What Is Hypothetical Universalism Anyway?

On the eve of the Davenant Institute’s publication of John Davenant’s De Morte Christ (On the Death of Christ) along with other shorter writings on the subject by Davenant, I want to give a popular account or summary of Davenant’s hypothetical universalism.[1]

Hypothetical universalism is something of a mystery for many in Reformed churches. Its enigmatic character is, in part, due to the language itself. “Hypothetical” means something like “conditional” and “universalism” in theological terms refers to the extent of salvation. Hence, with the adjective, we come to arrive at a conditional universal salvation. But, as with most theological positions, the term “hypothetical universalism” was first used by its opponents as a slur against the position advocated, in this case, by the theologians in France teaching at the academy of Saumur in the 1640’s and 1650’s.[2] Accordingly, the term’s provenance and initial meaning had a very particular context and reference. This is worth prefacing if only to note that how the term originally came about and what it may originally have meant and what it means when people use the phrase today may not be all that consonant. Indeed, survey a few seminary professors today and you will undoubtedly find that the definition of what passes for “hypothetical universalism” varies.

This short essay will not attempt to give a complete overview of the terms’ history. Instead, as I noted at the beginning, I wish to focus on how I think hypothetical universalism ought to be defined, and more importantly, why John Davenant (1572–1641) is often seen as its great English Reformed defender.

To begin, it is worth observing that Davenant died before the term even began to be used, in 1641; and when it was used, it was originally in French! In other words, Davenant never called his position hypothetical universalism, nor would he have read the term in any writings of his day or from previous generations of theologians. Yet, if properly defined, I think it is accurate to call him a “hypothetical universalist.” If we simply stick to the parts of the term, Davenant taught that, because of the work of Christ, all human beings are saveable on condition of faith and repentance.[3] Of course, depending on how one interprets this proposition, most could probably affirm it. God certainly can save all people, even granting his decree of election. Nothing but God’s decree to do otherwise forbids God from granting saving grace to all people. But, of course, the Reformed have always taught that while God is able to do such a thing—in more technical terms, according to his absolute power—he has ordained not do this. When Davenant affirms that all human beings are saveable on condition of faith, he has in mind something that God has done in Christ to make this so. God sent his Son into the world in order to perform a work by which, if all believed, all would be saved. More specifically, he made a propitiation for the sins of the world—interpreted as the sins of each and every human being. For Davenant, propitiation doesn’t ipso facto save anyone. Propitiation appeases God such that he is now able (according to his divine justice and decree) to forgive the sins of any who believe. Propitiation makes all sins remittable (not: to-be-remitted or actually remitted). This work of Christ grounds what Davenant calls the universal evangelical covenant/promise which is now able to be proclaimed to every person: if you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, you will have your sins forgiven. In Davenant’s theology, to say Christ died for you may mean a multiplicity of things, but it always entails that Christ made a satisfaction for your sins, such that God is now made placable towards you, such that, if you believe and repent, you will be saved. To use the language of the Apostle Paul (2 Cor. 5:19–20), God has in Christ reconciled the world to himself, and therefore we are ambassadors of Christ saying to men and women: “be reconciled to God!”

It is crucial to remember that Davenant was a thoroughgoing defender of Calvinistic soteriology. William Cunningham, the great nineteenth century Scottish Presbyterian, wrote that he “[did] not believe that there exists a better or more satisfactory vindication of the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination, in both its branches of election and reprobation,” than Davenant’s treatise on the subject.[4] If Davenant believed in the Augustinian doctrine of election, how did that impact the way he understood the work of Christ on the cross? Profoundly. Davenant denies that Christ merely made the forgiveness of sins possible for all human beings by his passion. Predestination, among other things, guarantees that Christ’s death will actually bring about the salvation of the elect. This is how Davenant interprets the latter part of the so-called Lombardian formula, “Christ died for the elect alone efficaciously.” According to Davenant, God had multiple ends in Christ’s death—one which was universal in nature, mentioned earlier; the other related specifically for the elect. As a universal mediator, Christ paid the penalty due all people’s sins. Yet, as he was the mediator of the elect alone in his role as the one who fulfills the conditions of the covenant of redemption between him and the Father (per Jer. 31), he died such that the elect alone would infallibly obtain the salvific benefits of the covenant. In short, Davenant taught that God had two main intentions in the death of Christ: (1) Make a satisfaction for all sins such that the gospel offer can have an objective ground to say that “God is able to forgive you (any “you”) of your sins; (2) Merit salvific grace to be infallibly applied to the elect alone. These two intentions are the sine qua non of Davenantian hypothetical universalism and Reformed hypothetical universalism more generally. Davenant believed this was the position of the Augustinians in the fourth and fifth centuries, the medieval consensus summarized in the Lombardian formula (“Christ died for all sufficiently, Christ died for the elect efficaciously”), and in keeping with the great majority of Reformed theologians before his own generation, including Calvin.

