The Marrow Controversy - Dr J McIntosh
08 Feb 1999
The Marrow Controversy, as it is called, is one of the more complex incidents in Scottish Church History, and in the history of Scottish Theology. Church History, however, is worth studying only if it is relevant and throws light on the situation in the Church today. When we are talking about the history of the Church of Christ, it is important and it is interesting for its own sake, but its really important because it is through the study of Church History that we have a God-given instrument to throw light on where we are now ourselves, not just in denominational history, but in the history of families and in the history of individuals.
The key thing is that there is a very real way in which, oftentimes in the Scriptures, our Lord himself shows quite clearly that He does think historically. The very fact that He calls Himself “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” so often - that can’t be comprehended without approaching the history of Israel from an historical perspective.
I don’t know if you have noticed in Genesis 4:7, when the Lord warns Cain about his attitude to the way in which the Lord accepted Abel’s sacrifice, and rejected Cain’s - what does He say when He actually warns Cain about what is happening? He says, why are you cast down?; and He goes on to say, if you do well then you will be accepted, but if not then sin lies at the door, and his desire is to have the rule over you, but you must master him. That is a direct quotation of what the Lord had said to Eve in the previous chapter at verse 16, in the consequences of the fall for Eve. She is to have pain in child-bearing, and her desire is to be to her husband, and he shall have the rule over her. There is the Lord saying, Go back to the previous choice (if we could call it that). See what the consequences are for your mother; here’s what the consequences are for you. And the Lord speaks historically; He says, “You learn from the past”.
Now it seems to me, therefore, that we all must take Church History very seriously. The Church History as recorded in the pages of the Old Testament; the Church History as recorded in the pages of the New Testament; the Church History recorded subsequently; the history of own congregations; the history of our own families; our own history: what’s the Lord saying to us through that?
This is all by way of preamble. This is the way I think we have to approach even these seemingly obscure, certainly long past disputes in the history of the Church. They must teach us something. We must approach them, looking to see what they’re saying to us, and that is what I am seeking, God willing, to do with regard to the Marrow Controversy.
I want to consider first of all at what happened - to give an indication of what the actual events were. I want to say something about the issues as they were perceived at the time, and to try to analyse why it was that a book and a theology which has been honoured all over the Reformed, Evangelical world was condemned by the Church of Scotland in the early years of the 18th century. And then I want to try to make some suggestions as to how it throws light on the present situation in which the cause of Christ in Scotland is at the moment.
So first of all, then, what was the Marrow Controversy?
1. What was the Marrow Controversy?
Well in the early years of the 18th century, the Scottish Church was not in a particularly healthy state. There was a considerable degree of what we would regard now as heretical thought about the nature of grace. How does God deal with man in bringing about salvation? There was a lot of legalism in the Church of Scotland. Ministers actually played down the importance of faith in coming to salvation. Justification By Faith would be accepted in theory, but in practice there was a lot of stress on how you should live. In particular, there were many pulpits in which what was preached was ‘to be saved you must keep the commandments’. Sometimes called legalism, sometimes a bit more loosely called Moralism; that was what was largely taught in the pulpits of the Church of Scotland.
In 1716 and 1717 there was a famous heresy trial which dragged on for several years and reappeared in the mid 1720’s. Professor Simson of Glasgow was tried for heresy, for Soscinianism and for Arminianism, and in particular about questions which he seemed to be raising about the extent of redemption. Had the Lord Jesus died for the salvation of all, or only for the elect? He was acquitted of heresy but found guilty of using dubious expressions, which to quote the Assembly’s finding, “attribute too much to natural reason and the power of corrupt nature, to the disparagement of revelation and efficacious free grace”. So, in other words, they cleared him of heresy (which almost certainly he was guilty of) and said instead that he was guilty of some dubious expressions which weren’t as clear as they should be.
The Auchterarder Creed
This caused a lot of the more committed, Evangelical men to be very concerned and one Presbytery, the Presbytery of Auchterarder, was so concerned about it that they decided that they should actually add another question to the questions which were put when a minister was licensed, or for that matter, when a minister was ordained. They were asked to affirm the following statement, “I believe that it is not sound and orthodox to teach that we forsake sin in order to our coming to Christ”.
