Canons Of Dort (19): Unconditional Atonement

In 1611, Franciscus Gormarus (1563–1641), one of the principals in the controversy surrounding Arminius resigned his position in the theology faculty in the University of Leiden. He was frustrated by the fact that after Arminius’ death, the governors of the University had appointed Conrad Vorstius (1569–1622), whom Gomarus suspected of being a Socinian. They professed to believe Scripture but interpreted it in such a way as to deny the deity of Christ, the substitutionary atonement, and the Trinity among other things. Their method of interpretation and theology has been correctly called “biblicism.” It was not that they followed Scripture but that they proposed to read the Bible as if no one had ever done it before. They rejected the ancient ecumenical creeds (e.g., the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Definition of Chalcedon, the Athanasian Creed) and they rejected the Protestant confessions. Further, underneath their biblicism lay rationalism, the elevation of reason over Scripture. It is worth knowing a bit about the Socinians since there are many erstwhile evangelicals and even some who identify as Reformed who share some of their convictions and methods. Despite his assertions of his orthodoxy, the Synod of Dort condemned him and banished him from the Dutch Republic.

From Leiden Gomarus went to Middleburg where he served as minister of the congregation and gave theological lectures for four years until he went to Saumur, where he taught from 1615–18. His successor, however, marked in important ways, a sharp departure from Gomarus’ theology. John Cameron (c. 1579–1625) taught in Saumur from 1618–20 and again in 1623. He developed a doctrine of salvation that argued that God the Spirit does not regenerate the human will in the way that the Augustinian and Reformed theologians and churches had hitherto taught. It was more a matter of moral persuasion than a realistic renewal of the will. Cameron, along with Moïses Amyraut (1596–1644) and Josué La Place (1596–1665) taught, according to B. B. Warfield (Works, 5.364–65)

…that election succeeds, in the order of thought, not merely the decree of the fall but that of redemption as well, taking the term redemption here in the narrower sense of the impetration of redemption by Christ. They thus suppose that in His electing decree God conceived man not merely as fallen but as already redeemed. This involves a modified doctrine of the atonement from which the party has received the name of Hypothetical Universalism, holding as it does that Christ died to make satisfaction for the sins of all men without exception if—if, that is, they believe: but that, foreseeing that none would believe, God elected some to be granted faith through the effectual operation of the Holy Spirit.

In short, the Hypothetical Universalists removed the limit from the atonement and pushed it back a step to the application of redemption. This allowed them to say that “Christ died for all men and every man” (to use the language of the Remonstrants). One reason to adopt such language was to appease the Lutherans, since some held out hope through at least part of the 17th century of some kind of a reunion (so Nicholas Fornerod, “A Reappraisal of the Genevan Delegation,” in Revisiting the Synod of Dort, 213). Another was that such language was said to give a better account of some passages of Scripture.

Well before the Amyraldian Controversy broke out in Saumur, however, there were Reformed theologians, including at least two delegates to the Synod of Dort, who were toying with alternative language concerning the atonement. In his 1627 Dissertation on the Death of Christ John Davenant (1572–1641) argued for a kind of hypothetical universalism. Davenant apparently held some version of this view while he was a delegate to Dort. His colleague, Samuel Ward (1572–43) also held some version of this position. I say “some version” because even in Davenant’s Dissertation it thesis is not always entirely clear. As a teacher, should a student have submitted this as a Master’s Thesis I should have returned it with a demand that he state unequivocally his position and clearly contrast it with other views. Still, he agreed with the Synod of Dort (more on this in a moment) that the inherent dignity and power of the atonement was sufficient for the sins of all men and every man. He repeatedly argued that Christ’s death was “applicable” to all men. He argued more than this, however. There is a sense, he argued, in which Christ may be said to have died for all men but that he did not actually obtain salvation for all. The limit then is not in the atonement but in the will of God to apply salvation to all. God, he argued, has not determined to apply the work of Christ to all. That Christ died for all is the necessary foundation to the universal offer of the gospel (see e.g., pp. 344–45). He used the analogy of a physician offering salvation to a plague ravaged village. The medicine is efficacious but the villagers must be willing to take the medicine. If they refuse the fault is not with the physician nor with the medicine.

A few years after Davenant’s Dissertation Amyraut would argue in his Brief Treatise (1531), as Turretin summarized it, that “Christ died conditionally for each and every one and absolutely only for the elect” (Institutes, 14.14.7) Davenant and Amyraut were on a continuum of hypothetical universalism. They applied a twofold distinction in the divine decree (the absolute will of God and the antecedent will of God) to the atonement and they made the atonement conditional. Christ died for all to make salvation possible but he died “for you” if you believe.

It is fashionable in some circles now to argue that because Davenant and Ward were delegates to the Synod of Dort and because no French synod ever succeeded in condemning Amyraut (never mind the religious and civil politics in France in the early to mid-17th century)  therefore hypothetical universalism is a view within the pale of Reformed orthodoxy and evidence of the diversity within orthodox Reformed theology. So fashionable has Davenant become that an organization based in Moscow, ID and closely associated with the de facto head of the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches and one of the more prominent Federal Visionists has named themselves after him.

Of course the argument for the orthodoxy of Cameron, Davenant, and Amyraut is circumstantial and from silence, i.e., from what did not happen. The ecclesiastical prosecution of theological error is quite difficult. From a historical perspective, the Synod of Dort itself might never have happened. There was a small window during which it was able to take place. Had the orthodox missed that window, had Prince Maurice not been allied with them and willing to work around the States General, there might well be writers today touting Arminius’ credentials as an orthodox Reformed theologian who was controversial but who was never prosecuted for his views. The same has been argued of Norman Shepherd today. He flatly contradicted the Word of God as confessed by the Reformed churches by teaching justification “through faith and works.” Nevertheless, quite remarkably he was never successfully in any church court and retired as a minister in good standing. Still it would be grossly misleading to say that, absent a formal prosecution, his views are therefore orthodox. So it is with a conditional doctrine of the atonement or “universal grace” or hypothetical universalism.

