29 October, 2016

The History of the Free Offer: Chapter Five: “Davenant and the Westminster Assembly”

Prof. Herman C. Hanko

[Source: Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, November, 1984]

The error of Amyrauldianism was not confined to France, but soon spread to many parts of the continent and came also into Britain. It is not surprising that this should happen, for John Cameron, the teacher of Amyraut, ended his career as Principal in Glasgow College where John Davenant (l576-1641) was his student.

While it is not our purpose to enter into detail concerning the views of Davenant, whom many consider to be one of Britain’s outstanding theologians, nevertheless, it is of interest to note that he was one of the delegates from Great Britain to the famous Synod of Dort.

Davenant attempted to find a middle road between outright Arminianism and the supralapsarianism which some in England favored. He found in the theology of Saumur such a road and defended the Amyrauldian views of hypothetical universalism, a general atonement in the sense of intention as well as sufficiency, a common blessing of the cross, and a conditional salvation. All these views stood in close connection with the theology of the well-meant offer of salvation to all.

It is clear that Davenant defended a view that was contrary to the views of Calvin and was an attempt to alter the system of Calvinism as it was maintained by many theologians within Britain.

In an interesting book entitled, Calvin and the Calvinists, by Paul Helm, the author speaks of these views of Davenant.27 Helm writes,

According to Kendall, Calvin held that the scope of the death of Christ is different from that of His intercession. He died for all, but intercedes only for the elect. The Amyrauldians appeared to have made no such distinction, arguing that the work of Christ as a totality was for all, and that this total saving work was applied by the Holy Spirit to the elect alone. According to Kendall’s Calvin only part of the provision of salvation in Christ was universal in its intent, namely, his death, while his intercession was particular. It is this that makes his interpretation of Calvin unique …

In his Dissertations on the Death of Christ, a book written from a broadly Amyrauldian position, John Davenant considers the following objection to his own view: “If the death of Christ is to be considered as a remedy or ransom applicable to every man, from the ordination of God, then also the resurrection, intercession and mediation of Christ will have respect to all men in the same manner. But Christ was not raised up for all men, does not intercede for all, is not the mediator of all: Therefore, neither is his death to be extended to all.” It might be expected that Davenant would reply to such an objection by insisting that the scope of Christ’s intercession is narrower than that of his death, and by backing this up with an appeal to the illustrious precedent of John Calvin. But Davenant replies. “For as we can truly announce to every man that his sins are expiable by the death of Christ according to the ordination of God and will be expiated, if only he should believe in Christ; so also we can truly declare, that the same Christ was raised again, that he might justify him through faith, and was exalted at the right hand of God, that, by his mediation and merits, he might preserve him through faith in the favor of God, and at length might lead him to glory. Therefore we do not put asunder those things which God hath joined together; but we teach that the death, resurrection, and intercession of Christ are joined together in indissoluble union …

It is clear from this quote that Davenant wanted both an atonement that was universal in some respects and an intercession of Christ that was of the same extent as the atonement.

The following quote expresses the same view of Davenant:

In England the notion of a universal desire in God for the salvation of all men was also the root principle of the Davenant School at the beginning of the seventeenth century. This school taught that there is in the redemption purchased by Christ, an absolute intention for the elect and a conditional intention for the reprobate in case they do not believe.28

A number of men were influenced by Davenant’s thinking and this school of thought was represented at the Westminster Assembly by such men as Arrowsmith, Sprigge, Pritte, Carlyle, Burroughs, Strong, Seaman and Calumy. These men in general agreed to an absolute decree of predestination for the elect, but a general and conditional decree of all men. They defended a universal atonement in the sense of intention as well as sufficiency, i.e., that the atonement was intended for all as well as sufficient for all. Flowing from the cross were general blessings that came to all, and a certain common grace that was the possession of all who came under the preaching. And, in connection with these views, they defended the idea also of an offer of the gospel to all in which God expressed His intention and willingness to save all.

In his Introduction to the Minutes of the Westminster Assembly, A. F. Mitchell writes:

The same care was taken to avoid the insertion of anything which could be regarded as indicating a preference for supralapsarianism; and for this purpose, the words, “to bring this to pass, God ordained to permit man to fall,” were changed into “they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ,” etc. Did these divines mean to follow an opposite policy in regard to the point on which Calumy, Arrowsmith, Vines, Seaman, and other disciples of Davenant, or according to Baillie of Amyraut, differed from the more exact Calvinists? After repeated perusal of their debate, I cannot take upon myself certainly to affirm that they did, though I admit that this matter is not so clear as the others above referred to. No notes of the debate in its latest stage are given nor is a vote of dissent respecting it found in these Minutes. Calumy, who spoke repeatedly in the debate on the Extent of Redemption, avowed that he held, in the same sense as the English divines at the Synod of Dort, “that Christ by his death did pay a price for all, with absolute intention for the elect, with conditional intention for the reprobate in case they do believe; that all men should be salvabiles non obstante lapsu Adami ...; that Jesus Christ did not only die sufficiently for all, but God did intend, in giving of Christ, and Christ in giving himself did intend, to put all men in a state of salvation in case they do believe.” Seaman, Vines, Marshall, and Harris in part at least, agreed with him. And though I cannot find that Dr. Arrowsmith took part in this debate, yet he was attending the Assembly, was a member of the Committee on the Confession, and in his writings has repeatedly expressed his leaning toward the same opinion.29

