Canons Of Dort (19): Unconditional Atonement

Christ did not die in order to create the mere possibility or the potential of salvation. He died to accomplish salvation.

The atonement was not conditional. Like election, it was unconditional because the love of God is unconditional. Christ did not atone for those who do their part. The atonement is not effective when we meet a condition. Rather, Synod celebrated Christ the Bridegroom who came for his bride, who redeemed her, who sent his Holy Spirit to regenerate his Bride and unite her to himself and who will certainly take her to himself at the last day.


In 1611, Franciscus Gormarus (1563–1641), one of the principals in the controversy surrounding Arminius resigned his position in the theology faculty in the University of Leiden. He was frustrated by the fact that after Arminius’ death, the governors of the University had appointed Conrad Vorstius (1569–1622), whom Gomarus suspected of being a Socinian. They professed to believe Scripture but interpreted it in such a way as to deny the deity of Christ, the substitutionary atonement, and the Trinity among other things. Their method of interpretation and theology has been correctly called “biblicism.” It was not that they followed Scripture but that they proposed to read the Bible as if no one had ever done it before. They rejected the ancient ecumenical creeds (e.g., the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Definition of Chalcedon, the Athanasian Creed) and they rejected the Protestant confessions. Further, underneath their biblicism lay rationalism, the elevation of reason over Scripture. It is worth knowing a bit about the Socinians since there are many erstwhile evangelicals and even some who identify as Reformed who share some of their convictions and methods. Despite his assertions of his orthodoxy, the Synod of Dort condemned him and banished him from the Dutch Republic.

From Leiden Gomarus went to Middleburg where he served as minister of the congregation and gave theological lectures for four years until he went to Saumur, where he taught from 1615–18. His successor, however, marked in important ways, a sharp departure from Gomarus’ theology. John Cameron (c. 1579–1625) taught in Saumur from 1618–20 and again in 1623. He developed a doctrine of salvation that argued that God the Spirit does not regenerate the human will in the way that the Augustinian and Reformed theologians and churches had hitherto taught. It was more a matter of moral persuasion than a realistic renewal of the will. Cameron, along with Moïses Amyraut (1596–1644) and Josué La Place (1596–1665) taught, according to B. B. Warfield (Works, 5.364–65)

…that election succeeds, in the order of thought, not merely the decree of the fall but that of redemption as well, taking the term redemption here in the narrower sense of the impetration of redemption by Christ. They thus suppose that in His electing decree God conceived man not merely as fallen but as already redeemed. This involves a modified doctrine of the atonement from which the party has received the name of Hypothetical Universalism, holding as it does that Christ died to make satisfaction for the sins of all men without exception if—if, that is, they believe: but that, foreseeing that none would believe, God elected some to be granted faith through the effectual operation of the Holy Spirit.

In short, the Hypothetical Universalists removed the limit from the atonement and pushed it back a step to the application of redemption. This allowed them to say that “Christ died for all men and every man” (to use the language of the Remonstrants). One reason to adopt such language was to appease the Lutherans, since some held out hope through at least part of the 17th century of some kind of a reunion (so Nicholas Fornerod, “A Reappraisal of the Genevan Delegation,” in Revisiting the Synod of Dort, 213). Another was that such language was said to give a better account of some passages of Scripture.

Well before the Amyraldian Controversy broke out in Saumur, however, there were Reformed theologians, including at least two delegates to the Synod of Dort, who were toying with alternative language concerning the atonement. In his 1627 Dissertation on the Death of Christ John Davenant (1572–1641) argued for a kind of hypothetical universalism. Davenant apparently held some version of this view while he was a delegate to Dort. His colleague, Samuel Ward (1572–43) also held some version of this position. I say “some version” because even in Davenant’s Dissertation it thesis is not always entirely clear. As a teacher, should a student have submitted this as a Master’s Thesis I should have returned it with a demand that he state unequivocally his position and clearly contrast it with other views. Still, he agreed with the Synod of Dort (more on this in a moment) that the inherent dignity and power of the atonement was sufficient for the sins of all men and every man. He repeatedly argued that Christ’s death was “applicable” to all men. He argued more than this, however. There is a sense, he argued, in which Christ may be said to have died for all men but that he did not actually obtain salvation for all. The limit then is not in the atonement but in the will of God to apply salvation to all. God, he argued, has not determined to apply the work of Christ to all. That Christ died for all is the necessary foundation to the universal offer of the gospel (see e.g., pp. 344–45). He used the analogy of a physician offering salvation to a plague ravaged village. The medicine is efficacious but the villagers must be willing to take the medicine. If they refuse the fault is not with the physician nor with the medicine.

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