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The Right Reverend John Davenant: Bishop & Scholar

This article is part of our new 1000 words theologian series. We begin with The Right Reverend John Davenant, Bishop of Salisbury.

The Right Reverend John Davenant, Bishop of Salisbury

by Fr. Seth Snyder

John Davenant (1572-1641) was born in London to a wealthy family of merchants. Following his education at Queen’s College, Cambridge, Davenant become a fellow of the college in 1597, and then president from 1614 to 1621. Beginning in 1609, upon receiving his Doctorate of Divinity, Davenant served as the Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, a position he would retain until being sent by King James I/VI to represent the Church of England at the Synod of Dort, along with Samuel Ward, Joseph Hall and George Carleton.[1] Clerically, Davenant was ordained in 1597, after which he served as rector at Leake, Nottinghamshire, and vicar of Oakington, Cambridgeshire, until his appointment by King James to the bishopric of Salisbury in 1621, where he would minister until his death twenty years later.[2]

Theologically, Davenant is a model Jacobean divine, being arguably the most formidable champion of the moderate Calvinism that characterized that period in the development of Anglican theology (with the possible exception of Archbishop James Ussher). His two-volume Treatise on Justification, for example, is without question the most comprehensive and well-argued defense of the Protestant doctrine of imputed righteousness written in English up to that time, as well as a particularly scathing critique of the Roman doctrine of merit as the formal cause of justification.[3] Even Bishop George Bull, though disagreeing with much of its content, lavished the Treatise with praise for its scholastic refinement and practical soundness; and John Henry Newman, in his own treatment of the doctrine of justification, referenced it more than any other work from an Anglican divine, and acknowledged (though somewhat reluctantly, being ill-disposed towards Calvinism of any stripe) the bishop’s undeniable talent.[4] Replete with careful exegesis of the Bible, close readings of the early Church Fathers and scholastics, and an abundance of engagement with (then) contemporary Roman divines, Davenant’s Treatise on Justification was and remains a masterpiece of early Anglican soteriology.

Davenant also engaged closely in the debates between Calvinists and Arminians over the doctrine of predestination, which had made their way into England from the Protestant Netherlands. Against the Arminian Anglican Samuel Hoard, Davenant wrote a series of Animadversions, in which he defended a doctrine of unconditional, infralapsarian predestination, along with a passive or negative conception of reprobation, against Hoard’s charge that predestination made God out to be cruel and the author of sin.[5] This work is especially notable for its metaphysical astuteness, displayed in Davenant’s capable use of the classically theistic doctrines of aseity and simplicity, the absolute/ordained power distinction, and the non-competitive relation between Divine and non-divine agency. However, Davenant’s most sophisticated and culminating work in predestinarian theology is the De Praedestinatione et Reprobatione, of which historian William Cunningham, writing two centuries after Davenant’s death, once said, “We do not believe that there exists a better or more satisfactory vindication of the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination”.[6] When it comes to Jacobean Anglicanism, then, and its unique, modified Calvinist predestinarianism, you cannot do any better than Davenant.

Finally, and perhaps most famously, Davenant was one of the principal defenders of English hypothetical universalism, a distinctively early Anglican school of thought within the broader Reformed tradition that held that the extent of the atonement is universal as opposed to its being a particular, or, limited atonement. His Dissertation on the Death of Christ is his seminal work on this topic. Similar to the Cameronites and Amyraldians, Davenant held that the atonement was general as to intent and sufficiency, and, likewise, that grace was universally sufficient, even if not necessarily effectual. This position can be considered a middle ground between Calvinism and Arminianism, though this interpretation of his thought has been contested.[7]

In sum, Davenant is a formidable exponent and defender of the more Reformed aspects of the Anglican tradition. His balanced, modified Calvinism is a paradigmatic instance of English wisdom and moderation applied to Reformation doctrine, and of the generosity characteristic of our venerable faith. Indeed, Davenant should be a, if not the central and regulating figure for Reformed-leaning and low-church Anglicans, though all Anglicans have something to benefit from his thought.

[1] For Davenant and the British Delegation’s role at the Synod of Dort, see Anthony Milton’s The British Delegation and the Synod of Dort (1618-19) (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2002). [2] Fuller, Joseph Morris, The Life, Letters and Writings of John Davenant D.D., 1572-1641, Lord Bishop of Salisbury (London: Methuen and Co., 1897). [3] John Davenant, A Treatise on Justification, trans. Josiah Allport, vol. I (London: Hamilton, Adams and Co., 1844-46). [4] George Bull, Harmonia Apostolica, disp. ii. cap. xviii., sec. 10.; John Henry Newman, Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2001). [5] John Davenant, Animadversions upon a Treatise entitled, God’s love to Mankind (Cambridge: Roger Daniel, 1641). For a brief explanation of these terms, unconditional predestination maintains that God’s election and reprobation are not suspended upon any conditions on the part of man, e.g. faith, repentance, etc. in the case of election, unbelief, sin, etc. in the case of reprobation (though there may be conditions appended to election and reprobation, though these would be more accurately termed means through which God accomplishes His election/reprobation rather than conditions in the strict sense); infralapsarian, or, infralapsarianism in the context of predestinarian thought refers to God’s election and reprobation being logically posterior to, or, after the fall (logically rather than temporally, since there is no succession of moments of time in God’s eternity); a passive or negative conception of reprobation holds that God is not actively or causally involved in reprobation, but rather permits or leaves sinners to their own devices, the natural consequences of which are, of course, damnation. This has also been termed preterition. [6] William Cunningham, The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation (Edinburgh: Hamilton, Adams, & Co., 1862), p. 205. [7] Richard Muller, Oliver Crisp and Michael Lynch have made compelling arguments that Davenant belongs on the periphery of the Reformed Calvinist tradition, rather than being a via media between Calvinism and Arminianism.


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