Atonement in Evangelical and Liberal Thought: Part III

Natural Law versus revealed or ‘positive’  law

     Church history plainly shows that where a faulty view of the law is maintained, an erroneous view of the Atonement always follows with its corollary, a mistaken view of sin and the entire gospel of salvation. Where the symptoms are wrongly diagnosed, the medicine proscribed can hardly be effective. This is well-illustrated in the views of Hugo Grotius who sees the Natural Law as being superior to the revealed laws of God in Scripture. Such revealed laws, which he calls ‘positive laws` are neither universal, as they were only given to the Jews, nor are they eternal as the new dispensation in Christ shows a progression from the Old Testament understanding of law. Readers of Grotius and especially Andrew Fuller, may be puzzled by this strange usage of the word ‘positive’ as, when applied to the Scriptures, it can only be judged by evangelicals as having a very ‘negative’ connotation. The word is used by them as an entirely philosophical proposition that is artificially construed but formally postulated and posited as a law. ‘Positive laws’ are thus, by definition, artificial laws as opposed to Natural Laws, which are thought to be real, eternal laws. This is in stark contrast to the 17th and 18th century evangelical practice of using the term ‘positive law’ to describe absolute, authoritative, binding and peremptory commands of God.

     Borrowing from Anaxarchus via Plutarch, Grotius argues that God’s law is not Natural Law but a law which merely reflects His will and that God does not will anything because it is just but regards it as just because He wills it. In other words, God’s revealed will is arbitrary. Grotius leaves the impression that a Christian who trains himself in the use of his natural faculties is able to view the temporal ‘positive’ revelations of the Scriptures and through their metaphorical language and imagery find the Natural Law. Governmentalists call this looking for the spirit of the law hidden in its letters. This whole exercise of getting behind the ‘positive’ to find the eternal and interpreting the artificial to grasp the natural, must appear highly irrational to any person exercising a little common sense. Why bother about finding the Natural Law behind the positive law if reason can approach Natural Law directly? It would thus seem that Grotius’ religion gets in the way of his philosophy. In any case, Grotius often presents man as living closer to Natural Law than God Himself.

Grotian influence world-wide

     Opinions concerning Grotius have always been greatly varied. These range from calling him a noble dilettante (W. Philipp), to viewing him as the great originator of the Enlightenment (v. Voltelini and Erik Wolf). No one can deny that he identified himself closely with the philosophy of the scholastics. Grotius sought to unify the most rational in all denominations although he tended mostly towards Rome himself. His ecumenical work however was mostly unsuccessful. The Lutherans called him Grotius Papista, the Pope placed a ban on all his theological works and the Calvinists denounced him as being a mixture of Arminianism, Socinianism, Arianism and Atheism which, in the opinion of this writer, sums up Grotius’ theology perfectly. However, his governmental theory was quickly exported to other countries being adopted in England by the Latiduniarians and Neo-Platonists of the Anglican Church. Grotius had told the Anglican heirachy that he wished to live and die according to the rites and ordinances of the Church of England but his loyalty to the Swedish Government hindered him from openly admitting this . Grotianism, however, did not remain within the Church of England but spread throughout the Chandlerites amongst the Presbyterians and the Fullerites amongst the Baptists. In America, after the Influence of Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards had declined, Grotianism was adopted and further liberalised by the New Divinity School of Jonathan Edwards Jun., Joseph Bellamy, Samuel Hopkins and Nathaniel W. Taylor. These were men who paved the way for a thorough-going rejection of the Biblical doctrine of the Atonement. The latter school, according to modern writers such as Professor Michael Haykin, was influential in winning Andrew Fuller over to Grotianism. Indeed Fuller’s works reflect this teaching perhaps more than any other writer who claims allegiance to Calvinism and evangelical preaching. John Gill, the great Baptist preacher of the righteousness of Christ amply dealt with Samuel Chandler’s rationalism and no less than Benjamin B. Warfield revealed the fallacies of New England Divinity. Fullerism was combated in England by such stalwarts as John Stevens, J. A. Jones, William Gadsby and J. C. Philpot. Chandlerism and the New Divinity School have ceased to play their individual part in perverting the truth. Sadly, however, in recent years there has been a resurgence of Fullerism, combining both the European and North American aberrations, and this heresy is once more, threatening to overrun evangelical and Reformed Christianity.

