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Phillip Doddridge and theological education

Category Articles
Date December 22, 2001


His manual of theology was considered a beacon of orthodoxy

The fourth paper given at the Westminster Conference 2001 was on “Philip Doddridge and Theological Education.” It was delivered by Robert Strivens of Banbury. What a fascinating subject. There are really two themes present here, the first being Doddridge himself and his theology, and the second is the methodology of theological training. Either subject would take a whole conference, but both had to be dealt with in under two hours.

Philip Doddridge (1702-1751) was born in London, and educated a Kibworth Academy. He was converted under the ministry of Clark who became his lifelong mentor. Doddridge became a minister at Kibworth. He began his dissenting academy at Market Harborough in 1729 and then moved with the academy in the same year to Northampton where he completed his life-long work, preparing generations of students for the ministry. He trained 200 men, of whom 120 became preachers. He married and had 9 children, 4 of whom survived to maturity. He died in Lisbon where he had gone to improve his health, but Portugal was cold and damp and there he lies buried.

Doddridge is a suspect figure for his sympathies with Arianism. For example, Sir William Robertson Nicoll wrote, “As for Doddridge, he was virtually, I think, an Arian. At least, he recognised the Arians as brothers, though he admitted some modifications. Principal Gordon, who is biased but well informed, says that the majority of Doddridge’s students became Arians, and he is rather disposed to think that Doddridge himself was.” But Nicoll did not document his claims.

In fact in his “Family Expositor” Doddridge indicates his earnest anti-Arianism. On Romans 9:5 “God who is over all be blessed for ever!” he writes that the passage is “a proof of Christ’s proper deity, which I think the opposers of that doctrine have never been able nor will be able to answer.” His comments on John 1:1 are even stronger. He protests his
trinitarianism: “Nothing I have said can, by any means, be justly interpreted in such a sense…” that is, to support Arianism.

Doddridge fell under the suspicion of heresy because he was ambiguous about the relation between Christ and the divine nature. He also endorsed Isaac Watts’ idea of the pre-existence of the human soul of Christ. He also gave the impression that he was uncommitted to the question of the personality of the Holy Spirit. He was governed all his life by an overriding concern to maintain his theological freedom and by a profound aversion to theological creeds.

Most of all Doddridge cultivated a non-dogmatic style of theological teaching. He listed for students the various views held on a given subject. He would refer to the relevant literature and leave them to decide for themselves. Joseph Priestly, who studied under Doddridge’s pupil Caleb Ashworth, recalled the experience: “The general plan of our studies, which may be seen in Dr Doddridge’s published lectures, was exceedingly favourable to free enquiry, as we were referred to authors on both sides of every question, and were then required to give an account of them.” Such an approach took place at a time when the trinitarian controversy was at its height, that is, throughout Doddridge’s lifetime. He does not seem to have appreciated the importance of Christian teaching on the deity of Christ and the Trinity.

The theological course taught by Doddridge lasted for five years for theological students. Its lectures were not in Latin but English. All students had to learn short-hand. The importance of the original languages of Hebrew and Greek was emphasised. A more general education in the liberal arts was also a feature of their education. During the last year preaching and pastoral care were taught, but the mainstay of the course was theology taught to all the students in 230 lectures. What is left of the lectures seems to the contemporary reader to be dry, with all warmth and illustration omitted. A proposition is set out and the lectures seeks to demonstrate and prove the point. That is the invariable pattern. There was an enormous confidence in human rationality. The first ten lectures dealt with the mind, and the next ten dealt with God, but the appeal in all of them is to reason, and natural revelation, and not to the Bible. After an incredible hundred lectures in that manner special revelation is finally appealed to. Doddridge commended Owen and Goodwin to the students, but added that he thought them to be ‘highly obscure.’ Flavel is ‘plain, popular and tedious.’ He urged them to avoid complex theology in the pulpit but to speak of the love of Christ, the evil of sin, death, judgment and eternity. ‘Be always proving something,’ he said. His own delivery in preaching was grave, serious, affectionate and free.

Doddridge wanted to train good preachers and pastors. In his teaching he covered all ministerial work. He cooled to the Moravians when he discovered their errors. His manual of theology was considered a beacon of orthodoxy. Throughout his years lecturing to students he also pastored a large Independent congregation in Northampton. So the students saw their teacher in action as a minister as well as their lecturer.

The paper was full and most edifying, delivered in a humbly confident manner by Robert Strivens. The following debate was lively, and probably more negative things were said about theological training than positive, but if anyone reads Calhoun’s two volumes on “Princeton Seminary” (Banner of Truth) he will discover the wonderful benefits that theological training can bring to a future preacher. It was given to the present Principal of the London Theological Seminary, Philip Eveson, to cheerfully chair that interesting session.


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