Don’t Look Now But Your “Reformed” Theology Might Not Be Confessional

In recent years the debates of the Reformation period have taken priority over the theology of the debates. Somehow possessing vast acquaintance with multiple sides of doctrinal disputes has in some circles become more academically impressive and pastorally relevant than possessing an intimate working-understanding of which doctrines are theologically Reformed and defensible. Consequently, there has not just been a blurring of Reformed confessional boundaries but, also, some churches and presbyteries have intentionally erased their doctrinal walls of protection. None of this is surprising once we consider that the formal teaching of systematic theology has at many institutions been relegated to historians rather than theologians. This phenomenon has opened the door to subjective and more novel takes on settled matters of theological intricacy. Stated differences and exceptions to confessional standards are not taken seriously. Pastors and ruling elders needn’t be acquainted with their confessions, let alone be theologians, as long as their views can be accompanied by a fragile appeal to confessional standards being a “consensus document” along with citing a scattered few seventeenth century theologians who held to sometimes esoteric views that did not win the confessional day. One can now earn an honorary degree of “Reformed orthodoxy” merely by possessing an air of historical understanding without actually subscribing to much of what was once upheld as Reformed theology.

A way back?

If we are to recapture objective confessional theology, we must stop confusing Reformed theology with Reformed theologians. The former is an objective consideration whereas the latter is a subjective matter of degree. A pastor can be more or less Reformed, but a doctrine either is or is not Reformed. Conflating the two leads to recasting “Reformed” theology in terms of a multitude of broadly based theologians rather than the particular Reformed confessions that were providentially produced by and through them.

From hereafter I’ll be referring to the Westminster standards as representative of confessional Reformed theology in the context of churches that on paper subscribe to it.

In ascertaining whether a particular doctrine is Reformed or not, we mustn’t fall prey to misleading slogans that deflect and obfuscate rather than define and defend. It is irrelevant that “good men have been on both sides of the issue” or that the doctrine under consideration is “not a test of orthodoxy.” It doesn’t even matter whether the doctrine in view is correct! When determining whether a particular doctrine is Reformed or not, the only question of relevance is whether the doctrine is contained in or necessitated by the confession of faith.

Reformed theology is just that, the theology of a Reformed confession. A doctrine is Reformed if it agrees with or is implied by confessional theology. Whether one’s professed theology is Reformed must be measured against an objective standard. Otherwise, what are we even talking about? Moreover, an acceptable doctrine might not be defined or implied by the confession. We may call such doctrine extra-confessional, but not all extra-confessional doctrines are un-confessional. Amillenialism and Postmillenialism are extra-confessional because the confession doesn’t take a position (implied or otherwise) on the triumph of the gospel in the world; whereas premillennialism is not only extra-confessional, it is also un-confessional because of the general resurrection and single judgement (WLC 87, 88). So, just because William Twisse was historical premillennial doesn’t mean he or his eschatology is Reformed in this regard. Similarly, the baptismal regeneration doctrine of Cornelius Burgess, which contemplates an infusion of grace for the elect at the font, is not Reformed because it’s not confessional.

It should be apparent, if we were to allow the unfiltered theology of the Westminster Divines to define Reformed Theology for us, our confession would not be a fair representation of Reformed theology! Our confession could become contra-Reformed depending upon the particular theologian to which one might appeal for doctrinal precedent. Consequently, true Reformed theology cannot be defined by particular Divines but instead must be elucidated by the doctrinal standards they produced.

Fence posts:

A “consensus” document does not preclude certain doctrines from having won the day. Certain Divines championed what is now settled un-confessional doctrine.

Regarding confessional status, any (a) direct contradiction of the confession or (b) extra-confessional teaching that leads to intra-confessional doctrinal contradiction may be confidently rejected for being un-confessional even if not explicitly refuted by the church’s standards (regardless if a delegate to the assembly held the view in question). Otherwise, we unnecessarily introduce incoherence and confusion into our system of doctrine. Also, any doctrine that is theologically derivable from other confessional doctrines must be considered no less confessional than the doctrines from which they come. Otherwise, we would not be able to refute on confessional grounds doctrinal claims that oppose the necessary implications of our own theology!