Samuel Chandler`s fitness campaign unfit for a Christian

     In combating the rationalism of Chandler , presented under the guise of ‘Moderate Calvinism’, Gill claims that all talk of ‘Natural Law’ and ‘the nature and fitness of things’ were meaningless phrases coined to serve as a retreat from the superior force and evidence of divine revelation. He asked vendors of Chandler’s Grotianism which nature they were talking about and in what way was it fit and how this pointed to rational perfection in man, only to find that his questions caused them embarrassment. Gill wonders why those Christians who profess to believe in the necessary existence of Natural Law, in its eternity, independence, supreme power and authority over all reasonable things, do not worship that as God, especially seeing that God Himself is judged to be merely a provider of metaphors, camouflaging Natural Law more than revealing it. Before Gill’s readers, however, prostrate themselves before Natural Law and worship it, he asks them to bear a few points in mind.

     First, if the Natural Law of the rationalists is quite independent of God and not His will, then it cannot possibly be of the character of God, nor can it provide the high ideals of eternal holiness which God requires as ‘every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. (James 1:17).’ What is fit or unfit in this world, must be measured alongside what is God’s eternal and providential will or not. What is not of His will is evil because what is of His will is all good.

     Secondly, Gill argues that good and evil cannot be older or as old as God Himself as all standards of good and bad must be measured according to His eternal standards before whom nothing ever was as He is the creator of all things. The evil that has come into creation was not there as a separate entity before creation so must have come as a rebellion against the goodness of God. If there is thus any such thing as the fitness of things, that fitness must be found in God’s own character.

     In Gill’s third point, he meets the Grotian maxim that God does not make a law because it is just but declares a law just because He has arbitrary made it thus. He points out that we should expect God who is holy to make laws which are fit and proper but these laws are not solely fit and proper because He commands them. God is unchangeable and cannot lie, therefore He only commands that which is in keeping with His own eternal character and nature. Any nature and fitness of things, worthy of the name must reflect the very nature of God. Hence God commands laws for the very reason that they are fit and proper because they reflect the fit and proper nature of God. There is not a spark or shadow of the arbitrary in God, thus there is no spark or shadow of caprice in His laws as God cannot deny Himself and does not change.

     The fourth point in Gill’s criticism of an outside law, i.e. the Law of Nature, that determines God’s will, is that nothing could be more contrary to divine revelation which explicitly and in no uncertain terms, denies such a fallacy. God does as He pleases (Psalm 115:3), He ‘works all things after the council of his own will,’ (Ephesians 1:11) and ‘he does according to his will in the army of heavens, and among the inhabitants of the earth.’ (Daniel 4:35). Gill points out that Chandler is confusing Stoic philosophy with Christian exegesis as the ancients Stoics believed in a Law of Fate that determined the nature of things and compelled both the gods and men to act according to it. Nothing, however, can be a rule to God but His own nature and moral perfections within Himself which express His will and conduct.

     Fifthly, Gill argues that those who propagate a Natural Law as opposed to God’s law have already dropped God out of their system. Who wants an arbitrary and metaphorical presentation of a law if they have the real thing without having to worry their brains about interpreting it? Such a rejection must be accompanied by a complete reinterpretation of the concept of sin as, according to Scripture, sin is the transgression of the law (1 John 3:4). This is expressed in the Westminster Catechism as, ‘Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of any law of God given as a rule to the reasonable creature.’ If God’s revelation to man is merely of secondary purpose and highly metaphorical to boot, then the Christian concept of sin has no absolute relevance. Sinning itself becomes a mere metaphorical breech of an arbitrary law. If, too, all men have the perfect rule of Nature to guide their reason, then all human laws of whatever make must be seen as superfluous. Each individual, as a natural creature must be the measure of all things, reflecting the great Law of Nature.