They wanted to make clear that it was the unmerited grace of God which was the important thing, and that it was wrong to say that you have to repent first of your sins, and then God bestows His saving grace on you. There was a student who was asked to affirm that and he refused to, and it was appealed to the General Assembly in 1717. The Assembly condemned this question (which became known as the Auchterarder Creed) as Antinomian. Now Antinomian is another of these technical terms which theologians habitually use, and Antinomianism is a term which has tended to mean different things at different times. For most of the 18th century, Antinomianism was seen as holding principles which reduced the significance, before conversion, of feelings of guilt for sin. It was thought to reduce the importance, the necessity even, of being convicted of sin before you were converted. It was also thought that Antinomianism held that the moral law was not binding on Christians after conversion. Now, Thomas Boston himself, who was very much at the centre of this controversy, was not happy with the Auchterarder Creed. He noted that this was ‘not well worded’.
The Marrow of Modern Divinity
Now at the Assembly of 1717, where the Auchterarder Creed was condemned, Boston was sitting in the Assembly beside one of the members of the Presbytery of Auchterarder. Boston recommended to this minister from the Presbytery of Auchterarder, a book called ‘the Marrow of Modern Divinity’, and Boston said that the book throws light on this very difficult subject, and that he had found it very helpful. This minister, who Boston was sitting beside, managed to find a copy of ‘the Marrow of Modern Divinity’. He passed it on to another minister, who passed it on to James Hog, who was the minister of the Fife parish of Carnock. Hog reprinted it in 1718 with a preface, and then war broke out.
The Marrow of Modern Divinity was a book which had been published in two parts, in 1645 and 1648, and it was basically a compilation by a puritan of quotations and extracts from Luther, Calvin, and some of the English Puritans, in the form of a dialogue. It was a series of dialogues between a young Christian, his minister, a legalist, and an antinomian. It sought to deal with these questions of what is the relationship between Law and the Gospel; what is the relationship of the Ten Commandments (and all God’s commandments) to God’s people - how they should see them, what’s the significance of them, how important are they, how they relate to sanctification, and so on. The book was published under just two initials, ‘E.F.’, which is thought to be one of the English Puritan ministers called Edward Fisher.
That is how it became known as ‘the Marrow Controversy’ - the marrow, the essence of modern divinity. Boston passed on this book to his friend, and it was passed on and eventually published. It was immediately seized on by Principal Hadow of St Andrews, who attacked it in a pamphlet. For the next couple of years there was a pamphlet war going on, largely between Principal Hadow and one or two other ministers, like James Hog and some supporters.
In his pamphlets, Principal Hadow argued that phrases in the Marrow, such as “Christ is dead for the sinner”, and that the Lord has made over Christ to sinners “as a deed of gift and grant”, indicated and demonstrated that the book taught universal redemption (in other words, that Christ died for every one). The reason that he claimed this in particular was that the Marrow’s position was that assurance was the essence of saving faith. Now, that is not quite the way the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it.
. . .such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love him in sincerity, endeavouring to walk in all good conscience before him, may in this life be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace. . . [WCF 18:1]
This infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties, before he be partaker of it: yet, being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given him of God, he may, without extraordinary revelation, in the right use of ordinary means, attain thereunto. And therefore it is the duty of every one to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure; that thereby his heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience, the proper fruits of this assurance: so far is it from inclining men to looseness. [WCF 18:3]
The Confession of Faith says basically that assurance is something that the believer can expect, but it is not absolutely essential; that there are many believers who never come to full assurance for many years. It is not something that is absolutely automatic, when you are converted. It was thought that because the Marrow didn’t tend to say quite that, that it was saying that universal redemption is scriptural.
Now, that sad thing was that Hog’s defence of the book of Marrow, which he had published, was very inadequate. Hog was no theologian, and at this point, all the men who had written in support of the Marrow were not really theologians at all. Most of them were ordinary parish ministers; they were not theologically skilled, and to be perfectly honest, they were just out-written by Principal Hadow, who was the main person who was attacking them. There were charges drawn up by a Committee for Purity of Doctrine, and at the 1720 General Assembly, the book of Marrow was condemned; and especially condemned because it was claimed that it taught “holiness is not necessary to salvation”, and that “fear of punishment and hope of reward are not motives to stimulate a believer to obedience”, and that “the believer is not under the law as a rule of life”. The General Assembly was saying basically that this was what the book of Marrow taught.
