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The True Bounds of Christian Freedom

Category Book Reviews
Date May 1, 2001

In 1964 the Banner of Truth was encouraged by the Rev. J. Marcellus Kik of Silver Spring, Maryland, then an associate editor of Christianity Today, to republish Samuel Bolton‘s The True Bounds of Christian Freedom. It is a classic study of the law of God and its relationship to the Christian. This is the book’s Introduction, written by Iain Murray:–

The discovery of gold has excited men throughout history to make considerable sacrifices and to endure heroic hard-ships. Without sacrifice and hardship gold could not have been mined. One of the exciting discoveries of recent times is the large store of spiritual gold contained in the writings of the Reformers and Puritans of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. To mine the gold certainly requires some labour and effort, but it is exceedingly rewarding. The reprinting of Samuel Bolton’s work on Christian freedom provides the reader with an opportunity to enrich himself with nuggets to which the words of Genesis might well be applied, ‘The gold of that land is good’. Bolton was sufficiently renowned in Puritan England as a scholar and divine, to be chosen as one of the Westminster Assembly of Divines which met in 1643 to introduce a second Reformation in English religion.

The theme of Christian liberty continues to be a subject of lively discussion and debate in many circles. Some would remove everything which would restrict, circumscribe, or confine freedom. Christian liberty, it is maintained, must not be restricted by law – not only that revealed by Moses but even the maxims and precepts of Christ revealed in the New Testament. There must be no flavour of legalism or moralism, they say if ‘liberty in Christ’ is to be preserved in the Church.

This plea is specious but false, and Bolton ably exposes its fallacies. The thrust of the work, although apparent from the original subtitle–‘A Treatise wherein the rights of the law are vindicated, the liberties of grace maintained’–is stated fully in the Dedication: ‘It contains chiefly some friendly discussion of some opinions which have been maintained against the law of God, and in it I have endeavoured to uphold the law so as to show that it does not take from the liberties of grace, and to establish grace so that the law is not made void, and so that believers are not set free from any duty they owe to God or man.’

Those who would exclude the law because it seems to infringe on the freedom of the Christian claim that the whole of the New Testament maintains a creative tension between law and gospel. Bolton points out rightly that any tension or op position between law and Gospel is chiefly of man’s own making. Obedience to the moral law, revealed in both Old and New Testaments, need not necessarily lead to what Bolton calls ‘legal obedience’; there is a free and evangelical obedience.

An unbalanced emphasis on grace has led men to neglect certain of the law’s various functions. In its accusing and convicting function, the law is a schoolmaster to lead men to Christ. The absence of this dimension in the preaching of today has resulted in a truncated Gospel, rushed conversion work and a shallow religious experience. The law prepares the way for the Gospel and ‘a man can never preach the Gospel that makes not way for the Gospel’.

Grievous and alarming is the present-day deterioration in the moral condition of society. For this decay the Church is partly blameworthy because, as the preserving salt of the community, she has largely lost her savour. Modern theology has defected. It has cut itself adrift from the ancient landmarks, and present-day society reaps ‘the evil thing and bitter’ which is the inevitable consequence. The present prevailing theology has not been able to elevate society and halt its moral decline, and unquestionably, one explanation of this is its misunderstanding of the place of the law and its usefulness in the service of the covenant of grace. The Church needs to know again the truth of Bolton’s statement: ‘The law sends us to the Gospel for our justification; the Gospel sends us to the law to frame our way of life.’

Samuel Bolton, the author of this treatise on Christian liberty, was born in London in 1606, and educated at Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he became a Doctor of Divinity. He was successively minister in three London parishes before becoming Master of Christ’s College in 1645.. Six years later we find him serving the University of Cambridge as Vice-Chancellor. After a long illness he died in 1654. In his will he instructed his executors that he was ‘to be interred as a private Christian, and not with the outward pomp of a doctor, because he hoped to rise in the day of judgment and appear before God, not as a doctor, but as a humble Christian’. His funeral sermon was preached by Dr Edmund Calamy.

