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A Particular Defence of Particularism

In: Journal of Reformed Theology
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  • 1 University of Stavanger, Stavanger, Norway
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Abstract

This paper defends the received account—that the Westminster Assembly maintained that all salvific actions of God are particular in intention—against a revisionist argument that it allowed that some salvific actions of God may be universal in intention.

Abstract

Abstract

This paper defends the received account—that the Westminster Assembly maintained that all salvific actions of God are particular in intention—against a revisionist argument that it allowed that some salvific actions of God may be universal in intention.

Introduction

To speak about the Unspeakable may be regarded as presumption or even madness. Yet, the Christian religion glories in speaking about the revelation of God intending to save humans in Christ. But what does such a seemingly anthropomorphic expression of intention mean?

In seeking understanding of faith in God’s intention to save humans in Christ, the Church developed a plurality of views. The term ‘particularism’ is nowadays commonly used in theology for the orthodox account that some humans will ultimately be saved, and ‘universalism’ is used for the heterodox account that every human will ultimately be saved.1 Less common, but arguably more basic, is a narrower use of these terms. For intention is more basic than outcome, and these terms are then used for interpretations contending that the divine intention is universal and particular respectively. But, since God is more basic than human salvation, a still more narrow use is possible for views differing over whether a divine intention can be frustrated or not. Most narrowly, ‘particularism’ and ‘universalism can be used for two accounts that agree not only about particular final salvation, but also about the impossibility of a frustrated divine intention.2 In this last usage ‘particularism’ and ‘universalism’ express differences over whether the (successful) divine intention is strictly particular or partly universal. More precisely, ‘particularism’ is here used for the view that all salvific actions of God are particular in intention, and ‘universalism’ for the view that some salvific actions of God are universal in intention while some are particular in intention. Henceforth ‘particularism’ and ‘universalism’ will in this paper only be used in these last senses.

The most elaborate and precise discussion of whether the invincible divine intention of salvation in Christ is strictly particular or partly universal is (arguably) found in the reformed Church.3 That discussion is of special interest, since it was undertaken on the background that predication about God is at best analogical; namely, in predication of ‘intention’ to God both the creaturely manner of meaning (modus significandi) and the creaturely application of that perfection (ratio nominis) is denied while only the meant perfection (res significata) is affirmed.4 Thus ‘intention’ is not anthropomorphically predicated of God.

In this brief paper I will only make a particular defence of particularism. My defence is ‘particular’ in that I particularly defend the received account that the Westminster Assembly maintained particularism at the exclusion of universalism.5 Its importance and relevance comes from the wide recognition of the consistency of this synodical statement.

A Revisionist Argument

In a recent paper Jonathan D. Moore aims to evaluate the influence of universalism and particularism on creedal statements in the reformed Church.6 It aims commendably to go beyond stereotypical accounts of reformed theology in general and superficial historiography on this issue in particular. It identifies and analyses representatives such as John Davenant (1572-1641), John Owen (1616-1683), the synod of Dordrecht (1618-1619) and the Westminster assembly (1643-1653). Moore’s main argument is against the received view that universalism was excluded by these synods: ‘the Reformed Orthodox failed to secure unanimous agreement on this matter, and therefore the formulations that were finally agreed at synodical level were of necessity capable of a range of interpretations.’ (125)

First, he contends that the canons of Dordrecht ‘subtly’ allows for universalism. for

ironically it is the inclusion of the word efficaciter that gives the hypothetical universalist room for this position. Had this word been omitted, the Canons would be teaching that Christ’s redemptive work in all respects was ‘only’ for the elect. But as it stands, what the Canons teach here is that Christ’s effectual redemptive work was only for the elect. (146)

Similarly, using the term sufficiens in ‘a carefully crafted statement’ (147) with ‘calculated ambiguity’ (149), the Dordrecht Fathers sanctioned universalism (147). Thus, alluding to Peter Lombard’s formula that Christ’s death was sufficient for all humans but efficient only for the elect, the synod included universalism.

