English Hypothetical Universalism: John Preston and the Softening of Theology

Article by   January 2008

I have to declare my interest in this type of book up front. It is just the kind of book I like to read: puritan history, intricate debates on predestination, the subtle nuances of the lapsarian controversy (it barely occasions a yawn in today's seminaries and gatherings of ministers), the extent of the atonement farrago about which for half a century now we've been beaten over the head by scholarly claims insisting that this was a seventeenth century discussion encouraged by narrow-minded Calvinists who were illegitinate-sons of their namesake (in truth this is nothing but rank prejudicial historiography barely disguised by sloppy scholarship and Moore consigns it to the trash-can of history where it belongs, to the chagrin of the great number of scholars for whom this thesis was their bread and butter). But, I digress.

Such scholarship has brought John Preston, the focus of this present study, in front of the crosshairs for several decades advocating among other things that 'Preston had an earlier reputation of being a hypothetical universalist' (96), a charge bolstered by the suggestion made by no less a person than Richard Baxter (admittedly and significantly as it turns out in this present volume writing before Preston's works were complete) that Preston's view was the same as his own view of universal redemption.

Then there is the Rice University dissertation by James E. Veninga written in 1974, 'Covenant Theology and Ethics in the Thought of John Calvin and John Preston,' which claimed of Preston among other things that 'the type of compromise that takes place in Preston, certainly allows for an incorporation of the Arminians, without being an exponent of free will'; and again that Preston's 'departure from Calvin's doctrine is significant, and leads to the conclusion that Preston is compromising with the Arminian challenge' (86-87).

But we jump significantly ahead of ourselves! Who is John Preston and why should anyone care what he thought about the doctrine of the decree of the extent of the atonement? Some may know him from the remark he made in relation to the preaching Christ to the reprobate, for whom, according the logic on particular redemption, Christ had not shed his blood in a redemptive sense. Particular redemptionists had struggled with the genuineness of the offer of mercy expressed in such overt language as, 'Christ died for you.' Clearly, the (Ramist) logic of particular redemption concluded that such was out of the question in the case of the reprobate. It was Preston who came up with the formula, much used in later discussions among the Marrowmen, 'Christ is dead for you' (Breastplate of Faith and Life, ??) - a not altogether happy phrase in itself suggesting what is in fact untrue since Christ is alive for us now rather than dead. But that is to quibble without sufficient insight as the enormity of the issue in view.

John Preston's life (1587-1628) barely spanned four decades but in that time he rose to be the author of over a hundred published volumes (an extensive list is given at the back for the book, many published posthumously). In the estimation of a contemporary historian, he was 'Perhaps the most influential of godly divines in the 1620s' (Heylun, 12), and by a more recent historian in 1999, 'the puritan pope of all England.' He was a conformist, firmly in the court of the king and in that sense not a puritan - which raises the oft debated issue as to the definition of a puritan. Moore handles this with precision and welcome brevity arguing that whilst he may not have been a puritan in his willingness to conform the angelical forms of worship, he most certainly was called on relation to his doctrine and willingness to engage in discussions on the issues like predestination, especially given the King's (James) famous edict, 'noe preacher, of what title soever, under ye degree of a Bishop, or Deane at the least, do from henceforth presume to teach in any popular auditory the deepe points of Predestination, Election, Reprobation.'

Before any analysis of Preston's contribution to the issue of the divine decree or that of the extent of the atonement and its related practical issue of preaching the gospel to the reprobate (for whom Christ has not shed his blood), Moore gives us a superb chapter summarizing the theological contribution of the highly significant English Calvinst, William Perkins. It would be difficult to underestimate the importance of Perkins in the development of reformed theology from Geneva to Canterbury and middle England, and we await with anticipation the republication of his works in the next few years. They are long overdue. Moore's treatment of Perkins is magisterial and definitive and should be read for its own sake alone. I know of little else that matches the clarity and brevity as well as the theological precision of this chapter.

