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God’s Decree (WCF 3-5; LC 12-20)

Morris comments accurately what these chapters follow naturally from what has gone before, particularly in view of the Arminian controversy that had brought the decrees of God into dispute.1 God’s plans must have been formed from eternity, he agrees, and must Include all things and events; moreover, his supreme will carries them into effect.2 By placing the decree of God close to the beginning of the Confession, the divines signaled that theology is to be a God–centered enterprise. This is in keeping with the great ecumenical creeds, which focus on God the Holy Trinity, the work of Christ, and the church and sacraments.3 ‘This placement was definitely not a principle from which the rest of theology was logically deduced; we discussed the anachronistic nature of this now-discredited argument in chapter 6. The Assembly’s stress on God’s decree was greatly needed at a time of threatening instability, such as England was in during the 1640s. Nothing was certain. The institutions of state were in turmoil, the country was at war with itself, and no legal church existed. The foundations were shaken to their core. Yet in the midst of all this, God was working out his sovereign purposes to his glory and the good of his elect people. In the end, his kingdom would triumph, his church would be preserved, and his elect would be brought home to glory.

The Westminster Confession of Faith refers to the decree of God in the singular, while the Catechisms have the plural. Discussion occurred in the Assembly on this question. There was opposition to the Arminian division into separate decrees. Others raised the question of whether a commitment on such a matter should be put into a confession of faith. Morris thinks of the decrees–as the covenants–as many to our apprehension, while one in the sight of God.4 The single nature of the decree, he suggests, fosters the idea that its execution is irresistible; it is balanced by chapter 5 on providence, where God is said to govern ordinarily in accordance with the nature of second causes, which takes account of the introduction and permission of sin.5

Debates on chapter 3, including the proof texts, occupied parts of twenty days and were “extremely searching and very comprehensive.”6 Robert Baillie referred to “long and tough debates.”7 The committee report followed the Irish Articles closely. Debate focused on two main issues. The first and relatively less important was the question of God’s permitting the fall of man. It had to do with whether, as the committee reported, it happened by “the same decree” as that of election, and, if so, whether the phrase should be included in the Confession. Debate occupied two sessions (S520 M 20.10.45 and S521 TU 21.10.45).8 Lazarus Seaman urged its inclusion; “great debate” would follow its omission, since the Arminians distinguish the decrees and from this arises all their “odious doctrine.” Rutherford, on the other hand, urged caution. While all agree that God decrees both the end and the means, and while it is probably one decree, it is doubtful whether such a statement should be included in a confession of faith, he urged. Certainly, if a proof was produced to establish the point, he believed the Assembly would be glad to hear it. Whitaker significantly (in view of the debate of the next few days) pointed out that “our conceptions arc very various about the decrees,” yet he did not know why the phrase should be left out, since it is the same decree in reference to time, since they an: all “simull & semel.” Gillespie wanted the freedom of each man to “enjoy his own sense.” Reynolds argued strongly against inclusion: “Let us not put in disputes & scholasticall things into a confession of faith,” Besides, he added, from our perspective they are different decrees. Seaman continued to be adamant for inclusion, again citing the Remonstrants for making two decrees concerning election. While Calamy supported Reynolds (“I desire that nothing be put”), Palmer to the contrary insisted that “it will be worse to leave it out.” Meanwhile Gillespie pointed out that in the order of nature God’s ordaining man to glory preceded his decree to permit the fall. In the end, the phrase was left out. However, the chapter avoids any idea that these decrees are separable by casting its title in the singular–“Of God’s eternal decree”–and reaffirming the point in 3.3 by viewing both predestination to life and foreordination to death as aspects of this one “decree.”9 However, LC 12 speaks of God’s decrees in the plural, as eternal acts of God’s will. It could be argued that the: plural signifies the variety of things decreed by God, while the singular refers to the unity of his purpose, but there is no evidence that this is how the Assembly saw it. wisely comments that the Assembly was after a generic Calvinism rather than any particular variety of it.10

