divines were theologians of influence. It would seem strange to say that they were aberrations from the norm when everyone is writing to them, asking for their opinions. When we consider that they were moderately successful at Dort, eventually giving their consent to the Canons, then if anything, we should say that Dort teaches hypothetical universalism. This is something I’m guessing no one is going to say. Whatever we conclude, it should not be that Davenant was an Amyraldian, nor that the English Churchmen were an aberration from orthodox Calvinism.
The truth is more likely that “Calvinism” has always been a broad term, and thus we need to reorient our historical self-consciousness.