This is an article about a book about a controversy about a book. Worse: it is an article about a new book about an old (and largely forgotten) controversy about an even older (and largely forgotten) book. Yet both of the books, and the controversy, are highly relevant to the contemporary evangelical world, because they reflect exactly the same questions that come up in ordinary life today.
Edward Fisher’s book, The Marrow of Modern Divinity, was published in London in the 1640s. It contained a series of dialogues about the law and the gospel, with four suitably named characters: Neophytus, a young Christian; Evangelista, a gospel-preaching pastor; Nomista, a legalist; and Antinomista, an antinomian. The goal of the text was to navigate the line between legalism and antinomianism (or lawlessness), and in the eyes of many influential interpreters, it did an admirable job. Virtually nobody today would accuse it of being too licentious and fluffy; if anything, most of us would find it somewhat strict.
Seventy years later, however, The Marrow became enormously controversial in the Church of Scotland. Republished in 1718, thanks to the influence of a 41-year-old pastor named Thomas Boston, the book was seen as promoting antinomian theology, and in 1720 it was banned by the church’s General Assembly. Pastors were ordered not to recommend it, and were told to warn anyone found reading it how dangerous it was. (Amusingly, there is no record of this act ever having been rescinded, even though the book has now been in circulation for 300 years.) Boston’s friends, usually known today as the “Marrow Men,” refused to accept the decision, seeing it as evidence that the General Assembly was unduly legalistic. They insisted that Boston republish the book with his own notes. In 1726, he did.
What, then, did the Marrow Men and the General Assembly disagree about? After all, virtually everyone involved in the controversy subscribed to the same definition of the relationship between faith and works (namely, the Westminster Confession of Faith). Nobody in the discussion was saying, “A person is justified by works of the law.” Nor was anyone saying, “Christians have no moral obligations.” So what was the disagreement really about? And how should we think about it today?
Grasping the Whole Christ
Answering those two questions is the focus of Scottish theologian Sinclair Ferguson’s new book, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters. After sketching the historical context (chapter 1), Ferguson identifies four key issues at stake in the debate, and tackles them each in turn. There was, first, the question of whether the gospel can be offered to all people, and whether repentance precedes faith in Christ or the other way around (chapters 2 and 3). Second, there was the Marrow Men’s concern that their opponents were legalistic—not in a formal sense, but in the tenor, spirit, and emphasis of their approach (chapters 4, 5, and 6). Then there was the opposite concern, on the part of the Assembly, that The Marrow was promoting antinomianism (chapters 7 and 8). Lastly, there was the question of whether (and how) assurance of salvation was possible (chapters 9, 10 and 11).