08 November, 2016

Chapter One

The Life of John Davenant

Before casting the microscope over the teachings of Davenant, it is necessary to delve in some detail into his background. Clearly, when he enunciated his views upon the atonement, he did not speak or write in a vacuum. Therefore, the primary purpose in examining Davenant’s life is to become acquainted with those issues which influenced his writings. In this regard, it is of particular importance to examine Davenant’s participation at the Synod of Dort because it was there that his views on the atonement initially came to prominence.

Who then was John Davenant? Davenant was born on 20 May 1572 in London. His father was an influential merchant in that city. In 1587, at the age of 15, he was admitted to Queen’s College at Cambridge where he obtained his degree of Master of Arts in 1594. He studied Classical and Biblical languages, Logic, Ethics, Rhetoric, History, Science, Law, Politics, and Divinity. In 1601, he secured his Bachelor of Divinity and proceeded to obtain his Doctorate in Divinity in 1609.

Davenant had a rapid rise to prominence within the Church of England, so that by 1614 he had become an influential churchman. He was appointed Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Cambridge in 1614.

His principal claim to fame came in 1618, when he, together with four other theologians, was selected by King James I to represent the Church of England at the Synod of Dort. Because of England’s close political ties with Holland and the desire of the Dutch to resolve certain controversial doctrinal issues, numerous theologians from throughout Europe were invited to attend that synod.

The background to the Synod of Dort is important to our considerations because it highlights one significant body of prevailing theological thought on the atonement. That view became the focus of considerable and at times acrimonious discussion during the course of the synod. Let us examine briefly the background to the Synod.

The states of Holland had no sooner established their freedom from the yoke of Spain than they were embroiled in theological contentions, which soon became intermingled with political machinations. After the assassination of William the Silent in 1584, William’s son Maurice and Jan van Oldenbarneveldt provided leadership in Holland. However, as time went on, the two leaders drifted into disagreement. Against this background, there were difficulties also within the church, and those difficulties were exacerbated because Maurice and van Oldenbarneveldt supported the opposing sides. It is not necessary for our purposes to go into specific detail of all the issues which troubled the church in Holland. However, it is worthwhile noting that one of the issues which caused consternation related to the order of the divine decrees.

The doctrine of the divine decrees had been left by the Belgic Confession in the undefined simplicity of the Scriptures. However, in the period immediately following the Reformation, attempts were made to identify more authoritatively the order of the decrees, some favoring the supralapsarian position and others the sublapsarian position.

These disputes were relatively insignificant until 1591, when James Arminius, professor of Divinity at the University of Leyden, was called upon to give his judgment on certain statements concerning predestination made by the Dutch humanist and evangelical, Dirck Coornheert.

The request to Arminius had arisen because Coornheert, in a somewhat unguarded way, had advanced certain opinions concerning predestination. The ministers of Delft disagreed with the views expressed by Coornheert and responded to him in writing. In doing so, they advocated the generally received sublapsarian position. Not surprisingly, their response caused offense to those who maintained the supralapsarian view. Therefore Arminius, as the most talented divine of the day, was requested to give his opinion on the matter. He was exhorted by both sides to support their respective positions. On the one hand his friend Martin Lydius solicited him to vindicate the supralapsarian views of his former tutor, Theodore Beza, while on the other hand, he was exhorted by the Synod of Amsterdam to adopt the sublapsarian position.10

Placed in this somewhat invidious position, Arminius embarked upon an examination of the whole question of the decrees of God. His examination of the issues induced him to change his views and directed his thinking and beliefs into the teachings which now bear his name. Because of his shift in thinking, Arminius never completed his report on the disputed matters.

However, his newly held convictions led to disputations within the Reformed Church and seriously threatened its peace.11  

Matters were further inflamed in 1605, when the Classis of Dort transmitted a grievance, primarily aimed at Arminius, to the University of Leyden. It read:

Inasmuch as rumours are heard that certain controversies have arisen in the Church and University of Leyden, concerning the doctrines of the Reformed churches, this Class has judged it necessary that the synod should deliberate respecting the safest and most speedy method of settling those controversies; that all the schisms and causes of offence which spring out of them may be seasonably removed, and the union of the Reformed churches preserved inviolate against the calumnies of adversaries.12

The grievance offended the sensibilities of moderate men on both sides of the debate and resulted in the professors responding,

that they wished the Dort class had, in this affair, acted with greater discretion, and in a more orderly manner; that, in their opinion, there were more disputes among the students than was agreeable to them as the Professors; but, that among themselves, the Professors of Theology, no difference existed that could be considered as affecting, in the least, the fundamentals of doctrine; and that they would endeavour to diminish the disputes among the Students.13 

This was not exactly the response that the Classis of Dort desired. The result of these communiqu├ęs was to bring the matter before the public, and thereby a flame of controversy spread throughout the United Provinces. The result of the dispute was that it split the Reformed Church. In 1609, in the midst of this turmoil, Arminius died. After his death, his followers abandoned many of the views which he had held in common with Calvin, particularly on the issue of justification by faith. They became universally lax, both in their opinions and in the way in which they lived.