     In Gill’s sixth point, he shows how the moral capacities of fallen man are just not fitted to aspire to law-keeping in any way. In alienating himself from God, man is in moral darkness and ought not to be viewed as Chandler does, as if he were still in his pre-fallen state. Mankind in general, as Hosea emphatically and truthfully states (11:7) of the Jews, is bent on backsliding. Thus Gill takes away the a priori argument of Grotianism that man has the perfect law (the Law of Nature) in his very being. Man is an anarchist at heart. Dealing with the a posteriori argument, Gill shows that even so-called ‘civilised’ nations are at sixes and sevens concerning what the moral law of nature is. One nation condones suicide, another condemns it. Polygamy is accepted by some and rejected by others. Fornication is accepted and permitted by one civilisation and frowned on by another. Gambling is seen as sociably respectful even by some Christians and others find it criminal. Thus where is the international and inter-cultural agreement as to the Law of Nature?

     Whilst dealing with this point, Gill takes up the Scriptural references which Chandler gives to show that the Law of Nature antedates the revealed law and is the true, perfect and eternal law. He quotes such passages as Psalm 119:142, 160, ‘Thy righteousness is an everlasting righteousness,’ and ‘Thy word is true from the beginning.’ Gill accepts these verses as indicating ‘the perpetuity of moral law, its immutable obligation upon us, the veracity and justice of God; which appear in it and will abide by it, and continue with it, to defend the rights, and secure the honours of it.’ He then goes on to ask, “What is all this to the nature and fitness of things? or, How do these passages prove the eternal and immutable obligations of moral virtue, as prior to and independent of the Word of God? When the Psalmist is only speaking of the will of God as revealed in his law and testimonies; from whence, and not from the nature and fitness of things, he had learned of old, many years ago, the truth, righteousness, and continuance of them.” Gill also quotes Chandler’s only ‘proof’ of Natural Law he gives from the New Testament, i.e. Philippians 4:8, ‘Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.’ Gill comments: ‘That these expressions necessarily suppose and infer, that truth, honesty, justice, and purity, are essentially different from their contrary vices, are lovely in their nature, praiseworthy in their practice, and which both God and man will approve and commend, will be easily granted; but still the question returns, what is all this to the nature and fitness of things? To the immutable and eternal obligations of moral virtue, as prior to, and independent of the will of God? Does the apostle make moral fitness, in this sense, the rule of action, or of judgement, with respect to truth, honesty, justice, and purity, and not rather the revealed will and law of God? The latter seems to be manifestly his sense, since he adds, ‘those things which ye have both learned and received, and heard, and seen in me, do, and the God of peace shall be with you.’ Whence it appears that the things he advises them were such as he had taught them, according to the will of God, and which they had received upon that foot, and had  been practised by himself, in obedience to it. Gill goes on to show how the Natural Law theory explained by the ‘nature and fitness of things` leads ‘logically’ to polytheism and at least has a tendency to introduce Deism and Libertinism. Worst of all, Gill sees the idea of rule by the nature and fitness of things as encouraging absolute Antinomianism as ‘to set aside, and disregard the law of God, as a rule of life and conversation or action, is strictly and properly Antinomianism.’