The most significant differences emerged during the debate on the statement, “Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only” (WCF 3.6). The most vivid discussion occurred in S522 W 22.10.45 through S524 I; 24. 10.45,11 although debates continued until S3.1 0.45.12 The leading opponent of the clause was Calamy. His position, as accurately describes it, was hypothetical universalism. In S522 W 22.10.45, he insisted:

I am farre from universall Redemption in the Arminian sence, but that that [sic] I hould is in the sence of our devines in the sinod of Dort; that Christ did pay a price for all, absolute for the elect, conditionall for the reprobate, in case they doe beleive; that all men should be salvabiles, non obstante lapsu Adami; that Jesus Christ did not only dy sufficiently for all, but God did intend in giving of Christ & Christ in giving hin1selfe did intend to put all men in a state of salvation in case they doe beleive.13

Reynolds was incredulous that Calamy was not differing from Arminius and the Remonstrants, since his proposal supposed that salvation was conditional on a response they could not perform and which God never intended to give them. However, Calamy proceeded to distinguish his position from Arminianism: Arminians say that Christ paid a price placing all in an equal state of salvation. “They say Christ did not purchase any impetration.” Calamy insisted his views “doth neither intrude upon either [the] doctrine of speciall election or speciall grace.” His point was that Arminianism asserted that Christ simply suffered; all people are in a potentially salvable situation, so that any who believe will be saved. In contrast, he himself believed that Christ’s death saves his elect and grants a conditional possibility of salvation to the rest. Seaman, supporting Calamy, argued that the views of the Remonstrants were irrelevant; what mattered was the truth or falsity of the case. Calamy, he insisted, was talking not of a salvability in relation to man, but to God; he has so far reconciled himself to the world that he would have mercy on whom he would have mercy. Palmer probed closely, wanting to know whether Calamy understood this of all people. Calamy’s rather limp reply was “de adultis” (of adults).

Gillespie intervened to stress that “there is a concatenation of the death of Christ with the decrees.” He outlined the differences between Cameron and Amyraut-according to Cameron, Christ died for all on condition that they believe, whereas Amyraut takes it further. The question for Gillespie was whether Calamy could hold to an absolute reprobation of all that shall not be saved.14 Calamy affirmed: “I am for speciall election & for reprobation I am for massa conrupta. By virtue of Christ’s death ther is ea administratio of grace to the reprobate, that they doe willfully damn themselves. I neither hould sufficient grace nor speciall grace.” In this Calamy clearly differed from Arminius and did not go as far as Amyraut. He was in the line of what Moore calls “English hypothetical universalism,” a position within the bounds of the Thirty-Nine Articles, which did not espouse an explicit doctrine of reprobation.15 As far as the Synod of Dort was concerned, Reynolds’s reply to Calamy has force: “The sinod intended noe more than to declare the sufficiency of the death of Christ; it is pretium in se of sufficient value for all, nay, ten thousand worlds … to be salvable is a benefit and therefore belongs only to them that have intrest in Christ.”

If Calamy was the leading exponent of this hypothetical universalist position, Lazarus Seaman was a less-effective supporter. All in the first Adam were made liable to damnation, so all are liable to salvation in the second Adam, he proposed. correctly dismisses this as inept; no Reformed confession would ever have admitted that the result of the fall was that all people were potentially liable to damnation. What happened was that Adam plunged the race into ruin and all are under the wrath of Goo in actuality. Equally, Christ does not make salvation simply possible; he effectively saves.16