Five works came from Bolton’s pen between 1644 and 1647, and two others were published after his death. The second of the seven was The True Bounds of Christian Freedom, which appeared in 1645 under the Imprimatur of John Downame, who had been appointed as a Puritan ‘licenser of the press’. Downame describes it as a ‘solid, judicious, pious and very profitable’ discourse.

The original work is utterly formless and styleless. There are no chapter breaks and paragraphing hardly exists. Instead, there are divisions, sub-divisions and sub-sub-divisions which tantalize even the serious reader. Nor is there the slightest attempt to cultivate the grace of style. In this reprint, therefore, an attempt has been made to rectify certain of these faults. Credit for this belongs to S. M. Houghton, M.A., of Oxford. Sentences have frequently been redrafted to fulfil the requirements of clarity and simplicity, and an approach to modern paragraphing has been introduced. There has been no attempt, however, to alter Bolton’s personal non-literary style. Had this been attempted the book could no longer be claimed as from his pen. A framework has been supplied and numbered divisions and sub-divisions have in some cases been eliminated. A new and simplified table of contents replaces the original table which in its complexity resembled a maze.

It should not be thought that in this treatise Christian liberty is treated in a cold, analytical fashion. Warmth and devotion to Christ mark all its pages. The slur of ‘legalism’ often cast upon those who framed the Westminster Confession of Faith finds no justification in this instructive and edifying work. Bolton’s treatise represents a combination of doctrinal and experimental theology which aims at touching the conscience even as it enlightens the understanding. It avoids intemperate language, and attempts to see the points at issue in their true relationship with the main body of Reformation and Puritan doctrine, and especially with the theology of the covenants. The diligent reader will indeed be rewarded with much spiritual treasure as he explores and mines in this Puritan Eldorado.

Historical Background to this Treatise

The circumstances which caused Bolton to select the theme Christian liberty and its Scriptural bounds appear to be follows. The fall of Archbishop Laud and the end of his persecution of the Puritans came in 1641, to be shortly followed the outbreak of the First Civil War between Charles I and Parliament. This gave opportunity of expression to oppressed minorities, among whom appeared various kinds of Antinomians, that is to say, men who demanded a Christian liberty which was not limited by marks and bounds defined in divine law. Some of them were moderate enough, as judged by modern standards; others, however, tended to fanaticism, to extremes of lawlessness, and even to licentiousness.

The controversy inevitably aroused was deeply with the interpretation of Scripture. Text was set against text. Old Testament against New Testament. The chief issue, seen by Puritan eyes, involved the place of the moral law in the Christian life. Some pressed the argument that, since a Christian could not be justified by the law in the sight God, he was delivered in toto from the law in all its bearings So completely was this the case that the moral law bore no relationship whatsoever to a man’s life and walk as a Christian. In other words, a believer’s liberty in Christ–and Bolton’s treatise regards John 8:36 as a definition of this liberty–was not bounded by any written code of law. The advocates of this view were accordingly known as the anti-law men, that is, as Antinomians, ‘nomos’ being the Greek word for ‘law’.

Historically, the Antinomians of modem times appear to have originated in Germany about 1535. Romanists regarded them as a by-product of the Lutheran Reformation, and, arguing loosely (after the common fashion), and thinking any stick good enough to beat a dog, they were not at all disinclined to put it out that Luther himself was tainted not a little with the evil doctrine of the sect. Slander and libel die hard, and as late as 1648 we find Samuel Rutherford devoting a hundred pages of one of his works to a defence of Luther against these evil aspersions.

It was not apparently until the late 1630’s that Antinomianism appeared in England as a serious danger, although as early as 1619, John Eaton, a Suffolk vicar, the so-called ‘father of English Antinomianism’, had been deprived of his church office, and imprisoned, in consequence of his departure from orthodoxy. The spate of religious books which followed upon the ending of the Laudian regime included his Honey-combe of Free Justification by Christ alone (1642).