Little was actually said in defence of the book of Marrow at all. That is one of the quite remarkable things that at this point (and we will come back to this), the Book of Marrow was not defended by people like Boston, like the Erskine brothers, Ralph and Ebenezer, who went on to become its strongest supporters. The Assembly's Act prohibited all ministers of the Church from recommending the book of Marrow at all, and it required them to warn their people against it. There was a small group of ministers who then set about trying to rectify the situation, because they believed that the Book of Marrow in fact taught sound Scriptural doctrine. The three main ones at this point were Thomas Boston, and the Erskine brothers, Ralph and Ebenezer. You remember of course, that Ebenezer and Ralph Erskine were two of the four ministers who founded the original Secession Church in the early 1730’s.
Now, Boston and the Erskines, and their supporters had no success at all at Presbytery level, and they then drafted what they called a Representation and a Petition, which was presented at the 1721 Assembly, and it was signed by twelve ministers (and that is twelve out of about 670 ministers in the Church of Scotland). They complained that the Assembly, in condemning the Book of Marrow had condemned Gospel truth, especially in regard to the believer’s freedom from the law, as it is a Covenant of Works; and in regard to misunderstandings and misrepresentations of the Marrow, which they believed, involved a substantial measure of legalism. They said basically, that the people who opposed the Marrow had fallen into a position where they said that believers had to keep the law as a Covenant of Works, and also that it had been condemned by men who were legalists.
After due, and I think, fair consideration, in so far as the climate of the times was understood (there was no attempt to gag Boston and the Erskines, and the supporters of the Marrow); they were given every opportunity to speak in its defence, but once again, they failed sadly to present a coherent case for their position. The twelve ministers who had signed this Representation and Petition were then rebuked for their offences, both for erroneous doctrine and injurious reflections against the Assembly, but they were allowed to return to their parishes; there was no further action taken against them. They did suffer from continuing rejection by their ministerial brethren. There is some evidence that they were kept from moving to larger parishes, because these were men who were highly esteemed throughout Scotland. Some of them were pursued at Presbytery level for doctrinal error.
The Marrow Brethren, as they became called, refused to submit to this. They formally protested against the Assembly’s decision, and they continued to teach these doctrines which the Assembly had condemned. That is one of the reasons (but not the only one) why the original Secession was set up in 1733 as the Associate Presbytery.
Marrow Theology became the theology of the Secession Church. Marrow Theology was very much the theology of Thomas Boston. Marrow Theology became very much the theology of the later 18th century Scottish Evangelicals. I think you can establish a direct line between what the Marrow taught, what Boston taught, and what the early 19th century Evangelicals taught in the Evangelical Revivals of the 1820’s. There is a direct line, I would suggest, between the book of Marrow, and what became certainly the theology of the Free Church in 1843. I would suggest in all honesty, that for probably most of us sitting here today, we would read the book of Marrow, and would find ourselves in agreement with, not perhaps everything, but virtually everything.
[ED: Dr McIntosh was addressing a public meeting of Reformed Christians.]
By 1726, Boston published another edition of the book of Marrow with copious notes. He was never condemned; the notes were never condemned; and it became a very influential book. That is basically the history of what happened, but I want to now look at why the book of Marrow was condemned by such a huge, overwhelming majority; and how in fact, can we explain that; can we draw any lessons from the way the Marrow Controversy went, to our own situation today.
2. Why was the Marrow condemned?
I want to suggest, basically, that there are a number of reasons why the Marrow was condemned. Remember that both the Marrowmen (the people who supported the Marrow as a Scriptural statement of doctrine) and their opponents claimed to adhere to classic Reformation theology; and they had all sworn their commitment to the Westminster Confession of Faith. Why then was it that two groups, who in theory were committed to the same things, could end up on opposite sides of the theological spectrum?
Legalism and Neonomianism
I have already mentioned the first reason, and that was this dominant strand of legalism in the late 17th century and in early 18th century Scottish theology. There were in fact, what technically we might call legalistic and neonomian perversions of Westminster orthodoxy: ideas that in some way or other, it was a necessity for salvation that you kept the law. Or alternatively, that conversion was seen basically as a ‘law work’ itself - when people respond to the Gospel offer, that was seen as keeping the law. That is a loose definition perhaps, but I think a reasonably workable definition of neonomianism. These things were fairly widespread in the early 18th century Scottish Church. So there was a dominant strand of what we would certainly want to call heterodox thought, possibly even just plain heretical thought.
