6.4.2 The Westminster Confession

Finding modified or intentionally ambiguous codification in the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) is altogether more difficult, but, just as a significant body of hypothetical universalists successfully influenced the final wording at Dordt, so too at the Westminster Assembly do we meet with a vocal minority who were able to restrain the final codification sufficiently for there to be some significant ambiguity at crucial places. This may come as a surprise to many, because it is quite clear that the Westminster Standards not only do not teach English Hypothetical Universalism or allow it to be deduced or expounded by logical deduction from various propositional statements made, but the whole exegetical approach and systematic structures of the finally codified Westminster theology are inimical to it.103 But that should not take away from the fact that the Westminster Assembly was far from unanimous on the issue of the extent of the atonement, and the vocal and influential English Hypothetical Universalist minority pushed hard so as not to be needless ly excluded from orthodoxy at any crucial point.

And neither was the Assembly unwilling to comply. There is no evidence to suggest that the Assembly excluded views unnecessarily just because it could. Indeed, to have done so would have been strategically disastrous for this parliamentary committee, as well as against the stated will of some of its leading divines. For example, on the Fast Day of 8 October, 1645, days before the extent of the atonement was debated at the Westminster Assembly, Edward Reynolds preached a sermon to the Assembly in which he exhorted the divines to self-denial in relation to the Assembly, including in the matter of expressing their “judgments and opinions” when these threatened “to hinder the peace of the church.” Reynolds feared that a “divided ministry” would only serve as “an advantage for the common enemy.104 By ‘common enemy’ Reynolds would have included Papists, Anabaptists, Arminians and the like, but not– despite his own particular redemptionist convictions–English Hypothetical Universalists. The printed edition of this sermon “Published by Authority” indicates that what Reynolds had in mind by judgments and opinions that needed to be suppressed for the sake of unity were those that were “not in themselves matters of faith and morall duty” but rather “matters meerly problematicall, and of private perswasion, wherein godly men may be differently minded, without breach of love, or hazard of salvation.”105 Reynolds’ spirit here is not out of keeping with the fact that although the Westminster Confession goes way beyond Dordt’s calculated ambiguity in the direction of a much more defensive particularism, it too also falls short of explicitly proscribing English Hypothetical Universalism where, in theory, it could have done so.

An exhaustive investigation of this complicated matter is beyond the scope of this essay, but one example of this falling short would arguably be Chapter 3 of the Confession concerning “Gods eternall Decree”. This chapter was debated at length during the Assembly in the autumn of 1645, following the report of the first Committee concerning predestination on Friday, 17 October. It is significant, given his irenicism above, that Reynolds himself was in charge of this committee.106 A surviving comment from Scots Commissioner George Gillespie on the opening session of the debate on the following Monday also gives an indication of the spirit in which its predestinarian statements were drawn up. Gillespie advocated studied ambiguity in the confession at this point “soe every one may injoy his owne sence.”‘107 Two days later, as the debate continued, the boundaries of Gillespie’s commitment to studied ambiguity were to be put to the test as the debate moved towards the relationship between the decree of election and the redemption of Christ. Gillespie, along with Samuel Rutherford, John Lightfoot, Thomas Goodwin, Anthony Burgess and various other particular redemptionists, locked horns with the English Hypothetical Universalists Edmund Calamy, Lazarus Seaman, Stephen Marshall and Richard Vines for extensive debates on whether “Christ did intend to Redeeme the elect only.”108 The extent of the atonement was debated at length for the rest of the week and rolled on into a second week of debates, with the “debate about Redemption” still appearing in the Minutes as late as 31 October. By this stage some level of agreement appears to have been reached, for discussion then proceeded to the doctrine of reprobation. But just what was this agreement, and to what extent could ‘everyone enjoy their own sense’?