Let’s put some meat on the bones by making the abstract practical:

Any view of free will (e.g. libertarian freedom) that by implication entails that God is merely contingently infallible, not exhaustively omniscient, or undermines God’s independence and aseity, must be rejected as un-confessional. Conversely, if compatibilist type freedom is the only type of freedom that comports with confessional theology proper and the theological determinism of the divine decree (WCF 3.2), then such a doctrine of free will is Reformed and none other.

Even though the Divines didn’t have the advantage of the philosophical refinements of the past three hundred years, their system of doctrine requires the compatibility of free will, moral accountability and God’s determination of all things (including the free choices of men). Consequently, adherence to the Westminster standards in toto entails a rejection of libertarian Calvinism and, therefore, requires an affirmation of something else. (Richard Muller and Oliver Crisp are simply mistaken.)

So it is with John Davenant’s hypothetical universalism, which leads to intra-confessional doctrinal incoherence. If the salvation of the non-elect is not metaphysically possible, then hypothetical universalism’s most distinguishing feature (i.e., the possibility of the salvation of “vessels of wrath”) is false. After all, if it were truly possible that the non-elect might be saved, then God who believes all truth would believe contrary truths: (a) Smith might believe and (b) Smith won’t believe. Consequently, Davenant’s view of the atonement undermines a confessional understanding of God, and on that basis alone is un-confessional and must be rejected as being outside the Reformed tradition.

In sum:

In addition to rejecting doctrine that would deny Reformed doctrine as plainly stated in the Confession, we must embrace other doctrines as no less Reformed than the Reformed teachings from which they derive. Things can get a bit more uncomfortable here, but that is what it is to do theology! Being Reformed entails a bit more than sipping peaty scotch from Islay while stroking our chins as we discuss the minutes and papers of the Westminster Assembly.

A few other Reformed doctrines that are no less confessional yet are derived by good and necessary inference:

By systemizing Reformed doctrine, we can infer other Reformed doctrines that the church does not always recognize as Reformed yet should.

With the recent enthusiasm over Thomas Aquinas and non-Reformed scholarship, attention has been directed away from Reformed doctrine and consequently away from necessary theological implications of that doctrine. The consequence has been that certain Reformed doctrines have been eclipsed either through ignorance, weakness, or our own deliberate fault.

For instance, it is plain vanilla Reformed doctrine to “disapprove of all false worship and, according to each one’s place and calling, removing it, along with all monuments of idolatry.” (WLC 108) It is also Reformed doctrine to consider the Roman Catholic mass a form of false worship and idolatrous. (WCF 25:5-6) Given that Reformed doctrine teaches that we are to pray that God’s kingdom come and that his precepts be done (WLC 191-192), it is derivable Reformed doctrine that Christians should desire the lawful removal of the centerpiece of Roman Catholic experience, the mass. But instead, rather than regarding the superstitious nature of transubstantiation as repugnant (Article 28 of 39), the unskilled in the Reformed tradition celebrate Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the chief apologist for the idolatry of the hocus pocus of the mass. It’s madness.

In the spirit of confessional fidelity, we may take no prisoners. When we combine the relatively well known confessional teaching about working on the sabbath with its counterpart teaching from WLC 99 pertaining to our moral duty toward those who do, we may validly deduce as Reformed theology that restaurants may not be patronized on Sundays. This is not a matter of subjective sabbath application that’s up for grabs, at least not by Reformed standards. It’s a good and necessary consequence of settled Reformed theology. Going to restaurants on Sunday entails sin by Reformed standards. One may reject that teaching, but let’s not pretend that to do so is not to reject a deducible tenet of Reformed confessional theology.

Given a Reformed understanding of marriage, divorce, covenant and vows, it’s easily derivable that divorce among professing believers for “abandonment” is to be accompanied by ecclesiastical censure.

By not “fencing the Table” the Reformed doctrine of the visible church is implicitly denied. (WCF 25:2,3; 26:2)

By intimating that children of professing believers join the church upon profession of faith is to deny the Reformed meaning of baptism and the doctrine of the visible church. (WCF 25:2; 28:1)

By not disciplining delinquent church members who depart and don’t in due time join another evangelical church, the doctrine of the visible church is violated. Also, the solemnity of lawful oaths and vows are compromised. (WCF 22:3,5; 25:2)

By condoning movies, books or nativities with images of Jesus, the Reformed teaching on the Second Commandment is denied. (WLC 109)

We could go on and on, but the point should be apparent. Pastors and elders are breaking their vows to uphold and defend their Confession. We’ve drifted.

