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Calvin and Calvinism » Blog Archive » Richard Muller on Hypothetical Universalism and the Reformed Tradition


1.2 Debate Within the Reformed Tradition

The eras of the Reformation and of Reformed orthodoxy were times of intense polemic and debate, initially over issues of reform and, as the Reformation progressed and the church divided, over issues of confessional identity and confessional boundaries. There were also a large number or debates, varying in intensity, which took place over theological and philosophical issues not immediately related to confessional definition. A tentative distinction of these different types of debate–recognizing that the categories are not rigidly defined and include some overlapping aspects–can serve both to clarify the nature of Reformed orthodoxy and to characterize the direction of investigation undertaken by the present volume. The main point of the categories is to highlight not only the diversity of Reformed theology in the era of orthodoxy but also the diversity of the debates as they played out across a spectrum from major encounters requiring Confessional statement and, indeed, condemnation or disapproval, to often bitter arguments of considerably lesser weight that addressed issues of preference in theological formulation without directly broaching questions of confessionality or leading to new confessional formulae.

Three kinds of kinds of debate have been most frequently referenced in the older scholarship–namely I) the polemical debates with other confessionalities, whether Lutheran, Roman, Socinian, or Anabaptist; 2) debates concerning particular lines of doctrinal argument that transgressed acknowledged confessional boundaries-notably the controversies over Samuel Huber’s universalism and Jacob Arminius’ views on grace and predestination; and 3) debates internal to the Reformed confessional tradition that, in one way or another, pressed questions of the precise meaning of the confessional documents, such as the debates over eschatology or over various elements of Salmurian theology as proposed by Moises Amyraut, Paul Testard, Josue La Place, Samuel Morus, but that did not result in synodical decisions of heresy–although sometimes yielding, as in the case of the Articles of Morus and the Formula Consensus Helvetica, confessional documents of a more limited scope.

There are also several other types of debate characteristic of the era, debates that took place far more frequently, but that have generally been given less attention. Thus there were 4) debates over philosophical issues, often concerned with the impact of the new rationalisms on fundamental understandings in logic, physics, and metaphysics and, by extension, on theological formulation. There were also, 5) debates concerning non- or sub-confessional issues that were nevertheless of a fairly significant theological weight that threatened to rise to the confessional level. Here we count the supralapsarian-infralapsarian debates, debates over what for lack of a better term can be called non-Amyraldian hypothetical universalism, over the imputation mediate or immediate of Adam’s sin to his posterity, over the imputation of Christ’s active obedience to believers, and the debates related to elements of Cocceian theology. Finally, 6) there were a large number of theological topics subject to rather different formulations on the part of the Reformed orthodox that sometimes issued in fairly heated interchanges among theologians but that, arguably, did not rise to the level of the debates just noted in the fifth category. By way of example, there were differences in understanding of divine simplicity in relation to the predication of divine attributes and the problem of divine knowledge of future propositions.

1.3 Debates Concerning Confessional Boundaries–Crossing Over or Pressing the Boundary

Leaving aside the first category, the debates with other confessionalities, as not belonging to the scope of the present study and concentrating specifically on debates within the Reformed tradition, some comment is necessary concerning the difference between the second and third kinds of debate namely those identifying transgressions of confessional boundaries and those remaining within the confessional limits – given the way in which such differences were typically glossed over in the older scholarship, particularly when the debates were analyzed in terms of the “Calvin against the Calvinists” paradigm. The late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century debates over universalistic and synergistic soteriologies, notably those over Huber’s and Arminius’ understandings of grace and predestination arose over the thought of theologians who were Reformed in terms of their ecclesial or confessional location but whose thought contradicted basic statements of the Reformed confessions, rendering these debates rather different from the debates over Amyraut’s theology, given that not only was Amyraut Reformed in ecclesial and confessional location but his theology also arguably fell within the boundaries established by the Gallican Confession and the Canons of Dort. Huber’s and Arminius’ theologies did not fall within the boundaries established by such confessional documents as the Second Helvetic Confession, the Belgic Confession, and the Heidelberg Catechism.18