WCF 3.6 reads:

Wherefore they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ, by his Spirit working in due season, arc justified , adopted, sanctified, and kept by his power through faith unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified and saved, but the Elect only.”109

As if echoing the phrase “those only” of the Canons of Dordt, the Confession here speaks of “the elect only” in connection with Christ’s redemption, and, once again, at first glance it would appear that the particularists won the day. We have seen how the English Hypothetical Universalist, faced with Canons Article 2.8, could argue that this limitation to the elect concerned only the ‘effectual’ aspect of redemption. But this is not as easy to do in WCF 3.6 because the word ‘redemption’ is not proactively qualified in this way. However, the first sentence above can still be taken to be referring only to effectual redemption, and the second sentence similarly fails to close down the English Hypothetical Universalist position.”110 Had the Confession said ” Neither are any other redeemed by Christ but the elect only” full stop, or “Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified or saved, but the Elect only,” even the most scholastically agile English Hypothetical Universalist would have been in difficulty, though not, perhaps, insuperably so. But because it says “and saved” the English Hypothetical Universalist could much more easily argue that the limitation to the elect here only applies concerning the full set, and not individually to each component part, i.e. only the elect have the redemption of Christ fully applied to them, but it just so happens that the non-elect are also redeemed in another sense. But even with the second sentence as it finally stood, an English Hypothetical Universalist might still ‘enjoy his own sense’ by simply confining its scope to the effectual redemption of the elect, while reserving the right to hold privately to another, ineffectual redemption. Structurally speaking this would be a contorted reading of the Confession, because WCF 3.7 immediately contrasts God’s decree concerning the reprobate with that concerning the elect in 3.6, and thereby implies that the categories of 3.6 do not apply to the non-elect (who are dealt with in 3.7). These categories are therefore presented only as the ‘appointed means’ for the salvation of the elect. But it still remains a fact that this Chapter does not exclude English Hypothetical Universalism in a way that it could have done. For example, on the floor of the Assembly Gillespie rightly identified the concept of a “conditionall Redemption” as key to a hypothetical universalist system,111 but the Confession nowhere explicitly denies the possibility of a conditional redemption as having also been procured by Christ.112 It nowhere answers the question debated on the Assembly floor explicitly with a simple statement such as ‘Christ intended to redeeme the elect only.’ It certainly falls far short of the crystal clear particularism of a Scottish Presbyterian synod a century later which declared, with breathtaking confidence and a surgical precision that would have attracted the admiration of John Owen, that Christ “died in one and the same respect, for all those for whom he in any respect died.”113

Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that some members of the Westminster Assembly did detect a hypothetical universalist loophole remaining in WCF 3.6. Five of the six members of the main committee at the Savoy Conference of 1658 had been active members of the Westminster Assembly: Thomas Goodwin (who had also argued for particular redemption from the floor of the Assembly), Philip Nye, William Bridge, William Greenhill and Joseph Caryl.114 The sixth member was none other than John Owen, who led the committee along with Thomas Goodwin. It was probably through Owen’s influence, therefore, and certainly with his approval, that the Committee inserted the crucial word ‘or’, as suggested above, into 3.6 of the Savoy Declaration of Faith–a strategically conservative revision of the WCF–thereby explicitly denying that Christ redeemed the reprobate in another sense.115

Similarly, in WCF 8.5 and 8.8, although these sections reflect particularistic categories and concerns, they do not do so to the unambiguous exclusion of an English Hypothetical Universalist reading, as strained as it might come across to the modem reader. For example, 8.8 could have been made ‘bullet proof had it read “To all those for whom Christ hath purchased redemption in any sense” instead of just “purchased redemption.” As it stands, an English Hypothetical Universalist could, in the absence of any explicitly prohibitive qualifier, simply take this to be referring once again only to that effectual redemption that God intended for the elect alone.’116

As it happened, the Reformed Orthodox had to wait until 1675 before a Reformed Confession unequivocally and without any possible means of escape explicitly condemned and excluded Hypothetical Universalism in all its forms Yet this Formula Consensus Helvetica, specifically aimed at Amyraldianism rather than decretally orthodox formss of hypothetical universalism such as the English variety, never attained widespread and sustained usage.117 Jonathan Moore, “The Extent of the Atonement: English Hypothetical Universalism versus Particular Redemption,” in Drawn into Controversie, ed. Michael A.G. Haykin and Mark Johns (Oakville, CT: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011), 148-152. [Footnotes and values original and italics original.]

