Amyraut on Predistination

The First Published Translation from the French by Dr. Matthew Harding

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Moïse Amyraut
Editor(s): 
Alan Charles Clifford
  • Charenton Reformed Publishing
    , January
     2017.
     190 pages.
     $20.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780992946562.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In the Christian internecine conflict between Calvinism and Arminianism, it can often be forgotten that there were many theologians who espoused nuanced arguments and perspectives different from the mainstream of their respective camps. Moise Amyraut, the 17th century Huguenot theologian, was one such figure, and the recent full English translation of his Brief Treatise on Predestination marks the first time that non-specialists can interact with his unique formulation of Reformed soteriology. The work itself is accompanied by a biographical essay about Amyraut by Alan Clifford, a chapter on the translation, the treatise itself, and an appendix consisting of extracts from the Council of Alencon where Amyraut was deposed, but ultimately cleared for his theological positions.

The general thrust of Clifford’s biographical chapter is the same as that of another Amyraut scholar Brian G. Armstrong. In both of their views, Amyraut was truer to the theology of Calvin than his more well-known successors—Beza, the Puritans, and so forth (16). It is a “Calvin against the Calvinists” argument in favor of Amyraut as Calvin’s true disciple. As to whether or not this conception of Calvin’s theology (something which experts have debated at length) is correct, however the manner in which Clifford argues for it is distractingly polemical. The chapter is replete with derogatory references to Amyraut’s contemporaries—for example, he refers to Beza and Arminius as “deviants”—and even including attacks on modern scholars, for instance when he writes that “Dr. Nichole flies in the face of the obvious” (19). What one does learn from the biography is that Amyraut was irenic and fair-minded in his debates, a quality sorely lacking in the chapter itself.

Where the biography is not polemical it occasionally pivots to hagiography. This is due in part to Clifford’s own affinity for Amyraut, but also to the use of a contemporary biographer John Quick who clearly adored Amyraut (23). All in all, while useful in giving a background to Amyraut’s life and historical context, the biographical chapter’s usefulness is limited by the obvious biases of its author.

Following the biographical chapter, the translator Matthew Harding offers up information on the history of the text and his own translation techniques. Given that the text was written in Middle French, a language which the present reviewer has no competency in, there are few evaluations that can be made for good or ill. The only translation decision to which issue was taken was the choice to translate Amyraut’s explanation of the natural habit of heavy objects to fall to the ground as gravity, a theory not yet developed at that time (138). In the footnote to this decision, Harding notes that this decision was not anachronistic, but was more economic (one word versus the six Amyraut used), yet the presence of such an anachronism was distracting at the very least. 

As for the text itself, Amyraut develops a complex argument which allows him both to affirm the universal intent of God to save all mankind and espouse the particularist view that only some are saved by God’s decree. In the first chapter Amyraut tackles the general notion of predestination, noting that all intelligent beings act for rational ends, God included (57-58). From this chapter on, the originality of Amyraut is put on full display.

In the second chapter Amyraut explains God’s reason for creating the world. In common with other Reformed authors he states that God created the world for his glory. However, where Amyraut differs is that he states that this is only the natural purpose of creation. He unpacks this idea by comparing creation to a watch. A watch’s natural purpose is to tell time, but the creator of the watch can still have an even higher purpose for it, which transcends its natural end, such as the joy of the watchmaker (63). In the same way, creation’s natural end is the glorification of the creator, but God’s ultimate purpose in creation is simply to exercise his goodness for its own sake. More specifically, as it relates to man (as it is developed in the next chapter) God desired to display the pinnacle of his goodness by giving man his complete image, consisting of holiness and supreme happiness (72). In this theory of God’s motivation for creation, God gains nothing, but truly gives everything. In popular Reformed theology today, where the unrelenting emphasis on God’s desire for self-glorification can lead some to view God as egotistical, Amyraut’s articulation of the issue offers a more selfless avenue through which to understand God’s motivations.

As Amyraut’s argument develops in the next few chapters, his unique take on predestination and the decrees becomes clear. In agreement with his contemporaries, Amyraut affirms the total depravity of man and his utter inability to do repair his fallen condition. In contrast however, he states that Christ’s atoning death was intended for all mankind, not simply the elected (chap. 6). God’s love was such that he truly desired all men to be saved, and so Christ truly died for all men. However, the efficacy of this sacrifice is dependent upon faith (chap. 7). In keeping with his prior commitment to total depravity, Amyraut notes that man cannot have faith by virtue of his moral corruption (chap. 8). Therefore, God has decreed to give faith to some, while leaving others in their sinful state. In summarizing his argument, Amyraut makes the distinction between a predestination to salvation (God’s intent to save all through Christ’s death) and a predestination to faith (whereby God grants the gift of faith to the elect for his good pleasure (143). 

The effect of this construal of divine decrees and intention is that God’s universal love for mankind is accented, and at the very least, it gives a plausable explanation as to how texts declaring the universal intention to save—such as 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9—can be reconciled with a particularist account of who is actually saved.

Whether one is convinced by Amyraut’s argument or not, it is undeniable that the ability to interact with Amyraut on his own terms is an invaluable opportunity which can open new vistas in historical and constructive theology. For granting English-language readers this opportunity, Harding should be commended.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brendon Norton is Instructor of Theology at Northpoint Bible College in Haverhill, MA.

Date of Review: 
December 12, 2018

Keywords: 

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