Second, the Westminster Confession of Faith (henceforth ‘WCF’) allows the universalist to ‘argue that the limitation to the elect here [in Ch. 3:6] only applies’ to ‘the redemption of Christ fully applied to them, but it just so happens that the non-elect are also redeemed in another sense.’ In other words, ‘confining its scope to the effectual redemption of the elect, while reserving the right to hold privately to another, ineffectual redemption.’ (150; similarly 151) Thus the Westminster Assembly also included universalism.

So, contrary to the received view, reformed orthodoxy did not, according to Moore, exclusively allow for the view that all salvific actions of God are particular in intention, but also the view that some salvific actions of God are universal in intention. Thus the Dordrecht and Westminster synods can be said to be inclusive of both particularism and universalism.

A Counter Argument

Here I will have nothing to say on John Owen, John Davenant and the synod of Dordrecht. Instead I will argue against Moore’s attempt to find a ‘modified or intentionally more ambiguous codification in the Westminster Confession of Faith’ (148). The universalist reading of Westminster is indeed not only ‘a surprise’ and ‘altogether more difficult’ (148) in comparison to the received interpretation, but ‘a contorted reading’ (150).

Moore bases his interpretation on two formulations in WCF. The first, 3:6, reads in full as follows:

As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so hath He, by the eternal and most free purpose of His will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by His Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by His power, through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.7

His second reason is this sentence in 8:8: ‘To all those for whom Christ hath purchased redemption, He doth certainly and effectually apply and communicate the same’. Moore gives two reasons in favour of the inclusion of universalism.

Firstly and negatively, alternative renderings are absent. Moore’s argument is here an inductive one with four parts. Firstly, the confession ‘nowhere’ states that ‘ “Christ intended to redeem the elect only.” ’ Secondly, ‘the confession nowhere explicitly denies the possibility of conditional redemption’. (151) Thirdly, the second sentence of 3.6 ‘can still be taken to be referring only to effectual redemption’ (as opposed to sufficient redemption), because it is not formulated ‘ “Neither are any other redeemed by Christ but the elect only” full stop, or “Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only” ’. (150) Fourthly, the sentence in 8.8 does not read ‘ “To all those for whom Christ hath purchased redemption in any sense” ’. So, Moore concludes, WCF ‘does not exclude English Hypothetical Universalism in a way it could have done.’ (151)

Secondly and positively, Moore continues by contending that 3.6 ‘says “and saved” ’, which makes it conceivable that the elect are redeemed in one sense and ‘the non-elect . . . in another sense.’ (150) It is not obvious that two senses of ‘redemption’ follows from the phrase ‘and saved’, but it does follow if it is assumed with Moore that ‘saved’ contains ‘redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified’ but not that ‘redeemed’ contains ‘effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified’. In other words, he supposes that the verbs may have different subjects: ‘the limitation to the elect here only applies concerning the full set, and not individually to each component part’ (150).

