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 (Amusingly, there is no record of this act ever having been rescinded, even though the book has now been in circulation for 300 years.)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. ...1
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