Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
A controversy arose in the Scottish Presbyterian Churches of Scotland in the early part of the eighteenth century. It has been called the Marrow Controversy. It gets its name from a book, first published in 1645, called The Marrow of Modern Divinity. Although this book, written by a man named Edward Fisher, was republished in 1648 and 1649, it never had a great deal of influence until, under rather peculiar circumstances, it became a subject of bitter debate that had to be settled by the broadest judicatories of the church.
The teachings at issue were many and complicated, and often framed in ways that are foreign to us and difficult to understand. But at bottom these debated questions concerned the nature of the preaching of the gospel, particularly the question whether the preaching of the gospel may be construed as a well-meant offer by God to all who hear it. Because this was the central issue, the controversy had great influence on Presbyterian thought in subsequent years and is of interest to us.
Because of the close contacts between the Scottish Presbyterian Church and the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, the Marrow Controversy also had an impact on Dutch thinking. In fact, it is likely that the idea of the gospel as a well-meant offer first entered Dutch thinking under the influence of the Marrow Men. If this is true, and there is reason to believe that it is, then this Marrow Controversy cast a long dark shadow also over Dutch Reformed thinking and is chiefly responsible for the introduction into Reformed theology of the heresy of the gospel as a well-meant offer.
It is worth our while to take a look at this controversy.
The evil heresy of Arminianism appeared early in England’s Anglican Church, the church that emerged from the Reformation in that country. Arminianism was first taught in 1595 by Peter Baro, Margaret professor of divinity in Cambridge University. In fact, the Lambeth Articles were written as supplements to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, because these articles, while Calvinistic, were not strong on the doctrine of predestination and sovereign grace. Attempts were made to add officially the Lambeth Articles to the creed of the Anglican Church, but this was never, in fact, accomplished. Nevertheless, Peter Baro was forced to resign from his teaching position in 1596. The Anglican Church was sufficiently strong to combat this deadly heresy.
Arminianism had, however, taken root. And along with Armin-ianism, Amyraldianism had also taken hold in England. We noted this in our articles on Amyraldi-anism and we need not repeat what we said, other than to remind the readers that Davenant was an Amyraldian and represented the Amyraldian position on the Synod of Dordt as one of the English delegates.
From that time on, the struggle of the English Church, along with the church in Scotland and Ireland, was a constant battle to resist the teachings of Arminianism and its blood brother, Amyraldianism. Especially the Stuart kings, deeply committed to Episcopalian Church government, and always attempting to nudge the Anglican Church closer to Rome, were ardent supporters of Arminianism—something not surprising, for Arminianism is, in turn, a blood brother of Pelagianism, the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church.
Of greater concern was the fact that Richard Baxter, author of the popular book The Reformed Preacher, taught an Amyraldian doctrine of the atonement of Christ and of the preaching of the gospel. He claimed that it was necessary to hold to such a doctrine because of creeping antinomianism in the church; but, in fact, Baxter became a neonomist with his doctrine of justification by faith and works. And his doctrine of a certain universality in the atonement of Christ opened the door to later heresies. He was even reluctant to sign the Westminster Confession of Faith, although he finally did this—without any alteration in his views.
The chief defender of Calvinism was John Owen, known primarily for his magnum opus, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. Owen fought against Arminianism and Amyraldianism and defended vigorously the doctrine of the particular redemption of Christ. It is probably true that at the time John Owen wrote his masterful defense of the particularity of the atonement and the sovereignty of God’s grace, neither Davenant, Baxter, nor Bishop Ussher (the author of Ussher’s chronology of the Bible, but also, at best, a modified Amyraldian) had come out publicly for their views. Nevertheless, Owen’s defense of this truth over against Arminian and Amyraldian errors clearly indicated how widespread these heresies were in the English churches.
Because the nature of the preaching was closely connected to the whole controversy over Christ’s atonement, Owen paid close attention also to this latter doctrine. He taught that the preaching proclaimed that Christ died for sinners, and that all who confess sin and believe in Christ will be received by Christ. At the same time, he insisted that those who believe in Christ are also the elect.
