Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.


The Marrow Controversy, which troubled the Presbyterian Church of Scotland in the early part of the eighteenth century, had its roots in earlier history in the British Isles. Especially it had its origins in the struggle that went on in England between a strong Calvinism and a lurking Arminianism and Amyraldianism.

The confessions did little or nothing to stop the debate. The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England were weak on the doctrine of eternal predestination, and efforts to add to them the Lambeth Articles failed. Amyraldianism was represented at the Westminster Assembly and, while the Westminster creeds were a victory of uncompromised Calvinism, the fact that they were adopted as the creedal basis of a national church made the enforcement of them very difficult.

John Owen’s book The Death of Death in the Death of Christ and Edward Fisher’s book The Marrow of Modern Divinity were destined to play leading roles in the controversy. The former was better known than the latter, but the latter became the occasion for the bitter controversy that we discuss here.

The Occasion for the Controversy

In 1708 John Simson was appointed professor of divinity at Glasgow, one of the schools in which students from Scotland and Ulster received their theological training. In 1715 he was charged with teaching Arminianism, and the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland appointed a committee on purity of doctrine to investigate the charge. The committee reported in 1717 and informed the Assembly that Simson had indeed used questionable statements, but had insisted that he intended to teach only what was taught in the Westminster Confession of Faith. He was, on the grounds of his intention, acquitted, but warned “not to attribute too much to natural reason and the power of corrupt nature to the disparagement of revelation and efficacious free grace.”

As a footnote, we might add that only a few years later this same man was charged with Arianism, that is, a denial of the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ.

On the very day that Simson was acquitted of charges of Arminianism, a case involving what seemed to be an opposite point of doctrine was treated. This case involved an appeal to the Assembly against the presbytery of Auchterarder, in the Highlands of Scotland. A certain William Craig was being examined for licensure by the presbytery. Among the questions put to him in the examination was one that asked him to assent to the proposition: “It is not sound and orthodox to teach that we must forsake sin in order to our coming to Christ and instating us in covenant with God.”

The wording of the statement is unfamiliar to us and is, for that reason, not so easy to decipher. Put in simpler language, William Craig was asked to declare that it was heresy to teach that a sinner had to forsake his sin in order to come to Christ. Or, to put it in a slightly different way: “It is biblical to teach that a sinner need not forsake his sin to come to Christ.”

William Craig refused to agree to that statement and was denied licensure. He appealed to the General Assembly. The General Assembly was not pleased with the highly irregular conduct of the Auchterarder Presbytery and summoned the Presbytery to appear before it. It decided: 1) That subscription could not be required by any presbytery to any statement that the General Assembly of the church had not approved. The Auchterarder Presbytery was, therefore, reprimanded for going beyond anything the General Assembly had required of its ministers. 2) The Auchterarder Creed itself was condemned as anti-nomian because it taught that repentance was not necessary to come to Christ. 3) The Assembly also warned against the evils of denying the need for holiness in the lives of people (antinomianism) and warned against the teaching prevalent in the church that good works are the basis for salvation (neonomism). The Assembly expressed its abhorrence of the “creed” as most detestable, tending “to encourage sloth in Christians and slacken people’s obligation to Gospel holiness.”

The Presbytery attempted to give a good interpretation of the statement by insisting that all they meant was that a sinner cannot go to the cross of Christ for forgiveness unless he takes his burden of sin with him. If he does not take his sins with him, he has no need of going to Christ. The Presbytery accepted this explanation, but in 1718 forbad the use of such dangerous expressions in the future.

Both Antinomianism and Arminianism had been condemned, although some wryly noted that the former had been condemned with greater ferocity than the latter.

The Problem

It is, I think, quite clear what the problem was.

The creed was condemned because, so the Assembly said, it was antinomian. The argument was that the Auchterarder Creed taught that a man could continue in his sin, have no sorrow for it, and yet come to Christ. It was not necessary to forsake sin and confess sorrow for it to seek forgiveness in the cross. One can, therefore, go to Christ, find forgiveness for sin, and continue in that very sin.

Anyone can see that this is contrary to all that Scripture teaches and is, indeed, an antinomian statement.

However, the delegates of the Auchterarder Presbytery also argued that if repentance from sin and sorrow for sin were conditions to come to Christ for forgiveness, then sorrow for sin and fleeing from sin are the grounds for forgiveness, and forgiveness is conditioned on the works of the sinner, namely the works of sorrow and contrition. This is Arminianism and makes forgiveness (justification) dependent on the works of the sinner.

The debate is illustrative of the battle going on in the church between those teaching an Arminian doctrine and those tending towards Antinomianism. The debate over the Auchterarder Creed highlighted the differences and dangers.

What can be the solution to this problem? Perhaps to pause a moment to discuss this matter is necessary.

