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.)


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.

Natural Knowledge or Free Knowledge of CCFs?

Natural Knowledge: God’s knowledge of all necessary truths, including all possibilities logically prior to his creative decree.

Definition from Divine Foreknowledge Four Views, Edited by Beilby & Eddy, page 211.

God knows all possible worlds according to his natural knowledge. Yet many Reformed thinkers tend to extend natural knowledge to the objects of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom (CCFs) within possible worlds. I believe John Frame and Paul Helm are representative:

When God knows possible worlds, does he not also, by virtue of that knowledge, also know all possible creatures and their possible actions? So, from a Reformed point of view, there is no reason why we shouldn’t regard God’s knowledge of contingencies under the category of necessary knowledge.

John Frame, The Doctrine of God, page 503. (By “necessary knowledge” Frame means natural knowledge. He equates them along with knowledge of intellect, page 500.)

Paul Helm is perhaps more precise:

But if God knows what Jones, if placed in circumstances C, would do, then this is surely part of God’s natural knowledge, his knowledge of all necessities and possibilities.

Paul Helm, Shunning Middle knowledge.

It would seem that Frame presupposes the premise that Helm asserts. Frame infers God’s necessary knowledge of CCFs from God’s necessary knowledge of all possible worlds. The problem is, CCFs are would-counterfactuals and as such do not merely pertain to all possibilities that God would necessarily know. A contingent (decretive) aspect is being overlooked. To know what is generally possible is not to know what would be specifically true. That God necessarily knows all possible worlds does not imply that he knows counterfactual particulars within possible worlds other than freely and as contingently true.

By cataloguing CCFs under God’s natural knowledge as have Frame and Helm, such counterfactuals are relegated either to necessary truths or possibilities. CCFs are either like laws of logic that actually exist in every possible world and could not have been false, or they are akin to potentially actualized realities that necessarily exist as possible, though might never actually exist (other than as abstract possibilities.)

Although my actual existence is not a necessary truth, it’s true that P, <I would, in this possible / actual world (Wp/a) freely type this post if placed under circumstance C> is true. Given that God believes all truth, God eternally knows P. This particular bit of counterfactual knowledge of my typing this post, X, should be considered transworld by such Augustinians as Frame and Helm. The transworld object of knowledge can be dropped into any relevant states of affairs, C, in any possible world, Wpn, so that in Wp1, Wp2, Wp3… God would know X would occur under equally similar Cs in any Wpn given the implied intrinsically causal power of C, which in the thinking of some is relegated to an object of Natural Knowledge. (We will table the question of whether X in C could be contingently related to which Wpn is in view, which I hope will become obvious later.)

This sort of intrinsically causal necessity is understandable among Causal (Nomological) Determinists, but it is an unnecessary and improper concession among Causal Divine Determinists. Has Christian determinism been so influenced by secular philosophy? (See James Anderson site for the various stripes of Determinism.)

When Augustinians catalogue such would-counterfactuals under God’s natural knowledge, what is implied is some sort of necessity for CCFs without which counterfactual knowledge could not obtain. What is implied is that CCFs are logically, metaphysically or in some other sense still indeterminately caused. After all, if some sort of necessity for there to be natural knowledge is not maintained, then C need not result in X, my freely typing this post, under C. In which case, the fixity of the result of C (i.e., the free choice of X) would defy truth value and, therefore, could not be an object of natural knowledge. Hence the need for some sort of necessity within the confines of natural knowledge. Yet, if the grounding of the counterfactual is God’s will, which it is(!), then the counterfactual would be a contingent truth, an object of God’s free knowledge! (NOTE: This is not to posit the metaphysical contingency of libertarianism, which might be confusing some. True CCFs are not necessary truths, otherwise they’d exist necessarily. Notwithstanding, they don’t fall out purely contingently in a metaphysical sense, but rather they become causally necessary by decree, which is not to be confused with something being a necessary truth.)

Like with Molinism, such Augustinians as these, if consistent, are consigned to a view that would entail that any actualizable (truly possible!) world that includes equally similar Cs (i.e., similar relevant states of affairs), always results in X , my freely typing this post. (In passing we might note, even Middle Knowledge entails causality that Molinism cannot avoid. Molinists engage in a type of special pleading when they introduce might-counterfactuals and insist the set of all possible worlds include infeasible worlds!)

Scott Christensen has this to say:

Determinism refers to the idea that all things that occur in our world are necessarily and causally determined by prior conditions. Thus, given specific prior conditions, only one outcome could possibly take place.

Scott Christensen, What About Free Will page 12. (Scott makes a similar error on page 170 and perhaps elsewhere: “God could ordain any variety of outcomes that transpire in the natural world and the human plane of that world. But if he ordained something different to occur, then the preceding conditions would be different as well.” Page 170 (emphasis mine).

What these Augustinians are suggesting is that it’s the relevant states of affairs, circumstances or prior conditions that necessitate free choice. By cataloguing CCFs under natural knowledge, it is (unwittingly?) implied that the effect is ultimately caused by something intrinsic to the nature of C, otherwise God would not know X like he naturally knows all necessary truths and possibilities. Unlike Dabney who wrongly, I argue, attributed this knowledge to “Middle Knowledge” (yet of non-libertarian choices, gratefully!), these Augustinians would like to attribute God’s knowledge of CCFs to his natural knowledge, which would reduce the object of such natural knowledge either to (i) a brute fact or (ii) a reflection of the divine essence (if they’re not freely determined).

Christensen goes on to liken the causality of choice to our living in a “cause-effect universe…” Even offering as an analogy, “When the temperature cools to 32 degrees Fahrenheit, it causes water to freeze.” (Page 13.)

Now clearly Christensen is not a physical determinist when it comes to the mechanics of choosing. He’s a soft-determinist. One of the good guys(!), along with Helm and Frame. Notwithstanding, what is implicitly denied by more than a few is that God pre-interprets the particulars that comprise any C, and in doing so freely determines the causal relationship and truth values of counterfactuals. Therefore, with respect to CCFs, these too are a matter of God’s free knowledge, whereas possible counterfactuals are part of God’s natural knowledge. What must be remembered is that from a consistent Augustinian perspective CCFs are would-counterfactuals, not might-counterfactuals. They have definite truth values (albeit they are contingencies), which presuppose a truth maker. As contingencies, these eternal truths cannot be grounded in God’s ontology or natural omniscience, nor in anything outside of God, which only leaves his will of determination, making Divine Knowledge of CCFs a species of free knowledge.

Take liquid water freezing at 0 degrees C. (No need to get into pressure, additives, purity and nucleation centers etc.) Does God know this according to his natural knowledge? Consider that water at 4 degrees C is at its highest density, which means it will expand whether it is heated or cooled. Must that causal relationship necessarily hold true given all relevantly identical circumstances? Could not God have determined that water continue to become increasingly dense as it is cooled below 4 degrees C? (We could just as easily consider the direct relationship of temperature to gas viscosity and the inverse relationship it has to liquid viscosity.)

Now, of course, there are physical “explanations” for these sorts of phenomenon in this world, but the point should be obvious. “Laws of nature” merely map God’s will, which is to say his pre-interpretation of how new facts introduced into relevant states of affairs, fixed circumstances, or existing conditions would effect outcome. If this is true in the material world, how much more should we expect it to hold true when considering what must be considered pre-interpreted facts that are introduced into fixed circumstances…, which result in free choices? The resultant or subsequent abstract thoughts, motives, desires, intentions etc. are not randomly triggered but rather “caused” – yet according to God’s pre-interpretation of the variable(s). God gives causal facts their interpretive meaning. There are no brute facts. As I’ve noted elsewhere, can’t God determine that the same song introduced into equally similar states of affairs, within different possible worlds, result in different formed intentions, ending in, say, freely writing a letter, making a phone call or something else?

By cataloging CCFs under God’s Free Knowledge we rid ourselves of unnecessary, improper or unintended nods toward brute particulars, while being able to maintain that God is the only eternal propositional truth maker. To maintain what I’ve argued against is to imply that God must know that I would type this post under identical circumstances in any possible world! It would imply that necessarily, ice cubes float under identical circumstances in all possible worlds, and fish must necessarily have a place to live under frozen ponds.

In sum:

I argued that the knowability of CCFs are matter of God’s free knowledge, not God’s natural knowledge. Accordingly, given the exact same state of affairs, it is false that antecedent influences for any intention of the will necessitates the same choice in all possible worlds. The contingency of the outcome would not be due to libertarian freedom or a brute fact but rather a matter of God’s preinterpretation of antecedent particulars, which can vary from possible world to possible world according to God’s will. A non-theistic determinist obviously cannot make that claim. She is consigned to the objects of influence as being brute facts. I find many Christian compatibilists have followed that lead by mapping effects to metaphysical causal influences, overlooking God’s free determination of those relationships. Accordingly, they catalog knowledge of CCFs under natural knowledge. *I am inclined to think this misstep would readily be conceded by those who’ve made it. I tend to think their goal is to remove CCFs from Middle Knowledge. The reason CCFs might have been unwittingly parked in Natural Knowledge is because Free Knowledge is often associated merely with God’s eternal decree, not counterfactuals per se. Yet what tends to be missed is counterfactuals are decretive truths that pertain to possible worlds whether actualized or not.

(*After private interaction with one Augustinian thinker, it has become clear to me that it is believed by some that by virtue of God decreeing a counterfactual true it, therefore, becomes a necessary truth, which in turn makes it an object of natural knowledge. That is simply wrong by definition and entails dualistic implications, not unlike Molinism. Perhaps the renown Reformed philosopher doesn’t recognize that non-necessary contingent truths can be decreed as causally necessary. Other Augustinian thinkers more steeped in contemporary taxonomy, analytic philosophy and philosophical theology will grasp the error and its implications immediately.)

I alluded to in this post and have developed elsewhere that molinists have no claim on contingent CCFs, whereas compatibilists do in that qualified sense I mention above having to do with God’s giving states of affairs their causal interpretation. There’s somewhat a delicious irony here given the fixity of CCFs in all feasible worlds for the molinist position. Their use of Middle Knowledge requires a fixity of causal influences that compatibilism does not. In other words, Molinism entails an impossibility of contrary choice under identical circumstances once we establish that infeasible worlds (ie, unactualizeable worlds) are statistically irrelevant when considering the possibility of choosing otherwise. Jones freely chooses X 100% of the time in an “infinite number” of actualizeable worlds in which Jones freely chooses between X and ~X given C. That’s a necessity quite foreign to Augustinianism.