Greetings my couple loyal readers! I just wanted you to know that I got the word from my supervisor that I have been accepted into the PhD program at Leiden University preliminarily! As Dr Haykin said to me in an e-mail, “this is good news and cause for much rejoicing!” Please pray for me as I finish the official application items and then spend the next few years immersed in Gill and the Enlightenment!
It is good for the saints to draw near to God; it is not only good because it is their duty, but because it yields their souls a spiritual pleasure; and it is also of great profit and advantage to them: It is often an ordinance of God, and which he owns for the quickening the graces of his spirit, for the restraining and subduing the corruptions of our hearts, and for the bringing of our souls into nearer communion and fellowship with himself. Satan has often felt the force and power of this piece of our spiritual armour; and it is, indeed, the last which the believer is directed to make use of. Praying souls are profitable in families, neighbourhoods, churches, and common-wealths, when prayerless ones are in a great measure useless. The believer has the utmost encouragement to this work he can desire; he may come to God, not as on a seat of justice, but as on a throne of grace. Christ is the Mediator between God and him, his way of access to God, and his Advocate with the Father; the Spirit is his Guide, Director, and Assister; he has many exceeding great and precious promises to plead with God; nor need he doubt of a kind reception, a gracious audience, and a proper answer, though never so mean and unworthy in himself; since the Lord will regard the prayer of the destitute, and not despise his prayer.
— John Gill (1697-1771) from “A Discourse on Prayer”
Here’s some information extracted from my PhD research proposal. This will help for you to see where I hope to go with my dissertation.
The overall aim of this dissertation is to examine the theological structure and exegetical details of the response of John Gill, the leading British Particular Baptist theologian of his era, to the challenge of the English Enlightenment, especially as it relates to the doctrine of the Trinity. From the perspective of Reformed orthodoxy, the English Enlightenment gave rise to a number of heterodox perspectives on the Trinity. Gill sought to provide a robust defence of a traditional orthodox teaching in the face of these heterodoxies, specifically in The Doctrine of the Trinity Stated and Vindicated which was published in two editions (1731 and 1752).
In order to accomplish the aim of this dissertation a number of objectives will need to be met.
First, a chapter surveying and evaluating the secondary literature on Gill will be necessary to put the work of this dissertation into context. A biographical chapter on John Gill will follow so as to introduce the reader to him and his life and contributions to theology. Third, an historical survey of heterodox views of the Trinity during the English Enlightenment will be outlined so as to provide the context in which Gill wrote his defence of orthodox teaching. Fourth, a detailed study of the theological structure of Gill’s work, The Doctrine of the Trinity Stated and Vindicated (1731/1752) will be developed to specifically see how Gill responded to the Enlightenment arguments concerning the Trinity. Fifth, there will be a chapter which will show how Gill developed his arguments in defence of the Trinity through solid biblical exegesis and through his understanding of the early church fathers on this issue. Finally, a concluding chapter will show how Gill’s Trinitarianism was maintained throughout his career as a Reformed theologian.
Explanation of Need for Dissertation
The orthodox teaching of the Trinity remained unchallenged from the time of the Ancient church until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with the rise of the English Enlightenment. Through the Socinian and Arian denials of the Trinity, this anti-trinitarian thinking began to pervade conservative Christianity. It became necessary for religious leaders to confront this teaching. The stalwart Particular Baptist theologian John Gill rose to the challenge to defend Trinitarianism. It was through Gill that Particular Baptist were spared this departure into anti-trinitarianism.
Even though Gill is known as one of the greatest theologians of the Baptist tradition, very little has been actually written on him or his thought. And what has been done on Gill has focused on his understanding of salvation, especially in the debate as to whether Gill was a hyper-Calvinist or not (see the issue below in my brief biography of Gill). Gill’s thought goes far beyond soteriology and issues of Calvinism. This self-taught theologian truly was a giant amongst men when it came to the exegesis and exposition of Scripture and his understanding of theology. Therefore, it is necessary to study Gill more in depth and less on the area of soteriology. Gill’s work on the Trinity is masterfully developed especially as it interacts with Enlightenment denials of the Trinity. It is a model of biblical and historical exegesis and needs to be studied further.
With the current historical fascination with the Enlightenment and Enlightenment thinking it behooves the historian to understand better the Enlightenment and specifically their argumentation against various areas of orthodox Christian theology. Their argumentation in denial of the Trinity is of extreme importance, and therefore, needs to be studied, and the argumentation of those against the Enlightenment thinkers needs to be explored. This is where this study comes in. It is important to put this debate over the Trinity into historical context and understand a key thinker like Gill who was responding to this debate. Since so little is actually written on Gill, this dissertation will fill a much needed gap in Gill studies and hopefully Enlightenment thought studies as well.