That these men held to these views is, as Rev. Mitchell points out, clear from the record of the Minutes.30

In this same connection, Philip Schaff writes in his Creeds of Christendom:

Several prominent members, as Calumy, Arrowsmith, Vines, Seaman, who took part in the preparation of the doctrinal standards sympathized with the hypothetical universalism of the Saumur school (Cameron and Amyrauld) and with the moderate position of Davenant and the English delegates to the Synod of Dort. They expressed this sympathy on the floor of the Assembly, as well as on other occasions. They believed in a special effective election and final perseverance of the elect (as necessary means to a certain end), but they held at the same time that God sincerely intends to save all men that Christ intended to die, and actually died, for all men, and that the difference is not in the intention and offer on the part of God, but in the acceptance and appropriation on the part of men.31

The question arises whether these views of the Davenant school were incorporated into the Westminster Confession. The answer to this question is that, although able theologians defended these views on the Assembly, they were nevertheless not included in the formulation of the Confession as it was finally adopted. The Assembly spoke, in connection with predestination, of a sovereign election without conditions and of a sovereign reprobation in which, “The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of His own will, whereby He extendeth or withholdeth mercy as He pleaseth, for the glory of His sovereign power over His creatures, to pass by, and to ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin, to the praise of His glorious justice.”32 No mention is made here of the hypothetical universalism of the Saumur school, but sovereign and double predestination is emphatically set forth.

In connection with the redemption that Christ accomplished on the cross, the Assembly was equally strong: “The Lord Jesus … purchased … an everlasting inheritance … for all those whom the Father had given unto him” (VIII, 5). “Although the work of redemption was not actually wrought by Christ till after His incarnation, yet the virtue, efficacy, and benefits thereof were communicated unto the elect …” (VIII, 6). “To all those for whom Christ hath purchased redemption he doth certainly and effectually apply and communicate the same …” (VIII, 1).

But these references do not solve our entire problem, for the question arises whether or not the idea of the free and well-meant offer was incorporated into the Westminster Creed. And this, in turn, brings up another question that is much debated: Did the Westminster Divines specifically and categorically exclude the Amyrauldian view as set forth by the Davenant school?

In connection with the first question, Westminster does specifically refer to the offer in VII, 3, strikingly enough in connection with the doctrine of the covenant rather than, where one would expect it, in connection with the calling. The article reads:

Man by his fall having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace: wherein he freely offers unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him that they might be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe.

While it is true that the term “offer” is used here, (the Latin reads: in quo peccatoribus offert gratuito vitam ac salutem per Jesum Christum), there are several considerations which lead us to conclude that the idea of the offer as used by the school of Amyraut and as promoted by the Davenant men was not intended by the Westminster divines. In the first place, the theology of the offera double will of God, a universal intention in the atonement, a conditional salvationwas not incorporated in the creed. In the second place, the word “offer” is not found in the chapter on effectual calling where one would expect it, but in the section on the covenant, which leads one to think that it was intended by the Westminster fathers, not as a flat statement concerning the offer, but in the sense of Christ presented or set forth in the gospel. In the third place, even in the article where the word is used, it is made synonymous with the command to believe (“freely offers unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him …”). And, in this same article, the promise of salvation is said to be to the elect alone (“… and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe”).

Nevertheless, the views represented on the Assembly by the Davenant men were not specifically repudiated. Some have argued from this that the Assembly deliberately worded the Confession in such a way that the Davenant men were given latitude for their views and were thus enabled also to sign the Confession in the firm conviction that their views were not specifically condemned.

Schaff deals with this question at some length and concludes:33

This looks like a compromise between conditional universalism taught in the first clause, and particular election taught in the second. This is in substance the theory of the school of Saumur, which was first broached by the Scotch divine Cameron (d. 1626), and more fully developed by his pupil Amyraut, between A.D. 1630 and 1650, and which was afterwards condemned in the Helvetic Consensus Formula (1675).34

In an interesting footnote, Schaff connects all this with the idea of the offer, an idea that he espouses:

The ablest modern defendants of a limited atonement, Drs. Cunningham and Hodge, are as emphatic on the absolute sufficiency as Reynolds. Their arguments are chiefly logical; but logic depends on the premises, and is a two-edged sword which may be turned against them as well. For if the atonement be limited in design it must be limited in the offer or if unlimited in the offer, the offer made to the non-elect must be insincere and hypocritical, which is inconsistent with the truthfulness and goodness of God. Every Calvinist (sic) preaches on the assumption that the offer of salvation is truly and sincerely extended to all his hearers, and that it is their own fault if they are not saved.35

Mitchell takes the same position in a quote we used earlier.