2) If we take the Westminster Confession as the high watermark of British Reformed Orthodoxy, we can now see how English Hypothetical Universalism never came to be regarded as a heresy in British seventeenth-century Reformed thought. Although language could be very heated at times, and this controversy was deemed by many to be of the utmost importance, polemic fell short of using such emotive language, provided that a common abhorrence of, and separation from, Arminianism could still be established.125 Indeed, those sometimes charged with being hard, harsh and obstinate on this point could sometimes prove to be most charitable in the larger context of the Puritan brotherhood. For example, it was John Owen himself who wrote a recommendatory preface in 1674 to Westminster Divine Henry Scudder’s The Christians daily Walk, in which a recommendatory preface by Baxter also appeared. In this book Scudder spends a section of five pages defending a hypothetical universalist position, and in his recommendation Owen covers himself accordingly by distancing himself from some unspecified expressions in the book.126 But his willingness to commend it warmly on the basis of the plain and practical godliness it promotes is indicative of the relative importance given to this in-house Reformed debate, at least in Post-Restoration England, even by one of the staunchest defenders of particularism.  Jonathan Moore, “The Extent of the Atonement: English Hypothetical Universalism versus Particular Redemption,” in Drawn into Controversie, ed. Michael A.G. Haykin and Mark Johns (Oakville, CT: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011), 154-155. [Footnotes and values original and italics original.]


103For example, WCF 29.2 speaks of “the alone propitiation for all the sins of his elect.” This does not necessarily exclude English Hypothetical Universalism as its advocates would argue that in one sense this is still true, i.e. the elect have no other source of propitiation for their sins other than in Christ’s one sacrifice (which, for the elect, is effectual). But this is language more characteristic of the particularist and anticipates Owen’s reading of I John 2:2 in his Death of Death.

104Session 514. 8 October, 1645. “Minutes,” 3.98r-98v; cf. Mitchell, Minutes, 142.

105Edward Reynolds, Self Denial: Opened and applied in a Sermon before the Reverend Assembly

of Divines on a Day of their private Humiliation, 1st edn (London: Robert Bostock, 1645), 42-43.

106For the meticulous care and prolonged revision process that the Assembly employed in the production of Chapter 3, see Benjamin B. Warfield, The Westminster Assembly and its Work, 15t edn (New York: Oxford University Press, 1931 ),73-151.

107Session 520, 20 October, 1645. “Minutes,” 3.103 r; cf. Mitchell, Minutes, 151.

108Session 522, 22 October. 1645. “Minutes,” 3. 105r; cf. Mitchell, Minutes. 154 .

109The Westminster Assembly of Divines, The humble Advice of the Assembly of Divines, now by Authority of Parliament sitting at Westminster. concerning a Confession of Faith: With the Quotations and Texts of Scripture annexed. Presented by them lately to both Houses of Parliament, 1st edn (London/Edinburgh: Evan Tyler, 1647), 7-8.

110This second sentence remains exactly as proposed by the Committee, despite it being much debated on the floor of the Assembly (Warfield, Westminster Assembly, 149, 151).

111Session 522, 22 October, 1645. “Minutes,” 3.1 04v; cf. Mitchell, Minutes, 153.

112Another chance to do so was also missed in the Larger Catechism (Qs 57 and 59), where a hypothetical universalist gloss concerning “special” or “effectual” redemption is also still possible, though structurally contorted.

113Article 3 of the Act of the Associate Synod at Edinburgh, 18 April, 1754 (quoted in Ian Hamilton, The Erosion of Calvinist Orthodoxy: Drifting from the Truth in confessional Scottish Churches, [1990] Revised edn [Fearn, UK: Mentor, 2010],74).

114Arnold G. Matthews, ed., The Savoy Declaration of Faith and Order, 1658 (London: Independent Press, 1959), 34.

115“Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, or effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the Elect onely” (Savoy Conference, Declaration, 8-9).