The second thing, I think, that we need to notice is that there were appalling levels of theological ignorance amongst the ministry. There was gross ignorance of what had been written in the early 17th century. Now, one of the great heritages of the Scottish Church has been the work that has been done by people like Durham, Gillespie, Rutherford; people from that sort of generation. What you have in the Scottish Church is this: the Scottish Reformation is unique, with the possible exception of the Dutch Church, in that at the time of the Scottish Reformation there was virtually no political interference whatsoever. The Scottish Reformers, more than anywhere else in the whole of Europe, were able to go back to the Scriptures and say, ‘What do the Scriptures actually say? Well then, here is what they say, this is what our church must be like.’
Ever since then there have been a range of issues which have tormented the Scottish Church: ordination of women, the nature of Presbyterian rule as opposed to Episcopalian rule; some of the things which are still burning issues were actually thought through and debated through in the first half of the 17th century. Men like Gillespie, Durham, and the men who went to the Westminster Assembly and represented the Scottish Church, men like Samuel Rutherford; these men had worked through virtually everything which has subsequently caused theological debate, or shall we say, debate within the context of the Scottish Reformed Church.
Now in the early 18th century, these men had been virtually lost sight of. And men who were in no way to be compared intellectually, or theologically, or spiritually, with those men; they were the ones who were making changes in the Church. And they were doing it largely without any discussion at all. They don’t seem to have been aware that these issues had been talked through and written through before.
One of the interesting things that is happening in our own Scottish Church (I am not meaning any particular denomination, but across the board) has been that the work of these men has been largely lost sight of. Now, I can't claim to be an expert in them, but some years ago I was amazed when I dipped into some of their writing, just what there was there; in their debates against English independency, in their debates against Episcopacy, in their debates about whole aspects of church order, in their debates about intricate parts of theology, difficult parts of theology; these men had written persuasively and profoundly; and they’ve been lost sight of by ourselves as well. Don’t forget about Gillespie, Durham, Rutherford - men of that period, the men of the Second Reformation, as it is called. One of the things that is going on in Scottish Universities is that there is a great move back to Knox and the men of the first Reformation, but in all honesty, when you look at the theological depth and the spirituality of these men of the Second Reformation, I find them more convincing, more attractive, more useful in many respects, than men from earlier on.
Now, these men had been lost sight of; there were great levels of gross theological ignorance; and men were making decisions without even understanding what they were deciding about. When that happens in any church, I think there are grave problems ahead.
There was also, not just theological ignorance, but there was a situation where many ministers were just plain unconverted. They didn’t understand the theology of grace, because they had no experience of grace themselves. In the small amount of reading that I've done, in terms of what was written and what was said at the General Assembly, and in the pamphlets, there is considerable evidence that there were men preaching to congregations for the conversion of souls, who hadn’t been converted themselves. And when you think about the change that took place in Thomas Chalmers when he was converted; the people there in Kilmany, in Fife, couldn’t believe the difference in their minister. Whereas before, he had been keener to get off to St Andrews to teach mathematics, suddenly he was visiting them, talking about their salvation, dealing with them pastorally that he hadn’t even begun to before. That’s the situation that the Marrow Controversy occurred in.
Fear of Antinomiansim
There was also a terrible fear, as there has always been a terrible fear in the Scottish Church, of Antinomiansim: the idea that once he is converted the Christian doesn’t need to worry about the moral law. There is James Hog’s great novel, ‘The Confessions of a Justified Sinner’, which is a brilliant exposé of not, shall we say, of what Antinomianism there was, but what Antinomianism was thought to lead to. This is a huge over-simplification, but basically it is about a man who was an Antinomian, and he got to the point where he believed that he was totally right to murder for the cause of Christ, and that the Law didn’t apply to him at all; the Sixth Commandment didn’t apply to him.
That is what Scottish ministers at the time thought was the risk - it wasn’t. There is very little evidence of real antinomiansim in the 18th century at all, but they were petrified about it, and they thought that the book of Marrow taught antinomianism.
But there is something else, and I find this perhaps most significant and most intriguing. There are two men in the Scottish Church who were hugely influential, and went on to become even more influential, and even though, almost certainly both of them espoused, and believed Marrow doctrines, they didn’t actually speak up in its defence.
