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Carl R. Trueman on Amyraldianism

March 30, 2009


While Arminianism and Socinianism are the major Protestant polemical targets for Owen, it is worth noting one other stream of such thought which some scholars have sought to regard as something against which the Reformed Orthodox reacted with vigour, namely Amyraldianism. Amyraldianism was a school of thought associated with the Academy at Saumur in France and developed by such theologians as Moses Amyraut and John Cameron as a means of obviating Arminian criticism of classic Reformed theology with regard to its apparent restriction of God’s will to save. In a very influential book, Bryan Armstrong made such a case at some length and others have followed in his wake, arguing a fundamental opposition between Reformed Orthodoxy of the type represented by Francis Turretin and John 0wen and the theology which came from Saumur which, advocates of this thesis not infrequently argue, was in fact more faithful to Calvin.87 The major problem with this scholarship is that it presupposes something which was basically not true: that the Reformed Orthodox regarded Amyraldianism as a heresy and therefore as essentially evil. Now it is true that the kind of universal atonement proposed by Amyraut and his followers was considered incorrect, and that the re-ordering of the divine decrees demanded by the Amyraldian scheme was regarded as wrong, but Amyraldian authors were not on that score regarded as heretical–a crime which, in the seventeenth century, involved a basic denial of one of the central truths of the faith. The problem, as Richard Muller has pointed out, is that too many writers on the topic have confused the history of confessional orthodoxy with the history of doctrinal controversy.88 For example, when we look at the work of Francis Turretin, one of the great opponents of Amyraldianism, we find that he specifically does not regard them as occupying the same heretical status as the Arminians. On the crucial issue of the ordering of the decrees, he declares the Arminian to be ‘Pelagian’ and thus clearly heretical;89 the Amyraldians, however, are considered ‘among the Reformed’ and, while their system is regarded as biblically defective, they are nowhere decried as heretics.90 Owen’s attitude is similar. Obviously, his understanding of atonement and the ordering of decrees is emphatically particularistic, but on other issues he can quote Amyraldian authors with great respect and no hint of any discomfort. Thus, Amyraut himself is ‘a very learned man’ in whose opinion on a matter of the nature of the church Owen is happy to acquiesce,91 while Cameron (along with the professors at Saumur) is a ‘very learned’ theologian whose careful and accurate work on the doctrine of God helped Owen change his mind on the nature of divine justice.92 To misquote George Orwell, for the Reformed Orthodox, all errors are erroneous, but some errors are more erroneous than others; and the holding of views such as Amyraldian universalism which did not destroy the crucial dependence of the creature upon the Creator or undermine understanding of the sinfulness of fallen men and women, was not enough to qualify one as a heretic whose whole theology was thus vitiated. Thus, while Arminians and Socinians also held to a form of universal divine love and intention to save, it was their revision of God’s sovereignty and the doctrine of sin which really pushed their theology beyond the pale. rendering them practical atheists and poisoning their theology, in a deep, comprehensive manner; Amyraldian commitment to universalism, while, according to the Reformed Orthodox. thoroughly misguided. did not render their whole theology as worthless, nor did it necessarily push them beyonds [sic] the bounds of what the Reformed themselves considered to be ‘Reformed’. We should remember that Amyraldian issues postdated most of the great Reformed confessions and were only tangential even to the Westminster Assembly. As noted above, even a casual glance at, say, Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology reveals that, yes, it is true that Amyraldians, Arminians, and Socinians were the major Protestant targets of Turretin’s polemics; yet the language used against Amyraldianism, while strong, is qualitatively different to that applied to the other two groups, indicating that the Saumurians were seen as erroneous on certain points but not as engaging in damnable heresy like the other groups. The lessons are clear: first, scholarship which fails to understand how the Orthodox themselves thought of Amyraldianism is doomed to anachronism and irrelevance;93 and, second, as with the issue of Reformed attitudes to Roman Catholic theologians, scholars need to see the Reformed Orthodox as critically eclectic in relation to other Protestant theological trajectories, and as appreciating good theology when they see it, no matter by whom it might be written.94 Carl R. Trueman, John Owen (England: Ashgate, 2007), 29-31. [Underlining mine, and footnote values retained from original.]


87Bryan Armstrong, Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969); A C Clifford, Atonement and Justification: English Evangelical Theology, 1640-1970, An Evaluation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990); R T Kendal, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649 (Carlisle: Paternost Press, 1997).

88Muller, After Calvin, 8-9 .

