20 August 2005

epistle of davenant

Sometime in the 1620s or 30s, John Davenant, the Calvinistic divine and then Bishop of Salisbury, wrote a long Latin letter to his friend and former colleague Samuel Ward of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. I've recently completed an English translation of that letter and have put it up on my website.

The letter concerned two main matters: In the first half of the letter, he discusses, against the backdrop of the Synod of Dort, precisely what is and what is not at stake in the controversy over the perseverance and apostasy of the saints. In the second half, his emphasis is upon providing a postive account of the effect of baptism for infants, focused upon the remission of the guilt of original sin as constituting infant baptismal regeneration, justification, sanctification, and adoption.

Davenant's entire letter is largely aimed against the argument designed to refute the perseverance of the saints from the evident fact that not all baptized infants grow up to be adult believers. Such an argument presupposes that all baptized infants receive "salvation" in some sense in baptism (consisting in the remission of the guilt of original sin), a presupposition with which Davenant would agree, along with Roman Catholics and the bulk of Protestants divines, not only among Lutherans and Anglicans, but also a significant number of Reformed (Beza, Forbes, Pareus, Hooker, Whitaker, Ward, Bedford, Le Blanc, Jurieu, etc.).

If such infants, having received salvation, grow up to become unbelievers and are damned, then that would seem to support the contention that true apostasy actually occurs. Davenant's strategy is to argue that the question of perseverance and apostasy concerns only those who receive salvation through some kind of communication of inherent grace by which they come to actual faith--a subjective change in the believer. Since infants are not capable of actual faith, Davenant argues that their experience of salvation cannot be taken as univocal with that of adult believers and thus cannot be used in an argument for the reality of apostasy of the saints.

While I don't agree with every aspect of Davenant's argument, the letter bears witness not only to the diversity of opinion on questions such as infant baptism within 17th century Reformed divinity, but also the theological depth and finesse with which such issues were discussed, as well as the commitment to Reformed and Protestant catholicity the argument embodies. Moreover, the argument is, to my mind, intrinsically interesting. As such I hope it proves of some use.