One of them was John Willison, the minister of Dundee. It used to be said, and I’m sure it was the case, that the most widely read religious book in Scotland in the 19th century, and in the 18th century as well, was Thomas Boston’s ‘Fourfold State’. The books which without doubt were second to Boston’s ‘Fourfold State’ were the writings of John Willison of Dundee. He was a warm Evangelical; he was the man who spoke out against the Glassite heresy, or Sandemanianism; he was the man who sought to bring the Erskines back into the fold of the Church of Scotland because he absolutely supported their Evangelical position; he was the man who mounted the first attack on Moderatism in the 18th century - absolutely 100% sound, I would suggest. And he voted against the book of Marrow.
Why? Well it was largely, it appears, because he was frightened of what he saw as modern terminology, or new terminology. It wasn’t what the Marrow actually said, it was the way that the Marrow said it. He subsequently said,
“About this time there arose debates and great noise, as if some ministers were bringing in a new scheme of doctrine, because in their sermons they disused and censured several old, approven words and phrases, as too legal, and affected some new modes of speaking, and because they recommended the Marrow to their people.”
What he had against Boston and the Marrowmen was that they were abandoning the old terminology, and that they were adopting new modes of speaking. He went on to subsequently say that “they recommended a book, which while not without some value, taught various antinomian errors, and was of some danger to the church”. He said also, “It must be owned that when the Assembly of 1722 came to review and to explain these hasty Acts passed in 1720, they did justice to truth and declared their minds on the controverted doctrines in very sound and orthodox terms, particularly in regard to the necessity of holiness.” He goes on to say, basically, that the intentions of the Marrowmen were good, but they put it across in terms which were very dubious.
He actually went on to say that he had never read the book of Marrow, and he went on to say that he didn’t understand what exactly it was the people who were supporting it were talking about either. He hadn’t even read some of the pamphlets that had been written, and yet he condemned the book of Marrow. Now, he went on in later life to say that this was hasty and that he was remiss in not having been more careful. But here you have one of the most sound and most respected men in the 18th century Church, acknowledging that he condemned something he hadn’t read, and which he hadn’t really bothered to read about even, as well. Now, I suspect that there were a lot of men in exactly the same position; that they were frightened of new terminology, and they had never bothered to actually read what the book of Marrow actually said.
Now, it seems to me, that here is something which is incumbent, not just on ministers, it is really incumbent on every Christian, that we must, when we hear about a controversy, or when we find brethren speaking in a new way or speaking about a new emphasis, that we don’t automatically say, “Its not what we’re familiar with; therefore we must oppose it.” And especially, if we are hoping to get people in who are unchurched, or people in who are from other non-Reformed, non-Evangelical traditions, that we have got to be very cautious and very careful before we reject what they say out of hand. Here we have the need to be responsible and to be all involved in the great process of Christian education. This is not just for ministers. This is for absolutely every Christian in the pew as well. We need to be communicating to each other. You know, its amazing the number of conflicts in church history which have occurred because people didn’t take the trouble to talk to each other and find out exactly what they were thinking, and what they were meaning with what they said.
The essential thing about Christian fellowship is that there is a coming together of minds. Oh yes, it is important to be with each other; it is important to do things with each other. But is also important to talk together; to know what each other are thinking about things which are of common interest to Christians. And I don’t, to be perfectly honest, that there is enough of it going on in Scotland today, across the denominations. This is what happened: one of the people who you would have expected to have supported the Marrowmen, actually was opposing them, because he hadn’t bothered to read what they were saying or what they were recommending, and he hadn’t apparently even bothered to read what they were writing about, even if he didn’t go through the book of Marrow; and he condemned it. And people were looking to someone like that, and when he said, no, its wrong, its new; they went along with him.
The other thing, and this is even more remarkable, is that Boston himself didn’t speak up at the Assembly for the book of Marrow either. This is the most remarkable thing of all, and it was not this time because Boston didn’t understand it, he was probably one of the few who did. It was because he was just a plain, reticent person. He didn’t feel confident enough to speak in public when the opportunity arose. Here is what he says,
“The Auchterarder Creed was all at once, that diet, judged and condemned, though some small struggle was made in defence thereof. And poor I was not able to open my mouth before them in that cause, although I believe the proposition to be truth, howbeit, not well worded.”