Moore's methodology and historiography is one that ensures that both Preston's complete works are cited, reflecting any growth and development in his personal thought that may be discernible as well as to rightly place him the historiographical curve from Calvin to mid-seventeenth century England without capitulating to the prejudicial attempts to distort what Preston and others taught in what appears to be a softening of the doctrine of the decree and its implications, a point made for pastoral considerations more than any theological considerations, Moore argues. True, Preston did not attempt an ocular catechism, as Beza and Perkins (and later, Bunyan) had done in which the visual symmetry of election and reprobation are startlingly clear, the latter highlighted by thick black lines making their way from top to bottom of the page. True, as Moore very carefully points out, Preston had little interest in defending infralapsarianism against supralapsarianism, even though (as the discussion on pages 78-82 clearly show) Preston was an infralapsarian of sorts without any doubt! Veninga's attempt to suggest that Preston viewed reprobation as taking place decreetively 'withín time' - a none-too-subtle attempt to make Preston an honorary member of the Free-Will Baptist Seminary of Podunk, Alabama! - is dismissed sharply and decisively as it deserves.

The heart of the book is Preston's view of limited atonement. To what extent, if any, can we say that Jesus died for the world. And if we were to employ such language, what does it mean to say that Jesus 'died' for those who ultimately perish in hell? Either we render the atonement utterly ineffectual, giving it hypothetical value only but only becoming effective through human initiative (an Arminian construct at best), or we follow the logic the argument to suggest that hell is in fact empty, the death of Christ having achieved precisely what it had set to do. To imply that Jesus made atonement for everybody, satisfying divine wrath in himself by substitution, and still deny that hell is empty must mean that the sins of the reprobate are punished twice, once, in the words of Augustus Toplady, 'at my bleeding Surety hands, and then again at mine.' This is the classic 'double jeopardy' argument which later puritans would employ with great effect.

Preston took the first view, arguing that the death of Christ was of infinite value, sufficient for the whole world. The only thing missing is faith on our part to procure it. In Moore's words: 'Preston wittingly or unwittingly implies that the death of Christ has done all that it can, and now salvation hangs on the individual's response to the evangel. Yet the particular redemptionists taught that in the economy of redemption the propitiatory work of Christ itself (and not just election executed by the intercession of Christ) procures the willingness to believe the gospel, unbelief being on of the sins covered by that atoning work. But when the preaching of the gospel is constructed in terms of its reception, then the individual's response can become the focus of the preaching, and not what Christ has done. Preston could sum up his position by saying that 'all the matter is, if we be willing this pardon to our selves.' (110). And, as Moore rightly comments, since many are unwilling to apply Christ's pardon to themselves, Preston's position ultimately led him to the position that Christ's death did not achieve all for which it was designed.

What grounds do we have as particular redemptionists to preach the gospel to everyone and urge them to come to Christ? Perhaps, sadly, in our theologically illiterate age, this question which dominated debates among Calvinists for centuries rarely gets asked. Preston's answer lay in grounding it (at least partly) in a hypothetical universal atonement. Moore's analysis is again careful and measured: avoiding undue rhetoric in the interests of giving Preston time to make his case. That the case is flawed is obvious to soe of us from the first page but Moore brings us through these Calvinistic labyrinthine discussions of the seventeenth century on the atonement and it relationship to the decree and the Free Offer of the Gospel in a way that rarely loses our interest. Whatever position we come done on, one cannot fail to admire Preston's theological grasp and more especially, evangelistic zeal to make Christ known the sinners. That alone is something worthy of capturing and pondering over. If we could recapture an ounce of his passion and what he managed to achieve in 40 years of his brief life, we would be better men and a better church.

Jonathan Moore deserves our fulsome praise for a marvelous book, wonderfully written and brilliantly argued. As Carl Trueman writes in a preface to the book: 'this book will be required reading not just for the scholar, but for any who have an active interest in the Reformed tradition, not as a blueprint for restoring 'the old paths,' but as an example of how one great Puritan pastor wrestled with the interface of theology and practice.' (xi).

Not a book for the timid, then, but a real treat for some!

Jonathan D. More / Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007

Review by Derek Thomas, Editorial Director of reformation21


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