Interview on the Atonement and Hypothetical Universalism

Historical theology is an important discipline for the church. There are views that have been held by Reformed theologians in the past that I don't necessarily agree with, but must nevertheless do my best to understand so that I know precisely what I'm disagreeing with. Regarding the atonement, I hold to an "Owenian" position. But not all theologians from our tradition have held to Owen's view. Here I've asked Michael Lynch to answer some questions on the atonement in order to perhaps give us a wider and more historically informed perspective on this doctrine in the Reformed tradition.

Mark: Michael, please introduce yourself (tell us where you are studying and what you are studying?)

Michael: I am a PhD student at Calvin Seminary. I am also a research assistant at the Meeter Center for Calvin Studies. My interests range from early modern Reformed theology to nineteenth century American Presbyterianism, with particular interest in discussions and debates on the extent of Christ's satisfaction.

Mark: You've done a fair bit of reading on the extent of Christ's satisfaction. Would you say that to be a Calvinist you need to hold to particular redemption? Didn't the early reformers hold to the "L" before the TULIP was eventually planted in the Reformed garden?

Michael: Great question Mark. To be Reformed according to the Synod of Dort, yes, you must hold to particular redemption. But, of course, we need to define what we do and don't mean by that term. If we take the Canons of Dort as our starting point, then Head 2, Arts. 8-9 clearly teach that Christ died with the purpose of saving the elect alone. God decreed a quickening and saving efficacy in the death of Christ to be applied to the elect alone. This is generally denied by the Remonstrants and Lutherans in the early modern period. (Note, e.g., the Remonstrant, Nicolaas Grevinckhoven)


Yet, we must equally keep in mind that this "particularism" doesn't rule out other designs in the death of Christ, which some Reformed theologians wished to deny; others wished to affirm. But let me be clear, if a theologian denies this "particular" aspect, then by Dortian standards he or she is taking a non-Reformed position.


Your latter question is tied with what I said above. If by the "L" you mean limited atonement, which most often connotes a limitation of Christ's satisfaction to the elect alone, then no, I don't think we can say that the early reformers held to the "L" in TULIP. If you mean by "L" nothing more than particular redemption as defined in the first paragraph, then yes, all the early Reformed I have read affirmed that God willed the death of Christ to be effectually and infallibly destined and applied to the elect alone.


I should also add that this "particular redemption" is affirmed in the best (and majority) of the patristic and medieval tradition. Particular redemption so defined is also affirmed in the Lombardian formula, in my estimation.


Mark: Okay, you speak of the Lombardian formula, which is commonly understood as the sufficiency-efficiency distinction. Those with a basic knowledge of Reformed theology sometimes say that Christ's death is sufficient for all who have ever lived and will live, but efficient for the elect only. Does this use of the formula have any weaknesses?

Michael: Also, a good question. I think the Lombardian Formula is without weakness as understood by the Schoolmen (i.e., medieval scholastics) themselves and the early Reformers. Yet, as is often the case in theology, a helpful distinction or theological point can often become detached from its original use and become employed in a way foreign to its original intention. The distinction in its substance can be found as far back as at least the 4th century, though Peter the Lombard's wording from the 12th century is the most well-known form


I don't think the formula, even in its truncated form, has any weakness beyond its truncated form. It is only weak because it doesn't express every nuance that Lombard's actual wording admits. For example, I already mentioned that I don't think Lombard's original formulation allows for the Remonstrant denial of a particular intention of Christ's death. Christ died for the elect alone effectually.


On the other side, I think that Lombard means more than what some Reformed have meant when they speak about sufficiency. "Christ dying sufficiently for all" cannot exclude an intention on God's part to give Christ for all human beings. In other words, it seems foolish to me to say Christ died sufficiently for all, and then claim that he was offered up for some [i.e., the elect] only. In my reading of the original intention of the formula, using much of Peter of Lombard's original language, God the Father offered Jesus Christ as a priestly sacrifice on behalf of all men sufficiently, yet efficaciously for the elect alone. Note that in both of my clauses, "the offering" of Christ is in view--for all men (sufficiently); for the elect alone (efficaciously).

