Weekly Update 23 – Light from an unexpected source!

M. Charles Bell’s book Calvin and Scottish Theology: The Doctrine of Assurance (Edinburgh: The Handsel Press, 1985) is one book I have been working through recently.  It is ambitious in scope, in that it aims to give a tour of Scottish theology from John Knox to John MacLeod Campbell (against the background of Calvin) focusing on the issue of assurance and related topics.  A lot of neglected theologians are covered in the book and Durham gets a significant place in the book which is good in that it gives me plenty to work on in my thesis!

Nevertheless, this is not a book that is recommended bedside (or any other kind of) reading.  The author, in my opinion, misreads Calvin and then attempts to set him against 17th C Scottish theology. Incidentally, I think he has also misread Scottish theology to an extent (or at least cast it in as bad a light as possible).  17th C Scottish theology in this book is judged as being simply very bad theology.  The book then is, in my view, historically and theologically suspect.  Having said that the book is not all bad and if you have the ability to sift the (small amount of) wheat from the (large heaps of) chaff there are a number of interesting points made.  One of the best is in Bell’s discussion of Ebenezer Erskine on the gospel offer.  Here are a couple of good quotes.

[Ebenezer Erskine] teaches that only the elect shall savingly close with Christ in the covenant since ‘all saving influences’ of God’s Spirit are peculiar to the elect. (Works, Vol 1, p4,48)… such teaching is, for many, an obstacle to their coming to Christ… [Erskine’s] usual response is to assert that we have nothing to do with election since this is hidden in God’s secret will. (3:100,125,278,431). We should interest ourselves in God’s will as revealed in his promises… The promises, then, are a door by which faith may enter into the new covenant (3:261), and by them ‘the reprobate have as good a revealed warrant for believing as the elect have’ (1:387). In reference to God and his promises, Erskine states that we should view the Scripture’s promises as a genuine revelation of God’s thoughts and feelings towards us, ‘for unbelief is ready to suggest that he says one thing and thinks another’ (2:146). With this statement, Erskine brings us to the heart of the matter, and that is the issue of one’s doctrine of God.

Here Bell notes that Erskine believes and teaches election (for Bell that is a bad thing).  This raises questions in the minds of the hearers of the gospel – am I elect?  How does Erskine respond?  The same way Durham does, by directing us away from the hidden things to the revealed things.  And when we turn to the revealed things we see all, elect and reprobate, have the same warrant to come to Christ.  Interestingly, Erskine, just as Durham does, moves beyond this to assert the sincerity of God in the gospel offer.  Bell’s comment regarding those who have an issue with a genuine gospel offer is to the point, “the issue is one’s doctrine of God”.  If we are unable to maintain the sincerity or well meant nature of the free offer of the gospel then something has gone wrong with our doctrine of God.  Interestingly, D.B. Williams PhD thesis, Herman Hoeksema’s theological method (University of Wales, Lampeter, 2000) notes that Hoeksema’s views on “common grace and the well meant offer could not have been other than they were” given his theological method.  Therefore those who seek to evaluate Hoeksema on the free offer and common grace directly “have entered the Hoeksema edifice at the back door”.  It is his theological method that really drives his particular views.  So to get a handle on denials of the free offer we need to step back from the direct issues and consider theological method and the doctrine of God as well.  That is an important point.  (I haven’t read Williams’ thesis yet – the point I quoted here was from his abstract).

Erskine… urges us to realise that God’s heart as revealed in Jesus Christ is full of grace and love for lost sinners. He pleads that we ‘not think that a God of truth dissembles with you, when he makes offer of his unspeakable gift, or that he offers you a thing he has no mind to give.’ (1:220).

Now Ebenezer Erskine was a thoroughly orthodox Scottish ‘Calvinist’ – he clearly espouses a definite atonement.  Yet he also clearly maintains that the free offer is well meant.  God does not “dissemble” with us in the free offer.  That is, he does not give a false or misleading appearance; he does not put on an appearance of sincerity or merely feign an offer of salvation.  The free offer is genuine, well meant and is not an offer of a thing “he has no mind to give”.

