08 November, 2016

Chapter Three

Davenant’s Writings

Davenant was not a prolific writer by the standards of his day, though he published a number of works during his lifetime.34

In 1641, he published a treatise in which he responded to Samuel Hoard’s book entitled God’s Love of Mankind, Manifested by Disproving his Absolute Decree for their Damnation. Davenant’s reply was entitled Animadversions written by the Right Rev. Father in God, John, Lord Bishop of Salisbury, upon a Treatise intitled, God’s Love to Mankind. In this work, Davenant maintains the unconditional nature of the decree of election, while at the same time maintaining that this does not exclude the sufficiency of grace being given to all. He furthermore acknowledges that reprobation is necessarily involved in election. In that regard, he states: “Reprobation is not a denial of sufficient grace, but a denial of such special grace, as God knoweth would infallibly bring them to glory.”35

However, so far as our inquiries are concerned, the most significant works of Davenant were published some years after his death. Two works were published together, the smaller being entitled On the Controversy Among the French Divines of the Reformed Church Concerning the Gracious and Saving Will of God Towards Sinful Men and the larger under the title of A Dissertation on the Death of Christ.36

We will examine the statements made by Davenant in both of these works in an attempt to define more clearly his views on the extent of the atonement.

It is unclear as to when precisely either of these works were written, though undoubtedly both were completed following Davenant’s attendance at the Synod of Dort.

In his On the Controversy, Davenant makes reference to Dr. John Cameron, but not to Moises Amyraut, which suggests that this work was written prior to Amyraut coming to theological prominence in France. This dictates that the work was completed probably prior to 1634, when Amyraut published his first controversial work on the atonement, entitled Treatise of Predestination.

The precise date of the writing of A Dissertation on the Death of Christ is also uncertain. However, references within the treatise to statements made at the Synod of Dort suggest that its final form was arrived at after the conclusion of the Synod in 1619.37

We turn our attention initially to On the Controversy. The Gallican churches had not attended the Synod of Dort. However, the issue of the extent of the atonement, which proved to be the most difficult point for the synod, was also an issue within the Gallican churches.

Following Dort, the Gallican churches wrote to the English delegates in the following terms, “The opinion of the divines of England, the most celebrated in the whole Christian world, is requested on this controversy, as it appears that this might conduce not a little towards confirming the peace of the Reformed Church in France.”38 Following his attendance at the Synod of Dort, Davenant appears to have been held in high esteem. As a result of his enhanced reputation, Davenant was selected to reply to the Gallican churches on behalf of the English delegates.

The issues which enveloped the French church concerned the gracious and saving will of God toward sinful men. Within the French church, there were those who contended for “particular election in Christ, through the mere good pleasure of God of some certain persons and their effectual and irrevocable calling to grace and glory.”39 However, others asserted that Christ died for all men individually, “with some general intention on his part,” so that God, by His universal grace, “by a suitable invitation and calling to repentance ... gives to all individually that they may be saved if they will.”40 This view encompassed the notion that salvation was the work of the individual and that a failure to take up the opportunity of salvation was attributable to the hardness of the individual’s own heart. Perhaps not surprisingly, those who propounded this view drew support from the statements made at the Synod of Dort by some of the English delegates.41 Dr. John Cameron, who was an eminent divine among the French Protestants, propounded this view.42 This is of particular interest in the context of our considerations, given that Moises Amyraut studied under Cameron and appears to have developed his teaching of hypothetical universalism from the views taught by Cameron. We will return to explore this issue later in this paper.

The opponents of these views within the French church denied that Christ died individually for all men, with the intention of saving them, and furthermore they also denied that God willed that all men individually should be saved.43

In responding to these views, Davenant stated generally that the will of God towards sinners manifests itself in two ways. Firstly, there are those who fall under God’s special mercy, and as such they receive the means of saving grace with the result that they become recipients of eternal life. Secondly, Davenant contended that, by virtue of God's “common philanthropy” and the covenant of grace, He had appointed the means of a saving grace which was sufficient for the salvation of all men. In respect of such individuals, Davenant opined that, in some instances, this conferred saving grace, but not always. He expressed himself in this way:

The gracious and saving will of God towards sinners is to be considered, as effectually applying to some persons, of his special mercy, the means of saving grace, according to that saying of the apostle, He hath mercy on whom he will have mercy; or, as appointing sufficiently for all, of his common philanthropy, the means of a saving grace, applicable to all for salvation, according to the tenor of the covenant of grace, as the Evangelist has said, God so loved the world, &c. Those whom the Divine will or good pleasure embraces under the first description, on them it always confers the means of saving grace in this life, and the end of this grace, that is, life eternal, or glory, in the world to come ... Those whom the Divine will embraces only under the latter description, on them it sometimes confers the means of saving grace, and sometimes does not; but it never confers the end of grace, that is, eternal life.44 [Emphasis MS]

The meaning of the assertion contained in the latter part of this quotation, that the atonement of Christ sometimes confers saving grace but that such saving grace “never confers the end of grace, that is, eternal life,” is not immediately transparent, though other portions of this work suggest that it should be read to mean that such saving grace in and of itself will not bring eternal life, but that eternal life is conditional upon the work of the individual.

Having made these general comments, Davenant then turns his attention to the precise wording of the propositions which were referred to him by the Gallican churches. In addressing the proposition that “Christ died for all men individually, with some general intention,” Davenant says:

Christ is rightly said to have died for all men, inasmuch as on his death is founded a covenant of salvation, applicable to all men while they are in this world. Nor can he be improperly said to have died for each individually, inasmuch as his death may profit each for salvation, according to the tenor of the new covenant, none being excluded.45 [Emphasis MS]

In support of these views, Davenant asserts that the Scriptures speak of the will of God in two different ways. He contends that the divine will sometimes simply denotes the appointment of a means to an end, although there is no determinative will in God of producing that end by those means. In this sense, God, with a general intention, wills life to all men, inasmuch as He willed the death of Christ to be the fountain and cause of life to all men individually.

Secondly, he contends that the Scriptures speak of the will or intention of God in respect of those things which never fail to produce the good intended, or, as Davenant styles it, “God's special predestination.”

Having identified those two wills, Davenant concludes that if the notion of a general intention of God to procure the salvation of all men by the death of Jesus Christ is thought to encompass the idea that the special will of God in effecting the salvation of the elect is excluded, then that is to be rejected. In other words, he seeks to maintain the doctrine of election. However, he goes on to say that, if what is being asserted is that the benefit of the death of Christ is intended for all men individually, then that is acceptable. He states:

But if by this general intention they mean nothing more than a general aptitude and sufficiency in the death of Christ to effect the salvation of all men individually in the mode of an universal cause, or a general appointment of God concerning salvation of all men individually, who through the grace, duly apply to themselves this universal cause: then there is no need to reject this form of speaking.46 

Davenant then turns his attention to the next proposition, namely that God by His universal grace founded in the death of Christ, by a suitable invitation and calling to repentance, grants to all men individually, that they may be saved, if they will, though this occurs in different ways.47

Davenant rejects the use of the term universal grace, noting that those gifts which are bestowed upon all men individually should not be referenced to the grace of God, but to the common philanthropy of God. He notes that if those who assert such things mean that the grace of God is given and actually communicated to every individual of the human race, “he does not see by what means this form of speech can be defended.”48

However, he goes on to say:

But if by universal grace, he means nothing more than an universal capacity of salvation in all persons living in this world, or an universal propensity in God, to save every man, if he should believe in Christ, he ought to correct his language, lest by unusual and a less sound form of words, he should give offence to the orthodox.49 

Furthermore, Davenant rejects the notion that God by His universal grace grants to all men individually that they may be saved, if they will. In virtually the same breath, he goes on to say, “I do not dispute that all men individually may be saved, who are rightly willing to believe in Christ.”50 He then, somewhat revealingly, goes on to say “that universal grace is not proved by a power of obtaining salvation.”51

Davenant also seeks to clarify the position which was adopted by the English divines at Dort. In that regard, he says:

I know that the opinion of the English divines given at the Synod of Dort, neither establishes universal grace, nor acknowledges that apt and sufficient means of salvation are granted to all men individually upon whom the Gospel hath not shone. Lastly, I think that no divine of the Reformed Church of sound judgment, will deny a general intention or appointment concerning the salvation of all men individually by the death of Christ, on this conditionIf they should believe. For the intention or appointment of God is general, and is plainly revealed in the Holy Scriptures, although the absolute and not to be frustrated intention of God, concerning the gift of faith and eternal life to some persons, is special, and is limited to the elect alone.52 [Emphasis MS]

We turn now to Davenant’s A Dissertation on the Death of Christ. As indicated by the title to the treatise, Davenant in this work expounds his views concerning the nature and extent of the atoning work of Christ upon the cross. As will be observed, he continues to espouse essentially the same views as those in On the Controversy.

