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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

Amyraldianism and English Hypothetical Universalism: What’s the Difference?

Published Monday, January 17, 2022 By Michael Lynch

Because of my knowledge of John Davenant’s hypothetical universalism, I am often asked what the difference is between Davenant’s hypothetical universalism and so-called Amyraldianism. Jonathan Moore’s helpful study on English hypothetical universalism, insisting that we ought to distinguish it from Amyraldianism coupled with Richard Muller’s similar claim that there were varieties of early modern Reformed hypothetical universalism(s) have each resulted in this desire to differentiate between the two positions. My typical response to this question is to claim ignorance. Indeed, I am an expert on Davenant, not Amyraut. Still, in this post, I want to make a few observations which might help in advancing our quest for the right answer.

On Terminology

The term hypothetical universalism is a term which developed rather late in the early modern period. Davenant neither heard nor saw the term. Intended as a slur, it originally denoted the Amyraldians in France and their distinctive theological positions. This point should be emphasized. English hypothetical universalism (so-called) arose as a distinctive position among the ongoing polemical debates between Reformed theologians and Lutheran and Arminian theologians. The English hypothetical universalists, most notably James Ussher and John Davenant, expressed dissatisfaction not only with the Lutherans and Arminians but also with some of their own Reformed cohorts, whom Ussher and Davenant deemed had shifted their doctrine on the extent of the atonement in an unorthodox direction due to polemical heat. The English hypothetical universalists were attempting, at least as they saw it, to hold the orthodox line bequeathed to them, rather than pendulum swing in a more extreme way. They claimed that their position was the Augustinian and earlier Reformed position.

The French Amyraldians and their teaching on the extent of Christ’s death arose in a somewhat different set of circumstances. In the mid-1630’s Moïse Amyraut (1596–1664), one-time student of the Scotsman John Cameron, began to publicly teach some positions deemed out of accord with French Reformed orthodoxy. Amyraut, and others in France like him, were controversial not just because they insisted that there was a sense in which Christ died for all people. Along with that controversial position (at least in Reformed churches) came a whole host of provocative doctrines.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll note one such area of concern. In his Traité de la predestination (1634) which was intended to explain the Reformed doctrine of predestination to Roman Catholics, Amyraut considers the question of sufficient grace. He hypothesizes this scenario: Suppose a man (we’ll put him in Timbuktu) begins to feel guilty over his sins. After all, God, whom he has surmised must exist, constantly provides him food, a nice family, and all sorts of other common blessings/grace, which are not simply unmerited, but altogether gracious to him, a sinner. Now, importantly, our man has discerned all of this naturally—via nature. He has never heard the gospel, nor heard of the name of Jesus Christ. Amyraut asks, would God reject this man were he to cry out to God for mercy towards his sins? Would this man, were he to ask God to forgive him of his sins, receive forgiveness for his sins? Amyraut says he would no doubt receive forgiveness.

At this point, we must insist on reading Amyraut correctly. Amyraut is not saying that men actually do or are able to do this in this world. After all, Amyraut affirms the doctrine of total inability. This is a pure hypothetical. Supposing this man were to react appropriately to what can be known by nature (e.g., our fallenness and God’s general benevolence toward humanity), would God save him? That is the only question. Still, it is a rather controversial one. First, it presumes that God’s saving mercy is, at the very least, objectively obtainable via nature. Moreover, it also seems to suggest that people could be saved apart from knowledge of Christ! This latter point was especially controverted by the other French Reformed churches at the Synod of Alencon in 1637. Amyraut’s response can be seen in the minutes of that Synod (see under Article 12, pages 352–57). These questions might sound a bit foreign to our Protestant ears, but they were much debated questions in the early modern period, especially among Roman Catholics, who had already been debating the nature of sufficient and efficacious grace for fifty or so years previous to Amyraut’s 1634 book.

An Attempt at an Answer

If I had to differentiate between Amyraldianism and English hypothetical universalism, this is how I would respond. If the question very narrowly is, did the (French) Amyraldians and English hypothetical universalists agree on for whom Christ died, I think the answer is yes. Yet, it is not clear to me that they agreed on closely related issues such as the will of God, sufficient and efficacious grace, the love of God, the nature and order of the decrees, human ability relative to faith, etc. Because of this, I think we should speak of hypothetical universalism as being an early modern Reformed position on the question of “For whom Christ died,” namely, he died for all, sufficiently; he died for the elect alone, efficaciously.

When, however, we speak about Amyraldianism, I think we should only denote the French Reformed theology found at Academy of Saumur and elsewhere in France during the mid to late-17th century, which taught not only hypothetical universalism (as expressed above), but also a whole web of other doctrines which formed a distinctive system identifiable as “Amyraldianism.” The teachings of Amyraldianism—at least a later iteration of it—can be found in the Helvetic Consensus of 1675, a confession expressly written to respond to what were perceived as the errors of Amyraldianism. Apart from one or two canons of its twenty-five canons, English hypothetical universalism is nowhere to be found. In summary, then, most later criticisms of “Amyraldianism” have little to do with English hypothetical universalism, except when they are addressing the very narrow question of for whom Christ died—and even on this point, some even claim there are differences! My general advice is to read the sources for themselves and draw your own conclusions. Ad Fontes for 2022.

Dr. Michael Lynch teaches language and humanities at Delaware Valley Classical School in New Castle, DE. He is the author of John Davenant’s Hypothetical Universalism.

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