For the last several posts, I have been covering John Preston and his theology, called “English Hypothetical Universalism.” Preston held to four-point Calvinism, the exception to the points being that he held to “Unlimited” instead of “Limited” atonement.
As a result of Preston’s view of unlimited atonement, his theology has been labeled that of “hypothetical universalism”: Jesus “could have” died for every person, but in actuality, He only died for the elect few.
Before I get started, I just wanna announce that I’ve added a link to a biography of John Preston as well as his works (free in the public domain) to the right hand side of the main blog page. For those who desire to do further study of Preston, please click on the link “Works of John Preston” to find all and more that you desire to know.
In this post, I wanna take a look at Preston’s view of the revealed and secret wills and how it ties in with his hypothetical universalism. Moore writes:
“Preston is well aware that he is getting himself into deep water at this point. Yet he is confident that he can make ‘stand together’ the fact that on the one hand ‘God desires that men should believe and live’ and ‘expresseth in...Scripture such an earnest desire to have men live and not die,’ while on the other hand, although ‘he hath it in his power to make them to believe...yet will not’” (Jonathan Moore, “English Hypothetical Universalism: John Preston and the Softening of Reformed Theology.” Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans, 2007, page 132).
Here’s how Preston resolves the seeming paradox in his theology:
“The parable of the prodigal son ‘expresseth how willing God is to receive Sinners.’ Secondly, ‘there is a double consideration of the will of God.’ Considered ‘simply,’ ‘God being Holy and pure must needs be delighted in the faith and repentance and obedience of his creature.’...yet THIS IS OVERRULED BY ‘A SECRET WILL OF GOD,’ WHEREBY ‘FOR REASONS BEST KNOWN TO HIMSELF’ HE HAS MERCY ON SOME AND HARDENS OTHERS. Nevertheless God does pursue the salvation of the reprobate in the free offer” (Jonathan D. Moore, “English Hypothetical Universalism,” page 132; John Preston, “Sermons preached before His Majestie,” page 149 and “Riches of Mercy,” page 4).
So let me get this straight: In Preston’s theology, God has both a revealed will and a secret will. The revealed will shows that God desires the salvation of every human being, but the secret will shows that God only desires the salvation of some (since He only chooses some and not all). But if this is the case, then shouldn’t the “secret” will be the “revealed” one? I mean, If God reveals truth about Himself, and He only saves some, then doesn’t that mean (in Preston’s theology) that God should sincerely reveal His desire to save some? But what about His revealed desire in the Scriptures to save “every creature” (Mk. 16:15)? If God has revealed His desire to save every person, then why is this will “hidden” and the secret will of limited atonement revealed? This seems to make the words “revealed” and “hidden” mere psychobabble, since “revealed” can mean “hidden” and “hidden” can mean “revealed” at any time.
Secondly, it seems that Preston is at a crossroads in his theology: either give up the idea of universal atonement, or give up the idea of “irresistible grace.” If Preston strongly holds to irresistible grace and God “effectually” drawing the elect, then he needs to reinterpret certain passages he held as referring to “universal atonement” as showing "limited atonement" in order to show consistency in his theology.
There are special problems I have with the secret will itself. The one main problem I have with it is tied to what I wrote above about “revealed” and “hidden”: if these two words are synonyms and are interchangeable at any time, then how can we know that what is revealed is not deceiving us? Take the Incarnation, for example. If what is “revealed” is truly that which is “hidden,” then when Jesus states “The one who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 11:9, Holman Christian Standard Bible), how can we believe Him? If Preston’s theology is right, Jesus does not reveal who the Father is; rather, the Father has a “hidden” identity. Jesus’ identity and claims to Godhood are nothing more than a “divine distraction” from the actual state of affairs. Jesus then, served as one whose identity “keeps us from finding out” the Father’s true identity. I don’t know about you, but I just refuse to believe that the Scriptures teach falsehood. I believe they teach truth in everything they report. The thought of God saying one thing but meaning something “hidden” is unsatisfactory if not downright heretical.
Preston has more to say about the salvation of some and the damnation of others...but I’ll reserve that for another post.