‘English Hypothetical Universalism’

May 27, 2008

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)


21 Responses to “‘English Hypothetical Universalism’”

  1. David Says:

    Thanks for the hat-tip.

    My reaction to Moore’s work was similar to Muller’s. Its good to see some analysis of Preston, Davenant and others. However, his attempt to dichotomize Preston from anything on the Continent, especially from Amyraut is very problematic. Moore wants to maintain the thesis that the Protestant Scholastics did not depart from Calvin or the early Reformed tradition, but that Amyraut was the one who deviated from Calvin and co. However, the twist is, he wants to claim Moore did not derive his theology from Amyraut, as I read Moore. To that he argues that Ussher, Davenant and Preston represent a unique trajectory. The method and claims, tho, have lots of holes.

    Where Moore is on good ground is when he points out that for Preston, to speak of redeemed souls apparently in danger of perishing (my paraphrase), he concedes that for Preston this was a real redemption. His concession actually serves to undercut Jonathan Rainbow’s treatment of similar ideas and statements in Calvin (c.f, Moore, page 110ff with Rainbow’s “The Will of God” page 163ff). Rainbow’s thesis here is also rebutted when we put Calvin’s statement on Acts 20:28 back to back with Gualther on the same verse. So it was good to see Moore taking Preston seriously on that point.

    On the negative side, when I read Moore’s comments regarding Kimedoncius and Vermgili (see page 65ff and relevant footnotes) I was nonplussed. To me it seemed that he had not read Kimedoncius. I have typed out the entire chapter from his work on the redemption of mankind and quite a few other relevant comments at the C&C blog. I have compiled and typed out a lot of material from Vermigli as well. Moore’s treatment of these two men is very superficial.

    If you care to, check out the documentation we are putting together here: Classic and Moderate Forms of “Calvinism” Documented Thus Far

    I am presently finishing my reading of Musculus. My next project is Gualther (whom Kimedoncius sites). Bullinger’s common places and commentary on Revelation are next on my list.

    Take care,

  2. RS Says:

    Thanks for your comments.

    Yes, his discussion of Kimedoncius is deficient. I think G. Michael Thomas does a better job of showing the nuances of Kimedoncius in the polemical context.


  3. David Says:

    Hey there,

    Yes, I think Thomas did treat Kimedoncius better. On Calvin, tho, we are trying to show that Calvin did not contradict himself at times, as Thomas theorises as a possibility. You might be interested in my Calvin file: Calvin on Unlimited Expiation

    Would you mind sharing with me a basic summary of your research on Ussher, and so forth?


  4. Marty Foord Says:

    Dear Richard,

    Great post. I look forward to your review. I also look forward to the paper you are preparing.

    I’m going to be in Cambridge for the second half of this year–I’d love to meet you in person and discuss some your research!

    God bless,


    ps: Hi David!

  5. Steve Says:

    I’m wondering how Kendall comes out poorly in Moore’s book. I’ve just read Kendall’s book and was impressed by it.


  6. David Says:

    Hey Marty,

    Wow you get around, jet-setting all over the place. I am green.

    It was very good to see the Muller comments. I assume that the very criteria he has for determining the positions of Bullinger and Musculus et al, would be by inductive datum. I would then contend that that very same criteria has to be applied to Calvin and many of the others. It was also good to see Ursinus in that mix too. Roger Nicole has an early article arguing that Ursinus was a strict LA guy. The problem is, Nicole does not deal with Ursinus’ own commentary with any seriousness. So it really does look like we are seeing some positive forward movement.

    If we can finally get past all the barth-anti-barth stuff. 🙂

    Take care,

  7. RS Says:

    David: I thought Thomas was quite judicious on Calvin. Tension would be the word I would use rather than contradiction. The disappointing is his arrival in a Barthian cul-de-sac in the conclusion, but a great book in many ways.

    I will be looking at getting my material on Ussher on the atonement out there some time soon. I may pass you something at some stage but still in preparation.

    Marty: Would be good to meet up. I am in Cambridge periodically to read MSS, or if you are ever over in Oxford, let me know.

  8. RS Says:

    By the way guys – Just so you know where I am coming from. I am not joining the Clifford posse. I do not hold to general atonement. I am a particularist until persuaded otherwise. There is no agenda driving what I am doing with Ussher and the conclusions I come to with him. My theological identity does not depend on painting any specific picture of him. I am just a particularist trying to do good history. Just so you know… But, hey, we can still be friends, right?

  9. David Says:

    Hey there Richard,

    Thanks for letting us know where you stand. A lot of times people study folk whom they agree with, so I was wondering myself. I will turn it around: if ever you want me to not comment just let me know. I am not here to beat anyone up.

    I am trying to look at the issues academically, and I think you are too. Any chance of getting an early read of your review? I would like to read your material on Ussher for sure.

    Re: Thomas. Yes right at the end the Barthian stuff comes out. That was as shame because a lot of folk have turned away from his book because of a couple of sad internet reviews that fixated on that last, rather than engage his documentation.

