The Life and Thought of John Gill (1697-1771): A Tercentennial Appreciation
Ed. Michael A. G. Haykin
Brill

Anxious thoughts repelled

     I turned to The Life and Thought of John Gill edited by Michael Haykin with apprehension because of former highly negative comments on the subjects by several contributors to this Festschrift. I read the book, however, with increasing delight as it became obvious that the winds of change are blowing away the myths that have encompassed Gill in recent years.

     In his introduction Dr. Haykin reviews the research done on Gill up to the present and rightly argues that there is little deep, sound work on Gill’s theology available. The book under his editorship book seeks to make good the loss.

Gill’s Life and Ministry

     Robert Oliver opens Chapter One on Gill’s Life and Ministry, by giving a fine detailed biography of his subject revealing a stalwart man of God with a passion for his ministry and studies assisted by a strong sense of humour. Oliver needs to do more research on secondary figures in Gill’s life such as Crosby to put events in their right perspective. He seems not to know that Crosby had to leave Goat Yard not because of a general dislike of Gill but because he was excommunicated by the church and was also excommunicated from his second church where Gill had no influence.

     Good as Oliver is in the biographical field, his theological comment leaves much to be desired.  Ignoring Gill’s vast teaching on the subject, Oliver concludes that Gill denies the main doctrine of the Reformation, i.e. justification by faith. He then looks to Thomas Goodwin’s ideas of God justifying in eternity and time for assistance, believing wrongly that, whatever the other differences with Gill, the Puritan teaches that God justifies already-believers only (p.24). Oliver is surely mistaking Arminian John Goodwin for his Calvinist uncle, Thomas Goodwin. The latter clearly states in the page reference Oliver gives that justification is an immanent act of God, ‘wholly out of us’ and ‘ not as actually existing in ourselves, but only as existing in our Head, who covenanted for us and represented for us’ the benefits of which are given us, not after belief but ‘in an act passed upon us’ co-instant with receiving faith. True, Goodwin places a ‘now’ in 1 Cor. 6:11 which might have led Oliver astray (“Now you are justified”) which was rightly criticised by Gill as the word ‘now’ neither occurs in the A.V. nor in the Greek text. Oliver’s view reflects Hyper-Fullerism. Gill, in deep harmony with Goodwin, explains that God justifies the elect whilst they are God’s enemies (Rom. 4:5; 5:8,10), thus I cannot follow Oliver’s reasoning that this is a sign of Hyper-Calvinism. Actually, Gill is more thorough than either Goodwin or Oliver in depicting the relationship between justification and faith.

     Oliver, quoting Gill out of context, claims that he went beyond Calvin and broke with Keach and The Second London Confession on the offer of the gospel. Oliver’s trouble is obviously that he cannot understand why Gill refuses to give offers of grace and salvation based on a universal atonement made efficacious purely by those who grasp out (to use Fuller’s term) and take it. Similarly, though Oliver has spotted the word ‘offer’ in the London Confession, he has not noticed that it does not carry a universal application. The term is not placed under the heading ‘On the Gospel’ but in the article ‘On the Covenant’ where the status of those in covenant with God is depicted. This is obviously not what Oliver means by the term ‘offer.’ Indeed, it is he who is faulty in its usage, not Gill who denies rightly that there is a universal gospel offer based on a universal atonement.

The Reformed Tradition

     Chapter Two is in the able hands of Richard Muller on John Gill and the Reformed Tradition. It was tough work getting through this chapter but highly rewarding as the enormity of Gill’s reading and learning was revealed. Muller, however, is surely wrong in affirming that Gill’s ‘The Doctrine of God’s Everlasting Love to His Elect’ shows that he built on Saltmarsh Crisp and Hussey. Gill affirms in that book that Saltmarsh says exactly nothing on Gill’s favourite doctrine and thus disagrees with him strongly, though he finds Saltmarsh a godly man and certainly no Antinomian. He is less critical of Crisp but still finds little in him concerning the question of union with Christ under debate. Hussey is not even mentioned in the work. Perhaps Muller, with Hussey at the back of his mind, is misunderstanding Gill when speaking on exhorting to repentance where Gill is arguing for the right kind of exhortation not for a suppression of it. He is saying that pressing men to law duties is not preaching the gospel of grace. Who would disagree? It is interesting to note, referring to other contributors to this volume, that when Gill condemns the preaching of the legal and limited gospel which they represent, he is called a Hyper-Calvinist.

