This is a well-known portrait of John Calvin. The artist has pictured Calvin looking out of the picture at something we can’t see. I think that’s the artist’s way of telling us that Calvin knows more than we do. But what I always wanted to know is, why is flipping someone the bird?

Lama on the Loose

May 30, 2008

The Bodleian is a wonderful environment to work in, especially the Duke Humphrey’s Library where I am sitting now. There are occasional distractions though – Harry Potter film crews, etc. But I was surprised to see the Dalai Lama in the quad a few minutes ago. Seems he is here to receive an honorary degree. Fair enough, but I could do without the hundreds of chanting monks outside. Got to try to nail this chapter this weekend.

My review of Jonathan Moore’s ‘English Hypothetical Universalism: John Preston and the Softening of Reformed Theology‘ (Eerdmans, 2007) should appear very shortly in the Spring issue of The Seventeenth Century. I wrote this back in December and have purposefully avoided blogging my thoughts on the book up until now. The book was enthusiastically endorsed by Carl Trueman, Anthony Milton, Patrick Collinson, and others of similar stature which was why I felt some trepidation in criticising it in print. But you go with your gut, eh?

The book is, on several levels, excellent. It is a very helpful study of John Preston on the extent of the atonement and the universal offer of the gospel. There is some very useful material on Perkins. The discussion of the York House Conference is superb. And in some important respects it contributes to the historiographical discussion around the Calvin vs. the Calvinists debate. R. T. Kendall comes out very poorly.

The major flaw is in the imbalance with which Moore portrays English hyothetical universalism. He foregrounds the discontinuity with Perkins, that paragon of Elizathan Protestantism, to such an extent that any sense of continuity with other streams in the Christian tradition is eclipsed. From one who has clearly read Muller carefully, this lack of sensitivity to the continuity and discontinuity of theological trajectories is disappointing. Ussher becomes the grand-daddy of hypothetical universalism in Moore’s genealogy, something of a spontaneous mutation, desperately seeking a via media to take the heat out of the Remonstrant controversy on the eve of the Synod of Dort. Ussher clearly played an important role, but as a shaper of a tradition, rather than a pioneer. Richard Muller’s review, recently published, makes the same point – see below. 

I have spent a lot of time on this subject recently, looking at both Ussher’s interaction with patristic and medieval sources on the intent and extent of the atonement and his precursors in England. The evidence in  the manuscripts is clear that not only did Ussher stand in continuity with a pre-existing stream of thought within the Christian tradition (a point well argued by Muller), but that he did so self-conciously, and that he cannot be considered the pioneer in Protestant England. I hope to publish something on this soon and will be talking to journal editors in the near future.

In the meantime, enjoy Muller, read my review (out shortly), and do read Moore, because despite this serious flaw, it’s an important book.


This volume offers a detailed and finely argued exposition of the view of redemption expressed by John Preston both in his various writings and in his testimony at the York Conference in 1626. Where Moore clearly advances the discussion of both the York Conference itself and of early seventeenth-century British theology is in his clear identification of Preston’s teaching, together with that of several major contemporaries (notably John Davenant and James Ussher), as a form of hypothetical universalism, namely, the doctrine that Christ so died for the sins of the human race that, if all would believe, all would be saved. What Moore nicely shows is that the Reformed side of the debate was somewhat variegated, including hypothetical universalists as well as those who denied universal redemption and that previous analyses of the theological debates in early seventeenth-century England too simplistically identified the parties in debate as either Arminian or Calvinist. In effect, Moore resuscitates an issue recognized in the seventeenth century by Davenant, Baxter, and others, and noted with reference to the Westminster Assembly by Alexander Mitchell that there was an indigenous hypothetical universalism in British Reformed theology. Moore’s study, however, for all its excellent work on Preston and the York Conference, embodies two significant problems concerning perspective on and context of the materials examined. First, there is an underlying systematizing thread in the argument of the book that leads to claims that do not ultimately bear scrutiny concerning the interconnection of specific doctrinal formulations. Particularly in his review of William Perkins’ doctrine, Moore contends that Perkins’ supralapsarian predestinarianism together with his federalism “drives” him toward the conclusion of particular redemption, namely that the all-sufficiency of Christ’s satisfaction yields no hypothetical offer of salvation to all people. However, particularism was hardly the exclusive characteristic of supralapsarian federalists. There is also a clearly particularist formulation concerning Christ’s satisfaction in the work of Perkins’ contemporary, Gulielmus Bucanus, who tended toward an infralapsarian doctrine of predestination and was no federalist. Similarly, a later Reformed orthodox thinker such as Turretin, a convinced infralapsarian and, although party to the two-covenant schema but not a federal theologian in the strict sense of the term, taught a clearly prticularistic doctrine of Christ’s satisfaction.

Moore also underestimates the presence of non-Amyraldian or non-speculative forms of hypothetical universalism in the Reformed tradition as a whole and thereby, in the opinion of this reviewer, misconstrues Preston’s position as a “softening” of Reformed theology rather than as a continuation of one trajectory of Reformed thought that had been present from the early sixteenth century onward. Clear statements of nonspeculative hypothetical universalism can be found (as Davenant recognized) in Heinrich Bullinger’s Decades and commentary on the Apocalypse, in Wolfgang Musculus’ Loci communes, in Ursinus’ catechetical lectures, and in Zanchi’s Tractatus de praedestinatione sanctorum, among other places. In addition, the Canons of Dort, in affirming the standard distinction of a sufficiency of Christ’s death for all and its efficiency for the elect, actually refrain from canonizing either the early form of hypothetical universalism or the assumption that Christ’s sufficiency serves only to leave the nonelect without excuse. Although Moore can cite statements from the York conference that Dort “either apertly or covertly denied the universality of man’s redemption” (156), it remains that various of the signatories of the Canons were hypothetical universalists- not only the English delegation (Carleton, Davenant, Ward, Goad, and Hall) but also the [sic] some of the delegates from Bremen and Nassau (Martinius, Crocius, and Alsted)- that Carleton and the other delegates continued to affirm the doctrinal points of Dort while distancing themselves from the church discipline of the Belgic Confession, and that in the course of seventeenth-century debate even the Amyraldians were able to argue that their teaching did not run contrary to the Canons. In other words, the nonspeculative, non-Amyraldian form of hypothetical universalism was new in neither the decades after Dort nor a “softening” of the tradition: The views of Davenant, Ussher, and Preston followed out a resident trajectory long recognized as orthodox among the Reformed.

Calvin Theological Journal, 43(1), 150. (HT: Calvin and Calvinism)