Dickson and Durham oppose the teaching that God desires the salvation of all men.

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Puritanboard Amanuensis
It is well known that The Sum of Saving Knowledge has long been received by Presbyterians as setting forth the heart of the Bible’s message concerning the salvation of sinners. It is noteworthy that at no point in that work—a work purporting to provide the sum of saving knowledge—do the authors speak of God desiring or delighting in the salvation of all men.

The co-authors of the Sum of Saving Knowledge were Prof. David Dickson (1583-1663) and Rev. James Durham (1622-58). In the following extracts from their writings the reader will find their commentary on certain passages which are used to support the idea that God desires the salvation of all men. It is clear that neither of these ministers understood such passages of Scripture to teach a desire in God for all men’s salvation. In fact, the opposite is the case; for they express themselves to be clearly against any such passion in God.

[Please note: all emboldening has been added in order to highlight the particular statements most relevant to the issue at hand.]

Psalm 81:13, “Oh that my people had hearkened unto me, and Israel had walked in my ways.”

Prof. Dickson indicates that this is not spoken literally, as if there are passions in God, but figuratively, speaking after the manner of men, and is designed to awaken the desires of the listeners after that which serves for their true happiness:

“This lamenting of God for his people’s misery, is borrowed from the manner of men, lamenting the misery which their disobedient children have brought upon themselves; and is not to be taken so, as if there were in God any passion or perturbation, or miserable lamentation: but this speech is to be conceived, as other like speeches in Scripture, which are borrowed from the affections of men, and are framed to move some holy affection in men, suitable to that affection from which the Lord taketh the similitude; and so, O that my people had hearkened unto me, serveth to move his people (who would hear this expression), to repent and lament their not hearkening unto God; and to study in all time to come to be more obedient unto him, even as they would eschew the curse which came upon misbelieving and disobedient Israel, and as they desired to obtain the blessings whereof carnal Israelites came short, and deprived themselves.” (Commentary on Psalms, vol. 2, p. 57.).

Rev. Durham makes the same observation on Revelation 3:15, “I would thou wert cold or hot.” He notes that this is spoken after the manner of men, and does not imply that the Lord has a desire for the salvation of all men:

the Lord’s expression is to be understood after the manner of men, (as was said) that is, as men use to express their hating of any thing, by this, I wish it were, or had been any other way: that same is the Lord’s intent here. I cannot therefore but somewhat wonder, that a learned man (Joannes Dallaeus [Jean Daille] in his Apology, etc.) doth draw this place of the Lord’s wishing that Laodicea were hot, to confirm that assertion of the Lord’s having a will and desire of the salvation of all men, besides His signifying of what is acceptable to Him as considered in itself, by His Word.” (Commentary on Revelation, Lecture 3, chapter 3.)

It is clear from both authors that these human expressions are adopted by God only to signify what is acceptable to Him in accord with His revealed will, and in no sense suggest that God desires things which do not come to pass.

Matthew 23:37, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not.”

Prof. Dickson does not accept that this unfulfilled desire of Jesus refers to the divine will, but insists it is an expression of the earnest desire of His human nature, as one who had been sent to minister for the good of Israel:",

“In this lamentation our Lord is not to show what power is in men’s wicked nature to convert themselves, or to make use of the means of conversion, nor what power there is in corrupt nature to oppose that power which God putteth forth in conversion of souls; neither is he lamenting their case as one unable to obtain his own desired end in the salvation of such as he intended to save: for no reason can extract these conclusions necessarily from these speeches. The true sense of them is obtained without any such inferences; for our Lord, as man, and a kindly minister of the circumcision moved with humane compassion for the miseries of his native countrymen, lets forth his love in this lamentation and weeping, while he beholds the desperate obstinacy of the multitude running to perdition, thereby intending to make the reprobate who should hear of his tender bowels inexcusable, and to move the elect to repentance by this means.” (A Brief Exposition of the Evangel of Jesus Christ according to Matthew, p. 317.)

Rev. Durham follows the same exegetical line as Prof. Dickson, and ascribes our Lord’s desire solely to the human nature:

So when he preached as man, and a minister of the circumcision, he says [Matt. 23:37], O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered thee, and thou wouldst not! Whereas, if we consider him as Mediator, he does what he will, and calls none but they come, and wills none to be gathered, but such as are gathered.” (Sermons on Isaiah 53, pp. 622-623.)

There are some who maintain a desire in God for the salvation of all men, and believe they find strong support for this position in 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9. They maintain that the words “all” and “any” are to be understood of every man without exception. It is noteworthy that Prof. Dickson understands both these passages to be particularistic, not universalistic."

1 Timothy 2:4, “Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.”

Prof. Dickson understands this as referring, not to each and every man, but to all sorts of men, kings as well as commoners, as the context makes clear:

“God will have all sorts of men (therefore some amongst kings and magistrates, and all orders of men) to be saved, and come to the faith of the gospel: therefore he wills that we pray for all sorts of men, and by name for kings, and those in authority, concerning whom we are obliged to hope well.” (Commentary on all St. Paul’s epistles.)

2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, (as some men count slackness) but is long-suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”

Prof. Dickson carefully notes that this unwillingness for any to perish refers to the elect and not to each and every man:

“This delaying doth not proceed from slackness, as some judge, but from the patience of God towards us, to wit, the elect, whereas many as yet are not converted, and whereof God will have none perish, but all (in his time) to come to repentance, which cannot be unless the coming of Christ should be deferred to a season. For if God should anticipate the time of judgment, decreed by himself, some of them, which he hath chosen to salvation from eternity, should perish.” (Commentary on all St. Paul’s epistles.)

These passages from the writings of the co-authors of The Sum of Saving Knowledge demonstrate clearly that they did not maintain but rather opposed the idea that God desires the salvation of all men, and that any will or desire in God for the salvation of men must be restricted to the elect.
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Dear Matthew,

You may be interested in Donald John McLeod's blog which is tracking his research into Durham's understanding of the free offer and God's desire for the elect's salvation. It can be found here.

Moreover, you may be interested in this blog and this blog that are looking at the issue of God's desire for the salvation of all in the reformed tradition from primary sources.

God bless brother.
Thanks for this article Matthew. In light of its posting I thought some background to authorship and why the Sum is included in the traditional compliment of Scottish standards would be useful so I have posted a rough article.
Thanks to Chris and Rich for pasting the article for me.

Marty, thanks for the links. Alot of imagination goes into reinventing traditional reformed theology.
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