Review of Armstrong’s Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy

by John M. Frame

[Published in Westminster Theological Journal 34:2 (May, 1972), 186-92. Used by Permission.]


Brian G. Armstrong: Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy. Madison, Milwaukee, and London: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1969. xx, 330. $12.50.

It is a bit surprising that the name of Moise Amyraut (Latin form Amyraldus; hence “Amyraldianism”) is not better known in a time such as ours when so many evangelical Christians want to be known as “four point Calvinists.” Many, indeed, in our time seem to want to say (a) that Christ atoned in some sense for the sins of every human being, (b) that nevertheless all men are not saved, and (c) that in the final analysis it is God, not man, who determines what persons shall be saved and which ones lost. But making these propositions work together in a Scripturally and logically cogent way is a task requiring considerable subtlety of mind, and no one, to my knowledge, has ever done it better than Amyraut. Further, Amyraut wove these propositions into the context of a rather distinctive theological approach—a method, emphasis, and style significantly different from those of other theologians of his time (1596–1664). I suspect that the appeal of “four point Calvinism” even today can be best understood by reference to Amyraut’s general theological mentality—a mentality shared to some extent by many today who know little of Amyraut. Thus, both proponents and critics of the “four point” position can benefit from a study of Amyraut’s theology and approach to theology. In such a study, Professor Armstrong’s book can be enormously helpful.

In brief, Armstrong’s thesis is that Amyraut’s thought, style, emphasis, and method were very similar to Calvin’s and very dissimilar to those of the “orthodox,” “scholastic” theologians who came to dominate the Reformed Churches after Calvin’s time. According to Armstrong, Amyraut,

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like Calvin, was a “humanist” by background and thus brought to his theology a historical consciousness, an ethical concern, and a skillful textual scholarship. By contrast, the scholastics were preoccupied with formal logic, rationalistic systematizing, and speculative metaphysics more than with the history of redemption and the concrete realities of the Christian life.

Since twentieth-century theology is in a sense a series of attempts to transcend scholastic ways of thinking, it is not surprising that Armstrong’s Amyraut comes out looking very much like a modern man. On every page, it seems, we see ourselves and our colleagues. Like us modern theologians, Amyraut is an ecumenist. He has a passion for the unity of the church: he works for Reformed-Lutheran union; he eschews inflammatory language in debate; he gains respect even from the Roman Catholic hierarchy; he works against schism in his own communion, even occasionally defending his opponents against unfair attack. Yet his ecumenism is not without principle: he has the militancy to polemicize sharply against Arminian and Roman views on the really crucial issues. Amyraut is as we are—or as we wish we were.

We avoid scholasticism by avoiding speculation concerning God’s secret counsel; we want to limit our thought to what God has revealed; so does Amyraut. For instance, he, like Calvin and unlike the scholastics, discusses predestination, not in the context of the doctrine of God (as an aspect of God’s secret counsel), but in the context of the application of redemption (as an implicate of God’s historical redemptive activity). Thus he makes the doctrine of predestination a comfort, not a threat. (For a moment we wondered: is this Amyraut talking, or G. C. Berkouwer?) We want to be “fearlessly anthropomorphic,” recognizing that all revelation is in some sense adapted to our human understanding; so does Amyraut. We want to “think historically,” viewing redemption as an unfolding historical process rather than only as an eternal decree. We want to be “biblical theologians” and therefore “covenant theologians.” Amyraut does too. He senses the centrality of the covenant concept in Scripture, particularly the distinction between “absolute” covenants (such as the Noahic, providing unconditional guarantees of blessing) and “hypothetical” covenants (such as the Mosaic, where the blessing is conditioned upon human obedience to the covenant law). (Is this Amyraut talking, or Meredith G. Kline?) He is sensitive, too, to the historical distinctiveness of the new covenant in contrast with the old, and thus, according to Armstrong, was able to reaffirm the centrality of the doctrine of justification by faith, a doctrine which had been de-emphasized by the scholastics. Faith itself is “central” to Amyraut, as

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to Calvin. Amyraut is an “existential” thinker, concerned with the needs of concrete human life. We try to be like that too.

The distinctive propositions of “Amyraldianism” arise out of Amyraut’s covenant theology, specifically from his absolute/hypothetical distinction. On Amyraut’s view, Jesus died in order to put one of the “hypothetical” covenants into effect. He died to establish a new covenantal order—a way by which men may be saved if they obey the covenantal command to believe. Since all men are under this new covenantal order, responsible to obey its command, recipients of its conditional promise, it may be said that Christ “died for” all men without exception; for his death puts this new covenant into force. Yet Amyraut is still a Calvinist in that he recognizes that redemption must be particularistic at some point. Man is dead in trespasses and sins, and therefore cannot of himself fulfill the conditions of any “hypothetical covenant,” even that instituted by the death of Christ. This inability, he stresses, is “moral,” not “natural” (we might paraphrase “sin is an ethical, not a metaphysical disability”—but would that be Amyraut talking, or Cornelius Van Til?). It is a real inability, however, keeping man from doing anything good. Thus regeneration is necessary; and the Spirit regenerates only those who from all eternity have been chosen by God for salvation. Thus on Armstrong’s account, Amyraut’s theology, in contrast with scholasticism, is not only “Christocentric” (because “historically oriented”) but also “Pneumatocentric” (because the work of the Spirit is so decisive). Don’t we want our theology to be that way too?