John J. Murray, coming at this from an orthodox angle as opposed to Bell’s unorthodoxy, makes a similar point commenting on Thomas Boston (a close friend of Erskine):  “Boston shows us how to hold the doctrines of election and particular redemption together with the preaching of the full and free offer of Christ to all men.  Holding the most exalted Reformed orthodoxy we can invite sinners to the Lord Jesus… The love that flows from the heart of God to sinners as we see in the parable of the prodigal son is free and unconditional.  Are we guilty of hedging about the love of God so as to protect it? … it is … revealed as a love that desires the salvation of all men.  The offer of Christ and his benefits is a bona fide offer.  We as ambassadors for Christ beseech sinners in God’s stead.” (‘The Marrow Controversy – Thomas Boston and the Free Offer’, Preaching and Revival, The Westminster Conference, 1984).

Marrow theology is reformed theology at its best (and despite some different nuances, e.g. on the covenant of redemption, it is essentially the same theology as Durham).  Read Thomas Boston, Ralph Erskine and Ebenezer Erskine – they will do your soul good!

7 Responses to “Weekly Update 23 – Light from an unexpected source!”

  1. John Fonville Says:

    Dear JDT (I apologize, I couldn’t locate your name on your blog). Scott Clark is a very good friend of mine. He alerted me to your weblog. I really appreciate this article. Dr. Clark introduced me to Thomas Boston, Ralph and Ebenezer Erskine and the Marrowmen a couple of years ago. I am a voracious reader of Boston and the Erskines. I have a great love for the Marrowmen. The Marrowmen’s writings have been a huge gospel salve to my previous neonomian plagued soul. I am looking forward to getting to know James Durham.

    I recently read a really good essay entitled, The Marrow of Modern Divinity and the Marrow Controversy, by Rev. Donald Beaton. I obtained this essay from the Scottish Church History Society. I have been trying to locate all of the bibliographical references Rev. Beaton refers to in this essay. I also have a George Low’s book, A General Account of My Life by Thomas Boston. At the back of this book, Rev. Low includes a helpful bibliography of resources on the Marrow Controversy.

    I would be grateful, if you are familiar with these sources, if you could perhaps point me in a direction where I could obtain (or find help obtaining) these Marrow resources. I am glad I found your weblog. I look forward to reading more.

    Gospel blessings!

    John Fonville

  2. Interested Spectator Says:

    I intend to read M. Charles Bell’s book, Calvin and Scottish Theology: The Doctrine of Assurance, in the next month or so. Would you please explain what you mean when you say the author misreads Calvin. In what ways and with respect to what issues does he misread Calvin? Also, in what ways has he misread Scottish theology? What especially does he consider “very bad” about Scottish theology? Thanks in advance.

  3. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Dear John

    I have read Beaton’s excellent essay in the past. It actually is available online here:


    as are the rest of all the old Princeton Theological Journals – in all its various incarnations!

    The best source for the old Scottish books that Beaton refers to is likely to be James Dickson Books – http://www.jamesdicksonbooks.com/ The books won’t be listed on the site so it is best to call or email them.

    One of the few works that Beaton lists that I have read is John Brown (of Whitburn) in his Gospel Truth Accurately Stated. It is worth its weight in gold!

    The Marrowmen are indeed very helpful in detecting and remedying the neonomian tendencies that lurk in our sinful hearts. One of my personal favourite sermons is Ralph Erskine on (from memory) Gal 2:19 “For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God”. They understood and applied wonderfully the distinction between law and gospel.

    Every blessing
    Donald John

  4. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Dear “Interested Spectator”

    Where I agree with Bell would be a shorter answer!

    On Calvin I think he misunderstands Calvin on faith, the covenant of grace, election/reprobation etc. I simply don’t recognise the Calvin I see portrayed by Bell.