The views of Cameron, Amyraut, LaPlace et al were rejected by many orthodox theologians in the period. It was explicitly and thoroughly rejected in the Helvetic Consensus Formula (1675) which was adopted by the Swiss Churches until it was revoked under the influence of a broadening, latitudinarian evangelical movement in the first quarter of the 18th century. John Owen rejected it. Of course Heidegger and Turretin rejected it as did Friedrich Spanheim, the Rivet brothers and many others. Warfield’s judgment “This modification [hypothetical universalism] also received the condemnation of the contemporary Reformed world…” (Works, 5.363) is surely correct. Certainly it would be surprise to see one articulating hypothetical universalism sustained as a candidate for the ministry in a NAPARC denomination or federation.

Leading up to Synod and at Synod itself, the Remonstrants, of course, argued not for a hypothetical universalism but for a universal atonement. Christ, they argued, died “for all men and every man.” So the hypothetical universalism of Davenant and Ward might be considered a sort of mediating view, between that adopted by the Synod and that of the Remonstrants. Both the Remonstrants and the Hypothetical Universalists make the atonement conditional. Davenant, however, still held that the Spirit grants faith to the elect to receive the benefit of the atonement. For the Remonstrants, we have it within ourselves, by common grace, to believe and to appropriate the benefit of the atonement. In neither case, however, is the atonement said to be unconditional. In that neither the hypothetical universal view nor the Remonstrant view agree with the Canons of Dort.

Who teach: That Christ neither could die, nor needed to die, and also did not die, for those whom God loved in the highest degree and elected to eternal life, since these do not need the death of Christ. For they contradict the apostle, who declares, Christ “loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal 2:20). Likewise: “Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died” (Rom 8:33-34), namely, for them; and the Savior who says: “I lay down my life for the sheep” (Jn 10:15). And: “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (Jn 15:12-13) (CD, RE 2.7)

In their rejection of errors the Reformed Churches explicitly rejected the Remonstrant criticism that unconditional election makes the atonement superfluous. They re-constructed the doctrine of the atonement so as to make conditional election and conditional atonement of the essence of the faith. For the Reformed, it is of the essence of the faith to say: “Christ loved me and gave himself for me ” (Gal 2:20). On the premise of a universal atonement, whether hypothetical (Davenant) or absolute (Remonstrants), one cannot say that “Christ love <em>me</em> and gave himself for <em>me</em>. The premise of Paul’s comfort is that Christ knew him personally, came for him personally, intentionally, and acted as his substitute personally. On any sort of universal view of the atonement, Christ died for all to make salvation possible for all under certain conditions. Under the Reformed view, as confessed at Dort, it was the intention of the Father and the Son that the Son should accomplish redemption for those whom the Father gave to the Son, for whom the Son came as a substitute and a Mediator. It was the eternal will of the Holy Spirit efficaciously and infallibly to apply that redeeming work to those for whom Christ died. Christ died to justify his elect. All those for whom he died are justified. There are those who are not justified and who never will be justified, therefore Christ did not die for them. Christ laid down his life for his sheep (John 10:15). There are goats (e.g., Judas) for whom Christ did not lay down his life. Therefore the atonement was not universal.

Thus, Synod taught positively:

‪Art. IX. This purpose proceeding from everlasting love towards the elect, has, from the beginning of the world to this day, been powerfully accomplished, and will, henceforward, still continue to be accomplished, notwithstanding all the ineffectual opposition of the gates of hell; so that the elect in due time may be gathered together into one, and that there never may be wanting a Church composed of believers, the foundation of which is laid in the blood of Christ, which may steadfastly love and faithfully serve him as their Saviour, who, as a bridegroom for his bride, laid down his life for them upon the cross; and which may celebrate his praises here and through all eternity.

Christ did not die in order to create the mere possibility or the potential of salvation. He died to accomplish salvation. On any sort of universalist view of the atonement, Christ cannot be said to have accomplished salvation. At best he may be said to have facilitated salvation. On a hypothetical view, the Spirit becomes the one who accomplishes salvation insofar as salvation is postponed until it is actualized by the regenerate, through faith. The Reformed would rather say that salvation was accomplished and it is appropriated or received through faith alone. On the Remonstrant view, salvation is always in doubt because it is always conditioned upon our faith (which, they argued, is imputed to us for righteousness), upon our obedient cooperation with grace, and our perseverance. In short: in the Remonstrant scheme, one is never saved until after the final judgment because apostasy, as the Federal Visionists confess, is a “terrifying reality” for many “baptized Christians,” who, they confess really are united to Christ, by the Spirit, in baptism. In all such schemes, as with the medieval theology repudiated in the Reformation, assurance is vitiated.

The atonement was not conditional. Like election, it was unconditional because the love of God is unconditional. Christ did not atone for those who do their part. The atonement is not effective when we meet a condition. Rather, Synod celebrated Christ the Bridegroom who came for his bride, who redeemed her, who sent his Holy Spirit to regenerate his Bride and unite her to himself and who will certainly take her to himself at the last day. We may be sure of that because he sealed our redemption with his own blood when he laid down his life for his elect.

R. Scott Clark, Escondido

Here is the entire series on the Canons of Dort so far.

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