I reply to the first and negative argument by denying its validity and affirming contradictory evidence. For Moore’s conclusion is drawn on the absence of evidence and WCF supplies evidence contradictory of Moore’s interpretation both in the passages in question and elsewhere. First, the absence of evidence (as opposed to negative evidence) excluding universalism would not be evidence in favour of including universalism. Moore’s argument is thus simply an argument from ignorance and as such fallacious. Second, the first part of Moore’s inductive argument is contradicted by WCF 11:4: ‘God did, from all eternity, decree to justify all the elect, and Christ did, in the fullness of time, die for their sins, and rise again for their justification’. Although this is not identical to the formulation Moore makes up, it states explicitly that Christ died for the sins of the elect. The eternal intention and the temporal outworking of justification are equally particular. Thus, according to WCF 29:2, ‘Christ’s one, only sacrifice, [is] the alone propitiation for all the sins of the elect.’ Moreover, in contradiction with part two of his argument, not only does WCF 3:1 and 3:5 explicitly deny that the divine predestination of the redemption of the elect in Christ could be conditional on ‘the creature’,8 but it is also out of context to talk of ‘the possibility of conditional redemption’ when ‘there is no ordinary salvation’ for the elect outside the visible church (25:2) and ‘much less can men, not professing the Christian religion, be saved in any other way whatsoever’ (10:4). If there is ordinarily no salvation for the elect outside the visible church (still less for the reprobate), how could there possibly be redemption for those outside the invisible church? Decreed reprobation in WCF 3:7 also rules out any ‘possibility of conditional redemption’.9 Parts three and four are contradicted by 8:8 itself: ‘To all those for whom Christ hath purchased redemption, he doth certainly and effectually apply and communicate the same’; where the extension of ‘redemption’ on the one hand and that of ‘application’ and ‘communication’ on the other are identical. Redemption, application and communication are equally particular. Moore sadly overlooks the second half of the sentence. What we can privately conceive is a very bad guide to meaning and public use is the only safe guide to meaning. So his first and negative argument fails.

I reply to the second and positive argument by negative evidence in the context. First, there is negative evidence in the narrow context. The previous and second sentence of WCF 3:6 states the temporal order of the redemption of the elect, and the last sentence simply makes the converse opposition explicit in denying that that has anything to do with those that are not elect. For both sentences allude to the order or progression of Romans 8:30 (which is added as proof text). Hence the phrase ‘and saved’ stands merely for the final stage of the elect, namely glorification. In other words, ‘and saved’ in the last sentence and ‘salvation’ in the middle sentence are tantamount with ‘glory’ in the first sentence of 3:6. Thus the string of words in the last sentence of 3:6 is synonymous with 8:1: ‘in time redeemed, called, justified, sanctified, and glorified.’ The first sentence of 3:6 also states that it is for the elect that all the means of redemption are foreordained and therefore they extend to them only. So the paragraph clearly maintains particularism.10 This leads, second, to the negative evidence in the broader context. The previous paragraph has already shown that elsewhere WCF explicitly teaches that the divine intention of redeeming some humans in Christ cannot be conditional and that this intention and its application are identical in extension. In addition 8:1 teaches that the people given to Christ in eternity was redeemed by him in time; that is, election and redemption are equally particular. Indeed, Christ accomplishes redemption ‘for all those whom the Father hath given unto Him.’ (8:5) Moreover, 11:3 reads: ‘Christ [. . .] did fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified, and did make a proper, real and full satisfaction to His Father’s justice in their behalf.’ Who are thus justified? ‘Those whom God effectually calleth’ (11:1) Who are effectually called? Well, ‘those only’ who are ‘predestinated unto life’ (10:1). So Christ fully discharged the debt of and satisfied divine justice in behalf of the elect only.11 This is also taught in other documents of the Westminster synod. The catechisms teach that God only brings the elect into a state of redemption by Christ; it is for them he satisfies divine justice, obtains reconciliation and performs intercession; and it is the elect alone that are the benefactors of redemption (LC 30-32, 44, 59-60, 154; SC 20, 21, 25, 32). So Moore’s second and positive argument fails.12

Thus, the Westminster Assembly consistently maintains particularism. I deny that the universalists at Westminster ‘were able to restrain the final codification sufficiently for there to be some significant ambiguity at crucial places’ (148). I do not deny that the issue of particularism versus universalism was debated at Westminster nor that contemporary universalists claimed their teaching compatible and remained active at the synod. But the mere presence of a plurality of views in session does not imply a plurality of views in confession. Clearly, the final formulation should interpret (the outcome of) the earlier discussion and not the earlier discussion the final formulation. Although WCF could be ambiguous or alternatively rendered on this subject (as on some other ones), it is actually precise and clear about the strictly particular divine intention. Indeed, we should expect to find a less and not a ‘more ambiguous codification’ at Westminster in comparison with Dordrecht. For ‘there has never been a revision of any of the great creeds of Christendom’ but ‘the result has been that new creeds were formed for the new parties, and the old remained unaltered.’13 Westminster as opposed to Dordrecht does not allude to Lombard’s formula, and this increased precision in particularism reflects the general history of creeds.

