On Not Blackballing

On Not Blackballing

By Peter J. Leithart  

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Reading Robert Letham’s excellent recent book on the Westminster Assembly (P&R Publishing, 2009) reminded me again of the variety of the Reformed tradition.  By Letham’s lights, the Assembly aimed to produce a Confession that summed up “generic Calvinism.”

During one session of the Assembly, for instance, Edmund Calamy defended the position known as “hypothetical universalism.”  He argued that “Christ did pay a price for all, absolute for the elect, conditionall for the reprobate, in case they doe believe.”  Thus, “Christ in giving himselfe did intend to put all men in a state of salvation in case they doe believe.”  Christ’s death was “hypothetically” salvific for all men, though effective only for the elect. About one-third of the delegates who participated in the debate took Calamy’s side.

Though the majority decided against this view, yet, Letham writes, “Calamy and his supporters continued to play their part in the Assembly.”  The Assembly opposed Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and antinomian theologies, but was not a “partisan body.”  Within the framework of Reformed teaching, the Assembly “allowed differing views to coexist.”

Not-blackballing was the Reformed way.  It had been for a long time.

Reformed theologians differed on the related issues of temporary faith and temporary enjoyment of the benefits of salvation.  At the beginning of the seventeenth century, some in the Protestant church of England held to what they described as the “Augustinian” view that some reprobates could temporarily enjoy soteriological benefits.  The English delegation to the Synod of Dort (1618) submitted a request that the Synod remove its condemnation of the view that some reprobates may be regenerated and justified for a time.  High as high Calvinism can get, the Synod of Dort accepted the petition and removed the condemnation.

According to Samuel Ward’s account, the English delegation’s argument was threefold:

We ourselves think that this doctrine is contrary to Holy Scriptures, but whether it is expedient to condemn it in these our canons needs great deliberation. On the contrary, it would appear

1. That Augustine, Prosper and the other Fathers who propounded the doctrine of absolute predestination and who opposed the Pelagians, seem to have conceded that certain of those who are not predestinated can attain the state of regeneration and justification. . . .

2. That we ought not without grave cause to give offence to the Lutheran churches, who in this matter, it is clear, think differently.

3. That (which is of greater significance) in the Reformed churches themselves, many learned and saintly men who are at one with us in defending absolute predestination, nevertheless think that certain of those who are truly regenerated and justified, are able to fall from that state and to perish and that this happens eventually to all those, whom God has not ordained in the decree of election infallibly to eternal life. Finally we cannot deny that there are some places in Scripture which apparently support this opinion, and which have persuaded learned and pious men, not without great probability.

This is an altogether remarkable statement.  It views Reformed theology as a continuation of a tradition going back to Augustine, continuing through the middle ages, and strives to maintain continuity with that tradition: Any confession that excludes Augustine, they implied, can’t be good.  It worries about offending Lutherans.  It advocates a Reformed confession that expresses the views of the “saintly men” who serve as ministers of the Reformed churches, rather than an impersonal confession that reflects the views of only one segment of the church.  Substantively, it defends the Reformed credentials of a view that would summarily be excluded from nearly every Reformed church today.

As Letham makes clear, Barth was wrong in thinking that the Assembly was the death sentence for Reformed theology.  Yet, the Confession can do real damage in the hands of zealous defenders who have whittled the Assembly’s “generic Calvinism” into a bludgeon to impose a sectarian version of Reformed theology, who convert a Confession produced by an Assembly with an admirable habit of not-blackballing into an instrument for just the opposite.


Here is a link to my comments on Peter Leithart's book review: