Amyraldian Controversy


Written by: Andrew McGowan

The Reformation in France and the Amyraldian Controversy

The Reformation initially reached France through the influence of Luther’s writings. Protestants there were severely persecuted, the culmination of which came in the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre (August 23-24, 1572) when nearly 20,000 were martyred. The Edict of Nantes granted toleration in 1598.

Our concern is with the man Moise Amyraut (also read as Moses Amyraldus) (1596-1664). He was quite studious and obtained his law degree in only one year. He enrolled at the Academy of Saumur in 1618 to study theology under John Cameron. In 1626 he began to minister in the Reformed Church in Saumur and to lecture in theology at the Academy. Like Calvin, he was burdened with bad health. His only daughter died young. He was a prolific writer (92 works). Controversy surrounding him can be isolated in three periods:

During the first period (1633-1641) he published a work on predestination (1634) in which he sought to soften what he perceived as a harshness in Calvinistic theology. He affirmed a universal will of God to save together with a universal atonement. He did, however, argue for bondage of the will. He was tried for heresy in 1637 at the national synod in Alencon but was acquitted.

During the second period (1644-1649) Amyraut wrote a thesis in support of his doctrine of universal grace, in opposition to the doctrine of Frederic Spanheim. He spoke out against Arminianism, but many believed their views to be identical. Amyraut and other Salmurian theologians were coming under increasing attack.

The third period (1655-1664) witnessed a lessening of hostilities and Amyraut flourished.

A.            The Soteriology of Moise Amyraut

Amyraut affirmed the Calvinistic doctrine of total depravity, denied freedom of the will, taught that faith was a gift of God, asserted that saving grace in the elect was irresistible, and clearly believed in unconditional election. Controversy surrounded his view of the extent of the atonement.

Amyraut believed that the foundation for the grace of God and the sincere preaching of the gospel was the universal death of Christ. He believed that Christ died equally for all men without exception. Redemption and reconciliation have been obtained for all . . . providing they believe. In other words, God has potentiallysaved all men through the redemption that is in Christ and thus salvation is hypothetically possible for all. God wills the salvation of all, provided they believe. Brian Armstrong comments:

“It is to be noted . . . that each mention of the universality of the design of Christ’s atonement is qualified by a ‘provided that.’ Amyraut is very much concerned that it be understood that the will of God which desires universal salvation is made on the condition that the stipulation be fulfilled, and that if that stipulation is not fulfilled He does not will it. This is perhaps the most adequate definition of ‘hypothetical universalism’ which can be given. Fulfilling God’s will for universal salvation, Christ procured it for all. Here is Amyraut’s universalism. It is hypothetical, for salvation is only effectual when and if such and such a condition is fulfilled” (Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy[Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1969], 212).

Roger Nicole elaborates:

“Amyraut held that God, moved by compassion for the plight of fallen mankind, designed to save all men and sent His Son Jesus Christ as a substitutionary offering for the sins of all men and of every man — this is Amyraut’s universalism. This sacrifice is not effectual unto salvation, however, unless God’s offer of grace is accepted by man in repentance and faith, which acceptance is the fruit of God’s special grace, conferred on those only whom He has chosen — this is the hypothetical aspect of Amyraut’s view” (‘Moyse Amyraut [1596-1664] and the Controversy on Universal Grace, First Phase [1634-1637],” Ph.D. thesis, Harvard University, 1966, 3-4).

Nicole summarizes:

“Amyraut was not an Arminian. He has expressed with unquestionable clarity his decided allegiance: 1) to the inscrutability of the sovereign decree of predestination to faith and conversely of preterition; 2) to the radical inability of man, in spite of the qualifications implied in his distinction between natural and moral inability; 3) to the effectuality of grace and of the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit in man, even though he may have conceived of the mode of this work in terms which are not readily endorsed by all Reformed thinkers; 4) to the perseverance of the saints, which he appears never to have questioned in any way. Even in the matter of the intent of the death of Christ, his view was not in every respect similar to the position of the Remonstrants: specifically he held that Christ had merited faith for the elect, which he did not impetrate for the reprobates. There was therefore with Amyraut a much greater inclination than with the Arminians to conceive of the work of Christ as the established basis for concrete blessings rather than the potential source of conditional blessings, whose effectuation would await some man-initiated response. Even so, of course, Amyraut was not ready to confess that the death of Christ was redemptively intended for those only who are to be saved, or the elect. It may be good to note that Curcellaeus, the Arminian successor of Episcopius, did not view Amyraut as an Arminian, although he felt that he had taken some promising steps in this direction” (129).

Thus what we see in Amyraut’s theology is a duality in the so-called covenant of grace. On the one hand, God made a covenant with all humanity to save them on the condition that they repent and believe the gospel. Amyraut argued that on a purely natural level this was possible because the human will was capable of making such a response. However, on the moral level it was impossible because of the debilitating effects of sin. In other words, man has not lost the power of will but he haslost the power of a good will. This being the case, God made another covenant, an unconditional one, according to which he guarantees the salvation of the elect, promising to graciously work within them to elicit that repentance and faith on which salvation is suspended. Thus,

“Amyraldianism . . . implies a twofold will of God, whereby he wills the salvation of all humankind on condition of faith but wills the salvation of the elect specifically and unconditionally. The theological difficulty of God’s will having been frustrated by the fact that not all are saved is met by the argument that God only willed their salvation on the condition of faith. Where an individual has no faith, then God has not willed the salvation of that person” (Andrew McGowan, ‘Amyraldianism,’ The Dictionary of Historical Theology[Eerdmans, 2000], 12).

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