89Turretin. Institutes, 4.18.6.

90Turretin. Institutes, 4.18.13- 20.

91Works, 13. 138.

92Works, 10. 488.

93In the case of Alan Clifford’s approach to Owen, this misunderstanding of Reformed attitudes to Amyraldianism would seem to lie at the heart of an analysis which tends to reduce the question of the relationship of Owen’s theology to the Reformed tradition to two points: his methodological dependence on Aristotle; and his theological commitment to limited atonement. As to the former, ‘Aristotelianism’ in the seventeenth century is a term almost devoid of meaning except as it refers to a very diverse tradition which looks to the canon of Aristotle’s texts as in some way authoritative; and as to the second, in addition to Clifford’s basic misunderstanding of Reformed views of atonement, he fails to see that, in the seventeenth century, this single point of theology is not enough to establish the kind of traditionary, theological and confessional antithesis which his analysis seems to presuppose as true and which then appears as if by magic in the primary texts.

94The Reformed Orthodox wrestled long and hard with exactly which items of the Christian creed were necessary to be believed for credible Christian profession and which found expression in the various lists of fundamental articles which exist. While there was no confessional consensus on exactly which articles, and how many, should be included, a representative list can be found in Turretin, Institutes 1.14.24. On the whole issue of fundamental articles, see Muller, PRRD 1, 406-30; Martin I Klauber, Between Reformed Scholasticism and Pan-Protestantism: Jean-Alphome Turretin (1671-1737) and Enlightened Orthodoxy at the Academy of Geneva (Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 1994), 165-87.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 10, 2009 8:34 pm

    I wish to thank Carl Trueman for what is undoubtedly a most magnanimous statement on his part which acknowledges that Amyraldianism is considered “among the reformed,” and not in any way regarded as heretical, or outwith reformed orthodoxy.

    However, I think I have to explain something here: you assert that Alan Clifford has mistaken views of the atonement. From the high orthodox viewpoint, this is probably true; but since Clifford was attempting to be faithful to Calvin’s own teaching on this central issue for Christian theology and for the Christian Gospel, I consider that he has done a very fine job at interpreting Calvin faithfully, and has rescued it from the ungrounded criticisms of both the Arminians and the high orthodox, the latter represented by Owen et al.

    Further, with respect, I think you may have misunderstood Alan Clifford’s basic thesis, which was to expound Calvin on the atonement, and not the teaching of the ‘reformed’ per se, whom he, and I, regard as having departed from Calvin’s stated position, not to the point of being heretical, but to the point of representing a trajectory of Calvin’s teaching which the great Reformer would not have recognised as his own.

    I think it is important that we deal fairly with what theologians state their views to be, and I am not inferring that you have done this; there is a tendency to play with words in such a way that nuances are altered, and those whose position is being criticised are made to say what they had never intended to say.

    Clifford’s position is a sincere attempt at rescuing Calvin from those whom he considers to have distorted his teaching in such a way as to influence, in the wrong way, the message of the Gospel. So while he has parted company with the ‘reformed’ and with later Calvinists, he has stayed close to the Genevan Reformer, and has faithfully interpreted Calvin himself. The result: a rediscovery of authentic Calvinism.

  2. May 12, 2009 2:47 am

    Hey there Hazlett,

    I am not sure 100% the following comment is directed to me or not:

    Further, with respect, I think you may have misunderstood Alan Clifford’s basic thesis, which was to expound Calvin on the atonement, and not the teaching of the ‘reformed’ per se, whom he, and I, regard as having departed from Calvin’s stated position, not to the point of being heretical, but to the point of representing a trajectory of Calvin’s teaching which the great Reformer would not have recognised as his own.

    David: If we restrict ourselves to Calvin’s view of redemption, expiation and reconciliation, I think Clifford’s reading of Calvin is correct. I would encourage you to read Calvin directly, here:

    Calvin on Unlimited Expiation, Sin-Bearing, Redemption and Reconciliation

    and compare and contrast Calvin with

    Bullinger on Unlimited Expiation and Unlimited Redemption

    and Wolfgang Musculus on the Redemption of Mankind

    I should tell you too, this is not the main blog. I keep this merely as a mirror and back-up.

    The main blog is here:
    Calvin and Calvinism

    with the main index page here:

    Meta-Links (Indexes)

    Thanks for stopping by,

  3. May 12, 2009 2:52 am

    Ah now I see, I think. The refers back to Trueman.

    Be sure to scope out the main blog which has been updated a lot since the Trueman entry.


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