The Down Grade Controversy
From the March 1887 Sword and Trowel
*Earnest attention is requested for this paper. There is need of such a warning as this history affords. We are going down hill at breakneck speed.
The Act of Uniformity, which came into effect in 1662, accomplished the purpose of its framers in expelling Puritanism from the Church established by law in England and Wales. Puritanism was obnoxious to King Charles II. and his court, and a large majority of the men high in office in both Church and State, chiefly for the godliness of living which it enjoined, and for the Calvinism of its teaching. With the ejectment of the two thousand ministers who preferred freedom and purity of conscience to the retention of their livings, Calvinism was banished from the Church of England, excepting so far as the Articles were concerned. Arminianism took its place. Then the State Church, which the great reformers had planted, and which some of them had watered with their blood, presented the spectacle which went far to justify the sarcasm of an eminent writer, that she possessed "A Popish Liturgy, a Calvinistic Creed, and an Arminian Clergy." The ejected were Calvinists almost to a man. Previous to this period, some few Free Churches had been founded, and were Independent or Baptist, the latter being mainly of the General section, and of Dutch origin.
The ejected, who were in one sense alone the first Nonconformists, were mainly Presbyterians; some, however, were Independents, and a few Baptists. The Churches they established were all Calvinistic in their faith, and such they remained for at least that generation. It is a matter of veritable history, however, that such they did not all continue for any great length of time. Some of them, in the course of two or three generations, or even less, became either Arian or Socinian. This was eventually the case with nearly all the Presbyterians, and later on, with some of the Independents, and with many of the General Baptist Communities. By some means or other, first the ministers, and then the Churches, got on "the down grade," and in some cases, the descent was rapid, and in all, very disastrous. In proportion as the ministers seceded from the old Puritan godliness of life, and the old Calvinistic form of doctrine, they commonly became less earnest and less simple in their preaching, more speculative and less spiritual in the matter of their discourses, and dwelt more on the moral teachings of the New Testament, than on the great central truths of revelation. Natural theology frequently took the place which the great truths of the gospel ought to have held, and the sermons became more and more Christless. Corresponding results in the character and life, first of the preachers and then of the people, were only too plainly apparent.
The race of preachers which followed the first Nonconformists, that is, the ejected ministers who became Nonconformists, retained the soundness of doctrine, and purity of life, for which they were everywhere remarkable. Their sermons were less lengthy, but still long, and less burdened with divisions and sub-divisions. The life, savor, and power of the gospel remained among them, and the churches, walking in the fear of God and the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were slowly increased.
The Presbyterians were the first to get on the down line. They paid more attention to classical attainments and other branches of learning in their ministry than the Independents, while the Baptists had no academical institution of any kind. It would be an easy step in the wrong direction to pay increased attention to academical attainments in their ministers, and less to spiritual qualifications; and to set a higher value on scholarship and oratory, than on evangelical zeal and ability to rightly divide the word of truth.
Some of the ministers retained their Calvinistic soundness and their purity of character and life, and these, as a rule, gave prominence to the doctrines of the gospel, and were zealous in their ministry. But some embraced Arminian sentiments, while others professed to take a middle path, and called themselves Baxterians. These displayed, not only less zeal for the salvation of sinners, and, in many cases, less purity or strictness of life, but they adopted a different strain in preaching, dwelt more on general principles of religion, and less on the vital truths of the gospel. Ruin by sin, regeneration by the Holy Spirit, and redemption by the blood of Christ truths on the preaching of which God has always set the seal of his approbationwere conspicuous chiefly by their absence. In fact, the "wine on the lees well refined" was so mixed with the muddy water of human speculation, that it was no longer wine at all.
There was another section among the Presbyterians who, like the former two, retained a nominal orthodoxy, and professed to believe, though they seldom preached, evangelical sentiments. Men of this stamp were chiefly remarkable for the extreme coldness of their sermons, and the extreme dullness of their delivery.
Among those who called themselves Baxterians there was little likeness to Baxter; and his zeal and earnestness, and his close, penetrating preaching, and powerful appeals to the heart and conscience were wholly wanting, except in a very few. This remark will apply also to those who called themselves Arminians.