     Muller shows how Gill was influenced mostly by the great pre-breakaway time of the British Puritans and by the Continental and British reformers before them. A special feature of Gill’s learning was his knowledge of the history of the Church and Biblical doctrine from New Testament times, realising that his own day was less open to such influence than previous centuries. Again, such an interest in early church and patristic studies endeared Gill to the Anglicans. Gill, however, is no Aristotelian Scholastic but warns against its snares. This is a timely word to present Supralapsarian Reformed men on both sides of the Atlantic who rebuke those whom they call ‘Hypos,’ for not presenting their theology in Aristotelian terms.

Believer Baptism

     Stanley Fowler deals with John Gill’s Doctrine of Believer Baptism in Chapter Three and bravely touches areas of Gill’s teaching which will surprise many Baptists. Unlike two other contributors in the book, Fowler does not resort to what John Legg calls theological swearwords when disagreeing with Gill but is always gentle and respectful.

     Gill appears to fall between two stools in his teaching on baptism which may not please either Covenant Baptists (wrongly called Infant Baptisers) or Believer Baptists (wrongly called Adult Baptisers), but both parties can surely learn from Gill. Anglicans would certainly agree with Gill’s exposition of Mark 1:4, Acts 2:38 and Acts 22:16 (pp. 79, 82) and Baptists ought to take prayerful note of Gill’s words. Similarly, Baptists would agree with Gill’s discussion concerning the folly of basing Christian baptism on supposed Jewish proselyte baptism and it would pay Covenant Baptists to take note here. Fowler obviously disagrees with Gill on the topic of John’s baptism and the baptismal commission in Matthew 28:19. There is just a hint of doubt expressed at Gill’s view that baptism is an extra-church ordinance. Here again, there is much for Covenant and Believer Baptists to disagree with, thus showing that the question of baptism is as unresolved as ever. I would, however, hate to condemn Gill’s views outright but rather suspect that the accusation from both Covenant Baptisers and Believer Baptisers that Gill is self-contradictory rests only on the presupposition that one of the two parties must be right. Perhaps Gill has the key to a better way. Having doubted Gill so often, yet found him to be right after all, I have learnt to reserve judgement.

Babel unlimited

      Chapter Four gives us Raymund Ortlund’s multi-lingual seminary lecture on John Gill as Interpreter of the Old Testament which is a study-in-depth and linguistic analysis of Psalm 68. The reader is required to read non-vocalised Hebrew texts, decipher vocalised and non-vocalised transcriptions and be enlightened by Aramaic, Arabic, Ugarit, Syriac, Greek, Latin and even Bohairic. Ortlund’s aim is to show us that Gill’s methods of exegesis are still relevant and exemplary today but Ortlund covers up the language of Zion by the babbling of Babel. Yet, he criticises Gill’s succinct clarity by saying that his exposition of Psalm 68 is “exegetically valid, but lexicographically sloppy.” In the next chapter, Tom Ascol loses no credibility as a New Testament scholar and exegete by not quoting Greek once in his essay as he proves his point in a language the reader understands. Surely Ortlund loses credibility as a Semitic scholar by being totally unable to reduce his lecture didactically to suit the needs of the average reader of this volume

Expounding gospel truths well

     Thomas Ascol gladdens us with a fine essay on John Gill’s Approach to New Testament Exposition in Chapter Five and gave this reviewer the feeling that Gill’s work was now indeed being rightly evaluated. Ascol’s comments on Gill’s research are excellent and he delights the reader in his portrayal of his subjects pastoral sensitivity and spiritual teaching, especially on faith. Truly such writers as Oliver, Daniel and Naylor could tear a page from Ascol’s work. Also those who stress with wearying monotony the non-invitation myth concerning Gill will find much food for thought here. This chapter is a gem.

     Tom Nettles deals with John Gill and the Evangelical Awakening in Chapter Six. He shows clearly how Gill has a rightful and most important place in the development of the evangelical awakening in the 18th century and puts to flight the silly myths spread by so-called Anti-Hypers who believe Gill had his head in the sand whenever any evangelical preaching was going on. Indeed Nettles sees Gill as being ‘the perfect foil’ against the false Bible teaching of his day. Refreshing too, faced with modern efforts to set up a rather Arminianised Spurgeon against Gill, is Nettles portrayal of the true Spurgeon who took over not only Gill’s pulpit and study chair but also his mantle. Nettle’s way of viewing Gill against the background of his contemporaries from which he is usually isolated is very refreshing. Here all the important doctrinal parallels, including views concerning ‘sensible sinners’ are outlined between Whitefield, and Gill leaving Nettles to conclude that both men ‘sang in unison’. This was also the contemporary opinion of James Hervey, Erasmus Middleton and Augustus Toplady.