But it is remarkable that, though the assembly met after the Synod of Dort, and had for the president one whose opinions on these mysterious subjects were almost as pronounced as those of Gomarus himself, it fell back not on the decrees of that Synod, but on the Articles of the Irish Church, which had been drawn up before the Synod of Dort was summoned, for the controversies its decrees occasioned had waxed so fierce. The debaters of the Assembly clearly show that its members did not wish to determine several particulars decided by the Synod of Dort, far less to determine them more rigidly than it had done … Did these divines mean to follow an opposite policy in regard to the point on which Calumy, Arrowsmith, Vines, Seaman, and other disciples of Davenant, or according to Baillie of Amyraut, different from the more exact Calvinists? After repeated perusal of their debate, I cannot take upon myself certainly to affirm that they did, though I admit that this matter is not so clear as the others above referred to.36

This conclusion is, I think, correct. While a certain defense of Amyrauldianism was represented at Westminster, it was not incorporated into the Confession, but it was also not specifically and explicitly excluded.37

There are probably several reasons for this.  In the first place, the Westminster Confession has no negative sections in it that condemns specific errors, as, e.g., the Canons have. In the second place, this in turn was probably due to several factors. On the one hand, the Confession was not born out of the fire of persecution (as was the Canons of Dort). This gives, in fact, to the Confession, a certain objective and somewhat abstract character, far removed from the warm personal confession of the Belgic Confession, which so often begins its articles with the words, “We believe …” and from the strong pastoral concern of the Canons of Dort which speaks so warmly (in all its chapters) of the personal assurance of the child of God. On the other hand, within the context of the times, the Parliament, which authorized the Assembly, and the Assembly itself were interested in establishing the doctrines of Westminster as the religion of the State, intending it to replace Anglicanism. And this intention necessarily involved making the Confession inclusive rather than exclusive, for it was to be the Confession of the realm.

We can only conclude therefore, that the Westminster Confession is weak at certain key points. It is weak in failing to exclude certain views promoted by the Davenant men, a failure which enabled these men to sign the Confession. It is weak in failing to define clearly its idea of the offera subject which was indeed an issue among those who defended some form of Amyrauldianism.

Yet it must not be forgotten that the positive statements of the Confession set forth the truth of Scripture on all these points and do not, by any stretch of the imagination, incorporate the views of the free offer in its formulation. Any form of Arminianism, also such as represented by Amyraut and Davenant, and the whole notion of the free offer was excluded from the formulation of this great Assembly.

We conclude this section with a quote that shows the difference clearly between Arminianism and Calvinism on the question of the offer.

The Arminians, believing in universal grace in the sense of God’s love to all men, that is, omnibus et singulis or His design and purpose to save all men conditionally, consistently follow out these views by asserting a universal proclamation to men of God’s purpose of mercya universal vocation, or offer and invitation to men to receive pardon and salvation,accompanied by a universal sufficient grace,gracious assistance actually and universally bestowed, sufficient to enable all men, if they chose, to attain to the full possession of spiritual blessings, and ultimately to salvation. Calvinists, while they admit that pardon and salvation are offered indiscriminately to all to whom the gospel is preached, and that all who can be reached should be invited and urged to come to Christ and embrace Him deny that this flows from, or indicates, any design or purpose on God's part to save all men (the italics of this clause are ours); and without pretending to understand or unfold all the objects or ends of this arrangement, or to assert that it has no other object or end whatever, regard it as mainly designed to effect the result of calling out and saving God’s chosen people; and they deny that grace, or gracious divine assistance, sufficient to produce faith and regeneration, is given to all men.38


27. This book was published in 1982 by The Banner of Truth Trust. It was written against Dr. R. T. Kendall, who in his book, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649, defends the proposition that Puritan theology “departed significantly from, and even opposed, the theology of John Calvin.” This, according to Kendall, was especially true of Calvin’s doctrine of the atonement.

28. Universalism and the Reformed Churches, A Defense of Calvin’s Calvinism, published by the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia. This pamphlet is a detailed refutation of the idea that the free offer of the gospel stands in the line of historic Calvinism. It shows clearly that the notion of the free offer is a “modification” of Calvinism and a modification which introduces into the Calvinistic system a deadly Arminianism.

29. pp. 56-59.

30. Cf. for this material pp. 152-156.

31. Vol. I, p. 770.

32. C.f. III, 7.

33. Op. cit., pp. 769-773.

34. Ibid., 772, 773.

35. Ibid., p. 772.

36. Op. cit., pp. 54, 55.

37. I have dealt with this entire subject in greater detail in the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, Vol. XX, No. 1, in an article entitled, “A Comparison of the Westminster and Reformed Confessions.”

38. William Cunningham, Historical Theology, The Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 1979, Vol. II, pp. 396, 397.

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