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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

“John Davenant’s Hypothetical Universalism: A Defense of Catholic and Reformed Orthodoxy,” By Michael J. Lynch

Published Monday, January 24, 2022 By Sam Bostock

I.

With this slim but punchy volume Michael Lynch has provided students of theology with a piece of very solid scholarship on an important figure and his contribution to a surprisingly understudied topic: the doctrine of the atonement in early modern Reformed theology.

John Davenant (1571-1641) was a prominent Church of England minister and theologian. From 1609 he served as Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge and was appointed by King James I to a five-man delegation to the international Reformed synod held in Dordrecht in the Netherlands (1618-19). Soon afterwards he became bishop of Salisbury until his death on the eve of the English civil war. Lynch’s volume examines just one slice of Davenant’s contribution: his defense, both at Dort and at length in his posthumously published dissertation on the death of Christ (De Morte Christi, 1650), of the view that in a proper sense Christ can be said to have died for all individual human beings.

II.

In De Morte Christi John Davenant sought to correct the atonement doctrines both of Arminian (or Remonstrant) theologians, and of a number of Reformed (or Contra-remonstrant) theologians. Davenant’s view has often been described as a via media between these theologies, a semi-Arminianism or, recently, a ‘softening’ of Reformed theology. However, Lynch shows that while Davenant seems primarily to be targeting Reformed theologians, he is doing so while a remaining in basic agreement with them on the critical issue at Dort (that redemption is effectually applied to all those for whom Christ intended to purchase effectual redemption in his death).

The controversy, and Davenant’s place in it, can be best illustrated through use of the formula coined by the medieval Master of the Sentences, Peter Lombard. According to Lombard, on the cross Christ offered himself ‘for all with regard to the sufficiency of the price, but only for the elect with regard to its efficiency’ (Book III, distinction 20). This formula was intended as a summary of the teaching of the fathers and was taken up as a received opinion by the medievals and the early Reformers. In the first two decades of the seventeenth century things changed. In Davenant’s terms, Jacob Arminus and his followers began to deny the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice for the elect, holding that, because of human free will, it did not certainly save anyone. These Remonstant views were rejected at the Synod of Dort. But in addition to this, Davenant was concerned that many of the contra-Remonstrant theologians he engaged with at the Synod were denying the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice for all, as they denied that Christ died for all in a proper sense.

In De Morte Christi, Davenant took issue with the understanding of the sufficiency of Christ’s death offered by those Reformed theologians who wanted to say Christ died only for the elect. These Reformed theologians understood Christ’s death to be intrinsically valuable enough that hypothetically it could have saved ten thousand worlds. However, for Davenant, this was only a ‘mere’ or ‘bare’ sufficiency, based on the intrinsic value of the blood of Christ. As Davenant understood Scripture and tradition, Christ’s death was not only a hypothetically sufficient price to pay for all sins, but he actually offered it as the sufficient price of redemption for the sins of the whole of the human race, making it genuinely possible for every individual within it to be saved, should they repent and believe. While Davenant held with other Reformed theologians that only the elect would in fact repent and believe, the English bishop wanted to stress that this did not undermine in any way the fact that there was a remedy prepared and available to every individual. While Davenant thought that this was basically catholic teaching, and the true meaning of the ‘sufficiency’ of Christ’s death in the Lombardian formula, for clarity he termed this view ‘ordained sufficiency’ in counterpoint to the Reformed ‘mere sufficiency’ view that he opposed. (Lynch’s discussion highlights that in some ways ‘hypothetical universalism’ is unfortunate name for Davenant’s view, as it might be taken to imply unfulfilled volitions in God. It would perhaps be clearer to give the hypothetical label to the particularist view and contrast ‘hypothetical sufficiency’ with Davenant’s ‘actual sufficiency’.) For Davenant it was important to maintain this actual sufficiency in Christ’s death, because it illustrated God’s wonderful philanthropy – that God should so love the whole world of sinners, that he should make his only Son a truly sufficient remedy for their sins, that anyone could be truly offered eternal life through faith in his name. At the same time, the rejection of such philanthropy highlighted human sin. While God had stretched out his arms to the world, offering in Christ a prepared remedy for the sins of all, in their disobedience humans had failed to simply look and live.

III.

In general, Lynch has been able to adopt a largely sympathetic approach to his material. Davenant would no doubt have been pleased to find that Lynch’s overall thesis is that the Englishman’s theology of the extent of the atonement was Augustinian. Furthermore, Lynch wants to argue, again in support of Davenant’s own self-fashioning, that Davenant’s position was in essential continuity with that of early Reformed orthodox theologians like John Calvin, Girolamo Zanchi and the influential Heidelberg theologians Zacharius Ursinus and David Pareus.