At the outset, he postulates two views concerning the death of Christ, one based upon the notion that the death of Christ was for all mankind, and the other confining the death of Christ to the elect alone. He notes that those who extend the death of Christ to all mankind generally, concede that its beneficial reception is applied only to certain persons in particular. On the other hand, he notes that those who confine the death of Christ to the elect alone, also acknowledge that its benefits extend to all those who are called, even to all men, if they would believe.53 By these statements, Davenant seeks to plant the seed of doubt in the mind of his readers that the differences between the two views may not be as great as they may have perceived. He seeks to reinforce this notion, when he says that, if he should “treat the death of Christ under this twofold view, it will perhaps appear that in some things which are contested with eagerness, there are rather various modes of speaking than different opinions.”54

In the first chapter of this work, Davenant embarks upon a historical excursus into the origins of the question concerning the death of Christ and of its intended latitude or extent. He contends that, prior to the dispute between Augustine and Pelagius, no question arose within the church as to whether the death of Christ was to be extended to all mankind or whether it was to be confined only to the elect.55 He says that the early church fathers, when speaking of the death of Christ, described it as having been “undertaken and endured for the redemption of the human race; and not a word (that I know of) occurs among them of the exclusion of any persons by the decree of God.”56 He goes on to acknowledge that those same fathers considered that the death of Christ was only beneficial to those who believed, while at the same time maintaining that they confessed that Christ died on behalf of all mankind.

Having conducted a historical analysis, Davenant deals with the subject under five propositions.

1. The death of Christ is represented in holy Scripture as an universal remedy, by the ordinance of God, and the nature of the thing itself, applicable for salvation to all and every individual.57 [Emphasis MS]

2. The death of Jesus Christ is the universal cause of the salvation of mankind, and Christ himself is acknowledged to have died for all men sufficiently, not by reason of the mere sufficiency or of the intrinsic value, according to which the death of God is a price more than sufficient for redeeming a thousand worlds; but by reason of the Evangelical covenant confirmed with the whole human race through the merit of this death, and of the Divine ordination depending upon it, according to which, under the possible condition of faith, remission of sins and eternal life is decreed to be set before every moral man who will believe it, on account of the merits of Christ.58 [Emphasis MS]

3. The death or passion of Christ, as the universal cause of the salvation of mankind, hath, by the act of its oblation, so far rendered God the Father pacified and reconciled to the human race, that he can be truly said to be ready to receive into favour any man whatever, as soon as he shall believe in Christ; yet the aforesaid death of Christ does not place any one, at least of adults, in a state of grace, of actual reconciliation, or of salvation, before he believes.59

4. The death of Jesus Christ being granted to be applicable to all men on condition of faith, it is consistent with the goodness and justice of God to supply or deny, either to nations or to individuals, the means of application, and that according to the good pleasure of his own will, not according to the disparity of human wills.60 [Emphasis MS]

5. The death of Christ, from the special design of God the Father, who from eternity ordained and accepted that sacrifice; and of Christ, who offered it in the fullness of time to God the Father; was destined for some certain persons, whom the Scriptures call the elect, and for them alone, so as to be effectually and infallibly applied to the obtaining of eternal life.61 [Emphasis MS]

In explaining what he means by these propositions, Davenant says:

... When we say that this death or this merit is represented in the Holy Scriptures as the universal cause of salvation, we mean, that according to the will of God explained in His Word, this remedy is proposed indiscriminately to every individual of the human race for salvation, but that it cannot savingly profit any one without a special application. For an universal cause of salvation, or an universal remedy, includes these two things: first, of itself that it can cure and save all and every individual; secondly, that for the production of this determinate effect in each individual it should require a determinate application.62 [Emphasis MS]

He draws a distinction between the applicability of the atonement of Christ and the application of its benefits.

