Davenant and Calvinism

John Davenant was perhaps the single most influential delegate at the Synod of Dort (particularly for what he kept out of the final version of the Canons). Much of his influence was examined in my BH post on the subject, but it is certainly the case that he remains a neglected figure. I had never heard of him until I began my studies on Dort, and as I survey some of the secondary literature, I see that a few commentators have questioned whether or not he ought to be considered a Calvinist (because of his moderate position and its contrast with that of high Calvinism). G Michael Thomas addressed Robert Godfrey’s claims on Davenant in Thomas’s book The Extent of the Atonement, but I would like to address this issue a little myself by contrasting Davenant with John Overall, a man who had great influence on Davenant, but also a man whose historical point of view was quite different from Davenant’s.

Davenant wrote an extended treatise on the extent of the atonement, partly meant to explain the Canons of Dort. This is his A Dissertation on the Death of Christ. It was originally included within his Colossians commentary, but some modern reprints have removed it. In this treatise, Davenant affirms that Christ’s death established the new covenant and that the death of Christ is sufficient for all men, but for the elect alone effectually. Davenant’s two-fold approach to the death of Christ, allowing for a general universal atonement and a particular effectual atonement, was not original to him, however, and as Peter White has noted, Davenant was directly influenced by Bishop John Overall (Predestination, Policy and Polemic, pg. 191). Overall’s treatises on the atonement can all be found in Anthony Milton’s The British Delegation and the Synod of Dort (pg. 64- 92).

Bishop Overall was certainly not considered a staunch Calvinist. White shows in his book that Archbishop Abbott would have certainly been less supportive of Davenant, had he known of Overall’s influence upon him. It is also clear in Overall’s letters that he does not himself embrace the title “Calvinist,” but rather prefers to describe himself as a member of the Church of England, which, according to him, charts a middle way between the long-standing tradition of the catholic church and the new developments of the Reformation. A good example can be seen in his On the Five Articles disputed in the Low Countries. In regard to the extent of the atonement, he writes:

The Contra-Remonstrants, by excluding a general and conditional decree, maintain a single, particular and absolute decree, pertaining to certain individuals selected out of the human race, who are alone, and through the efficacious and irresistible grace of the Holy Spirit, all the rest being rejected and damned by an absolute decree. This is the judgment of Zwingli, Calvin, and the puritans, unknown to all of the ancient Fathers, even to Augustine and his followers, and rejected by most papists, all Lutherans, and many others. The Church of England, holding a middle way, joins a particular absolute decree (not from foreknowledge of human faith or will, but from the purpose of the divine will and grace) to free and save those whom God has chosen in Christ, with a general and conditional will, or with a general evangelical promise: teaching that the divine promises are to be embraced in the manner in which they are generally set forth to us in the holy scriptures, and that that will of God is to be followed by us which we have clearly revealed to us in the word, namely: that God gave his son for the world or the whole human race; that Christ offered himself as a sacrifice for all the sins of the whole world; that Christ redeemed the whole human race; that Christ ordered the Gospel to be preached to all; that God wills and orders that all should hear Christ and believe in him, and that he has set forth grace and salvation for all in him; that this is an infallible truth in which there can be no error; and that otherwise the Apostles and other ministers of the Gospel who preach this are false witnesses of God, and make God a liar.

(quoted from Milton pg. 64-65)

This selection is complex, as it makes at least two claims. Overall’s doctrinal affirmation is actually quite good and represents nearly exactly Davenant’s position, as well as the British delegation’s interpretation of the Canons of Dort found in their Collegiat Suffrage (see Milton pg. 226-293). This sort of teaching can be seen in the Heidelberg theologians, as well as the 19th century Americans. It is certainly within the bounds of “Calvinism.”

However, Overall misses exactly this historical point. He has stated that “the judgment of Zwingli, Calvin and the puritans” is the single particular aspect of the atonement, thus putting them in the camp of the high Calvinists among the Contra-Remonstrants and in opposition to the Church of England. Overall also states that this position was “unknown to all of the ancient Fathers, even Augustine.” Thus, even as his actual doctrinal content falls within the scope of Reformed thought, Overall’s self-identification is clearly outside of it.

This is where Davenant is distinct, and it is an area which can shed some light on how to classify him, as well as English Calvinism in general. While in basic agreement with Overall’s dual approach to the atonement, Davenant always maintains that the position is in fact that of Calvin as well. In fact, Davenant goes even further and proclaims that this position is the mainstream position of the catholic church throughout the ages. This is not Overall’s “middle way,” but rather an affirmation of agreement and continuity between Calvin, the Church of England, and the Christian Church throughout the centuries.

Davenant begins his Dissertation on the Death of Christ (hereafter DDC) with a chapter entitled “On the Origin of the Controversy.” He does not begin with Arminius or Gomarus, but rather the Church Fathers. He explains Prosper’s response to the Gallicans who opposed Augustine, and shows that “Prosper meets these objections, not by maintaining that Christ suffered only for the elect, but by shewing whence it arises that the passion of Christ is profitable and saving to the elect alone; namely, because these only through the benefit of special grace obtain persevering faith, whereby they are enabled to apply to themselves the death of Christ” (DDC pg. 321).

