This material is excerpted from pages 154-157 of my book The Extent of the Atonement, minus the footnotes plus explanatory comments in brackets.
The English delegation, led by John Davenant, were among those who argued that the death of Christ was unlimited in its extent in that it satisfied for the sins of all people. At this point, Davenant and others were in agreement with the Remonstrants but in disagreement with their fellow strict particularists [those Calvinists who held strictly to limited atonement], who conflated the intent to apply and the extent of the atonement. Thomas made a crucial point when he noted:
The twofold approach of the British submission is powerfully reminiscent of Ursinus’ approach to the question of the extent of the atonement. It is more than likely that the British were influenced by it, since his exposition of the Heidelberg Catechism had been widely circulated in England during the previous 30 years. Indeed, it was almost word for word quotation when the British said, “We consider two things in this offering of Christ—the manner of calling people to actual participation, and the fruit.”
We have seen how both Ursinus and the Heidelberg Catechism championed universal atonement. Likewise, the Breman delegation argued for unlimited atonement and included as one of their reasons the necessity to ground the well-meant gospel offer to all in the fact that Christ had satisfied for the sins of all. For example, Martinius stated:
If this redemption be not supposed a common blessing bestowed on all men, the indiscriminate and promiscuous preaching of the gospel committed to the apostles to be exercised among all nations, will have no true foundation in truth . . . for how from a benefit, sufficient indeed, but not designed for me by a sincere intention, can the necessity of believing that it belongs to me be deduced? . . . This redemption is the payment of a price due for us captives, not that we should go forth from captivity at all events, but that we should be able and be bound to go forth; and in fact we should go forth if we would believe in the Redeemer.
Martinius held that a universal atonement was actually necessary, “For how can a necessity of believing that a benefit pertains to me be deduced from a benefit that is indeed sufficient, but not destined to be such by a true intention?” Thus, there were some at Dort, like Davenant and Martinius, who held a dualistic approach to the question of the design of the atonement: Christ died for all in that he satisfied for the sins of all, but he died especially with the intent of saving the elect, and election is what determines who can and will believe. “Redemption accomplished did not have to be co-extensive with redemption applied” in the minds of those who fostered universal atonement at Dort.
No one was more influential at Dort in arguing for unlimited atonement than John Davenant (1572–1641), Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, who was appointed Bishop of Salisbury shortly after his return to England from Dort. Davenant wrote a very important work on the extent of the atonement called “A Dissertation on the Death of Christ.” Often ignored or neglected, it is one of the most significant works in the history of Reformed theology that argues for unlimited atonement.
Consider the following from his “Dissertation,” which exhibits his thinking on this subject, especially with respect to the views of the church fathers, Augustine, and Prosper:
I think that it may be truly affirmed, that before the dispute between Augustine and Pelagius, there was no question concerning the death of Christ, whether it was to be extended to all mankind, or to be confined only to the elect. For the Fathers, when speaking of the death of Christ, describe it to us as undertaken and endured for the redemption of the human race; and not a word (that I know of) occurs among them of the exclusion of any persons by the decree of God. They agree that it is actually beneficial to those only who believe, yet they everywhere confess that Christ died in behalf of all mankind. . . .
Their adversaries were nevertheless accustomed to object to Augustine, that they taught that Christ was crucified for the predestinate alone; and from this objection of the Pelagians, some in succeeding ages seized a handle for kindling the afore-mentioned controversy. This is manifest from the objections of the Vincentians, in which this takes the lead, that our Lord Jesus Christ did not suffer for the salvation and redemption of all men. It is manifest from the Answers of Prosper to the Capitula of the Gallican Divines, where their ninth objection is given after this manner: That the Savior was not crucified for the redemption of the whole world. The Semipelagians objected to this as new, invidious, and erroneous. But Prosper meets these objections, not by maintaining that Christ suffered only for the elect, but by shewing whence it arises, that the passion of Christ is profitable and saving to the elect alone. . . .
We assert, therefore, that Augustine never attempted to impugn that proposition of the Semipelagians, that Christ died for the whole human race, but with all his might refuted the addition they had made to it; and shewed that the property or benefit of redemption, that is, eternal life, belongs to the predestinate alone, because they only do not pass through life in unbelief, they never die in their impiety . . . For neither did Augustine ever oppose as erroneous the proposition that Christ died not for all men, but for the predestinate alone.
Since Davenant was the leader of the English delegation at Dort, it proves helpful to consider what the English delegation submitted as their understanding of the extent of the atonement as reflected in “The Collegiate Suffrage of the Divines of Great Britain, concerning the Five Articles Controverted at the Synod of Dort” concerning the second article. In “The First Position,” the delegation clearly affirmed that Christ died for the elect based on a special love by God and Christ for them. In “The Second Position,” the delegates stated that all the gifts of grace proceed to the elect upon the fulfillment of the conditions of the covenant. “The Third Position” is vital to an understanding of the British delegation’s view of the extent of Christ’s death. They state in unequivocal terms that God sent Christ to give himself a ransom “for the sins of the whole world.”
The English delegation declared:
God, pitying the fall of the human race, sent his Son, who gave himself, the price of redemption, for the sins of the whole world . . . Since that price, which was paid for all men, which will certainly benefit all who believe to eternal life, yet doth not profit all men. . . . So then Christ died for all men, that all and each, by the mediation of faith, through the virtue of this corresponding ransom, might obtain remission of sins and eternal life. (Acta Synodi Nationalis, in Nomine Domini Nostri Iesv Christi, Autoritate Illvstr. Et Praepotentvm D.D. Ordinvm Generalivm Foederati Belgij Prouinciarum, Dordrechti Habita anno M.DC.XVIII & M.DC.XIX [Hanovi.: Impensis Egenolphi Emmelii, 1620], II:78.)
Furthermore, it is on the grounds of this universal atonement for the sins of all that all people are saveable and the gospel may be therefore preached to all. That the price for sins was paid for all in no way interdicts the doctrine of election. “The Fourth Position” stated:
Christ therefore so dyed for all, that all and every one by the meanes of faith might obtaine remission of sins, and eternall life by virtue of that ransome paid once for all mankind. But Christ so dyed for the elect, that by the merit of his death in speciall manner destinated unto them according to the eternall good pleasure of God, they might infallibly obtaine both faith and eternall life.
The foundation for the universal gospel offer is the death of Christ for the sins of all people. If anyone believes, he may obtain forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
Davenant and the English delegation signed the final canons of the Synod of Dort.
It is now a fact beyond dispute that Dort did not enshrine limited atonement as the Reformed position on the extent of the atonement. Rather, Dort’s delegates constructed a statement on the issue that allowed both positions—limited atonement and unlimited atonement—to be considered within the boundaries of Reformed orthodoxy.
Moreover, as I have established in The Extent of the Atonement, unlimited atonement preceded limited atonement in Reformed theology. The first generation of the Reformed, including Calvin (who is technically a second generation Reformer as Muller and others rightly have noted) all held to unlimited atonement.