Actually the ecclesiastical authorities were puzzled to know how to treat John Eaton. His deprivation was based on the charge that he was ‘an incorrigible divulger of errors and false opinions’, but his manner of life was above reproach, and his doctrine, though extreme, could scarcely be defined as grossly heretical. Thirteen years after his case was tried, George Abbot, then Archbishop of Canterbury, spoke of him as follows:

I remember John Eaton; he was so ignorant, and in his carriage so simple, that we thought fit to send him to Westminster School and Paul’s School to be instructed. He would deny, maintain, confess, repent, and sometimes we had mercy upon him. After his deprivation we were troubled what to do with him, for if he did not preach or do somewhat, women must steal from their husbands to maintain him. Thus he was admitted to read homilies. . . . Wise John Eaton fell to expounding of the homilies and broached all his opinions (formerly denied) again.

It is clear enough, from Eaton’s case, that many professed or suspected Antinomians lived blameless moral lives, and were by no means guilty of the charge of libertinism which was brought against them indiscriminately by some of the more fiery Puritans. Thus, John Sedwick, a London rector, writing in 1643, lumped ‘the whole rabble’ of the Antinomians together as ‘a generation of Libertines’, and he impatiently dismissed their doctrine as foul and pernicious. The famous William Prynne, physically disfigured at the hands of the Court of Star Chamber, described them as ‘wandring–blasing-stares, and firebrands’, and all but wished to mete out to them a measure of the punishment he had himself received at the hands of the bishops.

Extremists apart, there was, in truth, a marked difference between the experimental religion of the normal Puritan and that of the convinced Antinomian. The Puritan view may be summed up in the words of certain ‘godly ministers’ of the late Elizabethan era: ‘We groan under the burden of our sins. We confess that there be none worse before God. And yet, before the world, we labour to keep ourselves and our profession unblameable.’ Against such an experience the Antinomian tended to stress the exhilaration which moved him through the presence of the indwelling Holy Spirit, and often spoke as though the possibility of sinning was entirely ruled out. Furthermore, he argued that the principles of the moral law were so firmly and indelibly written in his heart that he became a law to himself, and was not conscious of the need for any other form of guidance and control.

The finer aspects of Antinomianism, as distinct from its evident dangers, appeared in the life and ministry of Dr Tobias Crisp, at one time a member of Balliol College, Oxford, to whom Samuel Bolton expressly refers in his Treatise. Crisp was a high Calvinist, amiable, benevolent, and of unblemished personal character. Benjamin Brook, in his Lives of the Puritans, describes his doctrine as ‘spiritual, evangelical, and particularly suited to the case of awakened sinners, greatly promoting their peace and comfort’. It appears that, in his early days, he was ‘a favourer of Arminianism’, but when his opinions changed, he ‘ran into the contrary extreme of Antinomianism’. On this matter, Brook’s statements are worthy of citation:

Persons who have embraced sentiments which afterwards appear to them erroneous, often think they can never remove too far from them; and the more remote they go from their former opinions, the nearer they come to the truth. This was unhappily the case with Dr Crisp. His ideas of the grace of Christ had been exceedingly low, and he had imbibed sentiments which produced in him a legal and self-righteous spirit. Shocked at the recollection of his former views and conduct, he seems to have imagined that he could never go far enough from them, and that he could never speak too highly of the grace and love of the Redeemer, nor in too degrading terms of legality and self-righteousness. But many were of Opinion that he went to such an excess in magnifying the grace of God, as to turn it into wantonness; and that he was so severe against all legality and self-righteousness, that true holiness and obedience to the divine will were in danger of being discarded. He was fond of expressions which alarm, and paradoxes which astonish. Many of these, a person skilled in theology will perceive to be capable of a good meaning; but readers uninstructed, who compose the numerous class, are in danger of misapprehending them, and of being led into pernicious errors.

