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Amyraut and Hypothetical Universalism - by Dr. C. Matthew McMahon

Historical Theology Articles

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A look at what Arminians think is the Gospel but isn’t.

Hypothetical Universalism is the theological system which most of the 21st century church adheres to as the banner and truth of their view on the atonement of Jesus Christ. In essence, it teaches that Jesus Christ actually and savingly died for all men, though only the elect receive the benefits through faith. This is a strange sentence indeed, but that is the happy inconsistency they accept as Gospel truth. If you pulled aside a church member after a Sunday service, and asked them if Jesus died on the cross for all men, actually and really, they would say, “Yes! Of course!” Unknown to them are the intricate details of a theological system, which they have just unknowingly propagated, which reeks of the arch heretic Pelagius. Even many so-called contemporary Calvinists believe that Christ died on the cross for all men, though God applies the atonement of Christ for the elect. In either case, whether it is a confused Calvinist, or a confused Arminian, they have promulgated a system of doctrine that is not biblical. It is a system of doctrine that is identified in a more refined and distinct manner as Amyraldianism (some spell it Amyraldianism and others deem it Salmurianism).

Though the arch-heretic Pelagius did not formulate a comprehensive system of doctrinal truth (notwithstanding Pelagianism in and of itself is enough), he did infect the church so that others, like Moise Amyraut (1596-1664) would become disseminators of his error. Whether Pelagius intended the consequent errors of his false theology or not is beside the point.

Moise Amyraut (or Moyse Amyraut), was a 17th century French theologian associated with the French Protestant Academy of Saumur. The academy was established in 1598 by the national synod of the French Reformed Churches. He is the most comprehensive propagator of the doctrines of hypothetical universalism, though he may not have the loudest voice. Some attempt to define Amyraldianism as another system of “Reformed” doctrine. This is not the case at all. This is quite opposite to what constitutes “Reformed Orthodoxy.” It is emphatic to say “not the case at all” since the hallmark of reformed doctrine is the limited atonement of Jesus Christ and the Gospel (limited in the sense of scope, not in its power to actually do what it is designed to do – i.e. save the elect). If someone were to modify the doctrine of the atonement or power of the Gospel, then that new idea, or “new” Gospel, would not be the biblical atonement or biblical Gospel at all. It would be a modification of it, and it would cease to be the real, saving Gospel of Jesus Christ.

A more simplistic view of this theological error is called the “4-point Calvinist.” This is a “Calvinist” who believes in T.U.I.P., not T.U.L.I.P., throwing out the limited atonement of Jesus Christ for the elect alone. (The acronym T.U.L.I.P stands for Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace and Perseverance of the Saints.). In reality, someone who holds to this view is really a confused Arminian. Although 4 point Calvinists claim the title “Calvinist”, that does not mean they understand the elaborate system of doctrine which orthodox Calvinism purports as true. What they do understand about Calvinism is superficial since understanding orthodox Calvinism would give them no choice but to abandon their Amyraldianism.

Amyraut attempted to wed Arminianism and Calvinism together. This is an impossibility biblically, theologically and logically. In attempting to do so, his presuppositions about systematic theology overrode his understanding of the biblical text and biblical theology. He filtered the text of the Bible through his newly created Amyraldian grid. This presupposition appear full blown and was epitomized in his understanding of the order of decrees. In his Traite de la Predestination (published in 1634, only 15 years after the Synod of Dordt) he claimed that God, moved by his love for mankind, had appointed all human beings to salvation provided they repent and believe. (The orthodox theologian should immediately see this as an inconsistency both biblically and logically.) Amyraut believed that the Father sent the Lord Jesus Christ to die for the sins of all men in order to implement this purpose. However, since human beings would not on their own initiative repent and believe, God then chose to bestow a special measure of his Spirit to some only, who are the elect. Electing Grace is seen as universal in the provision of salvation, though this is seen abstractly in Amyraut’s eyes, yet, it is particular in the application of it. In his presupposed system of thought, Amyraut thought that he could continue to adhere to the Canons of Dordt and at the same time provide a picture of God’s love to all mankind that would be more faithful to Scripture, and indeed to Calvin, than the thoroughly particularistic approach in the second quarter of the 17th century by the orthodox Puritan Divines. (New Dictionary of Theology, Section on Amyraldianism, by Dr. Roger Nicole (Harvard), Page 17.)