Grotianism and the metaphorising of Scripture

     Though in England, the influence of the moral government theory was mainly centred about problems concerning law, atonement and revelation, this inevitably raised the question of the inspiration of the Scriptures. As it became philosophically acceptable to challenge Biblical revelation, the orthodox view of Scriptures as the venue of revelation was also challenged. Thus we find the Cambridge Platonists with their New Philosophy, arguing that the rational mind should use his knowledge of the nature and fitness of things to discern what is the essential message of the Scriptures, hidden in the inessentials which have accumulated during the formation of the canon. It was in the new republic formed out of the American colonies after the great awakening of the first three-quarters of the 18th century that the New Divinity, or New England, School was founded, built four square on the moral government theory of God’s supposed rectoral administration of the world. This brought with it a metaphorical use of Scripture which paid lip service to orthodox terminology such as total depravity, atonement, satisfaction, substitution, redemption, imputation and righteousness but completely changed its meaning and paved the way for an upsurge of Pelagianism and the start of the modern Liberal Movement.

Benjamin Warfield refutes New Divinity error

     As John Gill was God’s choice in combating Grotianism in Britain, so He used Benjamin B. Warfield towards the end of the following century to point out the fallacies of the New Divinity School. Warfield felt that such views had disappeared from Reformed thought and become the standard Arminian doctrine. He would be amazed, today, to find the same rank heresies sporting under the name of Moderate Calvinism again. Indeed, Grotian New Divinity teaching is being praised today by former Reformed men as the doctrinally purest form of Evangelical Calvinism! Warfield’s voice, therefore, still serves as a warning to Reformed men against the present re-appearance of these Antinomian and Anti-Calvinistic views under the cloak of Reformed orthodoxy.

     Warfield sees Grotianism as entering North America after the golden age of the Puritans culminating in Jonathan Edwards’ death. Until then, it would appear, the Reformed faith was secure in America and the evangelical outreach of such as Whitefield, Brainerd and Edwards had been spiritual profitable to Native Americans and European immigrants and their offspring alike. In his essay Edwards and the New England Theology, Warfield points out that the rot set in with Jonathan Edwards Jun. reassessing his father’s doctrines and publishing what he called Improvements in Theology which he had allegedly inherited from his father. These ‘improvements’, as Warfield emphasises, were clearly the very opposite to the teaching of Edwards Sen.. The Satisfaction doctrine of the atonement is replaced by Grotian Governmental teaching and the doctrine of the imputation of sin is rejected by an ‘each responsible for his own sins` teaching. The latter might not seem heretical at first sight as each sinner is obviously, according to God’s word, responsible for his own sins. The idea behind this Grotian view, however, is that mankind was not represented in Adam as far as responsibility goes but actually suffered innocently under the death penalty due to Adam’s initial transgression, thus giving God more cause to exert benevolence instead of justice. This view became the common belief in later so-called ‘evangelical Calvinism’ in which condemnation through being in Adam was virtually ignored and condemnation and salvation were seen merely as a result of each individual either rejecting or accepting Christ on hearing the Gospel. The third cardinal break with Edwards Sen. was the emphasis on man’s supposedly intact natural abilities, including his reason (but not necessarily his reasoning), and moral powers which opened the doors to American Pelagianism. Another new teaching of this school which was not ashamed to openly declare that it had produced a New Divinity, was a shift of emphasis from the atonement to repentance as the means of securing salvation. This did away with the Reformed teaching of the objectivity of the atonement which secured the salvation of the elect. The New Divinity set up a half-way house in which the atonement opened up the possibility of salvation for all but it became valid to the elect on their demonstration of repentance and faith. In other words, they taught that the atonement was not the finished work on the cross traditional Christianity had taken it to be. Again, this new doctrine may not seem particularly dangerous as it accepts that the elect will be saved one way or another. The Bible, however, teaches that there is only one way of salvation and this is through the real vicarious, penal and redemptive sufferings of Christ on the cross. This one-way doctrine was dropped gradually from New Divinity teaching along with the Biblical doctrines of imputation and justification.