The historiographical issue is virtually the opposite in the case of’ Amyraut. The rather unnuanced association of Amyraut’s hypothetical universalism with Calvin’s theology and with a trajectory of French humanism, taken together with identification of Amyraut’s views as “heresy” in the eyes of scholastic Calvinists, abetted the false picture of the nature of Reformed orthodoxy as a predestinarian, scholastic departure from Calvin’s more or less humanistic theology, indeed, as a monolithic theology capable of being contrasted quite negatively with the Reformation-era foundations of the Reformed tradition. The French Synods, while objecting to some of the formulations of Amyraut and Testard, refrained from condemning their views and it was left to the Formula Consensus Helvetica, a document of limited geographical reach and short-lived use, to disapprove the doctrine–yet without identifying it as a heresy.19 Once the nature of the controversy as a debate internal to the confessions has been duly recognized, as well as the genuine differences between Amyraut’s formulations and Calvin’s thought and the rather scholastic patterns of distinction and argument assumed by Amyraut are noted,20 Amyraldian hypothetical universalism can be recognized as belonging to the internal diversity of the Reformed tradition itself–and a very different picture of orthodoxy emerges. Richard Muller, “Diversity in the Reformed Tradition: A Historiographical Introduction,” in Drawn into Controversie: Reformed Theological Diversity and Debates Within Seventeenth-Century British Puritanism (Oakville, CT.:Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011), 17-19. [Footnote contents and values original; italics original and underlining mine.]

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1.5 Debates Concerning Issues of Significant Import that Threatened to Rise to a Confessional Level

These are debates that fall within the bounds of the major Reformed confessions and that, in some cases were debated in the process of framing confessions–notably the lapsarian and hypothetical universalist questions at Dort and the hypothetical universalist issue at the Westminster Assemblybut which did not rise to the level of causing further confessional formulation. Typically, these debates reflect issues in seventeenth-century Reformed thought that were not debated or defined by the Reformers. They also manifest a kind of diversity and variety of formulation not suitably acknowledged in the older scholarship on Reformed orthodoxy. Included here is one debate (concerning Adam’s reward) that did result in the disapprobation of the Formula Consensus Helvetica, but that was not confessionally defined or delimited in England, where the Formula had no authority….

A question can be raised here concerning Moore’s description of “the non-Amyraldian trajectory of hypothetical universalism as a “softening” or a Reformed tradition that was “on the whole” particularistic and resistant to such softening. Given that there was a significant hypothetical universalist trajectory in the Reformed tradition from its beginnings, it is arguably less than useful to describe its continuance as a softening of the tradition. More importantly, the presence of various forms of hypothetical universalism as well as various approaches to a more particularistic definition renders it rather problematic to describe the tradition as “on the whole” particularistic and thereby to identify hypothetical universalism as a dissident, subordinate stream of the tradition, rather than as one significant stream (or, perhaps two!) among others, having equal claim to confessional orthodoxy. Richard Muller, “Diversity in the Reformed Tradition: A Historiographical Introduction,” in Drawn into Controversie: Reformed Theological Diversity and Debates Within Seventeenth-Century British Puritanism (Oakville, CT.:Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011), 24-24 and 25. [Footnote contents and values original; italics original and underlining mine.]

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1.7 Concluding Comment

The Puritan or English Reformed tradition, as surveyed in the present volume, evidences a rather diverse and variegated development, characterized not only by debates with other confessionalities or over theological developments deemed heretical and subsequently condemned by synodical decrees, but also by major and minor debates among the Reformed orthodox themselves. Most of the debates analyzed here have been passed over in the older scholarship in its quest to find these few true Calvinians to oppose to the so-called Calvinists. By contrast, none of the studies included in the present volume brands one side of a seventeenth-century debate as un-Calvinian or identifies an alteration of doctrinal perspective as a declension from Reformation- era purity. Calvin no longer appears as a norm, although he does appear, with other Reformers, as an antecedent of certain lines of argument.

What ought to be most evident is that research into the diversity of the later Reformed tradition not only undermines the older claim that the dawn of an era of orthodoxy and scholasticism produced a rigid, nearly monolithic Calvinism or a nearly universally-held model according to which all aspects of theology were deduced from a divine decree, but also documents both an ongoing concern to further the Reformation in and through clarification of its doctrines and a fairly clear sense on the part of Reformed theologians and pastors of the nature of confessions and confessional boundaries, specifically they understood the confessions as specifically worded to exclude certain positions (like various synergistic soteriologies, including Arminianism), but also very carefully worded either to discourage certain positions without overtly condemning them or to allow a significant breadth of theological expression within and under the confessional formulae.