Amyraut taught the following concerning the decrees of God, which many modern Evangelicals still hold today (although some would deny certain points which Amyraut held as essential to the complete system): The Father, because of His general saving love for all mankind, desires to redeem all men actually, although He does not actually save all men. He sends Jesus Christ into the world to make salvation possible for all men (this is the Hypothetical Universalism previously mentioned). God, through a “hypothetical decree” which derives from His general saving love of all men universally, offers the Gospel, and salvation, to all men if they would believe on Christ. In Amyraut’s mind, all men have an equal chance to become “sons of the Living God” because they all have a natural ability to repent and believe the Gospel (this is Pelagianism.) Amyraut, then, believed that though men are naturally able to repent and believe, the fall rendered them “somewhat” incapable, thus, God decreed to elect a certain number of men, and secure their salvation for eternity. This “incapability” is “aided” by what Arminians call today “prevenient grace.” This grace enables all men to be savingly empowered to see and believe the Gospel, though they are not regenerate. At this point the orthodox bible scholar asks, “Could this become any more convoluted?” Yes it can.

In following part of this line of thought, many “supposed Calvinists” have adopted Amyraut’s ideas concerning the will of God. To make matters worse Amyraut divided the will of God into two parts: the Universal conditional will, and the Particular unconditional will. In this universal will, God desires the salvation of all men conditional on their faith – the faith of “chooser.” (Proof texts Amyraut used were Ezekiel 18:23; 33:11; 1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9; and John 3:16.) For his Particular conditional will he used Romans 9:13ff; Ephesians 1:3ff, etc.) This is where the modus operandi “Christ died sufficiently for all, but efficiently for the elect,” came about. (It is my opinion that this saying is not theologically accurate. You will find it written little in Reformation literature. It asserts that God had two possible plans, or could have two possible plans, as if the death of Christ was not specific and particular. The death of Christ could not be anything other than for the elect, both sufficiently and efficiently. The atonement (or oblation) of Christ securing or saving men has absolutely nothing to do with anyone else but the elect (those for whom he died). To use the phrase “sufficiently and efficiently” is actually to say nothing at all in the reality of the cross, since we are not dealing with “hypothetical possibilities.” Even if we were to “hypothesize” that Jesus’ blood is able to secure a million billion worlds, the Bible never teaches us the cross in this way. It always deals in the absoluteness of the reality of what Jesus actually did, and what the Father wanted him to accomplish. This doctrinal position is seen clearly in the Covenant of Redemption. (cf. Psalm 110:4)) In dealing with the Gospel and the nature of the atonement, Amyraut emphasized the dual nature, or double nature, of the divine will. This meant that God has a universal, conditional will to save all men upon the condition of faith, but that He also has an absolute and irresistible will which leads men to that faith. According to Amyraut, God, according with His unconditional will, savingly desired the salvation of the entire human race. God, he said, desired to give them redemption upon the condition of their faith. (John Owen, in his work “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ” exhaustively disembowels the theories of hypothetical universalism. Any reader would do well to study through Owen’s exemplary work on the atonement.)

During the time Amyraut taught these doctrines, others began to believe them, and even within the assembly of the Westminster Divines, which invited all ministers to attend, the Davenant group (Amyraldians) attempted to overthrow the assembly on these points more than once. Men like Samuel Rutherford and George Gillespie, and the other Presbyterians, held the majority opinion and the Westminster Assembly did not yield to their views. If noticed, the Westminster Confession does not explicitly deal with the “order of decrees.” However, this does not mean that the Westminster Assembly left room for the false views of the Amyraldians; not at all. It is quite an aggressive confession surrounding the reality of God’s eternal decree and His purpose in sending the Son to save men. (See WCF Chapter 3 – On divine Decrees.)