A Final Argument from Divine Simplicity

The documents of the Westminster synod are widely considered to be consistent and coherent—whether they are endorsed or not. Inclusion of universalism would impair the integrity and destroy the consistency of creedal particularism. Much further argumentation could be undertaken on the coherence of Westminster particularism. Here only one argument from divine simplicity (simplicitas) will be briefly suggested, because it is the ultimate issue.14

Reformed orthodoxy followed the Abrahamic traditions in expressing the freedom of the Creator in terms of divine simplicity. If God is not to be referred to as part of and/or pictured over against the universe, some way is needed to talk about God in a way that is distinct from but derived from everything else. Traditionally divine simplicity accounts for this. So, in talking about ‘intention’ in the context of ‘God’, both the creaturely manner of meaning and the creaturely application of that perfection are denied while only the meant perfection is affirmed. An intention or a conscious goal is that which an agent aims to accomplish and the means are that which is used for attaining the intention. When the agent acts according to its nature, then the end of the action and the end of the agent is one and the same. But when the means are not fitted for the intentional end, then a distinction must be inferred between the end of the action and the end of the agent; between the intention and the intender. Now, the doctrine of divine simplicity implies that in God intention and Intender—act and Agent—cannot be other than one and the same. In humans intention and intender—acts and agents—may not be one and the same. In God the means for attaining the salvation of the elect are not, indeed cannot, be disproportionate to that end. There cannot be conditions—conditional redemption—to God. For according to the doctrine of divine simplicity, each thing is related to God, but God is not (reciprocally) related to anything. Yet, universalism anthropomorphically pictures God as using means that are not proportionate to the end and assumes that there is one intention in some salvific act and another intention in some other salvific act. Particularism upholds the doctrine of simplicity and consistently maintains the otherness of God in intending to save humans in Christ. Every salvific action of God is particular in intention, since in God intention and Intender cannot be other than one and the same.

Conclusion

‘The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care’, says the Westminster Assembly. In this paper I have defended its particularism about the deep mystery of the unnameable One’s intention of human salvation. I have argued that Jonathan Moore’s revisionist argument fails. I have denied the validity of, and affirmed contradictory evidence to, his first and negative argument, and I have presented negative evidence to his second and positive argument. This clears the Westminster Assembly from the incoherence of anthropomorphism about God’s intention to save humans.15

1 Orthodoxy on this issue goes back at least until the early sixth century (so-called) Athanasian Creed as well as the Council of Constantinople.

There are, of course, other theological uses of these terms than the ones mentioned. For instance, sometimes the term ’universalism’ stands for the view that salvation extends beyond one nation, race or people, and ‘particularism’ for the doctrine of election.

2 This would seem to be the most narrow use, since a universalism contending for a universalist divine intention and universal final salvation cannot consistently maintain that this divine intention can or (at least) will be frustrated. More difficult is the consistency of the view contending both for universalism with respect to the divine intention, and for particularism with respect to final salvation.

3 Compare, for example, Augustine, De praedestinatione sanctorum, Patrologiae cursus completus, Series latina (Paris: 1844-1891, 429); and Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica, 22 ed., 6 vols. (Taurini/Romae: Marietti, 1940, 1266-73). 1.22-24; with Jean Calvin, De aeterna Dei praedestinatione, Ioannis Calvini opera omnia: denuo recognita et adnotatione critica instructa notisqueillustrata (Genève: Librairie Droz, 1998, 1552); Pietro Martire Vermigli, “De praedestinatione,” in In epistolam S. Pauli ad Romanos, ed. Pietro Martire Vermigli (Zürich: 1559, 1558), 681-943; Hieronymus Zanchius, De natura Dei seu De divinis attributis (Neustadt: Matthias Harnisius, 1590, 1577). IV.ii; and Françesco Turrettini, Institutio theologicae elencticae (Geneva: Samuel de Tournes, 1679-85). IV. In the comprehensive secondary literature reference may be made to Richard A. Muller, Christ and the Decree: Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology from Calvin to Perkins (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988, 1986); and Dewey D. Wallace, Puritans and Predestination: Grace in English Protestant Theology, 1525-1695 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982).