Boston was too reticent too actually speak up. In another place he says that he found it very difficult to speak, even in private, in the face of someone who seemed to be brimming over with confidence in their position. Boston's own personality, great theologian that he was, overcame his commitment to what he believed to be sound doctrine. I think that here is a note of warning as well: oftentimes error flourished because good men and good women won’t speak up because of their own reticence, their own lack of confidence. I would suggest that there are other instances in the history of the church too. You probably know of instances where you felt that you should have said something, and you didn’t, because you just couldn’t quite bring yourself to do it. This is something which Christians always have to struggle with. Humility is a Christian virtue. Christians are people shouldn’t be always wanting to put themselves forward.
Here is something for us all. We should be cautious about speaking if we don’t know over-much; but we also should be very careful if we feel that some thing is right, to speak up about it. There is Boston himself acknowledging that he didn’t speak when he should have; he didn’t say as much as he could have, when the opportunity arose.
3. The Marrow’s Relevance Today
So those are the reasons why the Marrow was condemned, but I also want to say that the Marrow Controversy is profoundly relevant today.
It is relevant in two ways; first of all in terms of what is going on in what you might be inclined to say are somewhat academic circles, but it is also important for every one of us in terms of how we present the Gospel.
One of the unusual things about Scottish theology, and about the Scottish Church today across the denominations, is that the battle for sound doctrine, the battle for the soul of the Scottish Church, is not just being fought on straight forward theological grounds. The Scottish Church is unusual, I think, in that it seems to be important for all parties to lay claim to the past as theirs. It happened in 1843 at the time of the Disruption. In 1843 the men of the Free Church were desperate to show how they were the opponents of the 18th century Moderates, and they were concerned to show that there was a link between them and the people who had fought the 18th century Moderates. The same thing happened in 1900 in the Free Church. The same thing is actually happening in the Church of Scotland at the moment. There is a very strong move in some quarters to actually show how the Church of Scotland was never Evangelical in the way that we use the term now.
Let me illustrate. In 1979 there was a very important book published by Dr R T Kendall of Westminster Chapel, called ‘Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649’. In it, he argued for the first time (recently, certainly) that the English Puritans got Calvin totally wrong; that the men of the Westminster Assembly took Calvinism in a direction that Calvin never wanted or would never have dreamed of it going. This theses has been refuted by men like Paul Helm in a book which he called ‘Calvin and the Calvinists’, which showed quite conclusively that Kendal misunderstood Calvin and misunderstood what the English Puritans were doing as well. But the same sort of theses has arrived in Scotland. It started probably in the late 1970’s, when Professor James B Torrance of Aberdeen started to argue the same thing about Scottish Church History, and about Scottish Theology. He has had PhD students working, and has applied considerable pressure on them, I gather, to produce the sorts of conclusions which he wants.
And just recently, in 1996, Professor Tom Torrence of Edinburgh has produced a book called ‘Scottish Theology from John Knox to John MacLeod Campbell’ in which he argues exactly the same thing: that mainstream Reformed Scottish Theology distorted, even perverted, not just John Calvin, but perverted Scripture as well. And right at the centre of this debate is the Marrow Controversy, and in particular, Thomas Boston. Professor Tom Torrence argues that the Marrowmen were opposed to Westminster Theology; they were arguing for things which Westminster actually condemned. And he wants to say that you can draw a fairly clear theological line between Boston and the Marrowmen (the Erskines and so on), right down to John MacLeod Campbell, who was a 19th century heretic, who preached Universal Atonement - that Christ died for everybody. Now, that is in a book which is likely to become the standard work on Scottish Theology, and right at the centre of the argument is this Marrow Controversy.
Professor Torrence talks about Westminster Theology as being a distortion of Calvinism, as being unscriptural. That is how serious it is - it is very serious. And the potential risk (pray God that it doesn’t happen) is that people who thought they were sound, Reformed, Scriptural believers; before too long you are going to hear it being suggested to them (in non-Reformed circles) that they are not really Scriptural at all; and out will come the arguments that Professor Terrence has advanced.
Now one of the great heresies that we are facing in the late 20th century is Universal Atonement - that Christ died for everybody. Out goes conversion; out go all the things that probably all of us here without exception are committed to. What I am suggesting is that if you go back to the book of Marrow, and the Marrow Controversy, you see the issues quite clearly. Now, I am not suggesting that we all go out and buy the book of Marrow, but we do need to be aware of the issues.
There is another thing too. Where the Marrowmen were thought to not be in agreement with Westminster Theology is on the doctrine of Assurance; assurance of faith. There is another disturbing phenomenon starting to appear in Evangelical circles, and that is the question of how do we define ‘Evangelicalism’? Basically, this theses advances that there are several main characteristics of Evangelicalism.
