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Paul Helm – Hypothetical Universalism

Posted On January 27, 2015

John Davenant

Recently there has been quite a bit of interest in the variety of views held by Reformed Theologians within the parameters of confessional orthodoxy. For example, it is argued the view that is described as ‘Amyraldian’ or ‘hypothetical universalist’ is in fact a variety of views. It has been generally assumed that these are two names for the same thing, but recent work has reminded us that Amyraldianism was a more radical set of positions than others in this family, and in fact that ‘hypothetical universalism’ is an umbrella term for various views of differing strengths, each of them distinct from Amyraldianism proper, that is, from the Amyraldianism of Möise Amyraut, and of John Cameron. This is not a new thought but it is novel to most of us, I suspect. Recent scholarship has involved delving into the distinctive views of various reformed communities and cultures – Dutch, Engish, French, Genevan and so on. In this post (and maybe in other posts; we’ll see how we get on), my aim is to give the broad outline of these two positions, and to refer to some of the figures involved.

A start

It will do not harm to start with Calvin. A distinction respecting the death of Christ that goes back to before the Reformation, is the expression that that death of Christ is sufficient for all, efficient only for the elect. It is usually thought to start with Peter Lombard. Here’s a comment of Calvin’s on it. ‘This solution has long prevailed in the schools. Though then I allow what has been said is true….’ He goes on to say it does not fit I John 2.1, the passage under consideration. So he approves the formula, though he does not often use it, but not to understand this particular verse. This is from his commentary on I John.

Hypothetical universalism

One motivation for some who are now called ‘hypothetical universalists’ is to preserve that universalism, ‘sufficient for all’, and also a universalism of Christ’s death of a different kind, from that of those who think of ‘the world’ in John 3.16 as ‘the world of the elect’ or the ‘all’ in….as ‘some of every kind’ or gloss it as ‘only Saviour of the world’. Instead, to think of it as ‘each and every human being’ while at the same time doing justice to other NT data and so preserving a sense in which Christ died only for the elect. It is this latter that keeps them within the bounds of Reformed orthodoxy. (I think that the phrase ‘hypothetical universalism’ was not theirs, but that of later scholarship). Another way of expressing this concern for a particular interpretation of John 3.16 and other similar universalistically-interpreted verses in the case of some English hypothetical universalists was their anxiety to be in line with, and so to preserve, the expression in Article XXXI of the XXXIX Articles of Religion of the Church of England, a part of which reads. ‘The Offering of Christ once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual, and there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone….’

In chapter 5 of his Calvin and the Reformed Tradition (Baker, 2012), Richard Muller takes his reader through the reflections of Bishop Davenant, one of the English Delegation to the Synod of Dordt, who wrote elaborately on this universalism. Davenant was at pains to stress that this death is not a salvific universalism, as regards the question of those who fully benefit from it. Nonetheless everyone benefits from it, to some degree or another. Whereas Calvin attribute common operations to the Holy Spirit, Davenant attributes them to Christ’s death.

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