Various arguments have been proffered against Davenant’s hypothetical universalism, two being especially popular. One applies to both the Arminian and Reformed version and one which applies specifically to the latter. The first is found in John Owen’s famous work on the extent of Christ’s atonement, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. Owen consistently argues that if God truly paid the price for the sins of all human beings, then God would be obligated—according to divine justice—to forgive such sins. In other words, true universalism (i.e., all shall be eventually saved) must logically follow.[5] This is often called Owen’s double-payment argument, which forms a leg of his famous trilemma.[6] Davenant deals explicitly with the double payment argument (though obviously not Owen’s own use of it, seeing as Davenant wrote his work well before Owen published his Death of Death).[7] Davenant gives multiple responses to this objection, but his basic response is that divine justice simply entails that people’s sins are remittable on account of Christ’s satisfaction, not that they must be absolutely remitted, without fulfilling the conditions laid down in the gospel—that is, faith and repentance.

The other objection offered against the Reformed who held to hypothetical universalism touches on the apparent failure in God’s redemptive work. If Christ did die for the sins of the non-elect, and the elect, does this not posit some failure in God, and does it not seem to be at odds with his desire to actually and infallibly redeem only the elect? Davenant, again, offers multiple responses throughout his De Morte Christi to such an objection. First, Davenant insists that God did not fail in achieving his aim at making the sins of all people forgivable. It is true that not all men profit from such universal objective grace, but God often gives grace which does not achieve the end for which it is given. Adam was given sufficient grace to persevere in his holiness; he did not. All the angels were likewise given sufficient grace to persevere; many did not. All human beings are created with the end to glorify and enjoy God; many do not. Many people hear the grace of the gospel message, and many spurn the blood of the covenant which sanctified them (Heb. 10:29). When God’s kind providence does not lead to repentance (Rom. 2:4), God does not fail; man does. Predestination is precisely the decree by which God ensures that such grace does not always fail. Predestination is not at odds with common providential graces, whether it be our human nature or Christ’s satisfaction for the sins of the world. Predestination makes certain that those whom he has determined to save, will infallibly be saved. As Davenant wrote:

Whoever rightly considers how precious the death of the Son was in the eyes of the Father could not think that he would have been willing to expose his Son to death without a certain purpose of effectually applying his death to some people.[8]

Davenant’s On the Death of Christ is now the only early modern Reformed work dedicated to the extent of Christ’s atoning work, written at a scholastic level and available to English readers.[9] May it serve to help clear away the mist of confusion surrounding this perennially controversial topic: “For whom did Christ die?”

Davenant Press will publish On the Death of Christ and Other Atonement Writings on Monday 25th March 2024. It is currently available for preorder at the discounted price of $35.95.

Michael J. Lynch (PhD. Calvin Seminary) teaches Classical Languages and Humanities at Delaware Valley Classical School in New Castle, DE. He is also a teaching fellow at the Davenant Institute. He is the author of John Davenant’s Hypothetical Universalism: A Defense of Catholic and Reformed Orthodoxy (Oxford University Press, 2021) and editor and translator of On the Death of Christ and Other Atonement Writings (Davenant Press, 2024).

  1. John Davenant, On the Death of Christ and Other Atonement Writings, ed. and trans. Michael J. Lynch (Landrum: Davenant Press, 2024).

  2. Cf. Frans Pieter van Stam, The Controversy over the Theology of Saumur, 16351650: Disrupting Debate among the Huguenots in Complicated Circumstances (Amsterdam: APA–Holland University Press, 1988), 277–78.

  3. A more academic overview of Davenant’s Hypothetical Universalism can be found in Michael J. Lynch, John Davenant’s Hypothetical Universalism: A Defense of Catholic and Reformed Orthodoxy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021).

  4. William Cunningham, The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1866), 205.

  5. John Owen, Salus Electorum, Sanguis Jesu: Or the Death of Death in the Death of Christ … (London: W. W., 1648), 145–146.

  6. John Owen, Salus Electorum, Sanguis Jesu: Or the Death of Death in the Death of Christ … (London: W. W., 1648), 19–20.

  7. Davenant, On the Death of Christ and Other Atonement Writings, 78–82.

  8. Davenant, On the Death of Christ and Other Atonement Writings, 292.

  9. One should remember that Owen himself did not think his famous The Death of Death in the Death of Christ was written at a scholastic level. Cf. Owen, Of the Death of Christ … (London: Peter Cole, 1650), 2: “That I was desired, and pressed to handle the things of that Discourse [i.e., Salus Electorum, Sanguis Jesu: Or the Death of Death in the Death of Christ], in the most popular way they were capable of, and in the best accommodation to vulgar Capacities; so that it is no wonder, if some Expressions therein, may be found to want some grains of Accurateness (though they have not one dram the less of Truth) in a Scholastical ballance.”


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