The biblical focus of the debate turned on the exegesis of “the world” in John 3:16. Calamy argued that this referred to a love by God for “the world of elect & reprobate & not of elect only.”17 It cannot be meant of the elect, he argued, because of the phrase “whosoever beleiveth.” Moreover, Mark 16: 15 requires the gospel to be preached to all; “if the covenant of grace be to be preached to all, then Christ redeemed, in some sence, all–both elect & reprobate. But it is to be preached to all, [therefore] ther is a warrant for it.” The alternative would be that there would be no truth in its preaching, yet we know that all of God’s promulgations are serious and true. Rutherford countered by denying the connection; it proved too much, since it would equally apply to election and justification as to redemption. For his part, Calamy said he was not speaking of the application, but of the offer–it cannot be offered to Judas, except he be salvable. Rutherford summed up the ground of Calamy’s position, which “is to make all salvable & soe justifyable.” Seaman’s comment was that “it comes only to this: looke as every man was damnabilis, soe is every man salvabilis & God, if he please, may choose him, justify him, sanctify him.” Marshall, in support of Calamy’s argument, maintained that it had not been answered properly, “that ther can noe falsum subesse to the offer of the gospel”

Wilkinson, opposing Calamy, argued that those against whom Christ takes special exception cannot be partakers of redemption. Yet Christ did not pray for the world. Gillespie answered Calamy’s arguments from John 3: 16. Calamy was taking for granted that the “world” means the whole world, but that point was much disputed. Their divines said that in some places it had to be taken in another sense. As for philanthropy, a universal love of God necessarily leads to a denial of absolute reprobation. Furthermore, from Mark 16: 15 Calamy thought that the ground of the universal offer of the gospel was the institution of Christ in dying.18 The mistake he made, Gillespie contended, was that “the voluntas voluntis decreti & mandati are not distinguished.”This is the distinction between God’s decretive will–what he has determined shall happen–and his preceptive will–what he requires human beings to do. A man is bound to believe that he ought to believe and that by faith he shall be saved; it is a duty God requires of all humans. But God’s command is not the same as his intention; frequently God has decreed-with no subtraction from their personal responsibility- that people will not obey him. Marshall, however, asserted that there is more than a command in the gospel that there is also a promise. Burgess pointed to the dualism inherent in Calamy’s position: “You say the novum foedus doth intend; then there be either two covenants, one general to the elect and another special to the elect.” Calamy was unabashed. The difference, he said, is not in the offer, but in the application. The decretive will of God is evident only in its application. The word “world” can indeed mean the whole world and it does so in John 3: 16. There is also a double love of God–general and special.19

Gillespie continued to undermine Calamy’s case. Calamy was taking for granted what he needed to prove. He had not reconciled a general love of God with absolute reprobation. The general offer of the gospel is not grounded on the secret decree. Lightfoot argued that the word “world” is in contrast with the nation of the Jews; God intends the salvation of the elect. Moreover, Price pointed out that even If mankind as a whole be meant, it did not follow that Christ intended “all” individual people. Nor does it follow that Christ died intentionally for the redemption of all. He challenged Calamy and his friends to prove that there is such a covenant with mankind–and if so, the signs of the covenant ought to be administered on a general basis. The reason for the promiscuous offer of the gospel is that we ourselves do not know who is elect and who is reprobate. On the other hand, Vines asked, is not the gospel a covenant, and is that not propounded to every creature? And on what is the gospel founded but the blood of Christ? By “world,” he continued, he did not understand the Gentiles, but the word seemed to mean more than the elect: it denotes an intention in the gift and the love. We could not live if there were not a general love for mankind.20

The next day, in S 523 TH 23.1 0.45am, Thomas Goodwin intervened. It is true, he conceded, that the gospel must be preached to every creature, “but then the question is, what is the go spell there?”The answer is that God was in Christ, reconciling such a world to whom he does not impute their trespasses. The decrees of God concerning the world of his elect are expressed indefinitely, and so ministers are under a universal obligation to preach it to every person, so that every person may come to Christ.21 Rutherford was equally emphatic. Referring to John 3: 16, he said that “Christ speakes of a particular speciall love.”There is not so much as one scripture in all the New Testament where it can be expounded for a general love. The love described in John 3:16 is restricted to the church. Rutherford also referred to Ephesians 5:21, Galatians 2:20, and Romans 5:8. All these passages speak of “an actuall saving love.”22

