30 October, 2016


A History of Modified Calvinism

The churches of the Reformation arose within national boundaries and generally adopted their own confessional standards or those to which they had contributed. For example, the Dutch Church adopted the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dordt; the Swiss Church, the Helvetic Confession and the Scottish Church, the Westminster Confession. These Confessions each declared the fundamental doctrines of the Word of God which had been systematized and taught in Geneva by the great reformer John Calvin. As long as they remained true to the Word of God, the courts of those Churches were diligent in the defense of their Confessions and would not allow any principle which modified Calvin’s system.

As the children of Israel grew tired of God’s provision of manna in the wilderness, so the Church in times of decline, has grown tired of God’s truth and preferred a doctrine more comfortable to the natural mind of man. In that state of mind, men conclude that they have a natural ability to please God and so believe that they can contribute to their salvation, or that they possess something that is desirable to God and deserving of His love and favour.

Every modification of Calvin’s system of theology has taken place under the notion that God desires the salvation of all men. This notion lay at the root of the system of Arminius who was Professor of Theology at Leyden in Holland in 1603. His five points of doctrine in opposition to Calvinism were condemned by the Synod of Dordt in 1618-19.

In England the notion of a universal desire in God for the salvation of all men was also the root principle of the Davenant School at the beginning of the seventeenth century. This school taught that there is in the redemption purchased by Christ, an absolute intention for the elect and a conditional intention for the reprobate in case they do believe. It was the forerunner of the system of Moses Amyraut on the Continent, who better systematized the same principles under a doctrine of hypothetical redemption.

In 1645 an obscure writer, Edward Fisher, wrote the first part of a book called The Marrow of Modern Divinity and its second part, which appears to be an attempt to correct the antinomianism of the first in 1649. Though it bore the imprimatur of Puritan license, little more is known of the origin of the book, other than it carried the recommendatory letters of Caryl, Burroughes and Strong who were members of the Westminster Assembly (1643-1649), and was also supported by Arrowsmith, Sprigge, Prettie and others, all of whom were of the Davenant School persuasion. The terms of the book are in every respect consistent with the theology of that school.

The following sentences are a sample of its contents:

1. “Christ hath taken upon Him the sins of all men.”
2. Of Christ, “The Father hath made a deed of gift and grant unto all mankind.”
3. “Whatsoever Christ did for the redemption of mankind, He did it for you.”
4. “Go and tell every man without exception, that here is good news for him, Christ is dead for him.”

In the Westminster Assembly (1645-49) the particularistic divines, led by the Scottish Commissioners, Rutherford and Gillespie, debated the question of limited atonement on the 22nd October 1645 with a strong body of Davenant divines, nine of whom are recorded by name in the minutes which record the debate in the Assembly. Both parties were agreed that the atonement contains an absolute intention for the elect only, but were not agreed that the atonement contained a conditional intention for the reprobate. (See Appendix: The Five Points of Amyraldianism.)

The minutes reveal that the debate was entirely amicable. This attitude of the Assembly to the Davenant School was confirmed later in the same year on 4th December, when the Assembly defended the reputation of Moses Amyraut against the complaints of one Andrew Rivett.

While the Assembly did not include in its formularies any statement which entered the opinions of the Davenant School, it did not include any which specifically excluded them. It is clear that the Davenant School divines accepted the final formularies of the Assembly without protest, believing that their doctrines, while not included, were not excluded, and expecting that they would pass into the law of the Church by Act of Parliament.

The record shows that English Presbyterianism from its inception was broad in its doctrine of redemption. Not only were the doctrines of Arrowsmith and Calamy allowed, but also those of Richard Baxter went unchallenged. It may be said that the School of Davenant in England, was a basic reason why Calvinism did not take permanent root in England, in the same way that the School of Amyraut contributed to the decline in the theology of the Huguenot Church in France.

History provides ample evidence, that when a Church modifies her Calvinism, she loses her conviction and hold of the truth.

In spite of the 28 years of the persecuting and killing times which began with the restoration of Charles II to the English throne, and in spite of the weaknesses imposed on the Scottish Church by the Revolution Settlement in 1689/90, and the disturbed political situation which ensued during the first part of the eighteenth century in Scotland, the Scottish Church maintained a fully particularistic doctrinal position. This however, was disturbed during the second decade of that century when certain of her ministers, Hog, Boston, Erskine and others brought into their pulpits the doctrine of the Marrow of Modern Divinity, which, about seventy years before, had received wide support among the Davenant School divines.

The Calvinism of the Church was preserved, when the General Assembly, in its Acts of 1720 and 1722, condemned the book of the Marrow on several grounds, one of which was that its terms advocated a universality of redemption as to purchase. The Acts were a declaration of the doctrine of the Church as it was held at the time.

From the day of their enactment to the present, these Acts have been assailed by every shade of theological opinion, from liberal to evangelical fundamentalism, either on the ground that the Westminster Confession and Catechisms do not specifically condemn the doctrine of the book of the Marrow, or on the specious ground, that the terms of that book do not teach a universality of redemption as to purchase. Of the many references in Free Church literature which support the Marrow, the most extensive is given in John McLeod's Scottish Theology in which he oversimplifies the controversy by treating it as one involving a misunderstanding about the meaning of terms.

