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A Presbyterian Considers A History Of The Baptists

Category Book Reviews
Date December 20, 2006

Rev Hugh Cartwright was once the professor of church history at the Free Church College, Edinburgh. He is now a minister in the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland. He was asked to review the History of the English Calvinistic Baptists 1771-1892, From John Gill to C H Spurgeon,1 by Robert W. Oliver, and this is his review in the current Free Presbyterian Magazine, reprinted here by permission.

Initially one might wonder why a book bearing this title would be published by the Banner of Truth Trust, and even more why one would be invited to review it in the Free Presbyterian Magazine. However, while it does deal with matters historically related to the body of Christians specified in the title, and so helps inform us with regard to developments among them (in itself a useful service to the wider Calvinistic community), it raises issues of wider interest and significance. These are discussed in a biographical and historical context, which gives them much human interest and should tempt readers who are not into reading straight theological works, and even encourage them to read such works – perhaps beginning with The Westminster Confession of Faith, which provides a good Biblical perspective on various issues discussed here.

While recognising the impact of individuals’ personality and experience on their positions on theology and the doctrine of the Church, Dr Oliver seeks to concentrate on the principles under discussion. The book, a popular presentation of the fruit of doctoral research, manifests extensive reading and thorough sympathy with the 1689 Baptist Confession – the Baptist modification of the Westminster Confession of Faith. The developing divisions between those with a common Particular Baptist origin are seen as accounted for by departures from the unifying basis of the 1689 Confession.

In all the attempts to promote union among the churches from the 1830s onwards, no attempt was made to bring the churches back to the original basis of Particular Baptist unity as expressed in the 1689 Confession of Faith. The various discussions took place as though that Confession had never existed (p 336).

We do not have sufficient acquaintance with many of the individuals or writings discussed in this volume to allow us to comment on the accuracy of the representations made or the conclusions reached regarding them. Accordingly this review is confined to a general reference to the significant principles discussed throughout the book, which is written in a pleasing and readable style.

(a) There was lengthy controversy over strict or open communion. Strict communion in this context meant that only persons baptized on the basis of their own profession of saving faith in Christ were admitted to the Lord’s Table. The book does not enter into the controversy between paedobaptists and anti-paedobaptists and does not promote the anti-paedobaptist view. It deals with the debate between those, on the one hand, who followed the logic of their position and excluded paedobaptists, and those, on the other hand, who desired to recognise the church membership of persons who did not adhere to their position but shared their commitment to the gospel of the grace of God. We concur with those who contend that, as the appointed sign of membership in the Christian Church, Baptism is required in order to admission to the Lord’s Table, but we regret that Baptist theology has departed from the covenant theology of the Bible in this respect and excludes from Baptism, and so from membership of the visible Church, many who have a God-given right to it – “infants descended from parents, either both or but one of them professing faith in Christ, and obedience to Him” (Larger Catechism, 166).

(b) Controversy over how the gospel ought to be preached centred upon such issues as the free offer of the gospel, the nature of faith, the warrant for faith, the legitimacy of calling sinners to repentance and faith and, to a lesser degree, upon the meaning of the imputation of sin to Christ and of Christ’s righteousness to the believer and upon the particularity of redemption. The author highlights the danger of confusing the objective warrant to believe and the graciously-created subjective tendency to do so, of confusing the exercise of faith in order to be saved with the assurance that one has salvation, and of confusing pressing upon sinners the call to repentance and faith with the suggestion that they have the ability in themselves to do either. While greatly relishing Biblically-experimental preaching, he sees the danger of theology being formulated in the light of experience rather than by the Word of God. It may be added that it is the application of human logic rather than submission to the Word of God that accounts for both Hyper-Calvinism and Arminianism. Both wrongly assume that exhortations to repentance and faith imply creature power and deny electing love and particular redemption – though they react to this assumption in opposite ways.

(c) Controversy over the place of the moral law in the life of the child of God is seen by Dr Oliver as producing differences among the Particular Baptists deeper than those caused by the debates over the terms of communion or the preaching of the gospel. He affirms that many who might have been regarded as “doctrinal antinomians” lived godly lives, but concurs in the assertion of one of his subjects that the moral law

is a friend and guide, pointing to the way in which the Christian ought to walk, so as to express gratitude to God for His benefits, and glorify the Lord Redeemer. It shows him also, at the same time, how imperfect his own obedience is, and so is a happy means of keeping him humble at the foot of sovereign grace, and entirely dependent on the righteousness of his divine Sponsor (p 115).

Other matters are introduced in the course of the book, such as the Eternal Sonship of Christ, the question of when a sinner is justified, and the relation of regeneration to faith, but the three noted above occupy most attention. The book is provocative of thought on matters which ought to exercise our minds and concerning which we ought to have clear views. While glad to have made the acquaintance in these pages of godly men who were deeply exercised in their day to promote the glory of God and the good of the Church, we are thankful for the heritage we have in our own Scottish pastors and theologians of olden times who were enabled to guide the Church into views of the gospel and Christian living and church order which we believe to be in accordance with the Word of God.

Notes

    • History of the English Calvinistic Baptists 1791-1892
      price $30.00 $27.00

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      Rev Hugh Cartwright was once the professor of church history at the Free Church College, Edinburgh. He is now a minister in the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland. He was asked to review the History of the English Calvinistic Baptists 1771-1892, From John Gill to C H Spurgeon,1 by Robert W. Oliver, and this is […]

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