In the following session, S 524 F 24.10.45, Vines insisted that the nonelect “have some fruits of the death of Christ & the benefits therof,” but whether this makes them salvable we cannot say.23 In opposition, Harris doubted whether there could be any such thing as a conditional decree. In John 3: 16, he said, “the world” refers to the Gentiles, since it was spoken to Nicodemus, a Jew. The love there mentioned is the highest there can be, which cannot be meant of common love.24 The debate ground on for another week. In S 528 M 3.11.45, there was discussion about leaving out the words “foreordained to everlasting death,” but its opponents failed to persuade the Assembly to do so. In S 529 TH 6.11.45, the paragraph on reprobation was referred to the committee for a report on the morning of the following day.25 However, there is no mention of it in S 530 F 7.11.45;26 it waited until S 532 TV 11.11.45, where there are no comments on the debate.27 In each case, the hypothetical universalists failed to gain the approval of the Assembly, which remained steadfast. This was despite roughly one-third of the recorded speeches favoring Calamy’s position.28 They could claim backing from the Thirty-Nine Articles and legitimately disavow any connection with Arminianism. It is also inaccurate to describe them as Amyraldian hypothetical universalism in England antedated Amyraut and did not go as far as he did in decretal dualism.29 is correct in claiming that the clause was intended to exclude hypothetical universalism by ensuring that each element in the ordo salutis (order of salvation) was recognized as intended only for the elect, and was not merely a description of the fact that only the elect receive the benefits.30 The inclusion of reprobation in WCF 3.7 was deliberate. This was “no hasty draft, rushed through the body at breakneck speed… on the credit of the Committee that had drafted it …. [It was] distinctly the work of the Assembly itself… [the] well pondered and thoroughly adjusted expression of the living belief of :hat whole body.”31 In all this, Calamy and his supporters continued to play their part in the Assembly–Calamy a prominent one–and were not blackballed for their views. The Assembly was not a partisan body within the boundaries of its generic Calvinism, but allowed differing views to coexist. Robert Letham, The Westminster Assembly,(Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R, 2009), 174-182. [Italics original; spelling original; footnote values original; and underlining mine.]


[Notes: While these comments by Letham are helpful in working through many of the allegations that hypothetical universalists were black-balled at the Westminster assembly, he errs, however, in a number of points in his summation of Amyraut’s position and that that of English Hypothetical Universalism: 1) Regarding Amyraut, it may be that Letham may has relied on Warfield’s, and/or Smeaton’s, faulty definition of Amyraut’s theology, by describing the decree of God, for Amyraut, as based on the foreknowledge of God, simply considered. In his Brief Treatise, Amyraut explicitly grounded foreknowledge in the unconditioned decree of God.The problem is, both Warfield and Smeaton relied on Amyraut’s detractors to formulate their definitions. 2) The allegation that Amyraut posited a dualistic decree is misleading as it implies a twofold univocal decree (as Smeaton and Warfield exactly do imply). However, for Amyraut, the universal decree was an expression of the revealed will, and so does not contradict the absolute secret decree of God respecting the salvation of the elect.  And, thus, when Amyraut did speak of distinct and seemingly sequential decrees, he did not attribute a univocal meaning to each decree, as is found in standard infra- and supralapsarian orderings. It is simply unhelpful to speak of Amyraut’s distinctions as if they had the same logical relationship and nature one finds in the infra- and supralapsarian schemas.  3). Letham characterizes the English Hypothetical Universalists as not subscribing to the tenet that God in some way intends the salvation of all men. On the contrary, Davenant had already dealt with this. 4) Letham errs in following Moore’s attempt to establish a sharp dichotomy between the English Hypothetical Universalists and the original Reformers, and also a similar sharp dichotomy between the Salamurian Hypothetical Universalists and the original Reformers. Richard Muller has rebutted this claim, and in doing so he is exactly right. Non-Salmurian forms of Hypothetical Universalism can be identified in many of the original English and Continental Reformers. 5) Letham, again following Moore, errs when he attempts to create a hard dichotomy between the Salmurian Hypothetical Universalists and the English Hypothetical Universalists. Such attempted dichotomies, more often than not, rest on the mischaracterizations of Amyraut’s doctrine of the decrees (Turretin, Smeaton, Warfield, et al).  The Salmurian inclination to speak of distinctions and sequences  in the decrees of God (being the standard language for scholastic orthodoxy), is but one element of a complex of ideas–such that the fact that the English Hypothetical Universalists generally did not speak in terms of sequenced decretal categories (that we know of, though Charnock comes very close to this), is not grounds for positing discrete the dichotomies as Moore does. And clearly, from a reading of the primary sources, there was a lot of common ground between the two groups, speculative decretalism notwithstanding. 6) Contra Warfield, Cheap paxil in Memphis is, by far, more correct in asserting that the WCF documents were not written to exclude the theology of the English Hypothetical Universalists. The suggestion that about one third of the assembly delegates would sign a document that repudiated a core element of their theology is nonsensical. This, along with the fact that many English Hypothetical Universalists continued to subscribe to the WCF documents in the proceeding decades makes, Warfield’s claims highly implausible.]



