An Argument for Anglican Hypothetical Universalism

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from Unlimited Atonement: Amyraldism and Reformed Theology
edited by Michael F. Bird & Scott Harrower
Excerpt written by Oliver D. Crisp

With these matters clarified, we may turn to the task of offering a constructive account of the doctrine.[1] We begin with the theological assumption culled from the Lombard:

                        Sufficiency-efficiency distinction: Christ’s reconciling work is sufficient for all humankind, but efficient only for the elect.

In common with other accounts of hypothetical universalism, I shall take this distinction as the point of departure for this constructive account of the doctrine. With this in mind, we can consider these two claims about sufficiency and efficacy in turn. In the previous section we saw that there are several ways of construing this distinction in the Amyraldian and Anglican accounts of the doctrine. There are other versions of hypothetical universalism besides these, of course. It is just that these are perhaps the two that are best known, and the two that we are concerned with here. I favor the Anglican version. The reason is that (a) it is a simpler, more direct way of reasoning to substantially the same conclusion, and (b) it does not require the questionable assumption—disputed by the defenders of limited atonement—that in the purposes of God there is at least one decree that is both conditional and ineffectual, namely, the decree to save all humanity who turn to Christ in faith.

Regarding (a): When weighing up different arguments for substantially the same conclusion, or different hypotheses that explain the same evidence and provide the substantially the same conclusion on the basis of different conceptual models, it is common to prefer the simpler explanation over the more complex. This is not a hard-and-fast theological rule, perhaps, but in general and other things being equal, where there are two competing explanations of the same data that reach substantially the same conclusion, it is preferable to have a simpler explanation rather than a more complex one. The Anglican version of hypothetical universalism is, so it seems to me, more elegant and simpler than the Amyraldian. This is not a sufficient condition for preferring one version of the doctrine over the others, but it is not weightless either.

Regarding (b): We have already noted that the second reason for preferring the Anglican view is significant because it seems problematic to think that anything can frustrate the will of God. Indeed, this is common coin in Reformed theology where a strong doctrine of God’s absolute sovereignty and meticulous providence over creation means that it is difficult to see how any divine decree can be frustrated or impeded by a creaturely action. This problem does not arise on the Anglican version of the doctrine. On that view, the idea is that God’s intention is to provide a means of human salvation that is, in fact, sufficient to atone for the sin of each and every fallen human individual, though it will only be effectual for those to whom the gift of faith is given. Christ’s work is really sufficient, not merely notionally sufficient. But it is only efficacious for the elect. We could put the argument a little more formally in order to make its structure clearer, beginning with a minor revision to the sufficiency-efficiency distinction in order to disambiguate the notion of sufficiency in view here. Let us call this the ordained sufficiency-efficiency distinction:

Ordained sufficiency-efficiency distinction: Christ’s reconciling work is ordained to be really sufficient for all humankind, but efficient only for the elect.

On the basis of this distinction, the version of Anglican hypothetical universalism I am interested in goes like this:

  1. God intends and ordains that Christ’s atoning work be really sufficient for the reconciliation of all humanity, by which is meant actually sufficient for the salvation of each and every fallen human being (this we can call the ordained sufficiency of the atonement).
  2. This ordained actual sufficiency normally requires faith as a condition in order to be made effectual (we can call this the efficacious condition of faith).
  3. Faith is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8).
  4. God normally provides the gift of faith to those whom he has predestined according to his good purposes (Deut. 29:29; Prov. 16:33; Rom. 9; Eph. 1:4–5).
  5. Those to whom God provides the efficacious condition of the gift of faith will infallibly be saved by means of the application of the saving benefits of the ordained sufficiency of the atonement.

This completes the argument. But it also raises an important question, having to do with limited cases that are counterexamples to the reasoning of the Anglican version of hypothetical universalism just sketched. These counterexamples comprise those individuals incapable of forming faith, such as those who die in utero, or before the age of reason, or who remain in a permanent vegetative state, or who are severely mentally impaired and incapable of decisions for which they can be held morally responsible. On the face of it, such persons seem to be excluded from salvation according to the Anglican hypothetical universalist argument because they are not fit subjects of the efficacious condition of faith. To put the point slightly differently, these kinds of individuals cannot act in the relevant sort of way that would render them appropriate candidates for praise or blame when it comes to failure to form faith, for they do not appear to be moral agents. On the face of it, this seems to pose a serious problem for the Anglican hypothetical universalist argument just given.

However, note the way in which the argument qualifies the scope of the gift of faith. Ordained actual sufficiency normally requires faith as a condition in order to be made effectual. It is normally the case that God provides the gift of faith to those whom he has predestined according to his good purposes. This qualification is deliberate. It leaves open the possibility that there are certain individuals, perhaps classes of individuals, who do not fall under the purview of these conditions because they are not appropriate candidates for the ascription of moral praise or blame. For all we know, God ordains the salvation of such individuals as a class and independent of any condition of faith. That seems perfectly consistent with the logic of the Anglican hypothetical universalist scheme, and with God’s gracious benevolence to his creatures.

[1] In Deviant Calvinism I offered another attempt at stating this doctrine, relying on the work of Bishop John Davenant to do so.

This post is adapted from Unlimited Atonement: Amyraldism and Reformed Theology by Michael F. Bird and Scott Harrower. This title was released on May 23rd, 2023. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

Limited atonement is not the only Reformed model of atonement

“Hypothetical universalism,” or “unlimited atonement,” states that Christ’s death is sufficient for the guilt of all people yet is only effectively applied to those with faith. This tradition, typified by the French Reformer Moise Amyraut, has continued among Anglicans and Baptists for over four centuries, yet has been underexplored in Reformed systematic theology.

Unlimited Atonement fills a gap in resources on atonement theology that begin with the unlimited love of God. Editors Michael F. Bird and Scott Harrower draw on the specialties of each of the ten contributors, addressing themes such as:


  • the biblical and historical sources of the soteriological position known as Amyraldism
  • distinctive features of Anglican atonement theology
  • Introductions to every book of the Bible to help you approach the text
  • hypothetical universalism, election, and the Baptist theological tradition
  • other prominent advocates of unlimited atonement
  • the issues of systematic theology at stake
  • atonement theology in preaching

Unlimited Atonementis the most comprehensive analysis of Amyraldism to date, providing a resource for theology and Bible students and teachers in an esoteric stream of Reformed theology. Bird and Harrower provide a starting point for anyone who wants to understand the sources and merits of Amyraldism.


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