The church and its darlings afford additional confusion:

A renowned Reformed theologian and popularizer-extraordinaire of Reformed theology denied certain Reformed doctrines such as the impeccability of Christ and the Christian sabbath. His view of the former unwittingly and unashamedly denied confessional Christology either by abstracting the human nature from the divine person or attributing personhood to the human nature. Either way, his doctrine of Christ had heretical underpinnings. (Who cared?) Whereas his view of the Christian sabbath entailed more explicit confessional denials. It’s relevant because it is widely believed by massive amounts of Christians and non-Christians alike that anything produced by his thriving ministry must be Reformed.

Conference speakers on Reformed theology often include pastors and leaders who are un-confessional in their convictions on the charismatic gifts, the sacraments and the return of Christ. The upshot is that those three doctrinal aberrations alone, if not of serious concern enough, entail further confessional conflict as they impinge upon the canon of Scripture; Christian liberty of conscience; the visible church; loving discipline of covenant children who fall away from the faith; the number of eschatological judgements; kingdom consummation; Israel and the church, and more. One of those speakers was for years wrong on the doctrines of justification and the eternal sonship of Christ, and to this day has not recanted of adding works to justifying faith! The relevance is, Reformed theology has consequently yet erroneously taken on broad meaning due to the church’s darlings.

Lastly, it is common practice to reduce Reformed theology to the “five points”. Obviously, that’s poor procedure. However, it is equally hazardous to think that TULIP does not put forth Reformed doctrine. Does TULIP sufficiently define Reformed thought? Of course not. But is it no longer necessary to subscribe to the soteriological doctrines of TULIP to be considered a Reformed theologian? A growing number are beginning to doubt the Reformed relevance of T and L, and I believe the trail of confusion can be traced back to a few church historians.

In closing:

Needless to say, Reformed doctrine is intertwined, therefore, to deny one doctrine is to deny others. Notwithstanding, the main takeaway is that what traditionally defined the boundaries of Reformed orthodoxy has been exchanged for the individualistic theology of our favorite conference speaker, Twitter theologian or some historical theological figure who in God’s good providence failed to persuade his peers on failed doctrine. Such a mindset has led to Reformed doctrinal skepticism through unworkable inclusiveness. Consequently, the theology of our confession has become un-confessional depending on which Divine, darling or conference speaker defines “Reformed” for any given individual. We can do better. Indeed, we must do better(!), but pastors must begin leading their elders and congregations to a biblical theology that is not just “Reformed” but truly Reformed, which means confessional. May God be pleased to raise up leaders for a true modern reformation. Enough is enough.

End of original articles as it appeared on The Aquila Report.

——————

Since the time of originally publishing the article, I’ve been asked about “Reformed Baptist” theology, and the alleged marginalization of other Reformed confessions.

The 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith:

Although the Baptist Confession in large part tracks with the historical theology of the Reformed confessions in general (and the Westminster confession in particular), it nonetheless departs from Reformed doctrinal tradition (and catholic doctrine), most notably over the doctrines of the church and infant baptism.

If Reformed theology is to have a chance of internal consistency, then either the Westminster standards or the confession of 1689 must be representative of Reformed theology on those two points of theology.

The Westminster standards calls the Baptist practice of withholding baptism (and by implication the denial of infants their covenantal standing in the visible church) great sin. Consequently, if Reformed doctrine extends so far as to entail contrary positions, then persons and confessions cannot be Reformed without contradiction.

This isn’t at all like amillennialism vs. postmillenialism, which are extra-confessional considerations that aren’t un-confessional. Rather, given the explicitly stated doctrinal differences over baptism and ecclesiastical covenantal standing, at least one confession must be false and both cannot be Reformed.

If infant baptism is wrong, then Reformed baptism is wrong and the Reformed didn’t reform enough. The common assertion from Baptists is that the Reformed did not reform enough; yet that presupposes infant baptism is both wrong and Reformed! After all, wasn’t there a Reformed view of baptism prior to 1689? Well, what was it? That’s why one group is called Reformed and the other is called Reformed Baptist. “Reformed Paedo-Baptist” is simply redundant.