1Morris, Westminster Symbols, 179 82.

2Ibid., 183-84.

3See Letham and Macleod, “Is Evangelicalism Christian?”

4Morris, Westminster Symbols, 186-87.

5Ibid., 190-192.

6 Warfield, Westminster Assembly, 122-24.

7Robert Baillie, The Letters and Journals of Robert Baillie: Principal of the University of

Glasgow 1637-1652 (ed. D. Laing.; 3 vols.; Edinburgh: Robert Ogle, 1841 ), 2:325.

8Van Dixhoorn, 6:200-202.

9Ibid .

10, Westminster Assembly, 136.

11Van Dixhoorn, 6:202 11.

12Ibid. , 6:212 .

13Ibid., 6:202-3.

14Ibid ., 6:204.

15Amyraut held that God, foreseeing the fall, sent his Son to atone for the sins of all people. God also foreseeing that not all would accept the gospel, elected some to salvation. Calamy and the English hypothetical universalists held to an atonement effective for the elect and conditional for the non-elect, to a decree fo election with the rest passed by. For these theological reasons, it is a mistake to describe these Assembly men as Amyraldians, as Fesko does; it is also historically erroneous, since this strand of thought was present in England long before Amyraut wrote on the subject. See, J. Fesko, “The Westminster Confession and lapsarianism: Calvin and the Divine,” in Westminster Confession into the 21st Century (ed. Duncan), 477-525; Moore, English Hypothetical Universalism.

16, Westminster Assembly, 111.

17Van Dixhoorn, 6:204, 5.

18At this time, the available manuscripts supported the integrity of the last twelve verses

of the gospel of Mark.

19Van Dixhoorn, 6:2110.

20Ibid., 6:207.

21Ibid., 6:208.

22Ibid., 6:209.

23Ibid., 6:210.

24Ibid., 6:211.

25Ibid., 6:211.

26Ibid., 6:213.

27Ibid., 6:214.

28Calamy, Seaman, Marshall, and Vines are recorded as supporting the hypothetical

universalist reading. They were opposed by Reynolds, Gillespie, Burgess, Rutherford, Wilkinson,

Lightfoot, Price, Goodwin, and Harris.

29Contra , Westminster Assembly, 142, who cites Robert Baillie in support . Mitchell

and Struthers, eds., Minutes of the Sessions, lvff., correctly point to indigenous sources.

30, Westminster Assembly, 142-44 .

31Ibid., 144-46.

Credit to Growing Grace-Full for the find.

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