Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Reformed Controversy in Bygone Ages

Michael A. G. Haykin and Mark Jones, eds. Drawn into Controversie: Reformed Theological Diversity and Debates Within Seventeenth-Century British Puritanism. Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011.

Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw

There is much debate in contemporary Reformed theology. Well respected authors differ over theological method, the Mosaic covenant, the relationship between justification and the order of salvation, and other issues. Historical theology potentially sheds light on how to approach these and other issues. Drawn into Controversie places seventeenth-century British Reformed theology in sharper focus by examining theological diversity among Reformed authors. Unlike many compilation volumes, every chapter in this book is gripping and profound. Several chapters deserve special attention either because of the subjects treated or because of their potential relevance to the church today. After a general survey I will consider Chapters 3, 8, 9 and 10 in detail.

Richard Muller’s introduction both summarizes his research on continuity and discontinuity in the Reformed tradition and introduces the essays in this volume. Alan Strange next argues provocatively that the Westminster Standards clearly and intentionally affirmed the imputation of Christ’s active obedience even though those Standards do not state the doctrine explicitly. Not all will agree with Strange’s findings, but his case is a well-reasoned and stimulating appeal to the primary sources. In chapter four, Crawford Gribben demonstrates the pivotal development of Puritan millenarianism from the 1640’s to the end of the century. J. V. Fesko then treats the influence of the English delegates on the Synod of Dort and the diverse lapsarian views represented at the Synod. In chapter seven, Jonathan Moore shows that English hypothetical universalism taught that Christ died for all men in one sense, but for the elect alone in another sense. It may surprise some that English hypothetical universalists subscribed to the statements on the atonement in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Rather than contradicting the confession, they added another sense in which Christ died for all men.

Mark Herzer follows in Chapter 7 by using Thomas Goodwin and Francis Turretin as representatives of two views on the nature of Adam’s promised reward in Eden. He observes that Reformed authors generally denied the concept of merit in the covenant of works while still distinguishing clearly it from the covenant of grace. In chapter eleven, Joel Beeke helpfully illustrates diverse Puritan approaches to personal assurance of salvation. He does so with remarkable clarity by reducing disagreements to six primary questions. Michael Haykin and Jeffrey Robinson conclude the book by noting debates among particular Baptists on open communion and church membership as well as whether singing uninspired hymns is lawful. Those who are unfamiliar with seventeenth-century Baptist theology may find the terms of these foreign. This is particularly true when one side of the hymnody debate argued for singing both Psalms and hymns in public worship while the other side rejected singing entirely. This chapter usefully helps round out the broad seventeenth-century theological landscape.

Four chapters deserve special notice. In Chapter 3, Hunter Powell looks at the debates at the Westminster Assembly regarding the seat of church power. He examines hitherto unrecognized disagreements (and overlap) among various shades of Presbyterians, the Dissenting Brethren, and others at the Assembly. He argues that the Dissenting brethren had an influence disproportionate to their numbers (52) and that their position on the subject of church power differed from most Independents (56). The debate on the seat of church power in October 1643 is significant because it occurred before the Scottish commissioners were seated and it limited the scope of all subsequent discussions over this matter (55). It regarded the proper interpretation of Matthew 16:19, over which there were five differing views (65-68). The Dissenting Brethren argued that Peter was simply the proton dektikon, or first designated person in the text (68). The Dissenting Brethren added that Christ bestowed distinct power on ministers and on congregations and that neither derived their authority from each other, but from Christ (69, 78). This attracted Scottish Presbyterians and distinguished them from some segments of English Presbyterianism (70). Powell adds that English Presbyterianism was unique in asserting that ministers and congregations derived power from the universal church (74). The Scottish Presbyterian, Samuel Rutherford, rejected this view by arguing that Christ bestowed power on both elders and congregations in local churches first and then to Presbyteries (78). Though none disagreed that elders should exercise the power of the keys (80), the divines were aware of the diverse views among them and they were reluctant to debate this issue head-on (81). Powell states the significance of his research well: “Thus, the month of October 1643 enables us to see the uniquely English complexities of ecclesiological debates” (83). This reviewer greatly anticipates the publication of Powell doctoral thesis on this subject.