Must a sinner forsake sin to come to Christ? Or, perhaps to put the matter a bit more cogently, What does repentance from sin, repentance that brings the sinner to Christ, consist of? It seems important, first of all, to emphasize that the repentance of a sinner is the work of the Spirit of Christ in the hearts of His people, a work of the Spirit that is the Spirit’s means of bringing the elect sinner to the cross. This needs to be emphasized because, as we shall note later, many in the church did not ascribe sorrow for sin to the saving operation of the Spirit. But if we look at the whole matter from this point of view, there is no problem.

Obviously, the sinner does not follow a pattern something like this: he first comes to see his sin as it truly is. Seeing sin as it truly is persuades him that he ought to abandon this sin. At that point he decides that he must seek forgiveness from sin. He then proceeds to go to the cross to seek such forgiveness.

Nor is the matter thus: The sinner goes to the cross to seek forgiveness without any desire to forsake sin and without any sense of the need to be obedient to God. That is what the Auchterarder Presbytery wanted William Craig to say. That was wrong.

Rather, as the Spirit works in the sinner, all these things take place together. Under the Spirit’s working and by the power of grace, a sinner suddenly sees the horror of his sin, recognizes that he has come under the judgment of God, desires holiness that he is unable to attain by his own efforts, learns of forgiveness in the perfect satisfaction of the Son of God, hears the promise of forgiveness in that cross when he comes by faith, and flees in faith to seek all his salvation in the cross. It all happens at the same time, and efforts to sort it out in some kind of time chart fail to recognize the power of the Spirit’s work in a sorrowing sinner. But it is the Spirit’s work and His alone. The sorrow of one with a broken spirit and a contrite heart gives no thought to a neatly packaged list of duties and what comes next on the list.

The Marrow Controversy

But we must return to the controversy itself.

From a certain point of view, the issues in the Marrow Controversy were not the issues that had just been decided on the General Assembly. We dealt at such length with these issues because the controversy cannot be understood without knowing something of these things. But the controversy itself had a different origin.

The origin of that controversy is this. During the lengthy debate on the Auchterarder Creed at the General Assembly, Thomas Boston leaned over and whispered in the ear of John Drummond, a fellow delegate, that he knew a book that answered admirably all the points that were under discussion on the floor. The book he referred to was Edward Fisher’s The Marrow of Modern Divinity. Thomas Boston had seen this book on the shelf of a cottage of one of his parishioners, and being unacquainted with it but interested in it, had borrowed and read it. He was impressed.

The book was read by some, and James Hog, a friend of Thomas Boston and pastor at Carnock, decided to have it reprinted. He added a highly commendatory preface to it. This gave the book wider circulation and many within the Presbyterian Church of Scotland read it. Both Thomas Boston and James Hog were ministers in the church. Boston is still famous for his book Human Nature in its Fourfold State, which has become something of a classic in Presbyterian literature. He was pastor of the church in Ettrick, where he spent most of his career as pastor.

Because of the popularity of The Marrow of Modern Divinity and because of its doubtful teachings, the book soon became the object of official scrutiny. Principal Haddon of St. Mary’s College, St. Andrews condemned the book in a sermon opening the Synod of Fife. The sermon was later published. It pointed out Antinomian teachings in the book and quoted references from it that were contrary to the teachings of the Westminster Confession of Faith. James Hog published a reply to the criticisms that Principal Haddon made. The scene was set for a bitter controversy.

The General Assembly of 1719 instructed its commission on purity of doctrine, by this time a very busy commission, to study the book and the pamphlets that appeared as a result of the book, and bring a report to the Assembly. The committee pointed out five separate heresies in the book; it also proved that the charge of Antinomianism was justified. The Assembly adopted the report, forbade ministers to use or recommend the book, and told them that they must warn their parishioners against it.

The errors found in the book by the commission on doctrinal purity were: 1) The book taught that assurance was of the essence of faith. (Note: the Westminster Confession in Chapter 18, paragraph 3, denies that assurance is of the essence of faith.) 2) It taught a universal atonement and pardon in Christ’s cross. 3) It took the position that holiness was not necessary to salvation. 4) It said that the fear of punishment and the hope of reward are not allowed to be motives of obedience. 5) It held that the believer is not under the law as a rule of faith.

Twelve men, called the Marrow Men, and including Thomas Boston, Thomas Hog, and the two Erskine brothers, Ebenezer and Ralph, protested these decisions. The matter was further discussed by the commission as well as the assemblies of 1720 and 1722, but the outcome was that the Marrow Men were condemned by an overwhelming vote, although they were not disciplined—in spite of the fact that they informed the Assembly that they would never live with nor be able to abide by these decisions. Their determination to maintain the doctrines of The Marrow is significant.

In 1730 the Marrow Men, along with others, left the Presbyterian Church of Ireland to establish a Secession Church. It is not clear what role the Marrow Controversy played in the Secession. There were other issues that became the immediate occasion for secession, but it is striking that the Marrow Men, for the most part, left the church in 1730.