    Re: Calvin. My memory says Thomas may have used the word contradiction, and not just tension, but I could be wrong. Thomas builds a case on Calvin’s reading of 1 Jn 2:2 and 1 Tim 2:4. A recent commenter on C&C.com
    allowed me to explain my read of Calvin there; see CalvinandCalvinism

    As to 1 Tim 2:4, I think it is very clear that Calvin was not saying ‘some of all kinds,’ but ‘everyone of all kinds’: Calvin on 1 Timothy 2:4-6

    My problem with is that a lot of claims regarding Calvin have treated him ahistorically, as if he thought in a vacuum. I think this holds on a lot of sides here. It has been something Ive been trying to overcome. Ive always said, people are treating Calvin theologically and not historically as text. They are more about what he should have said, must have said, rather than employing the standard tools of historical hermeneutics and investigation.

    Re: friends… naa we must seek to be as unChristian in this as we can. Some shibboleths, smear campaigns, and insults should be served up liberally. 😉

    If you want to chat, please feel free to email me. You have it.

    Thanks and take care,

  10. Steven W Says:

    Hey Richard,

    Good stuff here. Regarding your reference to Clifford, there are a lot of us who don’t want to join that bandwagon either. Muller’s review was so good because he mentioned “Non-Amyraldian” hypothetical universalists. If we must retain the “particular” vs. “general” categories, then many HU’s can be be particularists. The real point of difference is where things get particular.

    Dabney is a good case in point. Though he criticizes the hypotheticals and comes down decidedly as a “particularist,” he still insists that expiation qua expiation is not something that can be limited.

    Any way, good stuff.

    Steven W

  11. RS Says:

    No worries. Comments are welcome. I was thinking of shutting the blog down at one point simply because hardly anyone was commenting. That said, I hope it doesn’t turn into a massive job looking after it.

    Re Thomas: As I said tension is the word I would use, regardless of what Thomas said. I do think the tension is there and I think Thomas did a good job on that overall. I also think it is significant that Calvin did not give Beza a spanking when he started to publish his own thought on this locus.

  12. David Says:

    Hey there Richard,

    Regarding Beza, what evidence do we actually have that he held to a limited expiation?

    I ask that for two circumstantial reasons. Kimedoncius cites Beza and Bucer as holding to the the classic version of the expiation which Kimedoncius held to. I know Thomas says Kimedoncius was thinking wishfully with regard to Beza: but I am not convinced yet. I tend to think Beza was more transitional. I think Beza probably started the remapping process of critical biblical verses, like Jn 3:16, Mat 23:37, Peter 3:9 etc. And I think Thomas is right in that Beza is probably the first to remap the sufficiency-efficiency formula. And I think Beza’s lapsarian development were the three critical things that started the change of ‘calvinism’. I dont think, thereore, its like Beza came out and said, while calvin was alive especially, “hey I am totally reworking the extent of the expiation and redemption, btw.” But that is sorta how Micole expects us to think would have been the case if we are right on this. Rather I think a combination of ideas, with some transitional and emergent theologies (critically lapsarianism and federalism) started the change. Beza’s exegetical notes were very popular in England, and in the second edition of the Geneva Bible. Anyway…

    Have you read Muller’s recent articles in Mid-American Theological Journal? He attributes a few critical early Federalist exegetical starting points to Beza’s re-tweaking of some verses? When you throw emergent Federalism into the mix, then it all takes off. And in one he says, like it or not, Amyraut was Reformed and in line with Dort. Ive posted them at the C&C cite, the critical paragraphs that is.

    As to Bucer, I know he is supposed to have argued for limited atonement against some ana-Baptists, but I have seen him speak of Christ bearing the sins of the world, being the redeemer of the world, and again, Kimedoncius cites him as affirming unlimited expiation. Given that so much of modern scholarship has just about totally misread Calvin (Nicole, Rainbow, Leahy, Helm, et a), I am not too confident in Rainbow’s understanding of Bucer and the nuances in all this.

    For example, a lot of these guys are looking for evidences for limited expiation which are just not there. Marty and I have been talking for a few years now on this. He recently pointed me to Letham’s attempt to have Oecolampadius teach limited expiation on the basis that that Reformed held that “the many” of Isa 53 refers to the elect. However, Musculus said the same and still held to unlimited expiation and redemption. Calvin held that the many there was all mankind, all of it, and yet ironically, men like Rainbow and Nicole will still say Calvin held to limited expiation. If Letham is right, Nicole has to be wrong. They both cant be right. 🙂

    What we are seeing in fact is a lot of uniformity on the extent of the expiation and redemption in the 1500-1560 period; with may be the exception of Bucer whom I still think is iffy.

    I guess that sorta tells you what weve been trying to do: trying to sort through all the ‘strategies’ and talking-points for the limited reading of Calvin and the other early Reformed guys.

    Thanks again and take care,

  13. Martin Says:

    One can be a ‘particularist’ and yet be closer to Amyraut’s position than may be realised – given how Amyraut’s position is often misrepresented. I think Dabney is a good case in point here too. Given the various points along the ‘scale’ where things can get ‘particular’ so-to-speak, where would you place yourself on that scale?