Historical and Scholarly Context of Dissertation
Gertrude Himmelfarb has shown that there was not some monolithic movement called the Enlightenment, but that different countries had their own Enlightenments. France had quite a different Enlightenment than England for instance. England’s Enlightenment was more moderate than France’s. Yet, it had its own particular challenges. While France moved toward atheism, England moved into areas of Arianism. This “Age of Reason” denied much of the supernatural from the Scriptures and believed that their embracing of logic and reason could eliminate that which was based upon “faith” which included much of what was distinctive to orthodox theology like the doctrine of the Trinity. And while Trinitarians were more learned than their anti-trinitarian enemies, the anti-trinitarians were better writers and thus lead to the continued denial of much of what was distinctively orthodox Christianity.
In fact, both Socinianism and Arianism in England in the late 17th and 18th century began to dismiss the doctrine of the Trinity as an invention of the early church and an unnecessary adoption of Greek logical thinking to theology. Samuel Clarke in particular of the Arian controversy wrote his Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity (1712) which had Arian tendencies. This particular controversy came to a head in the Salter’s Hall Synod (1719). Here Presbyterians, Independents, Particular and General Baptist met to discuss whether ministers could be asked to subscribe to a Trinitarian creed. The Presbyterians and General Baptists voting no, moved into areas of Unitarianism and other heretical doctrines. The Independents and Particular Baptists though voted yes and remained faithful to orthodox Trinitarian doctrine.Yet, these Trinitarian controversies created confusion amongst many individuals. Isaac Watts (1674–1748), the hymn-writer, for instance near the end of his life, re-wrote a number of his works and never did seem to have a clear understanding of orthodox Trinitarianism. Robert Robinson (1735–1790), the Baptist pastor and hymn-writer, seemed to deny Trinitarian theology near the end of his life as well. The issue of the Trinity is incredibly important even today as many continue to deny this core theological doctrine.
While there is continued interest in the doctrine of the Trinity, there has been a failure to really understand the English Enlightenment denial of the Trinity and the continued orthodox affirmation and defence of the Trinity during this time. For instance, in his recent detailed work on the Trinity, Robert Letham argues that conservative Reformed theologians have contributed little to the doctrine of the Trinity since the time of John Calvin (1509–1564) until the twentieth century. Yet, the defence of the Trinity in the seventeenth and eighteenth century is a crucial part of the story of the church’s teaching on this crucial doctrine.
John Gill (1697–1771) amongst the Particular Baptists vigorous defence of the Trinity as it had been held since the early church is important in the discussion of the Trinity in the eighteenth century. Muller writes, “Among the British writers of the late orthodox era, the Particular Baptist John Gill stands out as a defender of the doctrine of the Trinity as ‘a doctrine of pure revelation’ to the setting aside of all but biblical argumentation and patristic usage.” With the rise of interest in Enlightenment studies and Enlightenment thinking on religious issues and doctrine, it is important to look at the orthodox response to English Enlightenment thinking, especially on an issue as important as the Trinity. Gill is such a person that must be studied. Not only did he study the Scriptures and the early church in his defence of the Trinity, he lived out his ministry with a complete commitment to the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. His biographer John Rippon (1751–1836) and the pastor who followed him at his Carter Lane Church wrote of him regarding the influence his thinking on the Trinity had on his ministry. He writes,
The Doctor not only watched over his people, “with great affection, fidelity, and love;” but he also watched his pulpit also. He would not, if he knew it, admit any one to preach for him, who was either cold-hearted to the doctrine of the Trinity; or who denied the divine filiation of the Son of God; or who objected to conclude his prayers with the usual doxology to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as three equal Persons in the one Jehovah. Sabellians, Arians, and Socinians, he considered as real enemies of the cross of Christ. They dared not ask him to preach, nor could he in conscience, permit them to officiate for him. He conceived that, by this uniformity of conduct, he adorned the pastoral office.
The following is the brief biography I wrote for the up-coming 3 volume Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization from Blackwell Publishers this year. Since I’m working more specifically on Gill I thought I should briefly introduce him!
John Gill was born in Kettering, Northamptonshire on November 23, 1697 to Edward and Elizabeth Gill. His parents were God-fearing individuals of the Calvinistic Baptist tradition. His father served as a deacon in the Baptist work in Kettering. Gill grew up in a good Christian home. His early years were spent studying in the local grammar school where he excelled in languages. Unfortunately, he was no longer able to attend by the age of 11 since it was required that students attend morning prayer at the parish church. His parents being dissenters would not allow this. This was the end of Gill’s formal education but he spent his time wisely teaching himself and not only excelled in Greek and Latin but was quite adept at Hebrew by the age of nineteen.
He was converted to Christ at the age of twelve but was not baptized until he was nineteen on November 1, 1716. He was married to Elizabeth Negus (d. 1764) in 1718 and they had three children that lived beyond infancy: Elizabeth, John, and Mary. The church at Kettering recognized his gifts as a preacher and in 1719 became pastor of the famous Horselydown congregation in London. Benjamin Keach had previously served as pastor in this church and eventually C. H. Spurgeon would become pastor of this church.