After an introductory first chapter, the second chapter cues off Davenant’s own sophisticated historical scholarship to argue that Davenant’s ordained sufficiency was taught in substance, if not in words, by the fathers of the Church and the medievals. Part of Lynch’s implicit purpose in this chapter is to demonstrate that Davenant’s ‘sophisticated hermeneutic’ for reading these patristic texts is considerably more helpful than less careful modern approaches. A crucial third chapter steps away from the focus on Davenant in order to survey early modern debates about the Lombardian formula down to the Synod of Dort. Lynch points out that the formula was almost unanimously accepted by the medievals, and did not come under serious scrutiny until the early modern period. Lynch shows that the question of the extent of the atonement was prominent in debates between the Lutherans and Reformed in the late sixteenth century. Lynch argues that people like Archbishop James Ussher and Davenant, who saw themselves as developing a distinct response to growing Reformed rejections of the Lombardian formula with the ‘actual sufficiency’ position, were not  ‘softening’ Calvinism, but continuing the trajectory established by Calvin and his German Reformed contemporaries.

Lynch’s fourth chapter traces in detail the English delegation’s impact on the shaping of the second chapter of the canons of the Synod of Dort. By this time, the hypothetical sufficiency position was held by a majority of the delegations in the Synod, and any sense of Christ dying for all was associated with Arminianism. Lynch quite clearly shows that although the ‘ordained sufficiency’ view was not written into the canons, various drafts were significantly reshaped in order to accommodate British scruples. Indeed, the British delegation could be said, without exaggeration, to have exercised a major influence on the final form of these canons.

The final three chapters are mainly focused on De Morte Christi. The first of these is a fairly descriptive discussion of Davenant’s arguments against the Remonstrants and particularist Contra-remonstrants. The final two chapters adopt a broader approach, drawing in discussions from other parts of Davenant’s corpus. First, Lynch looks at how Davenant used covenant theology to articulate his universalist and particularist account of the atonement. Against Jonathan Moore, Lynch argues that there is little substantive difference between Davenant’s conditional covenant of grace made with all mankind, and William Perkins’ conditional covenant of grace made only with the elect, but offered to all. Lynch’s language is cautious, but it seems to me that there is more than a mere disagreement about words taking place here. The two options for the parties of the covenant of grace precisely parallels the question over the extent of the atonement. Either all humanity are given a right to the benefits of the covenant on condition of faith (actual sufficiency) or only the elect enjoy a right to eternal life on condition of faith (hypothetical sufficiency). While this chapter was thought-provoking, Lynch seemed less certain of his ground than usual, and aside from some questionable remarks on Perkins, there was little engagement with the broader stream of Reformed covenant theology, despite his emphasis on the importance of doing this. Finally, Lynch looks at Davenant’s views on Christ’s death in terms of the divine decrees. Lynch finds that Davenant’s views, while not necessarily accepted by all, were within the broad stream of Reformed orthodoxy.

IV.

The great strength of Lynch’s work is that he very effectively recovers Davenant’s theology of the atonement, and places it into the wider early modern intellectual debates as Davenant saw them. This is a significant result, as Lynch is able to offer many examples of recent historical scholarship that has mis-represented Davenant’s views, usually while attempting to critique them. Indeed, one of the strengths of Lynch’s work is its wide engagement with other historiography, from early modern takes on Davenant from Rutherford, Owen and Baxter, through the Victorian historical theologian William Cunningham, to very recent presentations in popular books, podcasts and blogs. While the often suggestive footnotes make clear an impressive breadth of research, throughout the text Lynch retains an enviable discipline, limiting himself to unpacking Davenant’s views in this one area, against the backdrop of Reformed, medieval and patristic thought.

However, perhaps due to Lynch’s discipline, there is much less in this volume on Davenant’s impact and the meaning of his theology in his own social environment. In Quentin Skinner’s terms, thanks to Lynch we have recovered Davenant’s original meaning but we have not necessarily understood what his intention was in writing. It is clear that Davenant drafted his dissertation to correct Reformed particularism. But was he doing so simply as a participant in a continent-wide and decades-old debate, or did he have closer polemical targets in mind within the Church of England? Why did Davenant leave his treatise unpublished at his death in 1641, despite it being ready for the press in 1628? Why was it eventually published in 1650? Although it is not unreasonable in principle to set aside these questions in favor of a close reading of the text itself, they are pertinent because Lynch repeatedly argues against the view that English Hypothetical Universalism represented a ‘softening’ of Reformed doctrine. While Lynch has offered good evidence for the continuity of Davenant’s theology with that of someone like David Pareus, he acknowledges that Ussher and Davenant were developing these earlier views, and did so in conscious distinction from what appears to have been a majority view in England and the Netherlands. While Lynch’s discussion is very helpful in drawing out Davenant’s own positioning of himself within the catholic and Reformed tradition, we do not learn nearly as much about how Davenant positioned himself within the contemporary Church of England, and how exactly he sought to influence it. While we might not want to use the term ‘softening’, without a firmer grasp of Davenant’s context and his communicative intentions it is hard to say what exactly he was attempting to do in arguing for hypothetical universalism, or what the effect of it was. This means that we come away from Lynch’s work with perhaps less insight into the character of Reformed theology than we might have hoped.

In all, Lynch’s work is valuable for highlighting the importance of considering ordained sufficiency as a category, which many Reformed discussions have overlooked. It should be clear by now that I think Davenant’s work is well worth engaging with. For anyone wanting to do so, Lynch will be a very valuable guide. Students of Reformed doctrine of the atonement more broadly will find in Lynch a commentator of rare acumen.

Samuel Bostock is an assistant minister at Bloomfield Presbyterian Church in Belfast.

  • Sam Bostock


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