Mark Jones’s chapter (Chapter 8) on “The ‘Old’ Covenant” is particularly relevant to modern controversies over the nature of the Mosaic covenant. He argues that there were five views among the Westminster divines regarding this covenant (188, 190). Most of the divines believed that the Mosaic covenant expanded the covenant of grace made with Abraham, but that this included a declaration of the covenant of works as a subordinate element (189-190, 200). This did not mean that Israel was under the covenant of works. Instead the covenant of works was present on Sinai declaratively rather than covenantally (200). This is virtually equivalent to the Reformed view of the first use of the law which convicts people of their need for Christ. Israel continued under the covenant of grace by virtue of the Sinai covenant, but the law simultaneously reminded them of the broken covenant of works. God designed it to drive them to Christ. Jones treats the peculiar views of Cameron, Bolton, Owen, and Petto to the effect that the Mosaic covenant was neither the covenant of works nor the covenant of grace, but that it included elements of both (195, 199). Out of the five views that Jones surveys, only a small minority was willing to say that the Mosaic covenant was simply a covenant of works. This provides much food for thought, both because modern views of republication usually do not approximate the majority Reformed orthodox position and because the majority historic position has largely been forgotten.

John Owen significantly appears prominently in almost every chapter of this book. This shows that scholars are beginning to recognize his importance in British Reformed orthodoxy. Carl Trueman is perhaps the greatest catalyst for the recent flowering of Owen studies. In Chapter 9, he traces Owen’s shift from arguing that the divine decree alone determined the manner of the atonement (consequent necessity) to asserting that the being of God determined the nature of the atonement (absolute necessity). His essay illuminates the complex factors that went into Reformed theological method and formulation. Trueman asserts, “Owen reveals that his change in understanding of God’s justice is paralleled by a change in his understanding of the nature of revelation” (215). He shifted from the idea that divine revelation presented the arbitrary acts of God’s will to the view that God’s will takes shape from the divine attributes. Owen’s central presupposition was the close correlation between God’s essence and his revelation (217). The way in which he related epistemology to the being of God had affinities with both Aquinas and Arminius (220-221), Aquinas being the common influence on both. Trueman concludes, “This points us once again to the complexity of the historical development of Reformed theology, a complexity that defies any attempt at explanation in terms of simplistic models and categories” (221). This chapter gives readers a glimpse at the Medieval foundation of Reformed theology and how systematic theology influenced the individual parts of an author’s thought.

Robert McKelvey’s treatment of the relation between antinomianism and eternal justification (Chapter 10) is important for historical and contemporary theology. The relationship between justification, the ordo salutis, union with Christ, and the divine decrees are important topics today. McKelvey shows that they were in the seventeenth-century as well. Eternal justification arose as an effort to protect the free and sovereign grace of God from human contributions (224). This doctrine equates the eternal decree of justification with actual justification. This debate involves the time of justification and its relation to faith (225). Richard Baxter called it, “the pillar and ground of antinomianism.” However, McKelvey argues that not all who believed in justification from eternity were antinomians (242, 251, 255, 257). Antinomians did not necessarily deny that justification sanctification were inseparable (233), but they believed that treating sanctification as evidence of justification led to a “subtle legalism reminiscent of Roman Catholicism” (230). They often stressed justification by Christ rather than justification by faith. By doing so, they virtually “obliterated” faith as an instrumental condition of justification (231). For similar reasons, later hyper-Calvinists, such as John Gill, defended “antinomians,” such as Tobias Crisp (235). The Westminster Assembly decidedly rejected the Antinomian view that God sees no sin in the justified (238). McKelvey effectively disentangles historical antinomianism from Baxter’s misleading assertion that it grew inseparably from eternal justification (262). Ideas such as being justified prior to faith (say, at the cross), calling sanctification as evidence of justification “legalism,” and opposing justification by Christ to justification by faith, all while asserting that justification and sanctification are inseparable, will sound familiar to many readers. The fact that these were antinomian positions in the seventeenth-century that mainstream Reformed orthodoxy rejected is potentially fruitful to contemporary discussions.

In one sense, theological debates in seventeenth-century British Puritanism bear similarities to those in our time. In another sense they differ widely. They are similar in that they demonstrate a range of views among those who adhere to Reformed confessions. They differ in that the substantial agreement among the Reformed is sometimes remarkable. Some modern authors hold views that approximate to those excluded by historic Reformed orthodoxy. Modern debates have often left us searching for new theological methodology as well. While our forefathers are not an infallible guide, they give us a working model for where to draw theological lines in a way that promotes precision and unity. To help both historians and pastors, I cannot recommend Drawn into Controversie highly enough.


The preceding review was first published in the Puritan Reformed Journal.