All too simple, all too shallow

     One of the most damaging aspects of this new teaching was that the onus in salvation was removed from God’s sovereignty and placed in the subjective powers of man. If man is only given the right motives to repent, if he can be brought to realise that Christ died to show him God’s displeasure at sin and His willingness to remove man’s obligations towards a broken law, then there is nothing to stop that man being saved. Indeed every man by nature has a knowledge of his duty to accept the truth of the gospel (or what the Grotians have left of it) and have himself saved. It is no wonder that the New Divinity School moved on to Finneyism and the use of psychological persuasion in the ensuing theories of mass evangelism. As Warfield says in his essay Modern Theories of the Atonement, ‘There is no hint here that man needs anything more to unable him to repent than the presentation of motives calculated powerfully to induce him to repent. That is to say, there is no hint here of an adequate appreciation of the subjective effects of sin on the human heart, deadening it to the appeal of the motives to right action however powerful. and requiring therefore an internal action of the Spirit of God upon it before it can repent: or of the purchase of such a gift of the Spirit by the sacrifice of Christ. As little is there any hint here of the existence of any sense of justice in God, forbidding Him to account the guilty righteous without satisfaction of guilt. All God requires for forgiveness is repentance: all the sinner needs for repentance is a moving inducement. It is all very simple, but we are afraid it does not go to the root of matters as presented either in Scripture or in the throes of our awakened heart.’

Jonathan Edwards’ teaching reversed

     Warfield points out that though the New Divinity School ‘finished by becoming the earnest advocate of a set of opinions which he (Edwards Sen.) gained his chief celebrity in demolishing,’ they did inherit Edwards’ zeal for evangelism but developed a revivalist mentality which caused discussions and disturbances everywhere, presumably because their was no doctrine to back it up. This is a solemn warning for the present-day Reformed community in which once-orthodox preachers are now dropping the doctrines of grace yet professing that they are preaching the gospel more properly (to use their own phrase) than ever. Yet it is difficult to see what the gospel is that they are preaching apart from a high view of man’s capabilities and a low view of God’s sovereign grace and saving love. Such modern preaching is also being accompanied by an almost utter rejection of the teaching of the great men of the 18th century such as Gill, Hervey, Toplady, Romaine and Huntington, men who revealed the utter fallacy of theories of law, gospel, atonement and Scripture which were not anchored in the Word of God. Even the teaching of George Whitefield himself is now rejected by those who, in past years, made his doctrines popular. Whitefield’s sermon What think ye of Christ? led to James Hervey’s conversion. In this sermon Whitefield describes how Christ not only took upon Himself the punishment for our sin passively but also placed Himself under the law in His human nature, vicariously for His elect, and was obedient to it in every respect. Whitefield can thus conclude,

“Our salvation is all of God from the beginning to the end; it is not of works, lest any man should boast. Man has no hand in it; it is Christ who is made of God unto us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. His active obedience, as well as his passive obedience, is to be applied to poor sinners. He has fulfilled all righteousness in our stead, that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”

     Whitefield here preaches freely that justification rests alone on Christ’s vicarious righteousness worked out at the Atonement. This is made possible by the God-Man who demonstrated before God and man that He was worthy to present us spotless before His Father. The great preacher adds that if any man or angel contradicts this truth, we have apostolic authority to pronounce that man or angel accursed. Sadly all the main doctrines of Whitefield’s sermon are being denied in much present-day Reformed preaching. Man’s agency as co-partner in working out salvation is now accepted as orthodox theology ; the ransoming nature of the Atonement is being denied along with the need for Christ’s active obedience to the law and the need for our sins to be imputed to Christ and His righteousness to be imputed to the sinner. Particular redemption is now denied by the very people who re-emphasised the doctrine in the late fifties and sixties and thus pioneered the revival of the Reformed Faith.

     As former leaders of the Reformed Faith have begun to leave the old paths, especially where they centre in the doctrine of Atonement, Part IV of this discourse will concentrate on the alternative teaching they offer, claimed to be built on the ‘theological genius’ of Andrew Fuller. It will be shown that Gill’s and Warfield’s Scriptural arguments against Grotius, Chandler and their rationalist friends have not lost their refreshing power of showing up the scandalous sham of this pseudo-evangelical religion.