Davenant also takes a moment to refute Grevinchovius and William Ames in regards to their use of Faustus of Ries in order to teach that Augustine opposed a general atonement. He does not say that these men are the true Augustinians, and that he will instead plot a middle course, but rather that they are mistaken. “Grevinchovius committed a gross error when he thought that the above-mentioned opinion was to be attributed to Pelagius. If he had ever looked into the books of Faustus, he might easily have perceived that in that place he was not writing against the Pelagians, but against those who attribute all to Divine grace and mercy, that is, against Augustine, Prosper, and the rest of the orthodox, whom he babbles against, as unlike the race of sectaries, but like to the Pelagians in impiety (Faustus, lib. i. cap. 3 and 6)” (DDC 325). Here we have Davenant opposing William Ames on a point, but he does not simply say that Ames is a bit too Calvinistic, but rather that Ames is wrong about history. Davenant will stand with Augustine, Prosper, and, as we will see, Calvin and the Reformed tradition.

On pg. 334 of DDC, Davenant begins to show the continuity between the Magisterial Reformers and the medieval tradition. He mentions the Synods of Mentz and Valence and their taking up the dispute between Gottschalk and Hincmar. Unlike certain historical presentation of Gottschalk as a proto-Calvinist, Davenant maintains that the Church disagreed with both Hincmar and Gottschalk, preferring instead to allow the distinction between universal sufficiency and particular efficiency. Davenant states that this continued through the Schoolmen, and finally that, “The Doctors of the Reformed Church also from the beginning spoke in such a manner on the death of Christ, that they afforded no occasion for reviving the contest” (pg. 336). He adds, “For they taught, That it was proposed and offered to all, but apprehended and applied to the obtaining of eternal life, only by those that believe.”

After drawing this line of continuity from the patristics, the medievals, and the Reformed Church, Davenant goes on to begin citing individuals. On pg. 337 we find the names of Melancthon, Calvin, and Bullinger. As we read on we see Musculus (338), Zanchius (339), Pareus (355-356), and Bucer (547). It could perhaps be argued that Davenant was incorrect in his interpretation of these authors, but it should be clear that he did not hold Overall’s opinion. Rather he saw his own views as in harmony with Calvin and the Reformed. Davenant affirms that his position is that of the Church of England, represented in the 39 Articles, and that this position is harmonious both with the Reformed Church as well as the catholic church and the apostles.

A strong illustration of Davenant’s reliance on Reformed authorities in seen in his citation of David Pareus, a widely-known student of Ursinus. Davenant writes:

Lastly, they cannot deny this who are most accustomed to limit the death of Christ. The reverend and most learned Paraeus, in his judgment of the second article of the Remonstrants, which he transmitted to the Synod of Dort, has these words, The cause and matter of the passion of Christ was the sense and sustaining of the anger of God excited against the sin, not of some men, but of the whole human race; whence it arises, that the whole of sin and of the wrath of God against it was endured by Christ, but the whole of reconciliation was not obtained or restored to all. Act. Synod. Dordrect. pg. 217. The force of the argument is, He who willed and ordained that Christ the Mediator should sustain the wrath of God due to the sins not of certain persons, but of the whole human race, He willed that this passion of Christ should be a remedy applicable to the human race, that is to each and every man, and not only to certain individual persons; supreme power being nevertheless left to himself, and full liberty of dispensing and applying this infinite merit according to the secret pleasure of his will.

DDC pg. 355-356

Davenant here teaches the universal saving will of God in sending Christ, as well as the secret will to apply the benefits of the atonement to the elect. In order to so, he does not content himself to disputed passages of Scripture, nor even Calvin, though he does use both elsewhere, but rather Davenant employs a clear and direct statement by David Pareus, and even more, the quote comes from a letter that Pareus wrote to the Synod of Dort expressly concerning the question of the extent of the atonement. There is no room to object that Davenant is taking the quotation out of context or that he is wrongly interpreting it. If Davenant is not Reformed, then neither is Pareus, thus opening a frightening regress, as Pareus was quite representative of the teachers at Heidelberg. Pareus even makes it into Ursinus’s Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, which was reprinted by P&R (though they fail to actually cite him). Observing this connection between Davenant and Pareus is essential to understanding Davenant’s place in the theological spectrum.

We see that one can apply the titles “Calvinist” and “Reformed” to John Davenant in good conscious and with confidence in the historical record. His writings thus serve as a testimony to the legitimacy of the moderate position, as well as a powerful defense of Calvinism’s agreement with the catholic tradition. In this latter regard Davenant is especially important for modern times.

This entry was posted in atonement, john davenant by Steven Wedgeworth. Bookmark the permalink.

About Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

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