Who Were the Marrowmen?

In the previous installment on this subject we began to quote the account of the Marrow controversy furnished in the booklet Universalism And The Reformed Churches, published by the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia. We learned: 1) That the Marrow controversy began concerning a book called “The Marrow of Modern Divinity,” written in 164549 by an obscure English writer, Edward Fisher. 2) This work very crassly maintained (and statements were quoted to prove this) the error of universal atonement. 3) During the second decade of the 1700s, this book found its way into the Church of Scotland (which had the Westminster creeds as its standards); and it was supported and promoted especially by a group of twelve ministers, among whom some of the better known names were Thomas Boston and Ralph and Ebenezer Erskine. These men became known in church history as the “Marrowmen.” 4) In 1720 the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland officially condemned’ the book on various grounds, among them its teaching of universal atonement and pardon. And in 1722 the General Assembly solemnly rebuked the twelve men who supported the book and who had sought to have the decision of 1720 repealed. In 1722 no disciplinary action beyond admonition and rebuke was taken, however. The result was that the Marrowmen continued to hold their views and to propagate them, and eventually this was one of the factors which led to the deposition of Ebenezer Erskine and the origination of the secession of 1734. We mention this now because in the subsequent account mention is made of the “Associate Presbytery of the Seceders from the Church of Scotland.” 

Now we continue quoting the account of this history from Universalism And The Reformed Churches. We interrupted it last month at the point at which it mentioned the decisions of 1720 and 1722. 

“From the day of their enactment to the present, these Acts (of 1720 and 1722, HCH) 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 to 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 considerations of the several Presbyteries of this Church, and their opinions and consent to 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 thereunto. 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 down to Presbyteries, in terms of the Barrier Act. The submission of Macleod Campbell thus failed. Had he been successful in this defense, Amyraldianism could not have been excluded under the Confessional Standards of the Church of Scotland by such means. 

“The Westminster Confession, chapter and sections, 3:6 and 8:8, 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 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’ (Vol. 2 pages 326/7 Banner of Truth) 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. (Note: It seems to me that this is true only. in the sense that the Westminster Confession does not have a Rejection of Errors, as do our Canons of Dordrecht. Certainly, the last sentence in the quotation from Chapter 3, section 6 is just as exclusive as is Canons II, 8: redemption is of the elect, and of them only. HCH) 

“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 Calvinists since the beginning of the eighteenth century, the question of the application of the Westminster formularies in respect 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.’ (Note: Turn back to the statements quoted from the Marrow in the August 1 issue. HCH) 

2. ‘That God the Father—His 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. The 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 to 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 (What is meant is the kind of Calvinism which holds to a general, well-meant offer of salvation. HCH) is but a refinement of the same system. Like the Marrowmen, as demonstrated hereafter, it presents the gospel in universalistic terms by the introduction of 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.” 

We agree. 

And in conclusion, we wish to point out: 

1. That to appeal to the Marrowmen for support is to appeal to heretics. 

2. That the Marrowmen were faced by the dilemma of embracing the doctrine of the Marrow, i.e., universal redemption as to purchase (universal atonement, in other words) or of being left without an objective basis for the general, well-meant offer which they wanted to teach. In other words, they confronted the problem which every offer-adherent faces: how can God offer to all sinners what He does not have, namely, salvation for all? 

3. That the Marrowmen’s doctrine that the only warrant or ground which sinners have to come to Christ is the universal, well-meant offer of the gospel is not Reformed. It must be remembered that to come to Christ and to repent and believe—all this is itself a gift of salvation. But all the gifts of salvation were merited for us by Christ in His atoning death. The only warrant, or right, for a sinner to come to Christ, therefore, lies in the atonement of Christ. But that atonement is particular, not general. Hence, there cannot possibly be a warrant or right for all sinners to come to Christ. 

4. That a universal call of the gospel is not the same as a universal offer. The former includes the command to repent and believe. This command certainly implies amust; but it does not imply a may, or a right or warrant. This command, along with the particular promise that whosoever believeth in Christ crucified shall be saved, is what Canons II, 5 speaks about. 

5. That to deny a universal offer is not hyper-Calvinism. To deny the promiscuous proclamation of a particular promise is indeed hyper-Calvinistic.