The problems of Amyraldianism stem from mixing some twisted ideas surrounding Biblical material and the heresy of Pelagianism. The horror that arises out of this is that many churches today that would hold a label of calling themselves Evangelical really believe the theology and teachings of Amyraut; and subsequently Pelagius. Though they would walk along the streets holding the banner of the “orthodox,” they have actually taken a wrong turn and walked into the house of Amyraut to sit down and dine with him.

When one begins to slide from the Reformed position to the Amyraldian position, some or all of the following doctrines begin to appear in their writing, preaching or teaching: 1) That God loves all men unconditionally and with an eye to saving them all, if they believe – a power they autonomously possess, 2) That Jesus Christ died for all mankind as to secure the possibility of salvation for them all, 3) That God wills and desires the salvation of all men through an unconditional love for them, disregarding any thoughts of an eternal, unchangeable decree to salvation, 4) That God has two wills, one particular and one conditional, both without qualification as to decree or purpose, 5) That God gives all men a chance to be saved through Christ’s atonement of “possibility”, and so pleads with them, offering them the Gospel if they would believe.

The Problems of Hypothetical Universalism are many. Amyraut has created a God who desires after those things which his omniscience has told Him He can never have. This means God is frustrated in His knowledge. He knows he will not save certain men, but He nonetheless desires their salvation because Christ hypothetically created a “way of possibility” for them. This would make God sin. He would sin in that He would violate His own mind and omniscience. He would go against that which He knows is true. He would desire the salvation of men which He will never regenerate. This would make God frustrated. He would be the ever-blessed, ever-miserable God.

Furthermore, Amyraut would have the will of Christ in direct opposition to the will of God. If God willed the salvation of all men, and loved all men hoping they would all “see His love in the death of Christ”, many of the biblical narratives and texts that Christ asserted are in contradiction to the Father’s desire. Christ said in John 6:37-40, “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out. For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me. And this is the Father’s will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day. And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day.” Here the Father’s will and Christ’s will are the same. Jesus loses nothing, and will raise them up in the last day. This is not a probability, but a reality. Yet, Amyraut would have God desire something different than what Christ says here. God desires all to take hold of the free gift he has actually given them in Christ, though it remains a possibility for them until they take hold of it. Yet, the Bible says here that Jesus loses none that the Father gives him. Jesus must, then, not have really known the Father’s will.

Jesus Christ referred to His flock, His people, as sheep. He said in John 10:15, “As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep.” Contextually, the opposing Pharisees are the sons of the devil, and Jesus says they are not His sheep. Why would Christ say this if God willed the possibility of salvation in the manner that Amyraut thought? Jesus is in direct opposition to the will of God if Amyraut is left to rule. Jesus in John 10:15 says He lays His life down for the sheep, not for all men. All men are not sheep. If all men were sheep, then the Shepherd, who goes out to find all His lost sheep, would then find them and bring them home. He would then rejoice with His friends that the all the sheep were found. But this is contrary to the Bible. There are sheep and there are goats. The goats go to hell, and the sheep go to heaven. The Savior does not lay His life down for the goats, but for the sheep. (See Luke 15:4-6; Matthew 25:33) He does this so as to infallibly secure their salvation based on the intention of God’s decree and design for them.

However many Scriptures we may be able to use to refute Amyraut’s ideas, it is wholly unnecessary in light of the purpose of the cross of Christ. Amyraut did not understand the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Without a long digression into the Old Testament to understand a full doctrine of the “sacrifices”, suffice it to say that when the Israelites were commanded by God to sacrifice the burnt offerings, the sin offerings, and the like, they did this for those inside the camp – the camp of God’s chosen people. It is true that some strangers whom God loved savingly were inducted into the camp and proselytized, but the sacrifices during Yom Kippur were for the people of God, not the Hittites, Jebusites, Amalakites, etc… Reading Leviticus 16 will bear the reality of this out quite effectively in opposition to Amyraut. Those were but shadows and patterns of Jesus Christ and His perfect sacrifice on the cross for His people (Matthew 1:21). If Amyraut had understood this simple and basic principle, his theological system would have come to nought. But there will always be those who desire to overthrow the sovereignty of God in salvation, and place the contingency of man’s power in the stead of Christ’s effectiveness. Such, in my opinion, is a gross misunderstanding of the nature of the Gospel itself.

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