The present reviewer is not an expert on Amyraut, nor on seventeenth-century theology, nor on Calvin either, for that matter; so if Armstrong has misinterpreted anyone or overlooked some relevant data, you won’t learn about that here.1 I suspect that there are few problems of this sort;

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surely there are fewer prima facie omissions in Armstrong’s research than, say, in Jack B. Rogers’ Scripture in the Westminster Confession (a book otherwise remarkably similar to Armstrong’s in categories, argument, and point of view). Yet (and this point is often overlooked) accuracy of interpretation and comprehensiveness of scholarship are not sufficient to establish a case. The logic of the matter must be considered as well. Let us examine Armstrong’s argument that Amyraut was “truer to Calvin” than were the “scholastic” orthodox Calvinists. Armstrong bases this conclusion upon (1) similarity of “approach,” method, theological structure, etc., between Amyraut and Calvin, and upon (2) demonstrable doctrinal agreement between them. Let us look at each of these in turn:

(1) Just what degree and kind of agreement can be demonstrated by a comparison of method and structure? This is a fairly difficult question. Theologians notoriously often have their strongest disagreements with those whose approach is apparently most similar to their own. Would Calvin have condemned the method of his scholastic successors? Armstrong is fairly sure that he would have; I am not sure one way or the other. I suspect that he would have found some of the scholastic formulations “speculative,” but I have no reason to say that he would have rejected the

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entire effort. Why could he not have thanked God for raising up successors with different backgrounds, interests, and skills from himself? Might he not actually have prayed for helpers skilled in logic and philosophy who could develop a tighter, more systematic formulation of the truth than he could have? Armstrong makes his feelings clear on this point but in my opinion doesn’t adequately argue his view. Let us be more specific. Armstrong attaches great significance to the fact that Amyraut and Calvin did not, while the scholastics did, discuss predestination under the locus de Deo. Now this fact is interesting, especially so since Amyraut himself makes a point of it, explaining why he avoids this scholastic practice. This difference in method, then, clearly differentiates Amyraut from the scholastics. But does it demonstrate more than formal unity between Amyraut and Calvin? And does it demonstrate more than formal disunity between Calvin and the scholastics? Not unless we know not only Amyraut’s reasons for his structuring, but also Calvin’s reasons for his and the scholastics’ reasons for theirs. Armstrong says nothing persuasive on these matters, nor is he especially clear. Occasionally he seems to be saying (though not too coherently) that predestination was not really very important for Calvin; but I hate to attribute this view to Armstrong since it is so patently absurd and since in any case it is implausible to advance this as the reason for Calvin’s encyclopedic arrangement. It is therefore not at all clear that this point of structure joins Calvin to Amyraut and separates him from the scholastics. It is this sort of difficulty that seems to me to invalidate much of Armstrong’s argumentation from method, structure, etc.

(2) But now: may we nevertheless demonstrate that Amyraut’s distinctive teachings were in basic agreement with those of Calvin? Armstrong’s exposition of Amyraut’s covenant theology does, I think, remove one traditional objection against the assertion of such agreement. The objection is that Amyraut introduces a contradiction into the Reformed teaching which Calvin would not have tolerated: God did, and did not, intend the benefits of the atonement for all men equally. Armstrong’s analysis shows that on Amyraut’s view the only “benefit” of the atonement as such is the covenant arrangement by which men may be saved if they believe. This benefit is given to all men equally, with no reservation. Thus no contradiction need arise, and Amyraut need not, at this point, be accused of contradicting himself or Calvin. (Armstrong, however, does not seem to realize that no logical tension remains here—hence his rather strange treatment of logic and rationality on p. 170.) Yet the doctrinal agreement between Amyraut and Calvin can be challenged at a more basic level. Armstrong shows through various citations that Calvin, like Amyraut,

