Before I start this post, I’d just like to take a moment to talk about some of the changes made around here at the site. The major change made recently involved the addition of an “I’m Currently Reading” section and a "Just Finished Reading" section here at the Center for Theological Studies. From now on, all my readers will now stay informed regarding my reading material. I want you all to know books on which I’m reading so that you may be able to know what good literature on theology is out there online and in bookstores alike. This way, you will not have to waste time reading through material that will be of no spiritual benefit. That’s right: I wanna save you the frustration of “weeding through” bad material.
I’ve been doing some work for the last few days on the Doctrine of the Atonement here at CTS. Surprisingly, the book that I’ve been reading on in the last few weeks involves John Preston and his view of “Hypothetical Universalism.” Now, in this respect, Preston stands in the ranks of the French theologian Moises Amyraut (known for his theological system of “Amyraldianism”). Amyraut, like Preston, held to four points of Calvinism but argued that there was some universality (although hypothetical, meaning “possible”) to the atonement for all humans. In this respect, such “four-point Calvinists” stand out to us all by showing us that inconsistencies have always existed within the Calvinist system. Calvinists just “cannot take the plunge” when it comes to affirming “Limited Atonement” (Jesus died for some). And that was no different with John Preston in seventeenth-century England.
First, just what is “hypothetical universalism”? It is a doctrine that teaches that, while it is possible that everyone could have been saved, Jesus only died for a few. In reality, then, only the special elect whom Jesus chose to be saved will actually receive the benefits of the atonement.
Let’s look at the words of John Preston to see this definition at play. In his sermons and writings, Preston noted that Jesus died for only a few, as Jonathan Moore notes:
“In his ‘opera’ Preston never explicitly states that Christ died ‘for the elect.’ Nowhere is there a ‘Perkinsian’ treatment of classic universalist texts involving ‘all’ or the ‘world.’ However, Preston does not hesitate to take up scriptural imagery of particular grace with regard to the death of Christ, and he does sometimes employ terminology associated with particular redemptionist formulations. Christ came ‘to take away the sinnes of his people; hee came to take away sinnes of all sorts.’ Christ ‘hath purchased his Wife with his owne bloud,’ and ‘such a relation there is between Christ and us,’ as ‘between the Shepherd and the Sheep; the Shepherd that gives his life for the sheep, and the sheep that are redeemed.’ Preston also taught that
‘as in the time of the Law, the Priest was to offer up sacrifices for the people in all humilitie, so Christ in the Gospell on the Crosse with a broken and a contrite spirit, offered a sacrifice FOR ALL HIS CHILDREN, and makes them acceptable unto God’” (Jonathan D. Moore, “English Hypothetical Universalism: John Preston and the Softening of Reformed Theology.” Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans, 2007, pages 98-99; Moore also quotes from Preston’s “The Breast-plate,” I:248, II:142, and “Remaines,” page 237).
In addition, Preston also argued that the atonement was efficient for believers and that God accomplishes His purposes:
“In broad terms Preston taught that Christ could never fail of his intent. For ‘WHATSOEVER THE LORDS END IS, HE NEVER FAILES OF.’ Because the Father ‘is not willing to have his Sonnes bloud spilt in vain,’ there must be an efficacy to Christ’s satisfaction, at least on one level or for some people...because ‘Christ came to redeem them for this end that they might be zealous,’ and ‘CHRIST WILL NOT LOSE HIS END,’ then ‘they that Christ will save shall be zealous’” (Moore, “English Hypothetical Universalism,” pages 100-101; Preston quotes taken from Preston’s work “Saints Qualification,” II:20; Preston’s “The Golden Scepter,” I:275, and his work “Riches of Mercy,” page 90).
The question then becomes, “How can the atonement be for all if God only permits “some” to come to Him?” In Preston’s thought, Jesus could die for all on the one hand and some on the other hand because of a division between Christ’s work as redeemer (for all) and His work as intercessor (praying on behalf of the elect, see John 17:9). In the words of Jonathan Moore,
“Preston therefore drives a significant wedge between the twofold high-priestly work of Christ as atonement-maker and intercessor. The effectual source of the ‘golden chain’ is not Christ’s satisfaction itself, but an almost separate work of Christ, namely his intercession. The extent of the former can be totally different from that of the latter. Christ as High Priest makes satisfaction for all without exception, but Christ as High Priest makes intercession only for the elect. It would appear that the decree of election can be removed almost altogether from propitiation and lodged solely in the limited and discriminating intercession of Christ” (Jonathan D. Moore, “English Hypothetical Universalism: John Preston and the Softening of Reformed Theology.” Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans, 2007, page 102).
In John Preston’s theology, there is a dichotomy between the extent and intent: while the atonement extends to all, it is only intended for the elect. Christ as High Priest only prays for the elect (those He desires to be saved). What happens to the others? “Hypothetically” (for argument’s sake), they could be saved...but Christ will not save them. And somehow, he can still turn around and say that those who are not elect are non-elect because of their own fault:
“so it is in this offer of Christ, all is ready Christ is slain, and his blood is poured out, if you do not come and take it, YOU PUT AWAY FROM YOU THE BLOOD OF CHRIST, and so in as much as in you lieth YOU MAKE THE DEATH OF CHRIST OF NONE EFFECT, and so by consequence you shall be guilty of the blood of Christ...whosoever refuseth Christ is guilty of the spilling of his most precious blood” (Preston, “Riches of Mercy,” pp.427-28; quoted by Jonathan D. Moore, “English Hypothetical Universalism,” page 109).
This statement places blame for unbelief on the individual, not Christ.
In another place, Preston said:
“the death of Christ is like a medicine, that hath efficacy enough to heal all mankind, IF THEY WILL APPLY IT, now if men will not take it, and receive it, it is not out of defect in the thing itself, but out of the CONTEMPT AND STUBBORNESS OF THEIR OWN WILL” (Preston, “Riches of Mercy,” p. 423; quoted by Jonathan D. Moore, “English Hypothetical Universalism,” page 110).
One moment, Preston is saying that the individuals themselves must apply the medicine; the next, he is saying that only God can apply the medicine needed (that men are unable to do this at all). In short, men are “able” to save and “unable” to save all at the same time, in the same way.
If there is one sentence I could end with in this post, it would be a one-liner from the words of John Preston: “freely given to all, yet God intends him onely to the Elect” (Jonathan Moore, “English Hypothetical Universalism,” page 113; Preston, “The Breast-plate," I:9). One of the things that you, my readership, will discover as we plow through Preston is that Preston is speaking contradiction...and will soon come head-to-head with his contradiction and be forced to face himself. When he does, the reading of my posts will be so worth it. How exactly does he respond? Well, for the answer to that, you’ll just have to keep reading.