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John Davenant on Colossians

Category Articles
Date November 3, 2006

Colossians, an Exposition by John Davenant, (hardback, 956 pages),is the latest addition to the Banner of Truth’s Geneva Series of commentaries. With nearly 1000 pages, it may be viewed as a particularly daunting challenge. This fact, together with the amount of profound learning in the footnotes, may discourage the Christian public from purchasing it. It is hoped that this review will avert that possibility for some.

Davenant (1576-1641) was awarded a DD at the age of 23 and was made Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University. He became Bishop of Salisbury in 1621. He is best remembered for his work at the famous Synod of Dort, which is detailed in an extensive and interesting biography in this volume by Josiah Allport, the editor, who translated the work (in 1831) and provided many illustrative and historical notes.

The commentary is divided into two volumes, now bound in one. Davenant provides a thorough exegesis of each verse but does not ostentatiously display his extensive learning. Indeed his work has been compared for thoroughness to John Owen’s volumes on Hebrews. From its first appearance, it was regarded as the most exhaustive treatment of this short but full Epistle. For this reason it deserves the close attention of students of the Word, and will be a welcome addition to their libraries.

Throughout, Davenant writes on certain texts as an Anglican bishop. This detracts from its otherwise-excellent qualities. Commenting on Colossians 1:2, he describes the “saints in Christ” as “sanctified by the laver of baptism”, called such “according to the rule of charity”. While there may be elements of truth in this, the writer is at variance with the Reformed Church in Scotland when he claims that the saint “is in baptism cleansed from original corruption, and the imputation of all sins”. Even if there is a sense in which baptised persons are “holy” in the external sanctity of the covenant (see 1 Cor 7:14), yet error here is most dangerous. Davenant’s comments on Colossians 2:12 and elsewhere do admit the necessity of faith, but he does not properly discriminate between the sign in baptism and the grace signified. He also states, without giving any authority, that “in the ancient Church they not only sprinkled, but immersed in the water, those whom they baptised”. This view is rightly disputed by others, equally learned and godly. Again his discussion of Colossians 3:3 is affected adversely by such expressions as: believers are “born again in baptism” (vol 2, p 17).

Davenant’s Anglican weaknesses appear also in his discussion of Colossians 2:16: “Let no man therefore judge you in meat or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: which are a shadow of things to come . . . “. The author’s difficulties result from the undue prominence given to abstinence from meats and the observance of holy days in the English Church. While he rightly condemns the “false Catholics of the present day” for “torturing of consciences” by imposing such things as meritorious and necessary, he defends the ceremonies of his Church. His plea for abstinence from meat rises no higher than this: “It is consistent either with public good, or reason, or the example of the saints” (vol 1, p 483).

In his defence of the Church celebrating holy days such as Easter and Christmas, he claims that they were “piously and prudently provided by the ancient fathers” (vol 1, p 485). The only attempt to provide Scripture proof for these ceremonies is his reference to the feasts of Purim (Est 9:27) and the Dedication (John 10:22) – both observed under the Old Testament dispensation. Yet Davenant sees it necessary to provide five “cautions” on the subject, perhaps indicating his own unease over their usefulness. Interestingly, his explanation of the term “will-worship” (Col 2:20) contains a very good statement of the regulative principle. Yet, in discussing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Col 3:16), he gives the Church licence to compose its own songs “under the impulse of the Holy Spirit”. Scottish Presbyterians would prefer if he had agreed more heartily with Beza, whom he quotes on this verse, who explains that Paul here alluded to the three-fold division of the Psalms by the Hebrews.

The commentary is a plain exposition of the Word of God which yields much pleasure and profit to the reader. It is eminently useful for the spiritual and practical instruction drawn out of the Epistle. Application is direct and challenging. A few examples may be sufficient to whet appetites.

Writing on Colossians 2:14, where Christ is spoken of as “blotting out the hand-writing of ordinances”, Davenant draws the following conclusion: “Since this handwriting of the law is abrogated and blotted out as to its condemnatory power, we infer that it yet retains its directing force. We may not, therefore, take from hence a licence of sinning, but alacrity in serving God; for we are delivered from all our sins . . . not that we may grow wanton in sin, but that we may serve God without fear in holiness and righteousness all our days (Luke 1:74,75)” (vol 1, p 467).

Discussing the duty of mortification, he defines “the old man” (in Col 3:9) thus: “The corruption inherent in our nature, the inclination of all our faculties to evil; and, moreover, that state of sinfulness which they acquired by the habit of sinning before their ingrafting into Christ”. This leads him to define the “new man” as designating “the renewing and fresh propensity of all our faculties to do good, infused into and impressed upon the faithful by the power of the Holy Spirit” (vol 2, pp 83,85).

The practical worth of the commentary comes out clearly in the handling of those parts of chapters 3 and 4 which address moral duties. A detailed discussion of the sin of lying is most profitable (3:9) and the relative duties of wives and husbands are explained with great wisdom and balance. Speaking of the duty of children to parents (3:20), Davenant says, “That filial obedience is perpetual, and is to be rendered even to the last breath of life . . . is manifest from the command itself, ‘Honour thy father . . . that thou mayest live long upon the earth'”.

The instruction derived from each verse is worthy of study. Much is discussed with a view to correcting the manifold errors of Romanism and the writer’s knowledge of its subtleties comes out clearly. For these reasons, and many others, we believe this commentary will be very profitable to the Church today, in spite of the weaknesses mentioned.

[Taken with permission from the Free Presbyterian Magazine, October 2006]

Davenant on Colossians can be purchased online from the website.

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