Attempts were made by both sides in the dispute to gain the support of their political masters. Arminius’ followers presented a remonstrance to the States-General of the Dutch Provinces in 1610 from which they obtained the name of Remonstrants. Their opponents countered this maneuver by presenting a counter remonstrance, thereby earning a place in history under the name of Contra-Remonstrants.

There were calls by the Contra-Remonstrants for a national synod to resolve the dispute, but this was not favored by van Oldenbarneveldt.14 Therefore, the provinces refused this demand. However, shortly thereafter, the political landscape in Holland was dramatically altered with the demise of van Oldenbarneveldt. The theological dispute was threatening to get totally out of hand, even to the extent of threatening the stability of the country. The seriousness of the situation prompted four out of the seven United provinces to agree in 1618 to the holding of a national synod. That synod was appointed to be held at Dort.

As noted above, invitations to attend the synod were extended to various countries in Europe. Letters were sent to the French Huguenots and to the different Protestant States of Germany and Switzerland, requesting them to send deputies to assist the deliberations.

Because of the close Anglo-Dutch political ties which existed at that time, it was only natural that English views should also be sought. England under Elisabeth had played a significant role in securing independence for the seven northern provinces from Spain, and any threat to their continued survival remained a matter of importance to England.15

James I, partly for political motives and partly because of his love of theological controversies, complied with this request and selected five well credentialed theologians to attend the synod, viz., Davenant, Dr. George Carleton, Bishop of Landaff, Dr. John Hall, Dean of Worcester, Dr. Samuel Ward, Master of Sydney Sussex College, and Walter Balcanqual, a presbyter of the Church of Scotland. Hall subsequently fell ill and was forced to return to England, and his place was taken by Dr. Thomas Goad, Precentor of St. Paul’s and Chaplain to the Primate, Abbot.

Prior to attending the synod, the English delegation was summoned before James I and Archbishop Abbot, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to receive specific instructions as to the approach which it was to adopt to the issues which would arise at the synod.

The instructions included inter alia the following:

You shall, in all points to be debated and disputed, resolve among yourselves before-hand, what is the true state of the question, and jointly and uniformly agree thereupon.

If, in debating the cause by the learned men there, anything be emergent, whereof you thought not before, you shall meet and consult thereupon again, and so resolve among yourselves jointly, what is fit to be maintained. And this to be done agreeable to the Scriptures, and the doctrine of the Church of England.

That if there be main opposition between any, who are over-much addicted to their opinions, your endeavour shall be, that certain Propositions be moderately laid down, which may tend to the mitigation of heat on both sides.16

In addition to these instructions, the divines were also instructed by both the king and the archbishop to oppose strongly any attempt to meddle with the doctrine of the Church of England and furthermore to be preemptory in introducing into the determinations of the synod, the universality of Christ’s redemptive work.17

As will be observed, when controversy arose at the synod, the king's instructions had the effect of restraining the individual English delegates from fully expressing their personal views in public. This constraint needs to be borne in mind when seeking to understand the position of Davenant on the matters discussed at Dort.


10. John Davenant, An Exposition to the Epistle of St. Paul to the Colossians, translated from the original Latin by Josiah Allport, (James Family Christian Publishers, Lynchburg, Virginia, 1979), p. xii.

11. The views adopted by Arminius have subsequently been titled the Five Points of Arminianism, and in summary are as follows:

1. God from all eternity has determined to bestow salvation on those whom He foresaw would persevere to the end in their Christian faith, and to inflict everlasting punishment on those whom He foresaw would continue in their unbelief, and to resist His divine succors.

2. Jesus Christ, by His death and sufferings, has made an atonement for the sins of all mankind, and of every individual; but none except those who believe in Him can be partakers of this divine benefit.

3. True faith cannot proceed from the exercise of our natural faculties and powers, nor from the force and operation of free-will; since man, in consequence of his natural corruption, is incapable of doing or thinking any good thing; and therefore regeneration, or renewal by the operation of the Holy Ghost which is the gift of God through Jesus Christ, is necessary to man’s conversion and salvation.

4. This divine grace or energy of the Holy Ghost, which heals the disorders of a corrupt nature, begins, advances, and brings to perfection every thing which can be called good in man; consequently, all good works are to be attributed to God alone, and to the operation of His grace; nevertheless, this grace does not constrain any man to act against his inclination, but may be resisted, and rendered ineffectual, by the perverse will of the impenitent sinner.

5. They who are united to Christ by faith are thereby furnished with abundant succors to enable them to triumph over the seduction of Satan and the allurements of sin and temptation; but such may fall from their faith, and finally forfeit this state of grace.

12. Davenant, Op. cit., p. xiii.

13. Ibid.

14. The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, J. D. Douglas ed. (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1978), p. 70.

15. Nicholas Tyacke, Anti-Calvinists: The Rise of English Arminianism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), p. 88.

16. Morris Fuller, The Life, Letters & Writings of John Davenant D.D (Methuen & Co., London, 1897), pp. 75, 76.

17. Fuller, Op. cit., p. 78. The veracity of this instruction as it pertains to the universality of Christ’s redemptive work has been challenged. Cf. Godfrey, Op. cit., p. 168n.

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