Other Reformed documents:

Regarding other Reformed doctrinal statements such as those that comprise the Three Forms of Unity (3FU), the same principle of reasoning applies. If there are contrary doctrines between 3FU and the Westminster standards, at least one set of documents must be false and both cannot be Reformed if being Reformed entails the possibility of no contradictions.

For ease of discussion and given the expansive nature of the Westminster standards, I noted toward the outset:

From hereafter I’ll be referring to the Westminster standards as representative of confessional Reformed theology in the context of churches that on paper subscribe to it.

That’s hardly a novel concept, as we see it utilized by James Anderson an Paul Manata in their interaction with Oliver Crisp and Richard Muller: “Taking the Westminster Confession of Faith as representative of the Reformed tradition…”

But what’s amusing is that a few in cyber land have taken umbrage with my alleged exaltation of the Westminster standards over Dutch confessions. Yet the rants of these couple of individuals were self-refuting if they believe that (a) there is no contradiction between the various sets of doctrine and (b) the Westminster standards are not missing any essential doctrine* of Reformed theology or adding anything contrary to the tradition. (*Is there a doctrine that is missing from the Westminster standards that precludes it from being an adequate representation of Reformed theology?)

To disagree with (a) leads us back to: “If there are contrary doctrines between 3FU and the Westminster standards, at least one set of documents must be false and both cannot be Reformed if being Reformed entails the possibility of no contradictions.”

Yet if they disagree with (b), then it’s curious why after multiple requests no attempt was made to show that the Westminster standards were lacking in any essential doctrine of Reformed theology or adding un-Reformed doctrine.

Perhaps the interlocutors realized at least on some psychological level that to have posited (a) or (b) would undermine either the consistency of the Reformed tradition or the adequacy of the Westminster standards as representing the tradition they claim as their own.

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

and 

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

and 

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.

John Davenant, Another Enticement For The “Reformed” (in name only)

“If it be denied that Christ died for some persons, it will immediately follow, that such could not be saved, even if they should believe.”

I can understand Arminians saying such a thing but when those who profess to be Reformed say things like that, more than bad theology is at play. (And by the way, why do latent Arminians insist upon being considered Reformed?)

At the risk of addressing the obvious, such a sentiment assumes what must be proven, that those for whom Christ did not die can believe. From a Reformed perspective, how does this not deny irresistible grace and inseparable operations of the Trinity?*

“if nothing else is judged possible to be done, except those things which God hath decreed to be done, it would follow that the Divine power is not infinite.”.

John Davenant, Dissertation on the Death of Christ, n.d., 439


God having already decreed that the boulder would fall from the cliff entails that God could not prevent the boulder from falling from the cliff. The “could not” is due not to a lack of divine power but a want of divine will. Because God cannot deny himself (or act contrary to how he has determined he will act), God’s inability to act upon the boulder either directly, or through secondary causes, is ascribable not to finite power in the Godhead but the outworking of God’s internal consistency, from decree to providence.

That God’s omnipotence and decree are not mutually exclusive entailments implies that the latter does not diminish the former, though it will certainly curtail and redirect its decretive unleashing in ordinary providence. Davenant and his recent followers not only miss this. Is there any indication they’ve even considered it?

“The death of Christ is applicable to any man living, because the condition of faith and repentance is possible to any living person, the secret decree of predestination or preterition in no wise hindering or confining this power either on the part of God, or on the part of men. They act, therefore, with little consideration who endeavour, by the decrees of secret election and preterition, to overthrow the universality of the death of Christ, which pertains to any persons whatsoever according to the tenor of the evangelical covenant.”

Davenant, Loc. Cit.

In other words, for Davenant, it is possible for those not elected unto salvation to be saved. Indeed, it is possible for those not chosen in Christ to be baptized into the work of the cross.

Pelagian connotations aside as they relate to faith and repentance, if Davenant is correct, then it is possible that God’s decree not come to pass. It is possible that more are saved than predestined unto salvation. It is possible that God can be wrong! Or does God not believe his decree will come to pass?

