The Impossibility of The “Possibility” Entailed by John Davenant’s Hypothetical Universalism (R.I.P.)

The following quote is taken from a review of the book John Davenant’s Hypothetical Universalism: A Defense of Catholic and Reformed Orthodoxy. By Michael J. Lynch.

The reviewer attributes the quote to the author of the book.

Broadly considered, we understand early modern hypothetical universalism to teach (1) that Christ died for all human beings in order to merit by his death the possibility of the redemption of all human beings on condition of their faith and repentance. All human beings, on account of the death of Christ, are redeemable or savable—that is, able to have their sins remitted according to divine justice. Further, (2) early modern hypothetical universalism affirmed that God, by means of the death of Christ, purchased, merited, or impetrated all the to-be-applied saving graces for the elect, and for the elect alone. Christ died for the apostle Peter in a way he did not die for Judas.

Page 15, emphasis mine

Hypothetical universalism (HU) implies that,

p1: Christ’s death secured the possibility of salvation for all human beings


p2: Christ’s death secured the surety of salvation for the elect alone.

An entailment of HU is that it is truly possible for the non-elect to be saved.

A few words about possibility: 

In a colloquial sense we might say, “It is possible that Parker will accept an offer to come for lunch.” In such instances we don’t know whether Parker will accept such an offer, for in our finitude we don’t know the actual outcome of any such offer. Therefore, only in a non-technical sense might we say that it is possible that Parker accepts an offer for lunch.

Similarly, we might say, “It is possible that Warby will receive Christ and be saved.” In an informal sense, we would deem it possible that Warby becomes a believer because from our finite perspective, there is nothing we know that necessarily precludes Warby’s salvation. For all we know, Warby would savingly believe if offered Christ in the gospel. Surely, there are possible worlds God can bring into existence or “actualize” (called feasible worlds) in which Warby freely believes and is saved.

The question and requisite tools for answering:

The question before us is whether the doctrine of election precludes the possibility of salvation for the non-elect. If it does, then HU is false doctrine given the doctrine of election.

Before proceeding, it might be good to begin with some initial spadework regarding (a) logical and metaphysical possibility, (b) feasible and infeasible world semantics, and (c) the relevant implications of divine foreknowledge.

The logic of possibility:

In logic, possibility entails the absence of contradiction. In the realm of what is often called strict or narrow sense logic, logical possibility (as opposed to metaphysical possibility) is concerned more with words and symbols than definitions. So, for instance, it is a narrowly logical possibility that,

p3: God does not exhaustively know the future.

Whereas it is logically impossible that,

p4: God in his divine nature does not know the future while simultaneously (and in the same way) knowing the future in his divine nature.

The reason p3 is logically possible in this esoteric sense is because without an orthodox definition of God informing us about God, there is nothing in the formulation of the words that denote logical contradiction.

Whereas even without an orthodox definition of God, p4 entails an inferable logical contradiction because it violates the law of non-contradiction by asserting in contradictory form that God both knows the future and does not know the future. Unlike with p3, p4 takes a form of x and ~x being true…

Now, of course, we know that God is exhaustively omniscient. We, also, know that it is impossible that God not know the future. Although it may be said in an esoterically logical sense that God does not know the future; we know that God would not be God if he did not know the future! In other words, it would be impossible in a more meaningful sense for God not to know the future. The impossibility in view is a metaphysical consideration that takes into account God as God.

So, it is a broadly logical impossibility that God is not omniscient. We say “broadly” because something additional is now informing our understanding of p3, namely a property of God. With that additional meaning in place, we may properly maintain that it is a metaphysical impossibility that God does not know the future. Furthermore, this is abstractly demonstrable when we consider that there is no feasible world in which God does not know the future. And because no infeasible world can be actualized, there is no relevant possibility of God not knowing the future. (These two concepts are correlative: (a) the impossibility of God not knowing the future and (b) the infeasibility of an actualized world that would include such a feature as (a). In other words, the impossibility of a less than omniscient God and an infeasible world that contemplates such a being entail reciprocal implications.)

What does this have to do with HU?

There are feasible worlds in which Adam does not fall and Judas does not deny the Lord for thirty pieces of silver. In any such world, God would believe that Adam would resist temptation and Judas would not sell out the Lord for thirty pieces of silver. Conversely, there is no feasible world in which God believes something about Adam or Judas that does not come to pass. The feature of such infeasible worlds that makes them such is the entailment of the metaphysical impossibility of God having a false belief.

Recall again, our HU entailments:

p1: Christ’s death secured the possibility of salvation for all human beings


p2: Christ’s death secured the surety of salvation for the elect alone.

Those two propositions do not rule out actual universalism (i.e., worlds in which all will be saved). Nor do they rule out universal reprobation (i.e., worlds in which all are damned). To avoid actual universalism and while we’re at it, universal reprobation, we may add something like p*, which does not undermine the intent of HU for those who affirm divine exhaustive omniscience.

p*: If God is exhaustively omniscient and all human beings are not elect in this actual world (PWa), yet some are, then God believes that at least one particular human being will not be saved.

HU is false:

Given p* and p2, p1 is false because it is impossible that all end up saved when all are not believed by God to be elect. Additionally, if p1 is false, then HU is false since p1 is essential to HU.

Why is p1 false?

Again, p1: Christ’s death secured the possibility of salvation for all human beings.

We need to ask, are there any feasible worlds (PWa, PWb, PWc…. PWn) about which God can have a false belief? (Of course such worlds are logically possible in a narrow sense, but are they metaphysically possible, or meaningfully possible?) Can God actualize a world about which God believes something false? If not, then such worlds are broadly illogical and metaphysically impossible. Therefore, statistically speaking, assume the set of infinite feasible worlds of which God believes that within each world one or more human beings are not elect. In zero of those worlds would the alleged “possibility” of salvation for a non-elect person ever obtain!

Now then, what is the probability of an outcome that would have zero occurrences given an infinite number of trials? Well, zero, of course.* Yet if there is zero probability of a non-elect person becoming saved in the set of all feasible worlds, then how is it meaningfully “possible” for any such person to become saved? (The Molinist claim that such a person could be saved though never would be saved is refuted here.)

If the salvation of the non-elect is not metaphysically possible in a statistical sense, then HU’s most essential feature (p1) is false, making the theory of HU false. Directly stated, it is not possible that a non-elect person believes and becomes saved any more than it is possible that a non-elect person becomes elect. HU fails the coherence test.

Furthermore, if God believes in the possibility of the salvation of the non-elect while simultaneously believing it is impossible that a non-elect person would ever be saved in n trials, then how does God avoid believing that salvation is possible and not possible in the same way, which is not just metaphysically impossible for God but also would require God to be logically incoherent? Yet if God does not believe in the true possibility of the salvation of the non-elect, then there is no true possibility of their salvation in the first place given God believes all truth.

*Events that are impossible have zero probability of occurrence, which should not be confused with zero probability events that are not necessarily impossible occurrences. Impossibility is sufficient for zero probability but the reverse is not necessarily true. Consider a dart board with an infinite number of points with the precise circumference of the point of a dart. The probability of a thrown dart piercing a particular point on the board is 1 over infinity. However, the dart will hit some particular point on the dart board. So, it is possible an event occurs that has zero probability of occurring. This is not the case with impossible events, although they too have zero probability of occurring.

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