How not to do it

     Curt Daniel deals in Chapter Seven with John Gill and Calvinistic Antinomianism. Much of the chapter is way off the subject and exhibits an appalling lack of theological acumen for one introduced in a recent brochure as America’s number one expert on Gill. Daniel links up Antinomianism with Supralapsarianism and the Five Points of Dort. As the findings of Dort are Sublapsarian to the core and one could hardly think of such delegates as Bogerman and Davenant, or any of the others for that matter, as Antinomians, this argument is rather lame. This lameness becomes even more apparent when Daniel presents his first candidate for Antinomian ‘honours,’ Tobias Crisp, who was the darling of the Calvinistic giants of the Great Awakening. However, the fact that Daniel tells us that all the hair-raising things that Crisp and his like are accused of are merely what ‘is said,’ leaves room to presume that Daniel has his doubts. When Daniel tells us that it was Baxter that led the call to attack against Crisp’s kind of Calvinism then we see the problem in a better light. As Baxter did not believe in Christ truly fulfilling the law on our behalf and opting for a Neonomian view of that law, Baxter is in no position to call others Antinomians. This reminds us that it was the followers and associates of Martin Madan, alias the Polygamous Parson, who first called William Huntington an Antinomian.

     By this time, Daniel is eight and a half pages through his short work on Gill and the Southwark Baptist has not yet appeared on the scene. When he does, the guilt by association machinery starts. Joseph Hussey (1659-1726) was a Hyper Calvinist and knew Skepp (1670-1721) who knew Gill so we can expect that Gill was a Hyper-Calvinist by a kind of ‘apostolic succession.’ Hussey, however, only moved over to his alleged Hyper views around 1707, shortly after which Skepp fell out with him and took over a London church in 1710. Gill hardly knew Skepp who died less than two years after Gill’s own move there. Gill’s interest in Skepp was chiefly because of his receiving a Particular Baptist Fund grant to buy up the deceased Skepp’s Hebrew grammars and commentaries. Nettles argues that Hussey’s views on evangelism were ‘completely alien to the method and spirit of Gill’ (For his Grace, p. 104).

     In his summary, Daniel devotes two sentences to Gill’s being in the mainstream of Reformed thought on the law but then goes into a two paged diatribe against William Huntington, quite misunderstanding his teaching on the covenants and his attitude to the law. Forgetting that he is supposed to be writing on Gill, this is followed by a general condemnation of churches and pastors who Daniel feels are Antinomian. On returning briefly to his subject, Daniel says that Gill was “Not a true Antinomian in doctrine, he was Hyper-Calvinist.” This is an odd statement as the phrase ‘not a true Antinomian’ would now suggest that Gill was not quite orthodox on the law, whereas Daniel has just said he is. Needless to say, Daniel offers no evidence for his allegation that Gill is a Hyper-Calvinist. This work is most unsatisfactory.

Gill’s Spirituality beautifully described

     Chapter Eight on The Spirituality of John Gill by Gregory Wills left me praising the Lord. I wrote a large ‘Amen!’ at its ending. How well does Wills blow away all the evil posthumous myths concerning Gill’s supposed lack of a heart that burns for Christ and a deep love for sinners! Wills shows how Gill’s religion was one of a heart in unity with Christ, loving sinners into eternity. Here we read of Gill describing the ravishing sight of Jesus which fills the soul with joy unspeakable and full of glory. We see Gill pleading with sinners, telling them,

“To see our acceptance in his person, pardon through his blood, justification by his righteousness, reconciliation with God through his atoning sacrifice, and every needful supply of grace from his infinite fullness, O how pleasant must Christ be to a believer under all those sweet considerations.”

As once again a certain Scottish banner is lowered and another article appears in its magazine falsely assuming that Gill did not preach to sinners, here we read how Gill sought the work of the Holy Spirit to change sinners hearts to produce spiritual affections, pleading with them,

“What though, poor soul, thou seest the aboundings of sin in thy nature, and in every power and faculty of thy soul; yet look up and view the superabounding grace of God streaming through the person, blood, and righteousness of Christ; … take heart, therefore, and do not be discouraged; Christ’s grace is sufficient for thee; … go to him as a poor perishing sinner, implore his grace, and venture on him, I dare say he will not reject thee.”