116The extent to which Hypothetical Universalism is excluded by the Westminster Standards point has been long debated, but the confidence of those who argue that it is completely excluded has often proceeded from a failure to distinguish adequately between Amyraldianism (which a alters the ordo decretorumn) and English Hypothetical Universalism (which does not). Establishing that the former is excluded does not automatically mean that the latter also is. See Schaff, cd., Creeds, 1:770-773; Mitchell. Minutes. Iv-Ixi; Warfield, Westminster Assembly, 138- 144; William Cunningham, Historical Theology: A Review of the principal doctrinal Discussions in the Christian Church since the Apostolic Age, ed ited by James Buchanan and James Bannerma n, 1st edn, 2 vol. (Edinburgll: T. & T. Clark, 1863) 2:326-33 1; A. Craig Troxel, “Amyraut ‘at ‘ the Assembly: The Westminster Confession of Faith and the Extent of the Atonement,” Preshyterion 22, no. 1 (1996): 43-55. For a more recent study, this time more helpfully grounded on making a clear distinction between English Hypothetical Universalism and Amyraldianism, see Lee Gatiss, ”’ Shades of Opinion within a generic Calvinism’: The Particular Redemption Debate at the Westminster Asse mbl4y,” Reformed Theological Review 69, no. 2 (20 10): 101-11 8, and Lee Gatiss, “A Deceptive Clarity? Particular Redemption in Ihe Westminster Standards,” Reformed Theological Review (forthcoming). It is also noteworthy that Robert Letham, who also acknowledges this distinction between English Hypothetical Universalism and Amyraldianism in his recent examination of this debate at the Assembly, and who notes that “roughly one-third of the recorded speeches” favoured English Hypothetical Universalism, still comes down on the side of Warfield, denying that there is technically any room for hypothetical universalism in the Confession (Robert W. A. Letham, The Westminster Assembly : Reading its Theology in historical Context, 1st edn, The Westminster Assembly and the Reformed Faith [Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Company. 2009], 176-182; especially, 181-182; Warfield, Westminster Assembly, 142-144). This debate looks set to continue but its very existence is enough to establish my main point here.

117For more on the Formula Consensus Helvetic, see Martin I. Klauber. “The Helvetic Formula Consensus (1675): An Introduction and Translation,” Trinity Journal 11, no. 1 (1990): 103-123.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

125Davenant’s opposition to Arminian/Remonstrant theology was strenuous and extensive. Accordingly, Owen never attributed heresy to Davenant, but, on the contrary, spake reverently of him, and especially appreciated Davenant’s treatise on justification, employing it in the 1670s in his own writings an justification and perseverance (Owen, Works, 3:218-219; 5:208, 368; 11:497). On the other hand, Owen’s chief opponent in Death of Death was an altogether different case. Unlike Davenant, Thomas Moore was unlearned and unqualified, and went far closer to Anninianism and even Pelagianism in his bold efforts to defend his system of universal redemption. This provoked sustained and open contempt from Owen and repeated charges of “abominable” or “gross error” as well as “heresies” (ibid., 10:189, 356-358, 379, 381-382,398-399.403.415). Cf. the sentiments expressed in Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725, 1st edn, 4 vol. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 1:76-77,80 and Trueman, John Owen: Reformed Catholic, 29-31.

126Henry Scudder, The Christians daily Walk, in holy Security and Peace. Being an Answer to these Questions: 1. How a Man may do each present Days work with Christian Cheerfulness?, 2. How to bear each Present Days Cross with Christian Patience? Containing familiar Direction, shewing 1. How to walk with God in the whole Course of a Mans Life. 2. How to be upright in the said Walking. 3. How to live without taking Care or Thought in any thing. 4. How to gel and keep true Peace with God, wherein are manifold Helps 10 prevent and remove damnable Presumption; also to quiet and ease distressed Consciences […] commended to the Practice of all Professors, by Dr Owen and Mr Baxter, [1627] 11th edn (London: For Lodowick Lloyd, 1674), 331-336, Alv. Scudder’s defense af hypothetical universalism also appeared in the editian that had most likely enthused Owen as a young man (Henry Scudder, The Christians daily Walke, in holy Securitie and Peace. Being an Answer to these Questions: 1. How a Man may doe each present Daies Worke with Christian Chearfullnesse?, 2. How to bear each Present Daies Crosse with Christian Patience? Containing familiar Directions, shewing 1. How to walk with God in the whole Course of a Mans Life. 2. How to be upright in the said Walking. 3. How to live without taking Care or Thought in any thing. 4. How to get and keepe true Peace with God, wherein are manifold Helpes to prevent and remove damnable Presumption; also to quiet and ease distressed Conscences. First intended for private Use; now (through importunity) publishedfor the common Good, [1627] 8th Corrected and enlarged edn [London: I.L. for Henry Overton, 1642], 350-357; Scudder, Christians daily Walk, 1674, Alr).

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