    Nor do I see a sharp contrast between Calvin and the Reformed theologians of Durham’s period which Bell creates. Sure, not everything is identical but I don’t see a “Calvin against the Calvinists” paradigm at play. For instance D.G. Mullan in his book Scottish Puritanism notes, “Some commentators on Scottish Theology have tended to epitomise Calvin while viewing his epigones as falling from original purity. J.B. Torrance has pointed to an alleged bifurcation of Calvin and Puritanism… As for federal theology in the pulpits of Scotland, one suspects that many careful listeners in the pews would have heard its prominent ideas, though whether they remarked that the preacher was speaking in a strange tongue or even a variant dialect is to be doubted. It may be that in time federal theology would encourage a formulation of theology which might have become rather legalistic, but to attribute such to Rutherford and others in the 1630’s simply will not do. What one finds in Scotland is… not a ‘rigid dogmatism or oppressive legalism,’ but an experiential religion focused upon Christ pro me and the response of the heart.’ p195

    Bell particularly criticises the idea of conditions in covenant theology or of a bilateral covenant. Mullan again comments, rather caustically, “it is important in this convoluted story not to create a straw man who somewhere, sometime, believed that the gospel could be proclaimed in absolute terms, without any suggestion of an appeal for faith and repentance on the part of the hearers…” p179. A straw man is what I feel Bell creates in place of the genuine Calvin.

    Or again hear where Mullan directly criticises Bell, “For puritans the effect of predestination was far from making, ‘it difficult to proclaim to one and all that God is a loving Father in Jesus Christ,’ which is just what preachers did.” p108 [Mullan refers to Rollock, Colossians, p84]

    I’m fairly sure if you are familiar with the sources then Bell’s thesis will be as unconvincing to you as it was to me. If you are unfamiliar with the primary sources then you will find John MacLeod’s work Scottish Theology a much safer guide.

    What does Bell think is bad about Scottish theology? Election is bad, reprobation is worse and limited atonement is simply appalling.

    Anyway I’ve said enough now!

    Every blessing,
    Donald John

  5. Interested Spectator Says:

    Thank you for the reply. I appreciate the information and book recommendations.

  6. Harold Holmyard Says:

    Dear Donald John,

    The whole issue is whether Erskine with his Calvinism can be consistent when he:

    “urges us to realise that God’s heart as revealed in Jesus Christ is full of grace and love for lost sinners. He pleads that we ‘not think that a God of truth dissembles with you, when he makes offer of his unspeakable gift, or that he offers you a thing he has no mind to give.’” (1:220).

    How can God offer everyone salvation with a heart full of love and desire for their salvation when election is unconditional, atonement is limited, and salvation is by irresistible grace? These tenets of Calvinism seem to require that God intends for only some to be saved, that they will be saved in a sovereign manner by God, and that no provision was made for the rest to be saved.

    Can you please explain how God can genuinely desire the salvation of all when no provsion is made for their salvation or its means? This seems to be the great internal inconsistency of Calvinism, and the reason why it is inadequate.

  7. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Dear Harold

    Thanks for your comment. I think the key question is consistent with what? Consistent with the teaching of scripture or consistent with our understanding of how things work? If the former then yes, if the latter then I confess that the explanation of how some of the teachings of scripture reconcile is (to quote Calvin) “ineffable” i.e. I am sure they do but until I get to heaven am unable to express that reconciliation.

    I confess I like the illustration of Asahel Nettleton:

    There are many who think they see a great inconsistency in the preaching of ministers. ‘Ministers,’ they say, ‘contradict themselves—they say and unsay—they tell us to do, and then tell us we cannot do—they call upon sinners to believe and repent, and then tell them that faith and repentance are the gift of God—they call on them to come to Christ, and then tell them that they cannot come.’

    That some do preach in this manner cannot be denied. I well recollect an instance. A celebrated preacher, in one of his discourses used this language: ‘Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ In another discourse, this same preacher said: ‘No man can come unto me except the Father which hath sent me draw him.’ Now, what think you, my hearers, of such preaching, and of such a preacher? What would you have said had you been present and heard Him? Would you have charged Him with contradicting himself? This preacher, you will remember, was none other than the Lord Jesus Christ! And, I have no doubt, that many ministers have followed his example, and been guilty of the same self-contradiction, if you call it such”

    Two papers that have been very helpful for me are:

    John Murray’s work on the free offer with an introduction by Scott Clark:

    R.L. Dabney’s “God’s Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy, As Related to His Power, Wisdom, and Sincerity”:

    I’m happy to continue this dialogue if you wish.

    Every blessing
    Donald John

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