The whole difference between the positions of the Church of Scotland and the Westminster Assembly in this matter, relative to the formularies of the latter, as we have already shown, was that the Westminster Assembly on the one hand, did not specifically exclude a conditional intention in the redemption purchased by Christ, whereas, the Church of Scotland on the other hand, in its application of the formularies, excluded it.

Unless this difference is understood, the proper significance of the Acts of the Church of Scotland Assembly in 1720 and 1722 cannot be realized.

It is significant that the assembly of the Church of Scotland relied on these Acts when it deposed John MacLeod Campbell in 1831 for preaching doctrines similar to the Amyraldian system. MacLeod Campbell’s defense was largely comprised of an attempt to prove the 1720 and 1722 Acts invalid by virtue of the fact that they had not been subjected of the Barrier Act of 1697 which requires:

That before any General Assembly of this Church shall pass any acts which are binding rules and constitutions to the Church, the same acts be first proposed as overtures to the Assembly, and being by them passed as such, be remitted to the consideration of the several Presbyteries of this Church, and their opinions and consent be reported by their Commissioners to the next General Assembly following, who may then pass the same in Acts, if the more general opinion of the Church thus had agreed hereunto.

Since the Assembly in its Acts of 1720 and 1722 had not altered the doctrine of the Church, but had simply declared it, as it was then held, there was no case to pass on to Presbyteries, in terms of the Barrier Act. The submission of MacLeod Campbell thus failed. Had he been successful in this, Amyraldianism could not have been excluded under the Constitutional Standards of the Church of Scotland by such means.

The Westminster Confession, chapter 3, sections 6 and 8, and the Larger Catechism, No. 59, which are relative to this controversy, are positive statements of the Scripture doctrine concerning the application of the redemption purchased by Christ. In no sense do they have a negative reference.

Chapter 3 section 6, Of God's eternal Decree, in part reads as follows:

Wherefore they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by His (the) Spirit working in due season; are 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.

These statements from the Westminster formularies are exclusive if taken ‘a priori’ in the absolute sense that redemption has no other reference than to the elect. William Cunningham in his Historical Theology takes this position, and we agree. However, unless the courts of the Church declare that position, there is no authority which is particularistic apart from private opinion.

In view of the debate in the Assembly, the manner in which the formularies were applied in England, the argument of the Schools of Davenant and Amyraut, and the ambiguous system of modified Calvinism since the beginning of the eighteenth century, the question of application of the Westminster formularies to the doctrine of universal redemption as to purchase, and the terms of the Marrow can only be decided by a Declaratory Act of the Church. Herein lies the proper application of the Acts of the Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1720 and 1722.

The Marrowmen, like their modern counterparts, attempted to hold to the particularism of Calvinism and at the same time preach the gospel in the universalistic terms of the Marrow. They therefore reinterpreted the terms of the book from that of its original context within the School of Davenant, and declared against the obvious, that it did not have reference to universal redemption. Boston took upon himself such an exercise, when under an assumed name, to hide his identity, he issued an edited version in 1726.

The doctrinal manifesto of the Associate Presbytery of the Seceders from the Church of Scotland in 1742 stated the following impossible contradictions:

1. “No such doctrine as universal redemption as to purchase is taught in the Marrow.”

2. “That God the FatherHis making a deed of gift and grant unto all mankind … does not infer a universal redemption as to purchase.”

The Marrow theology is thus committed to the following ambiguities:

1. “Christ has taken upon Him the sins of all men,” and being a “deed of gift and grant unto all mankind,” is not a universal purchase of the death of Christ, therefore it logically follows that,

2. He said deed of gift and grant of Christ to all mankind is effective only to the elect, i.e., an infallible redemption gifted to all secures only a portion of its objects.

3. A deed of gift and grant to all is only an offer. In other words, Christ is gifted to all, without that He died for them.

4. Since the gift of Christ to all is not a benefit purchased by the atonement, the substance of the free offer of the gospel, does not consist of Christ as redeemer, but only as a friend.

Thus it was the Marrowmen in the first half of the eighteenth century who first injected into the stream of Scottish theology the ambiguous and contradictory system which has been the subtle vehicle or Trojan horse which for two hundred and fifty years has worked to the downfall of the Calvinism of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches throughout the world.

Modern modified Calvinism is but a refinement of the same system. Like the Marrowmen, as demonstrated hereafter, it presents the gospel in universalistic terms. It does so by introducing a system of interpretation of Scripture which brings in a doctrine of divine precepts and decrees, which not only perpetuates the errors of the Marrow, but extends the ambiguities and contradictions of that system.

As previously intimated, modern modified Calvinism is now the received doctrine of most Presbyterian and Reformed Churches which represent themselves as holding to the doctrines of the Calvinistic Reformation. Its position is clearly stated by Louis Berkhof in his Systematic Theology, also in the booklet by Professors Murray and Stonehouse, The Free Offer of the Gospel which was first published by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church of America in 1948.

Lest we be misunderstood when we deny the universality of the love of God, let it be clearly understood, that we are not controverting the fact that God is good to all, for, “He maketh His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and unjust” (Matt. 5:45). Rather, we are concerned with refuting the doctrine which teaches that God’s goodness in sending temporal blessings upon all, is indicative of His love and long-suffering in redemption toward the non­elect, and a desire in Him that they might be saved. We maintain that the gospel is given for the purpose of separating the elect from the reprobate, and in the providence of God, in the case of the latter who hear it, for their greater condemnation.

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