It would appear that the Arian and other heresies did not spread at first so quickly in London as in the country. The author of a manuscript written about 1730, professes to give the sentiments of all the Nonconformist ministers in London at that time. Among the Presbyterians there were, he says, nineteen Calvinists, thirteen Arminians, and twelve Baxterians. All the Independents, he avows, were Calvinists: "twenty-seven thoroughly, one somewhat dubious, three inclined to Antinomianism, and two who were disorderly." There were two Seventh-day Baptistsone a Calvinist, and the other an Arminian. There were sixteen Baptists, of the Particular order; of whom seven were Calvinists, and "nine inclined to the Antinomian strain."
Antinomianism was the term applied to the teaching of Dr. Tobias Crisp. Crisp had been an Arminian, but became an ardent Calvinist, going, perhaps, a little beyond Calvin in some things. He died in 1642, and his sermons were published by his son forty-five years after his death. They were printed from short-hand notes compared with Dr. Crisp's own notes, and therefore were lacking in that correctness and finish which the author's own hand would have given them. This will account for the crudeness of some of his expressions. He was a man of strong faith, ardent zeal, holy life, and great devotion and faithfulness in his ministerial work. He was called an Antinomian, but the term was misapplied. Many of his statements, however, while they will readily admit of an orthodox sense, lie open to the charge of going beyond the truth.
The publication of his sermons awoke a fierce controversy, which lasted some years, and did much mischief. Dr. Williams exposed what he considered the errors and erroneous tendency of some of his utterances; and even John Flavel was among those who denounced his teaching as erroneous and Antinomian. There need not have been such an outcry. The books written against Crisp, many of them good in their way, had the effect of frightening the timid, the doubtful, and the hesitating, who, to avoid Crispianism, as it was called, went as far as they could to the opposite extreme. They verged upon Arminianism, and some actually became Arminians. The Arminianism of that day was a cold, dry, heartless thing, and many who took that name proved that they were already on "the down grade" towards Socinianism.
As is usual with people on an incline, some who got on "the down grade" went further than they intended, showing that it is easier to get on than to get off, and that where there is no brake it is very difficult to stop. These who turned from Calvinism may not have dreamed of denying the proper deity of the Son of God, renouncing faith in his stoning death and justifying righteousness, and denouncing the doctrine of human depravity, the need of Divine renewal, and the necessity for the Holy Spirit's gracious work, in order that men might become new creatures; but, dreaming or not dreaming, this result became a reality.
It is exceedingly painful to have to stateand the conduct is no less censurable than pitiablethat among the two classes into which those who held Arian sentiments may be divided, the first were so mean and dishonest as to conceal their sentiments under ambiguous phrases. They so expressed themselves that their orthodox hearers might appropriate their statements in support of their own views, while their Arian adherents could turn them to support their scheme. It is stated on very good authority that "many wore this disguise all their days, and the most cautious carried the secret with them to the grave." This is terrible to think of; men going down to the grave with a whole life of the very worst kind of hypocrisy unconfessed, the basest deceit and dishonesty unacknowledged, the life-long practice of a lie unrepented of. Such a course is the very worst form of lying, for it is telling lies in the name of the Lord. Others were only a little less hardened in their career of falsehood; they prepared a sermon, or other composition, revealing their true sentiments, which was made public after their decease. Still more confided their real sentiments to a small circle of adherents, who told the tale of heresy to the world only when the grave had closed over the teacher.
Such were the crafty devices of the men of "broad views," and "free thought," and "advanced sentiments," in those days of "rebuke and blasphemy." The almost blasphemous utterances of Mr. Voysey, daring and frightful as they are (see "Fortnightly Review" for Jan., 1887), have the one redeeming feature of honesty. He puts the mark of unbelief in large characters on his own brow, and does not seek in the least to hide it from any one, but rather to glory in it, that he has set himself to deny and denounce all that is sacred, and true, and holy in the gospel of our salvation. But these men deepened their own condemnation, and promoted the everlasting ruin of many of their followers by their hypocrisy and deceit; professing to be the ambassadors of Christ, and the heralds of his glorious gospel, their aim was to ignore his claims, deny him his rights, lower his character, rend the glorious vesture of his salvation, and trample his crown in the dust.
The second, and less numerous, class of Arian preachers were more honest. They boldly avowed their sentiments to their congregations, who as readily received them. In most cases, in both preachers and hearers, it was only a short step down from the Arianism which makes the eternal Son of God a super-angelic being to the Socinianism (miscalled Unitarianism) which makes him a man only, denying alike original sin, human depravity, the mediation of Christ, the personality and work of the eternal Spirit, and that new birth without which divine truth has declared no one can see the kingdom of God.