Sinners beware! Read Gill and you will be in danger of being transported to heavens glories!

Frail and pale women

     Chapter Nine is by Sharon James on the subject ‘The Weaker Vessel’: John Gill’s Reflections on Women, Marriage and Divorce. Mrs James is refreshingly free from the modern clichés of feminist theology and shows that she, with tiny differences, accepts the order of creation outlined in Scripture and taught by Gill. Perhaps James exaggerates the early Particular Baptist view of the submission of the fair sex as the Southwark and Bristol churches were noted for allowing the ladies a freedom of expression and witness, including teaching, which James has not noted. Perhaps this is why she concludes that Gill’s view of a man’s wife is ‘rather frail and pale,’ though the quotes she gives would suggest a more sturdy and rosy-complexioned help-meet. James’ pale view of Elizabeth Negus is perhaps because she tends to view married couples as two completely individual members in a partnership of differing tasks rather than viewing them as an inseparable whole, which she reveals rightly as being Gill’s view. James gives us a fair and balanced view of Gill on divorce which most commentators, including myself, have dropped like hot cakes, unable to handle the topic. A special booklet from her pen on this subject would be a blessing to the churches.

A hot iron well struck

     Chapter Ten is on The Ecclesiology of John Gill by Timothy George. This is another hot iron which few, including most Baptists, have taken up, probably because Gill breaks the barriers of denominationalism that bind most of us (see pp. 228-230). Indeed, there is something very Anglican about Gill’s conception of the church and its beliefs, which always caused Evangelicals such as Middleton and Hervey to include Gill as ‘one of us.’ This should not frighten Particular Baptists who have historically closer ties with the Anglican conception of ‘a congregation of faithful men,’ yet exercising ‘a judgment of charity’ as to who is faithful, than to other Dissenting bodies, and, as Middleton stressed, keep the Anglican Articles where many (most?) Anglicans do not.

     It is good to see George viewing Gill’s 1729 Declaration of Faith as being Sublapsarian and a fundamental continuation of Keach’s influence on Baptist creeds. This view has been challenged by Iain Murray lately who looks on Gill’s Declaration as a Hyper-Calvinistic development. On the other hand, ‘Hardshell’ Presbyterians, on viewing Goat Yard’s Sublapsarianism reflected in their rejection of double predestination, would call the 1729 Declaration Hypo-Calvinist, i.e. Sub-Calvinism.

     Good, too, is to see Gill outlining the terms of fellowship and duties for those who are united in Christ and his emphasis on church discipline reflects the faithful teaching of the Synod of Dort. It is a joy to read through Gill’s church book and see how lovingly the church looked after the lambs that were prone to wander. George stresses Gill’s insistence on the outward evangelistic duties of pastor and flock against the background of critics who falsely feel that Gill was blissfully unaware of the needs of the world.

     George ends his moving and well-balanced chapter with a quote from Gill’s ‘The Glory of the Church in the Latter Day’ which would make any Christian’s eyes sparkle with joy.

Haykin’s aim only partly met

     On summing up, this reviewer finds that he has received a wealth of information on the life, ministry and teaching of Gill which shows that modern scholarship has listened to the protests of the rank and file against their recent unfounded and unscholarly criticisms of Gill and have examined the facts once again and now call for a better verdict. It was certainly an unwise move, however, to ask people of such totally different and highly contrasting views to produce a joint work. The outcome is totally confusing. The lacuna that Haykin says he is filling contains bitter water though much is sweet and refreshing. Here the editor ought to have exercised discipline in keeping the level of scholarship, research and doctrine on a sound, balanced basis.

     The indices are scanty with most limited references, and lack even a number of initial and main entries. Faulty pagination is often given. In a work on such a Biblical scholar, a list of Scripture references ought to have been considered a must. Not only a bibliography of primary works used is lacking but also one for the secondary works. This again raises the question as to how much true scholarly research on primary sources has been done and how much material has been taken from secondary sources.

      Though the editor wishes to fill a vacant gap in our knowledge of Gill’s theology, the work’s main strength is in pure biography and historical comment. Dr. Haykin’s aim has been, at best, but partly achieved. This work, however, ought to spark off new interest in Gill and help in producing further, more specific and detailed theological works on the scholar-pastor and his teaching. As there is a ready market for books on Gill and this book may well see a new or revised edition, Dr. Haykin will do well to have Oliver and Daniel brush up their theology and give Ortlund a lesson in simple didactics or, better still, replace these three by writers up to the high standards of the other contributors.