4 For this account of ‘God-talk’, see, for instance, Zanchius, De natura Dei: I.vi-x; cp. Gisbertus Voetius, Selectarum disputationum theologicarum, 5 vols. (Utrecht: Johannes Waesberg, 1648-1669). V.49-54; Franciscus Gomarus, Disputationes theologicae: habitae in variis academiis, Opera theologica omnia (Amsterdam: Joannes Jansson, 1644). IV, V; and Rudolphus Goclenius, Lexicon philosophicum (Frankfurt: Mathias Becker, 1613). 526-28. This account goes, of course, back to Thomas Aquinas. For example, Aquinas, Summa theologica: 1.13.1-6, 12.

5 According to, for example, the article on predestination in F.L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3 ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997) the Westminster assembly ‘declared that at least after the fall God does not will the salvation of all and that Christ died only for the elect.’ Arguments in favour of the received view are found, for instance, in William Cunningham, Historical Theology: A Review of the Principal Doctrinal Discussions in the Christian Church since the Apostolic Age, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1862), II.327-28; B.B. Warfield, “The Making of the Westminster Confession and Especially of its Chapter on the Decree of God,” in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, ed. Ethelbert D. Warfield, William Park Armstrong, and Caspar Wistar Hodge (New York: Oxford University Press, 1932, 1901), VI.138-44; and Robert Letham, The Westminster Assembly: Reading its Theology in Historical Context (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Publishing, 2009), 176-83.

6 Jonathan D. Moore, “The Extent of the Atonement: English hypothetical Universalism versus Particular Redemption,” in Drawn into Controversie: Reformed Theological Diversity and Debates Within Seventeenth-Century British Puritanism, ed. Mark Jones and Michael Haykin (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011). Page references will be given in brackets in the body of the text.

7 S.W. Carruthers, ed. The Westminster Confession of Faith: The Preparation and Printing of its Seven Leading Editions and a Critical Text (Manchester: R. Aikman & Son, 1937).

8 ‘God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.’ (WCF 3:1)

‘Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to his eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of his will, hath chosen, in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of his mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving Him thereunto: and all to the praise of his glorious grace.’ (WCF 3:5)

9 In a footnote Moore adds: ‘Another chance to do so [denying universalism] was also missed in the Larger Catechism Qs 57 and 59)’. (151 n. 112) However, the use of ‘the covenant of grace’ in the answer to Q 57 depends on its introduction in Q 30, where it is explicitly stated that it extends to ‘his elect’. John R. Bower, ed. The Larger Catechism: A Critical Text and Introduction, Principal Documents of the Westminster Assembly (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010). Moreover, Q 59 explicitly affirms that the extension of the purchase and application of redemption are identical; namely, it is the case that the purchase and application of redemption are equally particular. So, as Moore ends the footnote, a universalist reading is (to say the least) ‘structurally contorted.’

10 In favour of his contention that 3:6 allows the universalist to read ‘redeemed’ and ‘saved’ with two different senses, Moore appeals to (otherwise unknown) motives for the revision of WCF in the Savoy Conference of 1658. It reads: ‘Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, or effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the Elect only’. Moore claims that the insertion of ‘or’ is strategically crucial for maintaining the synonymity of ‘redeemed’ and ‘saved’ (151). But even in the revision, ‘saved’ is still used for the last stage of the temporal order or progression of redemption rather than as synonym of ‘redeemed’. The inserted ‘or’ seems instead to be epexegetical, namely to introduce the specification of ‘redeemed’. So, Moore is merely assuming that two senses was an issue in 3:6 both at the Westminster Assembly and the Savoy Conference. I thank Dr. Chad Van Dixhoorn for pressing me on this issue.

