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Richard Muller on Non-Amyraldian Precedents to Hypothetical Universalism

May 19, 2008

The following is a review by Richard Muller on Jonathan Moore’s book English Hypothetical Universalism: John Preston and the Softening of Reformed Theology. Moore is fairly good in his examination of Preston, Usher and Davenant, but he dreadfully mischaracterises Kimedoncius, Vermigli, and others. It seems Muller has spotted the same basic problems I had also started to underline here.


This volume offers a detailed and finely argued exposition of the view of redemption expressed by John Preston both in his various writings and in his testimony at the York Conference in 1626. Where Moore clearly advances the discussion of both the York Conference itself and of early seventeenth-century British theology is in his clear identification of Preston’s teaching, together with that of several major contemporaries (notably John Davenant and James Ussher), as a form of hypothetical universalism, namely, the doctrine that Christ so died for the sins of the human race that, if all would believe, all would be saved. What Moore nicely shows is that the Reformed side of the debate was somewhat variegated, including hypothetical universalists as well as those who denied universal redemption and that previous analyses of the theological debates in early seventeenth-century England too simplistically identified the parties in debate as either Arminian or Calvinist. In effect, Moore resuscitates an issue recognized in the seventeenth century by Davenant, Baxter, and others, and noted with reference to the Westminster Assembly by Alexander Mitchell that there was an indigenous hypothetical universalism in British Reformed theology. Moore’s study, however, for all its excellent work on Preston and the York Conference, embodies two significant problems concerning perspective on and context of the materials examined. First, there is an underlying systematizing thread in the argument of the book that leads to claims that do not ultimately bear scrutiny concerning the interconnection of specific doctrinal formulations. Particularly in his review of William Perkins’ doctrine, Moore contends that Perkins’ supralapsarian predestinarianism together with his federalism “drives” him toward the conclusion of particular redemption, namely that the all-sufficiency of Christ’s satisfaction yields no hypothetical offer of salvation to all people. However, particularism was hardly the exclusive characteristic of supralapsarian federalists. There is also a clearly particularist formulation concerning Christ’s satisfaction in the work of Perkins’ contemporary, Gulielmus Bucanus, who tended toward an infralapsarian doctrine of predestination and was no federalist. Similarly, a later Reformed orthodox thinker such as Turretin, a convinced infralapsarian and, although party to the two-covenant schema but not a federal theologian in the strict sense of the term, taught a clearly prticularistic doctrine of Christ’s satisfaction.

Moore also underestimates the presence of non-Amyraldian or non-speculative forms of hypothetical universalism in the Reformed tradition as a whole and thereby, in the opinion of this reviewer, misconstrues Preston’s position as a “softening” of Reformed theology rather than as a continuation of one trajectory of Reformed thought that had been present from the early sixteenth century onward. Clear statements of nonspeculative hypothetical universalism can be found (as Davenant recognized) in Heinrich Bullinger’s Decades and commentary on the Apocalypse, in Wolfgang Musculus’ Loci communes, in Ursinus’ catechetical lectures, and in Zanchi’s Tractatus de praedestinatione sanctorum, among other places. In addition, the Canons of Dort, in affirming the standard distinction of a sufficiency of Christ’s death for all and its efficiency for the elect, actually refrain from canonizing either the early form of hypothetical universalism or the assumption that Christ’s sufficiency serves only to leave the nonelect without excuse. Although Moore can cite statements from the York conference that Dort “either apertly or covertly denied the universality of man’s redemption” (156), it remains that various of the signatories of the Canons were hypothetical universalistsnot only the English delegation (Carleton, Davenant, Ward, Goad, and Hall) but also the [sic] some of the delegates from Bremen and Nassau (Martinius, Crocius, and Alsted)–that Carleton and the other delegates continued to affirm the doctrinal points of Dort while distancing themselves from the church discipline of the Belgic Confession, and that in the course of seventeenth-century debate even the Amyraldians were able to argue that their teaching did not run contrary to the Canons. In other words, the nonspeculative, non-Amyraldian form of hypothetical universalism was new in neither the decades after Dort nor a “softening” of the tradition: The views of Davenant, Ussher, and Preston followed out a resident trajectory long recognized as orthodox among the Reformed.

In sum, this is a significant study of the theology of John Preston and of the importance of a form of hypothetical universalism in the Puritan and English Reformed theology of the early seventeenth century, but its conclusions need to be set into and somewhat tempered by a sense of the broader context and multiple streams of theology in the Reformed tradition.

English Hypothetical Universalism: John Preston and the Softening of Reformed Theology,” by Jonathan D. Moore. Reviewed by Richard A Muller, Calvin Theological Journal, 43 (2008), 149-150.

Credit to Steven Wedgeworth for the find.


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