Possibility with zero probability of occurring:

Simply try to imagine a possible world in which Esau is not elect but enters into everlasting life contrary to God’s will of decree. In other words, is there a possible world in which some are redeemed yet the elect are less in number than they? If not, then so much for this already rejected view of the atonement that posits incoherence by implicitly denying exhaustive omniscience, penal substitution, and the inseparable operations of the Trinity.** That’s what Davenant “possibility” gets you. (Enter now the sophistry of Molinism with its might-counterfactuals and possible-feasible worlds distinction.)

Confessional?

Regarding confessional status, any extra-confessional teaching that leads to confessional doctrinal contradiction may be confidently rejected for being un-confessional even if not explicitly refuted by the church’s standards, (regardless if a delegate to the assembly held the view in question). Otherwise, we unnecessarily introduce incoherence and confusion into our system(s) of doctrine.

A “consensus” document does not preclude certain doctrines from having won the day. So, for instance, any view of free will that by necessary implication entails that God is contingently infallible must be rejected as non-confessional. So it is with all forms of hypothetical universalism that lead to intra-confessional doctrinal incoherence.

I find it a stretch to call a doctrine “within the Reformed tradition” merely because a delegate held to it. When a confession is not already internally contradictory, let’s not allow it to be! For a doctrine to be considered confessional it must be explicitly taught or necessary implied by the confession and cannot introduce contradictions to other confessional doctrines. Again, we may not introduce teachings that are not inferable or would undermine other confessional doctrines, even though our confession is a consensus document of sorts. After all, what does it mean for a teaching to be “within the bounds of a Reformed confession” if it entails an implicit denial of another doctrine of the same confession? Roman Catholics are often constrained to speak that way (vis-à-vis Trent and Vatican ii) but why should the Reformed make such concessions? Can a doctrine be incoherent and Reformed? How about contra-confessional? We’re discussing what it is for a doctrine to be confessional or Reformed. That should be an objective consideration, unlike whether one wants subjectively to label someone else as Reformed. Is John MaCArthur “Reformed”? He’s certainly not confessional!

Clichés that obfuscate:

It’s inescapable, the atonement is a matter of divine intent, which is equivocally obscure within Davenant’s hypothetical universalism.

Little clichés like Christ’s death is “sufficient for all, efficient for the elect” have no place in rigorous systematic theology. A sufficient condition entails a state of affairs that if met ensures another state of affairs. In that sense, the cliché implies actual universalism. Sufficient and efficient become functionally indistinguishable and the cliché, tautological. Yet if “sufficient for all” is intended to convey that Christ’s death would save you if you believe, then redemption becomes necessary for saving faith, which isn’t very interesting. That one cannot have saving faith without the work of the cross, although true, doesn’t advance the discussion. Accordingly, we are back to election and irresistible grace, which are anything but sufficient for all! The historia salutis and ordo salutis must coincide.

In closing:

It would be helpful if those with positions of influence (I’m only referring to them), who claim to be Reformed while showing sympathy to Davenant’s view of possibility, would acquire a contemporary philosophical taxonomy and better grasp of modal concepts. If these historical types who promote not just aberrant but incoherent views would improve upon their equivocal notions, and gain a bit more philosophical understanding, consistency and theological trajectory, they might develop some semblance of appreciation for their modal claims; they might begin to see that they neatly align with Molinism and not confessional Calvinism given (at best) a Davenant underdeveloped version of the “logical-possible chasm” of Molinism.

Upon the Reformed (in name only) becoming better informed on necessity, possibility, metaphysical contingency, compatibilism etc., and thereby becoming self-consciously (or at least more consistently) Molinists, non-libertarian Calvinists might then refer these historical types (who too often show insufficient interest in understanding theological compatibilism) to the preponderance of refutations of the most sophisticated form(s) of Arminianism, if not also to some of the better Molinism arguments out there. Until then, we weep and pray, perhaps most of all for the relatively few Reformed institutions that are towing the line, as well as for those institutions that are not equipping the capable while simultaneously enabling the philosophically disinterested to gain a seat at the Reformed table.***

Footnotes that might surprise:

* A similar informal fallacy is committed here by perhaps the most notable popularizer of Davenant’s Hypothetical Universalism: 

“The logic goes something like this: ‘The gospel offer, which ministers are called to proclaim, must indiscriminately include this proposition: God is, according to his divine justice and on account of the person and work of Jesus Christ, able to forgive any person of their sins.’ For this proposition to be true, it then must be the case that God in Christ made a remedy for every person such that God is able to fulfill the antecedent condition proclaimed in the gospel—viz., God is able to forgive the sins of any person. In order to claim that God in Christ made a remedy sufficient for every person, we must affirm that God intended that Christ make a remedy for every person.” (Confessional Orthodoxy and Hypothetical Universalism: Another Look at the Westminster Confession of Faith, pp. 134-5).

