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Moïse Amyraut (1596-1664) intended to study law, but Philippe de Mornay, who had founded the Huguenot university and seminary L’Académie de Saumur in 1593, persuaded him to study theology. Amyraut was appointed by the provincial synod of Anjou to the chair of theology in 1633, where he remained until his death in 1664.

Amyraut’s life was largely uneventful, as he labored as a pastor and theological professor in the city of Saumur for some thirty years; but his theology engendered intense controversy within French Protestantism and weakened the Reformed Church in France. The controversy began with the publication in 1634 of Amyraut’s Brief Traitté de la Prédestination.

Scholars differ on the reason for Amyraut’s publication of the Traitté, although elsewhere Amyraut explains his motivation and method:

A man of quality who recently came to our confession…has been accustomed to saying among his acquaintances that the doctrine of predestination, such as is taught in our churches, horrifies him…. I esteemed the best method [to clarify this matter] would be to present this doctrine in a manner, which, without denying the justice or the freedom of God, would highly recommend His mercy.1

Amyraut’s doctrine of predestination is an attempt, therefore, by emphasizing God’s mercy, to soften the perceived harshness of the dogma in order to win converts from Roman Catholicism and to prevent defections from the Huguenot churches. Nevertheless, Amyraut fatally compromised the doctrine of predestination.

 

The teaching of the Brief Traitté

One quote from the Brief Traitté captures the essence of Amyraldianism:

The misery of men being equal and universal, and the desire that God had to deliver them from it by such a great Redeemer, which proceeds from the compassion that He has on them as His creatures fallen into such great ruin [being also equal], since they are equally His creatures, the grace of redemption which He offered must also be equal and universal, provided they are found equally disposed to receive it. And until that point there is no difference between them. The sacrifice that He offered for the propitiation of their offenses is equally for all, and the salvation that He received from His Father to communicate to men in the sanctification of the Spirit and in the glorification of the body is intended equally for all, provided, I say, that the disposition necessary to receive it is equal in the same way (94).

For Amyraut the key word is “equality.” Man’s misery is equal and universal; God’s saving desire is equal and universal; God’s mercy, which is the source of His saving desire, is equal and universal; and Christ’s redemption, which flows from God’s saving will, is equal and universal. One ingredient, however, is missing: the disposition necessary to receive God’s salvation must also be equal and universal. Amyraut’s theology, therefore, is conditional: “pourvu que” (provided that) is a favorite phrase of his.

Elsewhere, Amyraut writes:

God’s love is immeasurable to give salvation to men, provided that (pourvu que) they do not refuse it. These words, then, “God wills the salvation of all men” are necessarily limited thus: provided that (pourvu que) they believe. If they do not believe, He does not will it; this will to give the grace of salvation [being] universal and common to all men, is so conditional that, without the accomplishment of the condition, it is entirely inefficacious (96).

Amyraldianism is often called “hypothetical universalism,” which captures the convoluted nature of his teaching. Amyraut posits a hypothetical, universal decree of predestination embracing the whole of humanity, which decree is conditioned on man’s response of repentance and faith. According to that hypothetical, universal decree Christ died equally for all, but Christ’s redemption, likewise, is conditioned on man’s response. Since God knew that nobody would fulfill the condition, His counsel includes a second decree, a decree to grant the gift of saving faith to the elect so that they fulfill the condition. So there is a particular decree within a hypothetical, universal decree. “One must,” Amyraut writes, “carefully distinguish predestination to salvation from predestination to faith,” about which one historian writes, “the latter is absolute and the former is conditional” (102). Amyraut explains:

Predestination to salvation being conditional and concerning the whole human race equally, the human race being universally corrupted by sin and incapable of accomplishing that condition on which salvation depends, it necessarily occurs, not by any vice in predestination itself, but by the hardness of heart and obstinacy of the human spirit, that this first predestination is frustrated for those who have no part in the second (103).

Amyraut, then, teaches universal, divine love displayed in the gospel universally offered on the condition of faith. Amyraut perceives a problem, really two problems, which he addresses in his Brief Traitté. First, how can God genuinely offer salvation to men who are unable to receive it, or how can this offer be reconciled with the Reformed denial of free will? Second, given that the heathen die without hearing the gospel, how can they be condemned for not believing it, and how is God sincere in seeking their salvation if the means of salvation are denied them? In his answers to those questions Amyraut further compromises the doctrines of sin and grace.