One last thing. I think the formula is best appropriated as a hermeneutic to understand Scripture rightly. We all admit that there are some passages that seem to speak of Christ's death in universal terms and some texts that seem to speak of it in particular terms. The formula allows us to treat the universal texts universally and the particular texts particularly. This is precisely the way Zachary Ursinus (the primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism) and David Pareus use the formula in Ursinus' commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (cf. Q. 40.3 in the Williard ed.)


Mark: How would this Lombardian formula relate to Hypothetical Universalism? And what, for our readers, is Hypothetical Universalism?

Michael: Let's start with the latter question. Hypothetical universalism often denotes a significant strand of Reformed theologians who argued that God willed Christ's death to be a universal cause of salvation for all men on condition that if all repent and believe, their sins will be remitted. As Richard Muller has often noted, there are clear versions of hypothetical universalism found in Musculus, Ursinus, Zanchi, Bullinger, et al. The idea that hypothetical universalism is an awkward cousin of Reformed theology or that it is a doctrine that only came about in order to "soften" the harsher elements of Reformed theology is untenable. Scholarship is starting to recognize this.


To the first question, I think we need to understand that by the early seventeenth century and with the rise of Remonstrant theology, the Lombardian Formula was routinely reinterpreted, revised, or downright denied by a whole host of Reformed theologians. The hypothetical universalists were typically quite accepting of the formula, while those who emphasized the particularity to the exclusion of the universality of Christ's death were more uncomfortable with the formula as time progressed.

Mark: Okay, one last question, and a little tougher perhaps than the others. The "irenic" Edward Reynolds says: "This opinion cannot be asserted by any that can say he is not of the Remonstrants' opinion...upon a condition that they cannot perform, and God never intends to give them." It was in response to Edmund Calamy's first articulation of his hypothetical universalism. Gillespie later says that one who holds this "must needs deny absolute reprobation."


Michael, what do you make of this?

Michael: Your last question is a bit cryptic given that all we have from Reynolds is a partial description of his objection towards the hypothetical universalism of Calamy. Even so, maybe I can highlight some aspects of the debate over universal redemption among the Westminster Divines.


That Reynolds judges Calamy's hypothetical universalism as no different than Arminianism on the point of the extent of Christ's satisfaction is hardly surprising. But as already noted, all Reformed--including the advocates of hypothetical universalism--affirmed a special design in the death of Christ for the elect alone. In fact, this is precisely the response of Calamy: "The Arminians hold that Christ did pay a price for this intention only, that all men should be in an equal state of salvation. They say Christ did not purchase any impetration..." According to Calamy's hypothetical universalism, however, Christ did purchase the efficacious application of Christ's death (i.e., impetration) for the elect alone.


Reynolds objection is that Calamy's universal redemption is founded on "a condition [the non-elect] cannot perform, and God never intends to give them" is also a standard objection levied against the hypothetical universalists. The minutes of the assembly do not seem to indicate whether Calamy responded to that objection.

The objection Gillespie makes against Calamy's understanding of John 3:16 and the term "world" denoting each and every human being is very curious. It is not evident to me why Calamy's understanding of John 3:16 cannot be held in tandem with absolute reprobation. John 3:16 does not promise the giving of faith to any, therefore it seems odd to expect that the decree not to give faith to some (i.e., absolute negative reprobation) is undermined in any way. In other words, Calamy understands John 3:16 as a conditional decree, and it is difficult to see how the promise attending the conditional decree (i.e., everlasting life via belief) prohibits a theologian from positing an absolute decree whereby certain persons are not given the condition (i.e., belief) attached to the conditional decree.


All that to say, I'm not convinced that Gillespie completely understood Calamy's position; yet this all comes from a rather choppy second-hand account of the Westminster Assembly minutes! While Calamy's exegesis of John 3:16 may, in truth, undermine absolute reprobation, it cannot be doubted that other hypothetical universalists like John Davenant wrote able defenses of the absolute decree of predestination and reprobation. No less than William Cunningham, the nineteenth century Reformed Scotsman, called Davenant's treatise (De Praedestinatione et Reprobatione) on the topic "a most thorough and masterly exposition and defence of the views ordinarily held by Calvinists in regard to election and reprobation. Indeed, we do not believe that there exists a better or more satisfactory vindication of the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination, in both its branches of election and reprobation." (The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation, 205).