11 In this context it is also said that ‘His obedience and satisfaction [was] accepted in their stead’ (11:3), namely God accepted Christ’s satisfaction in the stead of the elect.

12 An anonymous referee raised the following doubt. WCF 7:3 (in ‘the covenant of grace’ God ‘freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in Him that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto life His Holy Spirit’) seems amenable to a universalist interpretation, since it teaches ‘a free offer to sinners of life and salvation by Jesus Christ on condition of faith, and additionally a promise to the elect to give the Holy Spirit to enable them to believe.’ Thus salvation is apparently available to all but decreed for some. I reply briefly: First, if this passage appears to contradict particularism, then it should be interpreted by all the passages referred to and not vice versa, since the latter (as has been argued) cohere in maintaining particularism and the former may be the odd one. Second, this doubt equivocates over collective and distributive significations of ‘all’ and supposes that the stated distributively universal requirement of faith for all whom the requirement is known relates to an unstated collectively universal intention of salvation for all whom Christ died. Yet, the relation between the means of faith and the end of salvation is not said to be the death of Christ, but the eternal ‘ordination’ and temporal ‘covenant’ of God. Third, the universal human requirement to use the means of faith for the end of salvation does not relate to the particular divine intention to give the means of faith for the end of salvation, since humans should not yield obedience to ‘the high mystery of predestination’ but to ‘the will of God revealed in His Word’ (3:8). Last, this doubt seems to rise from mistaking the contemporary weaker use of ‘offer’ for ‘present something for someone to accept or reject as desired’ with the stronger seventeenth century use of ‘offer’ for ‘bring something to someone’ (cp. SOED and WCF 3:1, 8:5, 10:2, 23:3, 26:2, 29:2); the latter sense which is clear from its conjunction here with both ‘require’ and ‘promise’. Thus WCf 7:3 is not amenable to a universalist interpretation.

13 William Shedd, Calvinism Pure and Mixed: A Defence of the Westminster Standards (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1893), iv.

14 ‘This [divine simplicity] is the fundamental proposition.’ Voetius, Selectarum disputationum I.229. WCF expresses the doctrine of divine simplicity in this way: God is ‘infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible’ (1.1) For a succinct but more technical statement see, for example, Johannes Wollebius, Compendium theologiae Christianae (Amsterdam: Janssonium Valckenier, 1655, 1626). 12-13; cp. John Calvin, Institutio christianae religionis, 5 vols., vol. 3-5, Ioannis Calvini opera selecta (München: Kaiser, 1926-62, 1559). I.xiii.2; Zanchius, De natura Dei: I; and Turrettini, Institutio: III.vii.3. The fundamental role of divine simplicity in the classical reformed doctrine of God is discussed in Sebastian Rehnman, “The Doctrine of God,” in Companion to Reformed Orthodoxy (16th and 17th Centuries), ed. Herman Selderhuis (Leiden: Brill, forthcoming).

15 I thank my particularist friend Dr. Jonathan D. Moore for sharing his fine paper with me and patiently discussing an earlier version of mine. I also thank Dr. Chad Van Dixhoorn and two anonymous referees for commenting on the penultimate version of this paper.

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  • 6

    Jonathan D. Moore, “The Extent of the Atonement: English hypothetical Universalism versus Particular Redemption,” in Drawn into Controversie: Reformed Theological Diversity and Debates Within Seventeenth-Century British Puritanism, ed. Mark Jones and Michael Haykin (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011). Page references will be given in brackets in the body of the text.

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  • 13

    William Shedd, Calvinism Pure and Mixed: A Defence of the Westminster Standards (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1893), iv.

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