  14. Martin Says:

    Its great to see honesty and impartiality when dealing with things with which one may not agree – if only we could see it more, this area seems to be such an emotive subject to some.

    Anyway, just so ya know, Clifford is a friend of mine and I’ll be taking a meat cleaver to everyone who’s been dissin him!

    Ok, just kidding! – although I am curious to know what issues folks have with his thesis?


  15. RS Says:

    Martin: Thanks for your comments. Re problems in Clifford. I would hardly know where to start. But lets keep to historiographical problems rather than is Clifford’s understanding of atonement right or wrong. I think there is much in Trueman’s ‘Claims of Truth’ that shows some of the major problems and basic category mistakes that he makes. It’s also worth mentioning that Clifford didn’t have sufficient Latin to make an attempt to read some of Baxter’s works so his portrayal of Baxter is deficient, never mind the picture of Owen. He sets up Baxter as some sort of biblical humanist, oblivious to the heavily scholastic cast to Baxter’s thought. An interesting take on this can be found in Trueman’s essay in ‘Protestant Scholasticism’, but the problems are wider than the ones identified here. It’s a really poor piece of scholarship on so many different levels.

    David: the thought of Beza as a emergent theologian still has me laughing (not at you, brother). I see your point but I think I am still largely with Thomas. I think Kimedoncius indulges in special pleading. I don’t think Beza said anything as blunt as that but was basically pointing out where he though predestinarian should lead, rightly or wrongly, especially in a supralapsarian scheme (though I concede that supralapsarianism is not the only or necessary factor).

    Sadly, I have not yet read Muller’s recent MAJT articles. There is not a single library in the UK which holds MAJT as far as I can see – that sucks. Perhaps I will ask Marty F. to bring a photocopy over with him.

  16. David Says:

    Hey Richard,

    You shouldn’t laugh to much. 🙂 Personally I don’t see why predestinarianism should lead down the Beza highway. But thats for another day.

    I think I can scan the articles by Muller. I will have a look. I can send them to you as pdfs. Richard Muller is clear in pointing to Beza as the first to tweak some critical verses which then became the foundation for federalism. And supralapsarianism, not just the location of the decretal points, but the whole lapsarian project clearly started with Beza. So he was a significant figure in an emergent theology.

    Wing me an email and I will see what I can do about the articles.

    Take care,

  17. David Says:


    You might be interested in this work:

    A critical examination of John Owen’s argument for limited atonement in “The Death of death in the death of Christ” / by Neil Andrew Chambers.

    It is a Th.M and very good at that. You can purchase a pdf from http://www.tren.com for about $15 (USD). And given the tanking of the US dollar lately, you should be able to get it for peanuts. The work is very good in underlining Owen’s subtle reworking of the nature of Christ’s satisfaction. Chambers is now a Presbyterian pastor in Australia. He is contactable, and is friendly and willing to talk about his thesis.

    I think it would be remiss to ignore it in any academic investigation of Owen’s theology.

    Take care,

  18. RS Says:

    David: As I said, I wasn’t laughing at you but the notion of Beza as emergent churchman. You know the supralapsarian, infralapsarian, particularist, universalist, Calvinist, Arminian variety!

    I noticed Chambers when trawling TREN a couple of years ago. Didn’t order it. You know I nearly ended up doing my research on Owen but glad I switched to Ussher when it came to submitting applications for graduate research programs. More scope to do original work. Still some interest in Owen though but an increasingly crowded field. I anticipate the publication of an essay I wrote on Owen’s response to the Socinians on satisfaction to appear later this year in a multi-author volume.

    I don’t think predestinarianism leads me down the Beza highway. I think it led Beza down the Beza highway.

  19. David Says:

    Hey Richard,

    Thanks for the clarifications. I know you are not laughing at me, but the joke escapes me. It must be an English thing. 🙂

    And thanks for the clarification on the Beza point. I agree.

    As to Owen, I think you made the right choice. One more thing tho, are you familiar with Lee Gattis, essay on the Westminster Ass.?

    Thanks for the conversation,

  20. RS Says:

    The joke is about Brian McClaren’s ‘A Generous Orthodoxy’ where he describes himself as ‘a Missional, Evangelical, Post/Protestant, Liberal/Conservative, Mystical/Poetic, Biblical, Charismatic/Contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Green, Incarnational, Depressed-yet-Hopeful, Emergent, Unfinished CHRISTIAN’. When I hear the word ’emergent’ this sort of thing I think of.

    Anyway, I’m not English.

    I’ll look out for Gatiss.


  21. David Says:

    You are not English? A Yank? 🙂

    Here is the link to the article: “Shades of opinion within a generic Calvinism”

    Its a very interesting article. And he brings Ussher into the picture. I didnt want to bombard you with references and I figured you probably already knew about it.

    So thats the joke hey? 🙂 I leave all the emergent stuff alone. Im not interested normally, and I am too busy with my own thing.

    Take care,

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