Virtual Book Club: The Whole Christ (Part 1 of 11)
The year is 1717. Your name is William Craig. You are standing before the Scottish presbytery of the town of Auchterarder as a young candidate for ministry. This is an examination, often known for tricky questions and theological traps.
A member of the presbytery asks that you agree to 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, and instating us in coming to God." How would you have responded? Is it "not sound to teach that we forsake sin in order to our coming to Christ?"
The poorly worded statement has since been known as the Auchterarder Creed. And while Craig initially agreed with the statement, the following meeting he revoked his signature and explained his position. The church took away Craig’s license to preach the gospel, but the story goes far beyond the young minister to be. It sparked the “Marrow Controversy”.
Through a chain of appeals against the church’s decision, the issue of the creed came before the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, which condemned the Auchterarder Creed as an “unsound and most detestable doctrine”, and reinstated young Craig to the ministry. To clarify, the church’s official stance was that it IS sound to teach that we forsake sin in order to our coming to Christ. . ." Case closed, right? Wrong. Present in the assembly were two ministers: John Drummond and Thomas Boston. Ferguson quotes Boston’s description of the meeting:
The ‘Auchterarder Creed’ was all at once at that diet judged and condemned; though some small struggle was made in defence thereof. And poor I was not able to open a mouth before them in that cause; although I believed the proposition to be truth, howbeit not well worded…
And here, namely, in the condemnation of that proposition, was the beginning of the torrent, that for several years after ran, in the public actings of this church, against the doctrine of grace, under the name of Antinomianism…Meanwhile, at the same time sitting in the assembly house, and conversing with Mr. John Drummond, minister of Crief, one of the brethren above mentioned, I happened to give him my sense of the gospel offer; Isa. 55:1, Matt. 11:28, with the reason thereof; and to tell him of The Marrow of Modern Divinity. (Ferguson, loc 401)
Thomas Boston was silent at the Assembly that day, but he disagreed with the position against the Auchterarder creed because it “ran against the gospel of grace.” By denying the creed, the Assembly was affirming that someone had to forsake sin in order to come to Christ. For Boston that did not seem consistent with the free call to all in Isaiah 55:1, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.” Their stance did not seem to be consistent with what Jesus proclaimed in Matthew 11:28, “Come to me all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
To Boston, Jesus’ call was not qualified by some prior regulation. There was not a step that one had to first go in order to come to the waters of life and drink. There was not needed a first sign of repentance, or of a pre-judged “serious” frame of mind—for a sinner to fall at the feet of our Lord.
Boston then gave Drummond a copy of one of his most cherished books, The Marrow of Modern Divinity. The book contains a conversation between four fictional individuals in a didactic way. Neophytus is the character who is wrestling with contents of the gospel. Nomista is the legalist and Antinomista is the antinomian. Evangelista is the pastor who counsels them according to the truth. The book would be prohibited by the Scottish Assembly three years later for its “antinomian” contents within—and those who promoted the book nonetheless (known as the Marrow Brethren, of whom Boston was leader) would accuse the church of espousing legalism. Boston said, “As matters stand, the gospel-doctrine has got a root-stroke by the condemning of that book” (Ferguson, loc. 465).
In the next post we will discuss chapter 2, and the contents of the controversy.
One of the things that impressed me about this controversy is the precision and the priority on precision displayed by both parties involved. Truth mattered to both sides so tremendously that they would divide over what may seem to us today as a fairly minor matter.
Today we like to err on the side of unity. We like to say: “Well we might disagree on the particulars of what it means to come to Jesus—but we are both preaching Jesus so it doesn’t really matter THAT much.” Inclusivity at all costs. The problem is that seemingly minor issues in central Christian truth (like what is the gospel and how do we present it) are in fact very big issues that make significant differences in how we preach and how we live the Christian life. That we fail to recognize them as such displays a modern tendency towards tolerance and inclusion even within the church! Looking at the Marrow Brethren and the priority they placed on the gospel details is a reminder to me that truth really matters. Let us not take it lightly.
The second thing that struck me is that when I read the Auchterarder Creed—I felt that I disagreed with its sentiments not unlike Scottish church did. Doesn’t friendship with God mean enmity with the world? Don’t we have to preach “repent and believe” in order that people will not come to Christ while retaining sin? What fellowship does darkness have with light (1 John 1:6)? I found myself agreeing in part with Nomista when he makes his case to the Evangelist in the pages of the Marrow: "Sir, for my own part, I hold it very meet, that every true Christian should be very zealous for holy law of God; especially now, when a company of these Antinomians do set themselves against it, and do what they can quite to abolish it, and utterly to root it out of the church" (Boston, 166). You see, we too live in an age of unrestrained license, even among those who bear the name of Christ! But, as we will observe later, the cure for antinomianism, the cure to Christians living licentiously, is not "do more law". The cure for lawlessness is the pure gospel message.
So, as we will later discuss, this book showed me how I have subtly espoused (in some ways) a legal frame of mind—even while I doctrinally know "it is not by works of righteousness that we have done, but according to his mercies he saved us." Legalism and antinomianism are subtle. So subtle. What makes both so dangerous is that our hearts can be in either false position while, at the same time, our head knowledge doctrinally affirms that which is true. Both the Marrow Brethren and the Scottish church agreed to a very precise confession of faith, far more detailed than much of our Modern churches' confessions, and yet they disagreed so violently on the essentials of the gospel message. We too need to be aware of the undetected nature of those same falsehoods today.
1. What was your initial response to the Auchterarder Creed?
2. Did you feel the controversy was something worth dividing over—or was it “much ado about nothing”?
3.“Theologians” are often viewed negatively today for their intellectual emphasis on seemingly minor issues. Where do we as Christians draw the line between “vain discussion” (1 Tim 1:6) and a vigorous and precise protection of the deposit entrusted to us (1 Tim 6:20)?
(Expect these posts to occur weekly on Tuesdays. Part 2 coming 11/21/17)
Ferguson, Sinclair B. The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance: Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters. Crossway, 2016. Kindle Edition.
Boston, Thomas; M'millan, Samuel. The Complete Works of Thomas Boston. Vol. VII. Tentmaker Publications. 2002. Print.