The unbeliever perishes because he refuses to believe in Christ. To the objection that the unbeliever cannot believe, Amyraut distinguishes between a natural inability and a moral inability. Man is unable to believe, not because he lacks the capacity to believe, but because he is not willing to believe. Simply put, if the unbeliever would, he could believe. The same natural ability to believe and the consequent inexcusability for this unbelief apply to the heathen, although they have less revelation to which they might respond. They, too, could be saved, if they chose to believe (since they possess understanding and will, which are necessary for the production of the act of faith), but because of the depravity of their hearts, they remain unbelieving:

It is not at all to be doubted that, if in whatever nation of the world that there might be, even where the name of Christ is unknown, someone might be encountered, who, touched by the testimonies of the mercy that God presents everywhere in His administration of the universe, is truly converted to Him to obtain the salvation of His grace (and we shall see below what faculties or powers there are in man to be thus converted) He would grant him the enjoyment of it. That is to say, although he has not known distinctly the name of Christ, and although he has learned nothing of the manner by which [Christ] has obtained redemption for us, he would not, however, be deprived of the remission of his sins, the sanctification of the Spirit, and glorious immortality (95).

Behold the teaching of Amyraut: the universal, salvific will and love of God; universal, hypothetical predestination and universal, hypothetical redemption (with a secondary particular decree to save the elect with a secondary particular redemption of the elect); salvation conditioned on faith, which, although within man’s natural ability, is something of which man is morally incapable; and the distinct possibility, if only they are willing, of the salvation of the unevangelized heathen! These teachings somehow made the Reformed doctrine of predestination more palatable to Roman Catholics. And do not forget, Amyraut published his Brief Traitté just fifteen years after the conclusion of the Synod of Dordt!

 

Controversy over the theology of Saumur

Amyraut’s Brief Traitté sparked a firestorm in the French Reformed Church, with Amyraut’s allies and foes becoming quickly entrenched in their respective positions. The matter came for adjudication to the National Synod at Alençon (1637), at which synod Amyraut was examined. Sadly, the synod exonerated Amyraut, merely admonishing him to avoid certain offensive phrases:

Although the Assembly is satisfied, it decrees that this phrase, “Jesus Christ dying equally for all,” should be subtracted, because this expression, “equally,” has been, and could again be, a stone of stumbling for many (159).

Pierre Du Moulin, one of Amyraut’s most ardent theological adversaries, warned the Swiss in a letter, “The assembly has healed the hurt of the church slightly” (166), a reference to Jeremiah 6:14. Du Moulin was correct in his analysis, for the compromise of Alençon failed to secure peace. Although the synod had tried to stifle debate by prohibiting further writings on these subjects, except if Amyraut was required to defend himself, the writing of polemical letters continued. Amyraut was exonerated again at the National Synod of Charenton (1644) and finally at the Synod of Loudon (1659), which met five years before Amyraut’s death in 1664.

Unchecked by discipline—even emboldened by the lack of discipline—and continuing as theological professor of Saumur, Amyraut was able to influence a whole generation of new Reformed pastors. Thus Amyraldianism spread like a leaven through the French churches. So alarming was this that certain foreign churches declined to entrust their students to Saumur, lest the new theology should corrupt them. In October 1685, twenty-one years after Amyraut’s death, King Louis XIV declared Protestantism illegal within the kingdom of France, revoking the celebrated Edict of Nantes of April 1598, ending eighty-seven years of religious toleration for the French Huguenots. The king ordered the destruction of Protestant churches and schools, the expulsion of Protestant pastors, and the conversion of the Protestant people. Sadly, Amyraldianism had so weakened the French churches that many embraced Rome rather than suffer persecution, while the expelled pastors brought Amyraldianism with them.

Amyraldianism is so similar to Roman Catholicism in its essential theology that many Huguenots saw no need to resist the pressure to return to Rome once the protections of the state had been removed. Many Reformed people might be surprised to hear that: surely Roman Catholicism and Amyraldianism are poles apart! The Reformers, however, recognized that the difference between Rome and the truth is not in externals, such as purgatory, the pope, and the place of Mary—important matters to be sure. The essential difference between Rome and the truth is grace—the necessity, the nature, the extent, and the efficacy of grace. On those points, Amyraut and Roman Catholicism were in essential agreement.

Amyraut’s theology was more subtle—and, therefore, more dangerous—than Arminianism. No wonder Amyraut has been called “the gravedigger of the French Reformed Church.”2 Amyraut dug the hole with his theology, while with the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes the carcass of the Huguenot church was shoved into the grave prepared for it by the compromised theology of Saumur.


 

1 François LaPlanche, Orthodoxie et Prédication: L’Oeuvre d’Amyraut et la Querelle de la Grâce Universelle (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1965), 88. This work, written by a French Jesuit theologian in the French language, contains a wealth of information and citations from primary sources on Amyraut and his contemporaries. Unless otherwise stated, the references are to this work and the translation from the French is mine.

2 Roger Nicole quoting Georges Serr in Westminster Theological Journal, vol. 54 (Fall, 1992), 396.