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Calvin and Calvinism » Blog Archive » Oliver Crisp on Hypothetical Universalism and the Westminster Confession


The doctrine of Davenant and a number of other Anglican divines represents a strand of historic hypothetical universalism, which developed in England independently of, and earlier than, the Amyraldian version. Although it informed theological debate in the early-modern period of English theology, it was not censured in synods and was not repudiated by the major post-Reformation symbol of Great Britain after the Articles of Religion, namely, the Westminster Confession.12 This is significant, given the influence of the Westminster Confession in subsequent Presbyterianism as a subordinate doctrinal standard, Chapter 8.5, of the Confession, entitled “Of Christ the Mediator,” states,

The Lord Jesus, by His perfect obedience, and sacrifice of Himself, which He through the eternal Spirit, once offered up unto God, has fully satisfied the justice of His Father; and purchased, not only reconciliation, bur an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for those whom the Father has given unto Him.

But this is commensurate with hypothetical universalism, because one could claim that Christ’s work is sufficient for the world but efficacious for only “those whom the Father has given” to Christ. Section 8 of the same chapter reads,

To all those for whom Christ has purchased redemption, He does certainly and effectually apply and communicate the same; making intercession for them. and revealing unto them, in and by the word, the mysteries of salvation; effectually persuading them by His Spirit to believe and obey, and governing their hearts by His word and Spirit.13

On the £ace of it, this appears to require a doctrine of definite atonement. However, as Moore points out, the first sentence is still porous enough to admit of a hypothetical universalist reading, even if it is not entirely natural. The claim that “all those for whom Christ has purchased redemption” have salvation “certainly and effectually” applied to them is consistent with the notion that effectual redemption is restricted to the elect. But this in turn is commensurate with hypothetical universalism.14

There are other worries lurking in the Westminster Confession. Two further sections merit some comment. First, there is the third chapter on the divine decrees. A potential problem lies in the claim of chapter 3.6 to the effect that “[n]either are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.” But here, as in other contested passages, the hypothetical universalist can claim that redemption in this context is

clearly meant to refer to the effectual calling of God that is reserved only for the elect. Then there is chapter 29.2, “Of the Lord’s Supper,” which speaks of Christ’s “only sacrifice,” being "the alone propitiation for all the sins of His elect.” However, this holds no terror for the hypothetical universalist either, provided (as before) she glosses this passage as a reference to the effectual work of Christ, not to its intrinsic sufficiency for the whole world. Given that the immediate context is the appropriate reception of the sacramental elements in the Eucharist, this interpretation seems entirely appropriate; for only the elect receive the elements in faith on the basis of the "alone propitiation" of Christ for their sins.

Having said this, there are a number of problems with hypothetical universalism that are less easy to dismiss. Some of these have been the subject of discussion in this recent historical-theological literature. However, there has not been any attempt (as far as r am aware) to offer a constructive account of the doctrine. That is what I shall set forth here. The idea is not to endorse the doctrine but to show that it is a viable theological option for those in the Reformed tradition, which should be taken much more seriously than it is in current systematic theology. We might call this task “theological clarification.” It involves setting forth a doctrine in the best light and attempting to account for objections that have been raised against it, in order to understand and explain its importance as a Contribution to Christian theology.15

Oliver Crisp, Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 181-183. [Italics original; footnote values and content original, except for bracketed insert in footnote 13; and underlining mine.]


12This is the conclusion reached by Jonathan Moore in ibid. He does so via a careful analysis of the relevant passages of the Westminster Confession, showing that it does not exclude hypothetical universalism and that the doctrine was nor regarded as synonymous with Amyraldlanism. See also Lee Gatiss, "’Shades of Opinion wi thin a Generic Calvinism’: The Particular Redemption Debate at the Westminster Assembly," Reformed Theological Review 69, no. 2 (2010): 101-l8.

13There are many editions of the Confession. I have consulted The Confession of Faith and Larger Catechism, Shorter Catechism. Director of Public Worship, Presbyterial Church Government (Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1969). [Note: The correct title of this work is: The Confession of Faith; The Larger Catechism ; The Shorter Catechism; The Directory for Publick worship; The Form of Presbyterial Church Government.”]

14Moore, “Extent of the Atonement,” 151.

15Scott MacDonald recommends this strategy of “clarification” to philosophical theologians. He writes that philosophical clarification is “not primarily concerned with . . . epistemic justification.” It “is concerned instead with understanding, developing, systematizing, and explaining it. It is possible for [the philosophical theologian] to do all these things without raising the issue of its truth or her justification for holding it. The fact is that a very large part of philosophy has nothing directly to do with the truth or justification of certain theories or propositions. . . . Hence, clarification of theological matters is a legitimate task for the philosopher.” Scott MacDonald. "What Is Philosophical Theology?," in Arguing About Religion, ed. Kevin Timpe (New York: Routledge. 2009). 24. I say that a similar strategy can be developed along systematic theological lines, mutatis mutandis.

This entry was posted on Thursday, September 18th, 2014 at 9:27 am and is filed under Reformed Confessions and the Extent of the Atonement. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.

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