English Hypothetical Universalism: John Preston and the Softening of Reformed Theology.
John Preston was a person of influence at the court of James I as a chaplain to Prince Charles and on those of Puritan sympathies as master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Many books during the past generation have broadly redrawn the picture of the ecclesiastical and theological life of late Elizabethan and early Stuart England, and yet, in spite of his importance, there has not been a narrowly focused monograph on the career, theology, and significance of John Preston in the light of that scholarship. Jonathan Moore has filled this gap in the four sections of this book, which take up Preston's life, theological heritage, theological reformulations, and the sources of those reformulations.
In the process Moore seeks to establish a number of points, beginning with the centrality of the high Calvinism of William Perkins in the late Elizabethan Church of England. Perkins's supralapsarian and atonement-limiting version of Reformed theology, which Moore dubs "strict Elizabethan particularism" (68), led Perkins to deny that the call of the gospel for sinners to believe implied that God desired to save the reprobate. Preston, often taken as a follower of Perkins, is shown by Moore to have developed a "low" infralapsarian Calvinism featuring a universal gospel call and promise grounded in an English version of hypothetical universalism that made possible a sincere offer of salvation to the reprobate. For Preston, the atonement was universal, while Christ's priestly work of intercession was only for the elect; this entailed for Preston a covenant that was in one respect conditional and in another respect unconditional. Moore also argues that it was his familiarity with medieval scholastic method and terminology that enabled Preston to carry out this softening of Calvinism, turning the tables on the argument that Reformed scholasticism was necessarily a factor in hardening that theology. Moore further maintains that Preston's hypothetical universalism was unrelated to the apparently similar theological moves of the Huguenot theologian Moise Amyraux and his mentor John Cameron, which Moore sees as a more radical revision of particular redemption than Preston's insofar as it depended on reordering the eternal decree of redemption to make election follow the decree of the atonement. Instead, Moore claims that Preston's version of hypothetical universalism came from his contacts with two prominent Calvinist bishops of the Irish and English established churches, James Ussher and John Davenant, both of whom earlier laid out some of the formulations concerning covenant, gospel call, and atonement taken up by Preston. Richard Baxter claimed that his version of hypothetical universalism was supported by both Preston and Amyraux; Moore thinks Baxter failed to recognize the differences between the Amyraldian and English versions of hypothetical universalism.
These conclusions become ecclesiastically significant when Moore shows that the position argued by the English delegates at the Synod of Dort, including Davenant and Samuel Ward, reflected this English hypothetical universalism as did Preston's performance at the York House Conference in 1629. Contrary to the standard view that Preston at York House was an unyielding high Calvinist, he probably disappointed some of his high Calvinist and political Puritan patrons such as Lord Say and Sele by his reticence and caution there. This leads to the further point that while there was a firm opposition by Reformed thinkers, including Preston, to Arminianism, there was a willingness on the part of some, again including Preston, to make adjustments at those points where there was the greatest vulnerability to Arminian critique, such as limited atonement and the genuineness of the gospel call. For Preston, and certainly for Davenant and Ussher, this was important as a way to strive for some unity in the Church of England without succumbing to outright anti-Calvinism (136). Thus resolutely anti-Arminian the Reformed may have been, but there was also variety in the Reformed response to the Arminian challenge. Finally, Moore turns his argument against the view that the later Calvinists departed from Calvin on the atonement--if Calvin did not teach a strictly limited atonement, as is arguable, then later Calvinists like Preston, far from departing from Calvin, returned to him after a Perkinsian detour. And if Calvin is understood as teaching limited atonement, then Preston softened Calvin's version of Reformed theology. Moore does not think this altered picture compromises the conclusion that the Jacobean Church of England was committed to Reformed theology, but it does add complexity to that picture.
With his close reading of the relevant sources, Moore has made a convincing case for these conclusions and the revisions that they entail for understanding Preston and his theological and ecclesiastical world. But some reflections, reservations, and caveats are in order. A reflection: though not intended, the author's treatment of Perkins's fine-tuned arguments will for some readers make that theologian's views appear, in the light of the gospel message he intended to advance, somewhat appalling. And perhaps surprisingly, even Preston's moderating modifications of Perkins come across as hairsplitting, though in both cases there is evidence of the precision with which they strove to carry on their theological work. A caveat: sometimes Moore's tone seems more dismissive and polemical toward other views than is necessary to establish his argument. A reservation: I cannot agree that "the Thirty-Nine Articles did not clinch the victory for the English reformation" (143); their openings to Lutheran adiaphorism and predestinarian moderation perhaps meant that they failed to clinch the victory for anti-Arminian Reformed theology, but the Protestantism of the Articles was uncompromising. Finally, a further word about outcomes would have been interesting: while hints from Baxter in relation to Preston are followed up by the author, something might have been suggested about Preston, Davenant, and Ussher as part of a trajectory leading to the moderate Calvinism of others besides Baxter as time went on. But it is clear that Moore has made a significant and important contribution to our understanding of Preston and English Calvinism in the first half of the seventeenth century.
Dewey D. Wallace, Jr.
George Washington University
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|Author:||Wallace, Dewey D., Jr.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2009|
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