08 November, 2016

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John Davenant has been described as one of the remarkable divines of the 17th century1  and has been hailed as the Jewel of the Reformed churches for his eminence at the Synod of Dort.2  The “most eminent of the English theologians” to attend that synod and “one of the greatest names to have adorned the English church” are also epitaphs which have been bestowed upon him.3  These are high commendations, considering the other illustrious divines whose lives dotted the ecclesiastical landscape of that century.

However, not all have spoken in such glowing terms of the former Bishop of Salisbury.4 Upon examining his life and doctrine, some have concluded that his position on the extent of the atonement of Jesus Christ was heterodox. Indeed, it has been contended that Davenant promulgated a species of hypothetical universalism and therefore can justly be designated an Amyraldian.5

This categorization of Davenant has not met with universal approbation. For example, George Ella laments that Davenant’s “reputation has faded due to the present historical re-assessments now causing such havoc in the Reformed Churches.”6 He describes the notion that Davenant taught hypothetical universalism as a “surprising claim.”7

After making reference to parts of Davenant’s writings, Ella suggests that, “Anyone sifting through such words to find ‘hypothetical universalism’ and ‘well meant offer’ are not looking for needles in hay stacks, they are planting contaminated needles in otherwise healthy hay.”8

The purpose of this paper is to explore the question of whether Davenant has properly been characterized as an Amyraldian or whether he has been unjustly vilified.

Before embarking upon this exercise, it is appropriate to note that, despite the vigorous denials of Ella by which he suggests that Davenant was orthodox in his views on the atonement, there is no doubt, as will become apparent, that Davenant’s views on the atonement were certainly not Reformed nor orthodox. His views on the extent of the atonement, like those of Moises Amyraut, reeked of universalism. The question that lies before us is not whether Davenant held the Reformed position as regards the atonement, because clearly he did not. Rather, the issue is whether his doctrine on the atonement can legitimately be equated with that of Amyraut.9

It is the thesis of this paper that although the views of Davenant were not in all respects in accord with those views subsequently expressed by Amyraut, nonetheless Davenant’s views in a practical sense were so similar to those of Amyraut that it is not unreasonable to classify him as an Amyraldian or at least a near Amyraldian.


1. Daniel Neal, The History of the Puritans (Klock & Klock Christian Publishers, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1979), Vol. 2, p. 93.

2. George Ella, “Bishop John Davenant and the Death of Christ: A Vindication” New Focus, August/September 1997, Vol. 2, No. 2, p. 12; Morris Fuller suggests that “none stood higher than [Davenant] did at the Synod of Dort.” Furthermore, Fuller contends that from a theological point of view Davenant stood “head and shoulders higher than any of his compeers thereat.” The Life, Letters & Writings of John Davenant D.D (Methuen & Co., London, 1897), p. 192; Neal records that:

Davenant behaved himself with great prudence and moderation during the course of the Synod. He was a quiet and peaceable prelate, humble and charitable, a strict observer of the Sabbath, an enemy of pomp and ceremony and luxury of the clergy. He had a great reputation in foreign parts for profound learning. (Neal, Op. cit., p. 93)

3. George Smeaton, The Apostles’ Doctrine of the Atonement (Alpha Publications, Winona Lake, Indiana, 1979), p. 542.

4. Herman Hanko, The History of the Free Offer (Grandville, Michigan: Theological School of the Protestant Reformed Churches, 1989), pp. 82, 83; Universalism and the Reformed Churches: A Defense of Calvin’s Calvinism (Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia), p. 7.

5. Hanko, Op. cit., pp. 82, 83; Paul Helm, Calvin and the Calvinists (Banner of Truth Trust, 1982); Brian Armstrong, Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1969), p. 99. Armstrong styled Davenant as “a near Amyraldian”; Marc D. Carpenter, "A History of Hypo-Calvinism" The Trinity Review, No. 145, March 1997, p. 2; Louis Berkhof, The History of Christian Doctrines (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1981), p. 190.

6. Ella, Op. cit., p. 12.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid., p. 14.

9. Interestingly, discussion of Davenant’s aberrant views on the atonement usually relate to whether or not he can properly be designated an Amyraldian, but that is perhaps somewhat surprising given that his views preceded those of Amyraut by at least a decade.

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