Every now and then, both here and abroad, adherents of the doctrine of a general, well-meant offer of salvation will appeal for support of their views to the Marrowmen, as though they should be respected and considered authoritative for a Reformed view of the preaching of the gospel. Nothing could be farther from the truth, however; and to lean on the Men of the Marrow is to lean on a broken reed. They were some of the earliest proponents in Scottish church history of views which were actually a departure from the Reformed faith, and they were officially condemned as such.
For the sake of the record we wish to review this history and to show what the teachings of the “Marrow” and of the Marrowmen were. In this connection we can do no better than to quote from a brochure entitledUniversalism And The Reformed Churches, published by the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia. This brochure refers to the “Calvinism” which holds to a free offer as “Modified Calvinism.” And in the first part of this brochure, pp. 3 ff., there is a concise “History of Modified Calvinism.” From this section we shall quote the story of the Marrowmen, as follows.
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. (Note: John Davenant was one of the British delegates to the Synod of Dordrecht. The British delegate was one of the weakest, doctrinally speaking, at the Synod. One of the delegates later became an avowed Arminian. HCH) This school taught that there i’s 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 systemized 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 (that) it carried the recommendatory letters of Caryl, Burroughes and Strong who were members of the Westminster Assembly (1643/49), and was also supported by Arrowsmith, Sprigge, Prittie 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 (1643/49) 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. 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 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 Modem 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.
We will interrupt this interesting account at this point and reserve the rest of the story for the next issue.