First of all, there is what you call ‘Conversionism’. One has to be converted to be saved. That is at the very heart of Evangelicalism. If you are an Evangelical, then you must surely believe that men have to be converted. I don’t think there is a problem there.
Then there is a stress on what is called ‘Biblicism’. That is alright too. Back to the Bible. Everything has to be based on what the Bible actually says. I don’t think anybody here is going to have the slightest quibble about that. The authority of the Bible in faith and practice, surely, is absolute.
The next thing is ‘Crucicentrism’. Centring on the Cross in preaching and in faith. I don’t think any of us are going to have a problem with that either.
The fourth one is called ‘Activism’. If you are an Evangelical then you cannot but be involved in doing things for Christ; seeking to bring your neighbours, your families, your work-mates to Christ. You are actively involved in the life of the Church. Not, just in making tea at meetings, but actively involved in the work of Evangelism. Now, I don’t think any of us would have trouble with that. We would probably all want to say, “I don't do as much as I should”.
But there is another thing. The fifth thing which is stressed is the doctrine of Assurance; and people are saying that you can’t be an Evangelical unless you are assured of your salvation. And here we are, you see, in head-on class with “Highland Spirituality”, can we call it. And, not just with Highland Spirituality, but with Westminster Theology as well, because Westminster Theology says that assurance is not of the essence of salvation. Wesley, you see, said that assurance was of the essence of salvation. There is a whole, shall we say, non-Reformed, or Arminian Evangelicalism, which says that yes, that’s the way assurance is: when you are converted, you have assurance. If you haven’t got assurance then you are not converted. Now then, you see, there will be many of you here who have struggled with this very thing for years and years. You go through periods when you’re not too sure. We all know of saintly people who have often gone through dark periods.
One of the fascinating things, by the way, about those Second Reformation men, Gillespie, Durham, Guthrie, most of them had periods, even on their deathbeds, when they had no assurance at all. They felt totally forsaken by the Lord. They came to it, oh yes, they came to it. They died fully assured, but they went through dark, dark periods. Now, if what is going for Evangelical orthodoxy at the moment, if somebody who espoused that came across Gillespie or Durham on their death beds, they wouldn’t have thought that they were converted at all. It may well be that some of you who have had experiences like that have actually been challenged by Evangelical brothers and sisters, “How can it be, if you are converted, that you can be like that?” And, one of the things which perhaps the book of Marrow can be faulted on is that it does come much, much closer to teaching that assurance is closely connected with conversion than perhaps we have been used to. It may well be that we need to think more carefully about that. But don’t for one moment think that this is not absolutely relevant to our own present situation: it is.
Christ and His Benefits
And lastly, I want to say something about how the book of Marrow, and Marrow doctrine, actually has relevance to the way we present the Gospel. This is perhaps particularly relevant for ministers, but it is relevant for everyone who seeks to bring the Gospel to their unconverted neighbour or their unconverted loved one. The Marrow addresses the danger that we can separate Christ’s benefits from Christ Himself when we preach the Gospel.
At the time of the Marrow, men tended to ask, if we can put it like this, “To whom do the benefits of Christ’s work belong?” And the answer that they would give would be, “To the elect. The benefits of Christ’s work belong to the elect.” And then they would say, “Therefore, we must offer the benefits of Christ’s work to the elect.” In other words, to those who have begun to show the evidences of election. How is the evidence of election shown? Well, it is shown by repentance; it is shown by godly living. And you move from a position where you are presenting the Gospel freely to the sinner in his sin, to presenting the Gospel to someone who has already shown signs of moving toward the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now, John Owen wrote about this. John Owen said, don’t offer the benefits of Christ to men, but Christ, ‘Whole Christ’. Christ in all His fullness and in all His sufficiency. Now, why I’m saying this is that one thing which I am hearing more often, is men and women using terms like this, “We must offer Christ to a hurting, confused, lost world.” Now, that’s true. But what are you offering Him as? Someone who’s going to stop the hurt; Someone who’s going to stop the confusion; to stop the feeling of lostness? Or, are you offering Christ who died for you?