Specific issue can be taken, therefore, with Armstrong’s rather anachronistic use of the phrase semper reformanda as a characterization of the process of confessional recitation, revision, and re-subscription found in the earlier French synods and to his argument that the earlier synods aimed at a form of theological inclusiveness, while the later synods, beset with debates over Piscator, Amyraut, and Testard and guided toward rigid fonnulation by scholastic methodology, rejected “continuing reformation.”38 The language of ecclesia Reformata, semper reformanda comes from later seventeenth- century developments in the Dutch Nadere Reformatie, which was profoundly connected with the scholastic orthodoxy of Dutch university theology, most notably that of Utrecht. More importantly, however, the process of confessional revision that took place in the French synods of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, like the process of revision of the Belgic Confession in the Dutch synods of the era documents the attempt of synods, particularly when faced with cases of variant theological formulation, to clarify the nature of the Reformed faith, to include what was viewed as acceptable, to exclude what was not, on a case by case basis. What is more, the history of the French Synods in the seventeenth century hardly evidences either an early inclusiveness or increasing rigidity. The revisions stand not as attempts to broaden the Reformed faith but as clarifications of positions. Nor does later synodical behavior indicate a reversal: in the cases of Amyraut and Testard, the synodical decisions tended away from the production of new and more explicit confessional statements toward admonitions and demands that controversy cease and that controversial works not be published. Richard Muller, “Diversity in the Reformed Tradition: A Historiographical Introduction,” in Drawn into Controversie: Reformed Theological Diversity and Debates Within Seventeenth-Century British Puritanism (Oakville, CT.:Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011), 29-30.  [Footnote contents and values original; italics original and underlining mine.]

[Note: Muller presents a more balanced understanding in his approach to this question than Jonathan Moore, and Muller’s criticism of Moore’s thesis is exactly right.]


18Note the rather tendentious efforts to identify Arminius’ theology as Reformed prior to the definitions of Dort in G.J. Hoenderdaal, “De Kekordelijke Kant van de Dordtse Synode,” Nederlands Theologisch Tijdschrift. 25. no.5 (1969), 349-363; and Carl Bangs. “Arminius as a Reformed Theologian,” in The Heritage of John Calvin, edited by John H. Bratt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), 209-222; see Richard A. Muller, “Arminius and the Reformed Tradition,” Westminster Theological Journal, 70 (2008), 19-48.

19Formula Consensus Helvelica, praefatio and canon xvi, in H. A. Niemeyer, Collectio confessionium in ecclesiis reformatis publicatarum (Leipzig: Julius Kinkhardl, 1840), 729-730, 735; and see the similar approach to Amyraut’s doctrine in Francis Turretin, Institutio theologiae elencticae, in qua status controversiae perspicue exponitur, praecipua orthodoxorum argumenta proponuntur, & vindicantur. & fontes solulionum aperiuntur, 3 vol. (Geneva: Samuel de Tounes, 1679-1685), IV. xvii. 4; and XIV.xiv.6.

20See Richard A. Muller, “A Tale of Two Wills? Calvin and Amyraut on Ezekiel 18:23,” Calvin Theological Journal, 44, no.2 (2009), 211-225.

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38Armstrong. “Semper Reformanda.” 119. 136-138.

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  1. The Perils of Taxonomy and History | The Calvinist International    Jun 13 2012 / 12pm:

    […] And in this ongoing project, we are not suggesting something very different from Richard Muller’s own explanation of the historical “continuity” of the Reformed tradition and the reconsideration of previously accepted polarities like “Humanism” and “Scholasticism.”  In the recent collection of essays, Drawn Into Controversie: Reformed Theological Diversity and Debates Within Seventeenth-century British Puritanism (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011 ed. Mark Jones and Michael A. G. Haykin), Richard Muller argues that his support of the modern historical resourcement  and continuity thesis “has not [argued for] an equally monotonous ‘Calvin for the Calvinists’” (12).  The radical discontinuity of previous generations has not been simply reversed, with the confessional statements enshrining their final and climactic stabilization.  In fact, Muller has argued that something as significant as the extent of the atonement was never made uniform among the Reformed. […]

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