Owen did not shirk the command of the gospel and insisted that in the gospel all men were confronted with the command to forsake sin and believe in Christ. This was their duty before God, and those who refused brought upon themselves God’s dreadful judgments.
Thus, Owen taught, Christ is offered in the gospel. He repeatedly used the word offere, which is the Latin word from which the English word offer is taken. But he did not use the word in the sense of a well-meant offer of God to all who hear the gospel, but as a presentation of Christ crucified and as the One who accomplished satisfaction for sin.
In pressing home the commands of the gospel, Owen spoke of the fact that God’s commands are given in utter seriousness: God means what He says when He commands men to repent of sin and believe in Christ. To press home to men the seriousness of God’s commands, and to bring forcibly to the consciousness of sinners that Christ has accomplished salvation for all who believe, Owen did not hesitate to speak of an invitation by which Christ urges upon sinners the calling to believe in Him. Owen maintained that the minister of the gospel should do this with the tenderest of entreaties and most urgent pleas; in this way the minister would be conveying properly Christ’s demands.
I make a rather detailed point of all this, because these very issues were to be the chief bones of contention in the Marrow Controversy. One can readily see how closely these are related to the whole idea of a well-meant offer of the gospel. It is not, after all, a big jump, in the minds of people, between Christ’s earnest pleas and tenderest entreaties to sinners to come to Him, and Christ’s desire to save all who hear the gospel preached to them.
In 1648 or 1649, shortly after the Westminster Assembly had completed its work, Edward Fisher published his The Marrow of Modern Divinity. The first part of the book, the part of immediate concern to us, is a conversation between Neophytus, a new convert to the faith; Nomista, who represents the position of anti-nomianism; and Evangelista, a pastor, who speaks the views of the author and what he considered to be the truth of Scripture. The book was purported to be a discussion of the relation of the gospel to the law, but, in fact, it was a vendetta against what the author perceived to be a characteristic of the church at this time, a dangerous and deadly antinomianism.
The book did not attract any significant attention until over a half-century later, although the question of whether antinomianism was truly a weakness in the church is another question. It would be well worth while to consider the matter briefly.
We must remember that the Marrow Controversy took place in Scotland and that we are dealing, from now on, not with the Anglican Church, but with the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. After Cromwell defeated the royalist forces under Charles I, and after the Westminster Assembly had met, the Presbyterian Church became the national church. It remained such in Scotland, although its existence as the national church in England was brief. This Presbyterian Church of Scotland was the church of the covenants, the church that had fought fiercely against the Stuart kings and their doctrine of prelacy, the church that had endured persecution when thousands were martyred for the sake of the gospel, and the church that struggled to remain faithful to the Westminster Confessions. Its credentials were solid.
Faithful to the Westminster Confessions, the church maintained strongly the doctrine of justification by faith alone. This important truth was fundamental to its doctrine of salvation, and it was the pivot on which turned the whole truth of sovereign and particular grace. I mention this because enemies of the doctrine of justification by faith alone always accuse those who hold to this truth of being antinomian. They claim the doctrine makes careless and profane Christians. They maintain that it is detrimental to preaching the gospel and makes it impossible to bring the gospel to sinners with passion and a sense of urgency and love for the lost.
Though the Presbyterian Church of Scotland was accused of anti-nomianism, one ought not to accept that accusation without some strong proof.
It was equally true, however, that the Presbyterian Church of Scotland was a national church. As such it had to harbor in its fellowship and retain on its rolls wicked men who infrequently came to church, lived worldly lives, and scorned things spiritual. Such a state of affairs opened the church to the charge of antinomianism; and undoubtedly, at least in some respects, the charge was true. It is doubtful whether antinomianism was an officially held position within the church. I know of no one who taught, in so many words, antinomianism’s teaching that good works are not necessary for the Christian. But there was a sort of “practical antinomianism” in the church because, being a national church, ungodly men had to be harbored, and discipline was very difficult to exercise.
The Marrow Men offered a solution to the problem of a perceived antinomianism. Was the proposed solution of the Marrow Men the biblical solution? Or was it treating a case of food poisoning with a dose of tainted meat? This question must wait till our next article.