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believed (a) that God wants all men to be saved if they believe and (b) that the atonement of Christ carries out this desire of his. But such citations do not show that Calvin accepted the distinctive tenets of Amyraut, nor do they show that Calvin would have disapproved of the scholastic alternatives. For the scholastics themselves could easily have accepted (a) and (b), without thereby blunting their anti-Amyraldianism at all. The point at issue here is not whether God wants all men to be saved if they believe. (Of course he does! 2 Peter 3:9 teaches as much!) Nor is it whether the atonement furthers this particular desire. (Of course it does! It does legitimize the sincere offer of salvation to anyone who believes!) No, the point at issue in the Amyraldian controversy is neither (a) nor (b) nor both, but rather (c), that the only purpose of the atonement is to further the divine desire named in (a). Amyraut thought that the only purpose of the atonement was to make salvation possible for men if they believe, that its only function was to establish a “hypothetical covenant.” Armstrong, so far as I can see, presents no evidence that (c), the real point at issue, was held by Calvin, or even that it is compatible with Calvin’s thinking. Amyraut’s arguments for (c), in fact, in my view, show how far Amyraut really is from Calvin both in method and in doctrine. The bases which Amyraut offers for (c) are such as the following: an extremely rigid view of the Trinitarian economy (he held that only the Holy Spirit, not the Father or Son, could work “efficaciously”), a rigid view of the historical structure of redemption (the Spirit alone “applies” redemption, while only the Son is active in the “accomplishment” of it), and a desire to “render (God’s predestinating) mercy superlatively commendable” (in this context, to Roman Catholic inquirers). Armstrong himself presents these as Amyraut’s reasons for (c), but does not try to find these in Calvin; in fact it is obvious that this sort of thinking is quite foreign to Calvin and Scripture and that it amounts to a kind of rationalism as bad as any scholastic rationalism. Armstrong admits that there is a problem about Amyraut’s “rationalism,” particularly in connection with his view of faith. (The least cogent discussion of Armstrong’s book is his attempt to show that Amyraut’s persuasio is really much more existential than the scholastic fiducia.) But Armstrong seems blind to the rigid, actually unhistorical character of Amyraut’s argumentation and the indefensibility of the distinctive Amyraldian thesis on the basis of anything in Calvin.2

Thus we cannot accept Armstrong’s explicit thesis, that Amyraut was “truer to Calvin” than his scholastic opponents. Further, we are unable to go all the way with Armstrong’s implicit thesis, namely, that Amyraut

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is a good example for contemporary Reformed theologians to follow. There is much that is admirable about Amyraut as a man and as a thinker, and we are most grateful to Armstrong for his well-researched and compelling theological portrait. I’m not sure, though, that the book is worth $12.50! Perhaps, however, the best lesson we can learn from this study—besides the weakness of the “four point” position!—is that escaping scholasticism is not enough, and that at least some of the conventional “escapes” from scholasticism, both of Amyraut’s day and our own, may in fact lead us back into the very evils we were trying to avoid. And let us not suppose that some new theological system will arrive to banish scholasticism forever! I suspect that no particular theological method will provide a sure escape from those evils which we connect with scholasticism; developed by sinful man those evils are sins of the heart, and they can creep into any method, any kind of system, if the theologian is not on guard. The remedy for theological barrenness is not necessarily a new method, but always a prayer of repentance.

John M. Frame
Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia


1 A more expert critic of Armstrong’s scholarship is Professor Roger Nicole of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, who has himself written extensively on Amyraut, who is Armstrong’s former teacher, and whose work on Amyraut is severely criticized by Armstrong in the volume under discussion. In a letter to the editor of the Journal, Nicole responds to Armstrong’s assertion that Amyraut is more faithful to Calvin than were the “scholastics,” and from that response we quote:

The major point of difference between Armstrong and myself is that he judges that soon after Calvin’s death, a baneful wave of scholasticism swept over the Reformed churches, introducing in theology a spirit which was very different from that of Calvin. He judges that Amyraut with great merit, attempted to recover something of the original Reformation approach and that he is a much more faithful disciple of Calvin than Dumoulin, Rivet, or Spanheim. Hence, he views the Amyraldian movement as an attempt to recover the original flexibility of the Reformation against the increasing fossilization which tended to prevail in Orthodox churches. In line with this, he would naturally hold that theologians like F. Turretini, Voetius, Maresius, and later the Hodges and Warfield, as well as the great Dutch and Scotch Calvinists, were the victims of the same scholasticism.

I cannot view the development in this light. I acknowledge that in the course of history some of the premises of Calvin were worked out in more detail by his successors and couched sometimes in a rather scholastic manner. The approach of Amyraut in my judgment does not represent merely an antischolastic reaction but involves a serious deviation in the doctrine of decrees, a deviation grounded in an effort to pacify the Semi-Pelagians and oriented in a direction which is at variance with Calvin’s total intent. I would, therefore, judge that Amyraut’s movement represented a revolt against the strong Augustinian emphasis of the Reformation and specifically of the Canons of Dort. Perhaps the crux of a discussion would center on the question whether Calvin did or did not hold to definite atonement. Armstrong contends strongly that he did not (see especially p. 138, note) and I contend strongly that he did. In spite of the texts that Armstrong cites, I deem these to apply to a universal offer but not to be statements on the scope of the divine purpose in providing the atonement.”

2Westminster Theological Seminary. 1972; 2002. Westminster Theological Journal Volume 34 . Westminster Theological Seminary.


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