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John Davenant, the Saumur Theology, and Reformed Identity

Anthony Milton includes John Davenant’s “On the controversy among the French Divines” in his The British Delegation and the Synod of Dort (Boydell Press, 2005) 397-402. This is a particularly interesting and helpful source because it shows a classic “Anglican” perspective on issues at the heart of the atonement debate. Written during the Synod of Dort and its controversies, (*see footnote for correction [1]) Davenant reveals an insider’s perspective on the theological and social divisions within the Synod. Davenant speaks directly to the subject of John Cameron’s teachings and the claims of the Saumur School. He defends himself from charges of being an adherent of the Saumur theology, yet he also lays out a sort of “middle way” between the Cameronians (later termed “Amyraldians”) and the High Calvinists associated with Gomarus and the contra-Remonstrants. Davenant’s letter is thus a prime example of moderate Calvinism.

In this letter, Davenant lists the positions of the Saumur School and then shows his own opinions, noting where the two points of view might overlap and where they might differ. He takes issue with some of the points of doctrine held by Saumur, yet he does not wholly condemn them as heretical. In the end it is clear that Davenant is his own man, and he understands himself as an English Churchmen first and foremost, with all other positions taking a secondary place of importance.

Davenant begins his treatise by giving the position of the French delegates at the Synod of Dort (by which he chiefly means to explain the theology of John Cameron and Moses Amyraut) and the position of the High Calvinists. Both of these parties seem to believe that the English and Bremen delegates agree with Saumur. The French use this as support for their doctrines and presence at Dort. The High Calvinists use this as reason to demand that the Synod reject the English and Bremen delegates as well as the French Divines.

Davenant writes:

There are some who so contend for the 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, that at the same time they assert, that Christ having died for all men individually with some general intention, God,by His universal grace, founded on His death, which was sufficient in itself, and by a suitable invitation, and calling to repentance, although in different ways, gives to all individually that they may be saved if they will: so that it arises from themselves alone, and the hardness of their heart repelling the means of salvation, if they are not saved. Which was the opinion of D. Cameron B. M., and, as it appears to them, of the Deputies from England the Republic of Bremen at the Synod of Dort.

There are, on the other hand, those who deny that Christ died for all men individually, with the intention of saving them, and that God really wills that all men individually should be saved. They wish that the opinion of the Deputies from England and Bremen on this subject should be rejected by the Synod of Dort, or referred to an opposite Synod: and think the opinion of Cameron and his disciples as pure Arminianism, a hydra of errors, opposed to the Synod of Dort, a subversion of the nature of the Divine law, of the Gospel, of the necessity of the Christian religion, to be expelled from the Reformed Churches.

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.

This last portion may only be a general formality and a bit of flowery language, but I think it also shows the desire of the English to be seen as an independent school from both the French and the Dutch. Davenant’s rhetoric of English supremacy also reflects the political climate of the day. King James was the most powerful Protestant monarch in the world, and even the Synod of Dort was dependent upon British support in order to be wholly legitimized.

Davenant continues with an examination of Cameron’s teaching saying:

The gracious and saving will of God toward 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: or as appointing sufficiently for all, of His common philanthropy, the means of 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, etc. 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 grace, that is life eternal, or glory in the world to come (Rom. viii. 28-9 and Eph. i. 3-5 etc.). Those whom the Divine Will embraces 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.

In this opinion, which is said to have been that of D. Cameron, the first member of the sentence is legitimately constructed, if he understands that particular election, mere good pleasure, and effectual calling to grace and glory, depend in such a manner on the Divine Will, that it does not separate this Divine Will from the foreseen acts of the human will. For he who does this, falls into the error of the Semi-pelagians.

The second member of the sentence is involved and perplexed with so many ambiguous forms of speaking, that is difficult to determine its truth or falsehood, without first dividing it into portions.

Davenant begins to go through the various propositions considered to be Cameron’s theology. He takes up three statements: 1) “Christ died for all men individually with some general intention,” 2) “That God by His universal grace founded in the death of Christ which was sufficient in itself, and by a suitable invitation and calling to repentance, although in different ways, grants to all men individually, that they may be saved if they will,” and 3) “It is through men themselves alone, and the hardness of their hearts that they are not saved.” In his analysis of these claims, Davenant reveals a subtle and sophisticated theological acumen. He affirms and criticizes each of these claims, depending on how they are understood and which other doctrines are also affirmed alongside of them.

As to whether 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 said to have died for each individually, inasmuch as His death may profit each for salvation, to the tenor of the new Covenant, none being excluded. On the other hand, it cannot profit any individual, contrary to the tenor of that Covenant, although he should be of the elect.

Davenant then goes on to explain the difference between God’s general will and His simple will. The simple will is that which God actually causes to come to pass. It can only be special and limited. The general will is God’s general benevolence and His providing a universal call to “Repent and believe.” This will is for all. As long as this distinction is kept in mind, Davenant sees no reason to reject the statement that “Christ died for all men individually with some general intent.”

Davenant does not find the next two propositions as appropriate. He denies the propriety of the term “universal grace.” He also states that the expression “if they are willing to believe in Christ” is true as a condition for all, but that it cannot be fulfilled by all. In fact, many people will never hear the gospel preached and thus they cannot “will” to be saved.

Davenant also sees a danger in merely saying “It is through men themselves alone, and the hardness of their hearts that they are not saved.” It is true, Davenant thinks, that men are solely to blame for their just condemnation, but he also wants to make it clear that no heart is too hard for God to soften if He wishes. Davenant finally states, “I think, therefore, that the opinion of Cameron was badly expressed here.”

He concludes his treatise with this:

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 judgement, will deny a general intention or appointment concerning the salvation of all men individually by the death of Christ, on this condition- If they should believe. For this 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.

What makes this letter of primary interest is that it shows that Davenant considers himself to hold to the Dortian position, rightly understood (which is to say, with some of the English modifications) and that he in no way understands himself to be of the school of the French divines. He neither condemns them nor fully subscribes to them, and in his generous manner, Davenant tries to read Cameron in the best light. There are still many necessary qualifications that he thinks Cameron needs to make.

The letter also shows how the English Church understood herself. The English considered themselves to be Reformed, yet they were also a distinct school from both the French and the Dutch. While on friendly terms with both, they are dependent on neither. “Reformed” was not merely a theology in the abstract, but rather a description of specific churches. Each Reformed church had its own national flavor, and the English viewed themselves as the finest expression of this international collection.


[1] *Correction- A reader has pointed out that the French delegates were actually forbidden by their king from attending the Synod for fear of exciting more controversy. **Initially this essay had assumed a pre-Dort date for the controversy, though it made no strict claims about the date of Davenant’s letter. A forthcoming essay by Prof. Richard Muller has been dedicated to dating this letter. Prof. Muller maintains that an exact date is still elusive, but he suggests between 1633-37 as the most likely period, well after Dort.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.