... we do not affirm that the death of Christ at the moment of his dissolution, was actually applied to all and every individual of mankind, nor that after his oblation it was infallibly to be applied, but that, according to the appointment of God, it is applicable to all. For God hath ordained that it should be applicable to every individual through faith, but he hath not determined to give that faith to every individual, by which it might be infallibly applied.63 

While propounding the view that Christ’s death was applicable to all, nonetheless Davenant makes it clear that he does not advocate universal salvation. He confines salvation to those “peculiar people who are known only to God, that is to his elect.”64 He acknowledges that God has not ordained “to give to all men individually this faith, by which they might infallibly obtain salvation.”65

One might well ask how these various statements from A Dissertation on the Death of Christ and On the Controversy are to be reconciled and understood? The answer appears to lie in Davenant’s view of the need for a sincere offer of the gospel. This becomes evident from an illustration which he employs in A Dissertation on the Death of Christ.

Suppose that all the inhabitants of a certain city laboured under some epidemic and mortal disease; that the king sent to them an eminent physician furnished with a most efficacious medicine, and caused it to be publicly proclaimed, that all should be cured who were willing to make use of this medicine. Doubtless we might truly say of this king, that he so loved that city, as to send his own most skillful physician to it; that all who were willing to attend to this advice, and take his medicine, should not die, but recover to their former health. But if any should object that this physician was sent only to those who follow his prescriptions, and that his medicine was applicable by the appointment of the king only to those who were willing to take it, he would in reality not only make the beneficence of the king appear less illustrious, but affirm what was evidently false.66 [Emphasis MS]

Davenant reasons in this way. The death of Christ upon the cross was for all men, though His death was not efficacious for all. In the case of those who were predestinated from eternity, Christ’s death assured them of eternal life. For those not predestined to life, Christ’s death did not secure for them eternal life, but it did open up to them the window of opportunity to attain unto eternal life. Davenant’s motivation for this approach lies in his understanding of those portions of the Scriptures which appear to speak of the offer of salvation to all men. In a desire to remove what he perceived to be insincerity on God’s part, Davenant considered it necessary to enable all to attain unto salvation, if they will only believe. For God to be sincere, all must have the opportunity of salvation. Hence, the need for a universal atonement. Consistent with this view, Davenant, like many today, wished to proclaim the well-meant gospel offer.

Shew me an individual of the human race to whom the minister of the gospel may not truly say: God hath so loved thee, that he gave his only begotten Son, that if thou shouldest believe in him, thou shalt not perish but have everlasting life.67 

One interesting feature of Davenant’s writings is that he never satisfactorily explains how a man who is totally depraved can believe on Jesus Christ without the intervention of the Holy Spirit. That question is never satisfactorily addressed. Davenant seems content simply to be able to assert that such a possibility exists, and thereby his conscience is appeased.


34. The most significant work that he published was his “Exposition to the Epistle of St. Paul to the Colossians,” which was published in 1627.

35. Davenant, An Exposition, p. xlii.

36. The full title to this work is A Dissertation on the Death of Christ as to its Extent and Special Benefits containing a short History of Pelagianism, and Shewing the Agreement of the Doctrine of the Church of England on General Redemption, Election, and Predestination with the Fathers of the Christian Church and Above all with the Holy Scriptures.

37. Davenant refers to the theses presented by various colleges at the Synod of Dort and includes several quotations from the Acta Synodi.

38. John Davenant, On the Controversy Among the French Divines of the Reformed Church Concerning the Gracious and Saving Will of God Towards Sinful Men (London: Hamilton, Adams and Co., 1832), p. 561.

39. Ibid.

40. Ibid.

41. Ibid., p. 562.

42. iIbid.

43. Ibid.

44. Ibid., p. 563.

45. Ibid., p. 564.

46. Fuller, Op. cit., p. 197.

47. Ibid.

48. Ibid., p. 198.

49. Ibid.

50. Ibid., p. 199.

51. Ibid.

52. Ibid., p. 200.

53. This is an inaccurate statement of the position of those who hold to a particular atonement.

54. Ibid., p. 318.

55. John Davenant, A Dissertation on the Death of Christ (London: Adams & Co., Birmingham, 1832), p. 318.

56. Ibid., p. 319.

57. Ibid., pp. 340, 341.

58. Ibid., pp. 401, 402.

59. Ibid., pp. 440, 441.

60. Ibid., p. 475.

61. Ibid., p. 516.

62. Ibid., p. 341.

63. Ibid., p. 343.

64. Ibid., p. 399.

65. Ibid. p. 364.

66. Ibid., p. 344.

67. Ibid., p. 344.

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