Now, that might be a fairly technical definition; I hope its not. But it seems to me that there is the risk that Evangelicals, if they separate Christ’s benefits from Christ pure and simple, you end up basically by presenting a truncated Christ. You’re not speaking sufficiently about the message of salvation through faith in His Name. You read Romans 1, and it doesn’t speak of the world hurting, confused, lost, looking for some answer. Romans 1 speaks of the world as being dead in its sin, not wanting Christ, determined to go on in it. Now, we’ve got to present Christ to that world, you see. We’ve got to present the whole Christ. We’ve got to deal with sin as it is, not just the hurt that sin causes. I think that is a danger that we need to all be on our guard against. I’m not saying that we go in and hit the sinner with the enormity of his sin right between the eyes. We need to be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves. We need to do it sensitively. Each case is a separate case, but we must preach the whole Christ. ‘Whole Christ’, not even ‘the Whole Christ’. We must preach, in John Owen’s words, ‘Whole Christ’. That is a risk that the Marrow sort to warn against.
A Conditional Offer
But we must, secondly, be careful about presenting a ‘Conditional Offer’ of the Gospel: forgiveness, if you have forsaken sin. Now, what happens to the person who is still in the throws of their sins, and they come into our churches or they come into our homes? What do we preach to them first? Forsaking sin? You must stop leave the person you are living with; you must abandon this habitual sin which besets you; and then you’ll get forgiveness. I’m exaggerating, I know. But that was a risk which Boston and the Marrowmen thought that their opponents who condemned the Marrow were running the risk of doing. God’s grace is free. We’re up against it when we’re in a society where sin is held so lightly, but we mustn’t play it down.
And here is something for our Highland spiritual tradition, we mustn’t make Christ conditional on the amount of conviction that our hearers or our neighbours feel. Spurgeon has a bit in one of his sermons where he actually talked about how Bunyan put it in the Pilgrim’s Progress. He said that an earnest young minister talked to this old fish-wife about it, and she said that wasn’t her experience at all. She found the Cross right beside the wicket gate. You’ve got to be careful, said Spurgeon, of not putting the Cross too far from the wicket gate; and he basically said that Bunyan did put it too far. But, we must be careful not to insist on abandoning of sin before we extend the hope of salvation in Christ. Now, when we’re facing enormous sin, blatant sin, flagrant sin, I think it is very easy to slip into an expectation of abandoning sin first, and then the blessing will come, then God’s grace will come. Now, that’s not free grace, that’s conditional grace; and God is not a God who extends His grace conditionally.
I think, too, that when we go down that line, we end up with a conditional God too. God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son; He didn’t spare Him, but gave Him freely up. Even while we were dead in our sins, and His enemies, God did that. We must be sure that we don’t preach and we don’t reach out with a conditional God. God is not conditional.
Warmth in Witnessing
And finally, we need to preach and to witness warmly. That is really the other thing where Boston, and the Marrowmen, and the Marrow Controversy are relevant. We must have an unconditional love for souls. We must have a warm, unconditional love for souls. We need to be like the Prodigal Son’s father, who saw his son approaching afar off, and he ran to meet him and he fell on his neck and kissed him, and then he brought him back rejoicing. Now, the Lord’s people find it very difficult; I find it difficult sometimes; I’m sure you all do. Here are people dead in their sins; they are unrepentant; they even glory in them sometimes; and we have to reach out with warmth, with the free grace of God, and we’ve got to extend it without the qualifications that we are so, so tempted to make. And the Marrowmen, and Boston, speak like that. We need to be sure that we give no grounds to those who disparage our Reformed Heritage, and our Reformed Theology; certainly not. Don’t let them be able to criticise for a lack of commitment to lost sinners. That was the great, burning thing that drove Boston, and the Marrowmen, more than anything else: this desire that there would be no holding back in the way they reached out to sinners with the gospel.
So, these are some indications as to why its a topic that is worthy of discussion, and worthy of thought, and that we can learn from today.
This article has been transcribed from a recording of The Marrow Controversy - a lecture given by Rev Dr J McIntosh at a public meeting of the Inverness Branch of the Scottish Reformation Society, on Monday, 8 February 1999.
SCOTTISH REFORMATION SOCIETY
The Scottish Reformation Society was founded in 1851, following a protest against the re-establishment of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England. The original constitution of the Society set out its objectives as being “to resist the aggressions of Popery; to watch the designs and movements of its promoters and abettors; and to diffuse sound Scriptural teaching and information on the distinctive tenets of Protestantism and Popery”.
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