This is another example of assuming what needs to be proven. Consider the author’s proposition:

“God is, according to his divine justice and on account of the person and work of Jesus Christ, able to forgive any person of their sins.”

If the doctrine of limited atonement is true, then it is false that God is “able to forgive *any* person of their sins.” Accordingly, the author has begged the question and traded in ambiguity by not recognizing that God’s “ability” to forgive any particular person is predicated upon full satisfaction having been made for any particular person who would be forgiven. Consequently, the proposition doesn’t establish a doctrine of unlimited atonement. Rather, it assumes it!
** Of course no Davenant disciple will acknowledge her denial of orthodox Theology Proper. But I suppose that’s due to a failure to recognize the implications of one’s own position.

Regarding exhaustive omniscience, penal substitution and inseparable operations of the Trinity in light of the alleged possibility:

If God had known non elect persons would convert, they would have been elect. They were not elect (yet would convert), therefore, God did not know they would convert (though they would). 

If Christ dies for some whose sins will be paid for in hell, then Christ’s sacrifice is not vicariously propitiatory for at least some. 

If the Spirit converts (or aids in converting) contrary to the Father’s choosing, it is unreasonable that the Father acts with the Spirit in conversion. In fact, the Covenant of Redemption is undermined. 

(Molinist might-counterfactuals can’t save this.)
*** I won’t name seminaries or professors but Modern Reformation, Reformation 21 and Greystone Institute are examples of giving credence to Davenant’s hypothetical universalism and consequently a seat at the Reformed table. Why is that not deemed outrageous by NAPARC churches and Reformed seminaries? (Shortly after publishing article, Greystone Institute removed linked article by Mark Garcia that looked favorably upon the incoherence of Davenant’s hypothetical universalism.)


Moreover, many seasoned pastors in the Reformed tradition will say things like “God knows the future because he transcends time and the future is all before him.” That’s a direct denial of the determinative nature of divine decree and an implicit affirmation of God being eternally informed by the self-existing wills of uninstantiated essences. Why that is not deemed as outrageous is telling.

Even a relatively recent commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith looks favorably upon Middle Knowledge, which is another example of giving non-confessional views a seat at the Reformed table.

Accordingly, it’s not surprising that rarely have I read a theological exam of a seminarian seeking licensure or ordination (and rarely have I had a discussion on theological compatibilism with such a person) that demonstrates a minimally thoughtful rejection of libertarian freedom or an understanding of combatibilist freedom and the determinative nature of the Divine Decree. After all, it’s rare for students to be acquainted with, let alone internalize, concepts they haven’t yet been exposed to.

John Frame had similar experiences: “I don’t know how many times I have asked candidates for licensure and ordination whether we are free from God’s decree, and they have replied ‘No, because we are fallen.’ That is to confuse libertarianism (freedom from God’s decree, ability to act without cause) with freedom from sin. In the former case, the fall is entirely irrelevant. Neither before nor after the fall did Adam have freedom in the libertarian sense. But freedom from sin is something different. Adam had that before the fall, but lost it as a result of the fall.”

Calvinist Paul Manata has noted, “One often finds misunderstandings disseminated by laymen on the Internet. This should not be surprising, for a cursory look at what Reformed teachers have said on the subject gives evidence of at least a surface tension among Reformed thinkers.”

I appreciate my article might come across as contentious to some. My concern that constrains me to write as I have is that I desire not to eclipse the problem I hope to further unearth, which extends beyond this particular stripe of hypothetical universalism. The doctrinal infidelity in “confessional” churches is, I believe, at an all time low. That Reformed folk are entertaining hypothetical universalism is just an indicator of a much larger problem. For more on that, read on.