A Century ago the term ‘Antinomian’ was still freely used in Christian circles, and minds of a certain bent tended to use it, as some still use the term ‘free-willer’, as an expression descriptive of all Christians who did not follow their particular doctrinal line. Thus it is interesting to note that C. H. Spurgeon was charged with the errors of Antinomianism. In a sermon preached on March 16, 1856, he says: ‘I am rather fond of being called an Antinomian, for this reason, that the term is generally applied to those who hold truth very firmly and will not let it go. But I should not be fond of being an Antinomian. We are not against the law of God. We believe it is no longer binding on us as the covenant of salvation; but we have nothing to say against the law of God. “The law is holy; We ate carnal, sold under sin.” None shall charge us truthfully with being Antinomians. We do quarrel with Antinomians; but as for some poor souls who are so inconsistent as to say the law is not binding, and yet try to keep it with all their might, we do not quarrel with them. They will never do much mischief. But we think they might learn to distinguish between the law as a covenant of life and a direction after we have obtained life.’ (New Park Street Pulpit, Vol. II (1856), p.132).

Such then was the situation when Bolton wrote his Treatise. As a member of the Westminster Assembly of Divines, he had been drawn into discussions on Antinomianism. Consideration of the doctrine had been given in the House of Commons in September 1643 and in consequence the Commons had asked the Assembly of Divines to ‘compare the opinions of the Antinomians with the Word of God and with the Articles of the Church of England’. The Assembly, having done so, presented its report to the Commons, with the result that an ordinance was issued ‘that no person be permitted to preach who is not an ordained minister’. But this proved ineffectual. In any case, the disputes which shortly began between Presbyterians and Independents pushed the discussion of Antinomianism into the background. The political situation became difficult in the extreme. The Commons, leagued with the Scots, and the New Model Army fell to quarrelling on basic principles, and the Antinomian problem was, for a time, set aside.

Geographically, Antinomianism in England was not widespread. As far as it was associated with certain vicars and rectors of the Church of England, it seems to have been virtually confined to the Home Counties, with London as its natural focal point. It was not until after the death of Charles I in 1649 that it found fresh expression in a wider sphere, and spread by way of the Millenarians and the Quakers into other parts of the English-speaking world. Some indeed regarded the execution of the king as an illustration of Antinominian doctrine at work in the political sphere, and a strict fulfillment of the prophetical word uttered by John Pym, leader of the Commons, in 1641: ‘If you take away the law, all things will fall into confusion; every man will become a law unto himself which, in the depraved condition of human nature, must needs produce many great enormities’.

The connection between Millenarians and Antinomianism was but tenuous, and indeed somewhat difficult to prove up to the hilt, but the link between Antinomianism and Quakerism was clear enough, even though the Quaker doctrine of the inner light was but one expression of the Antinomian tenet that Christian liberty is bounded by no written expression of the divine will. Puritan governments in the period of the Inter-regnum certainly found themselves faced with the problem of the rabid loose-thinker and loose-liver. The case of George Fox was difficult enough, even though he held and taught much that could be defended from Scripture, but it was a case easy of solution in comparison with that of the Yorkshireman, James Nayler, once a quarter-master with the Parliamentary forces during the civil wars. At that time he belonged to the Independents, but by 1651 he had been converted to the teaching of the ‘inner light’. Ere long his immediate followers persuaded him that he was a second incarnation of the Son of God, and he became thoroughly intoxicated with their homage and their flatteries, freely accepting titles applicable only to the Christ of God. He even entertained the notion that his facial appearance resembled that of the Lord Jesus, and he ‘allowed his lank hair to reach below his cheeks’. The height of his blasphemy was reached when, in imitation of Christ’s final entry into Jerusalem, he rode into Bristol on horseback, while seven attendants sang, ‘Hosanna! Holy! Holy! Lord God of Sabaoth!’ The outcome was a trial which occupied the second Cromwellian Parliament several days and which resulted in a sentence of whipping, branding, and tongue-boring, followed by two years’ hard labour. Nayler’s case in the eyes of many was an example of Antinomianism shading into blasphemous madness. Certainly Quakerism continued, but Antinomianism in its more extreme manifestations hastened to its dissolution and its end.

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