The descent of some few was less gradual, but more commonly, when once on "the down grade" their progress was slow, though unhappily sure. The central truth of Calvinism, as of the Gospel, is the person and work and offices of the Lord Jesus Christ. We love to use this Pauline and inspired description of our divine Savior and royal Master, and so to "give unto the Lord the glory due unto his name." When men begin to hesitate about, and hold back the truth in relation to him, it is a sign of an unhealthy state of soul; and when these truths are diluted, omitted, or otherwise tampered with, it is a sign which in plain words means "Beware."
The remark of a writer of reliable ability in reference to these times is worthy of quotation:
"The deficiency of evangelical principles in some, and the coldness with which they came from the lips of others, seem to have prepared the way for the relinquishment of them, and for the introduction, first of Arminianism, and then of Arianism."
Those who were really orthodox in their sentiments were too often lax and unfaithful as to the introduction of heretical ministers into their pulpits, either as assistants or occasional preachers. In this way the Arian and Socinian heresies were introduced into the Presbyterian congregations in the city of Exeter. The Rev. Stephen Towgood and Mr. Walrond, the ministers, were both reputed as orthodox, but the Rev. Micaiah Towgood, an avowed Arian, was chosen their assistant. The old ministers preached evangelical doctrine, but they complied all too readily with the wishes of their new colleague, and ceased to require a declaration of faith in the divinity of Christ in those who sought admission to the Lord's table. Sad to say, they continued to labor on in peace, the older men dealing out the "wine of the kingdom," and the "Living Bread," while the younger minister intermixed his rationalistic concoctions and his Socinian leaven. A similar case occurred in London. Dr. William Harris, an avowed Calvinist, and whose preaching was in accordance with Calvinistic doctrine, had for his assistant, during the last twenty years of his life, an avowed though not strongly pronounced Socinian, Dr. Lardner, who took the afternoon lectureship. When Dr. Harris died, Dr. Lardner was elected to be his successor. For some reason he declined, when Dr. Benson, another Socinian, succeeded to the pastorate. Thus, the old, old proverb was again proved true, "The fathers have eaten a sour grape, and the children's teeth are set on edge."
This down-grade course was, we have said, more rapid, more general, and more fatal among the Presbyterians than among the Independents and General Baptists. We say General Baptists, for the deadening doctrines of Socinianism had made little inroad upon the Particular Baptists. We could not point to a single case of perversion to Socinianism during more than two centuries, though other and less vital errors have dealt much mischief among the churches of that order. Will our children and grandchildren be able to say as much of this and the next generation in fifty years time? Who can tell? But we pray and hope that they will be.
The principal cause of the quicker descent on "the down grade" among the Presbyterians than among other Nonconformists, may be traced, not so much to their more scholarly ministry, nor altogether to their renunciation of Puritan habits, but to their rule of admitting to the privileges of Church membership. Of course their children received the rite of baptism, according to their views of baptism, in infancy. They were thereby receivedso the ministers taught, and so the people believedinto covenant with God, and had a right to the Lord's table, without any other qualification than a moral life. Many such children grew up unregenerate, and strangers to the work of renewing grace; yet they claimed to be Christians, and to be admitted to all the privileges of the church, and their claim was not disallowed. To such the earnest appeals of faithful ministers of Christ would be irksome and unpalatable. The broader road and easier way of the "men of reason and culture," which admitted of laxity of discipline and pliancy of sentiments and habits, was far more agreeable to their tastes and ideas, while the homage paid to reason and understanding, at the expense of revelation, gratified their pride, and justify them free to walk after their own hearts in things pertaining to religion. Thus they chose them pastors after their own hearts, men who could, and would, and did, cry "Peace, peace," when the only way of peace was ignored or denied.
These facts furnish a lesson for the present times, when, as in some cases, it is all too plainly apparent men are willing to forego the old for the sake of the new. But commonly it is found in theology that that which is true is not new, and that which is new is not true.
In another paper we propose to trace "the down grade" course among other Protestants in this countrya sad piece of business, but one which must needs be done. Oh that it might act as a warning to the unsettled and unsettling spirits of our own day!
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