The Extent of the Atonement

Davenant’s Defense of God’s Sovereignty in the Atonement

The Bishop of Salisbury insists God is sovereign to save anyone at any time.

John Davenant is part of a rich heritage of “English Hypothetical Universalism.” That is, men who believed and taught that salvation was possible to any and every sinner while they yet lived. This was in contradistinction to definite atonement, that Christ died only for a collection of sinners whom God designated for salvation by his pretemporal decree. Davenant was also a delegate to the Synod of Dort, and while many believe the Canons that emerged from it shut out any other option but definite atonement, Davenant signed the Canons in good conscience. He did so because he believed they left open the possibility for his view.

This is worth noting because some understand the default Reformed position to be definite atonement, yet there has always been a parallel stream of theologians who affirmed salvation is possible for anyone. Even the French variety, with Moises Amyraut as the representative, can in some sense be traced back the British Isles, as Amyraut’s teacher and mentor at the theological academy at Saumur, was the Scotsman John Cameron.

More carefully than some, Amar Djaballah notes “we should remember that Amyraut wrote as a professor of theology in a confessional Reformed academy and that he was cleared of accusations of heresy by a national synod and allowed to teach theology until his death. Hence, notwithstanding the Wirkungsgeschichte (reception history) of his theses in the history of Reformed thought, he should be studied as a member of the Reformed theological community, with whom one may differ, not as an adversary to reduce to silence.”[1] In other words, epithets of “heretic” or “false teacher” are out of place when speaking of unlimited atonement. It is part of the Reformed tradition.

Davenant, too, has come in for his share of criticism. However, his Dissertation on the Death of Christ is well worth exploring. Originally published as an appendix to his commentary on Colossians, it is nearly 300 pages and gives a methodical presentation of Davenant’s view. The full title—a mouthful—sets forth some of his purposes. A Dissertation on the Death of Christ as to its Extent and Special Benefits: Containing a Short History of Pelagianism, and Shewing the Agreement of the Doctrines of the Church of England on General Redemption, Election, Predestination, with the Primitive Fathers of the Christian Church, and above all, with the Holy Scriptures. By the Right Reverend John Davenant, D.D. Deputy to the Synod of Dort.

Throughout it, he is at pains to show his understanding is in alignment with ancient theologians such as Augustine and Prosper of Aquitaine. His arguments are many and varied, but I want to take up just one here, because in it, Davenant turns on its head one of the common sentiments one hears in defense of definite atonement. An example of this is as someone tweeted:

“Jesus didn’t die on the cross merely to make salvation possible. He died to redeem, purchase, and secure a people that He had set His love upon from before the foundation of the world.”

The implication in this is that it is all that Jesus did in his death. In other words, he closed off the possibility of salvation for anyone except a subset of humanity. Davenant replies that God’s power is both absolute and “ordained” (or “ordinary” as he often refer to it.) In his ordinary power, God retains both the ability and the prerogative to save anyone at all, full stop. To say that he cannot, is to limit God’s power. Davenant explains, “if nothing else is judged possible to be done, except those things which God hath decreed to be done, it would follow that the Divine power is not infinite.”[2] Davenant’s reply is that an affirmation that God cannot save any but those whom he predestined to before the foundation of the world, is to constrain God, to limit him, and to ascribe to him only finite power.

The tweet above, dismissing the possibility of salvation for some, is often made as a triumphalist one, affirming that God will not fail to do what he intended. If salvation remains only a possibility for some—the potential that Jesus died for some who will not ultimately be saved—it represents a failure on God’s part. This is not a text-based argument, nor one from exegesis. It is rather an appeal to power. One wouldn’t want to believe in a God who cannot accomplish what he set out to do. But Davenant replies that such thinking is rather to insist God cannot do what his power allows him to do. Does God retain his prerogative to save anyone, or not? Davenant affirms that he does, and to teach that he either cannot or will not is to diminish that power, indeed to weaken his sovereignty.

Davenant also held to the customary distinction between the secret and revealed will of God, but he, like other hypothetical universalists, notes that by its very nature, the secret will of God remains inaccessible to us. Quite often, it is the secret will that is the basis for constraining atonement. It is in the secret will that God’s decrees are located. Rather, says Davenant, the revealed will of God is the one with which we must deal, a will which affirms God’s desire for all to be saved. That all are not saved is not due to any defect in God’s will or power. Unbelief is the reason anyone is not saved, their refusal to repent and turn to God. It is no inability to save on God’s part. God retains his infinite power even when it is not exercised. Indeed, God can exercise it at any time and in any way he chooses. To deny him this prerogative, because it would not accord with a pre-temporal decree, is to circumscribe God.

This is but a small sampling of Davenant’s argument in his Dissertation. I commend it to any who wish to explore the topic of the extent of the atonement. It is available online as a pdf, and well worth consideration. At the end of chapter 4, he includes this summary to ponder:

“The death of Christ is applicable to any man living, because the condition of faith and repentance is possible to any living person, the secret decree of predestination or preterition in no wise hindering or confining this power either on the part of God, or on the part of men. They act, therefore, with little consideration who endeavour, by the decrees of secret election and preterition, to overthrow the universality of the death of Christ, which pertains to any persons whatsoever according to the tenor of the evangelical covenant.”[3]


[1] Amar Djaballah, “Controversy on Universal Grace: A Historical Survey of Moises Amyraut’s Brief Traitté De La Predestination” in From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective, David Gibson, Jonathan Gibson, eds. (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2013), 167-168.

[2] John Davenant, Dissertation on the Death of Christ, n.d., 439.

[3] Davenant, Loc. Cit.

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