Gill would become a prolific author and influential theologian of the Particular Baptist cause. His writings include The Doctrine of the Trinity Stated and Vindicated (1731), The Cause of God and Truth (1735–1738) which was a return to Daniel Whitby’s Discourse on the Five Points which was a refutation of Calvinism. His magnum opus was his three volume An Exposition of the New Testament (1746–1748) and his six volume Exposition of the Old Testament (1748–1763). He also wrote A Dissertation on the Antiquity of the Hebrew Language (1767), A Body of Doctrinal Divinity (1767) and A Body of Practical Divinity (1770). He received an honourary Doctor of Divinity degree from the University of Aberdeen in 1748. He would become one of the most influential Baptist theologians ever.
The major controversy that has erupted over the influence of Gill has been over the issue of Hyper-Calvinism (the belief that unsaved man is not obligated to respond in faith in Christ and therefore preachers should not offer the Gospel to those who are the non-elect). Some have attributed to Gill to be the first systematizer of a Baptist Hyper-Calvinist theology. Others have argued that Gill was in fact not a Hyper-Calvinist. Regardless, it was during Gill’s time period when the Particular Baptist Churches began their decline into Hyper-Calvinism. Gill did believe in eternal justification (that the elect were justified in eternity past) and did not seem to appeal to all in the same way that further generations of Evangelical Calvinists did, but it seems difficult to say that Gill was undeniably in fact a Hyper-Calvinist. Instead, most likely, Hyper-Calvinists used Gill’s theology and went past him to solidify their own theology.
Gill is the first major writing Baptist theologian and his works retain its influence even to this day.
Just yesterday I posted about my concerns over the state of the future of Baptist Historical scholarship. Well, I have taken to study John Gill of late. Gill (1697-1771) has become my new best friend. I will be submitting my research proposal in the near future to Leiden University with the title “John Gill (1697-1771), Defender of the Trinity in the English Enlightenment.” I know this takes me in a different direction than my previously planned Andrew Fuller studies, but things do change. A new school, a new supervisor, and therefore in some ways, a new dissertation topic. It still fits my criteria: 18th century Particular Baptists; an important Baptist; a big theological issue. You cannot get much bigger than Gill and the Trinity debates in the 18th century.
But on to the point. In doing some reading by Richard Muller, I find it interesting that many of our future historical scholars do not feel the need to study our Baptist fathers. They are often more concerned about studying someone that will be respected by non-Baptist scholars. Well, here’s Muller, one of the finest Reformed and Post-Reformed historical theologians out there placing Gill in the same stream as other Post-Reformation theologians. GASP! Gill? A Baptist? Does that mean we can legitimately study Gill and other Baptists in and of themselves? Can it be a contribution? Listen to what Muller had to say about Gill:
“This brief survey of Gill’s sources indicates that, after the Bible, the main positive points of reference for Gill’s theology were the great Reformed and Puritan writers of the seventeenth century. The point is important for several reasons. In the first place, it locates Gill in relation to the Reformed dogmatic tradition, specifically, the tradition of Puritanism and its continental analogue, post-Reformation Reformed orthodoxy. Second, without in any way diminishing Gill’s commitment to the distinctive teachings of the Baptist churches, it identifies the larger number of his theological antecedents as thinkers not belonging to the Baptist tradition: Gill was not, in other words, an insular thinker, but he was clearly selective. Third, the point establishes Gill as a highly independent thinker in a relative sense: he was able to exert a degree of independence over against even his most trusted sources in order to position himself within the Particular Baptist tradition and in the context of the problems and debates confronting theology in the mid-eighteenth century. Fourth, Gill ws able, given the kind of sources with which he was acquainted, to produce a theology that was at once fundamentally Baptist and largely Reformed, and that because of its stance on a solid traditionary ground, was also able to maintain its distance from and dissonance with many of the currents of eighteenth-century theology” (Richard A. Muller, “John Gill and the Reformed Tradition: A Study in the Reception of Protestant Orthodoxy in the Eighteenth Century,” in Michael A. G. Haykin, ed., The Life and Thought of John Gill (1697-1771): A Tercentennial Appreciation [Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1997], pp. 55-56).
My point? Particular Baptists are worthy to be studied in and of themselves. They are (like Gill for example) part of the stream of Reformed and Post-Reformation orthodox thought. In fact, someone like Gill, made many contributions to theology that need to be studied out. You do not have to feel like you need to study someone out of the Baptist stream of history to prove yourself to scholarship. Here is Muller showing us that someone like Gill can stand alone and be studied on his own merit because Particular Baptists, just like Presbyterians and Independents made valuable contributions to theology, polity, spirituality, and many other areas and therefore are worthy to be studied alongside our other Reformed friends!
I wanted to let you all know about an interesting new resource coming out from Blackwell Publishers called The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization. It is to be published in 3 volumes and is due out in 2008. Here is some information about it.
“The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization is a study of the cultural complex and civilization created during the past 2000 years by the Christian Church. Even as modern secular civilization has become the dominant cultural force in the world, Christianity remains a civilization in its own right with its own norms, values, institutions, forms of expression, terminology, and modes of communication. Further, there are elements of modern secular civilization that are of distinctly Christian origin, the calendar being the most obvious example. Even today, the pervasive influence of Christian ideas and legacies is evident in sectors of life that are far removed from the mainstream of Christian history. The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization will examine the sources of Christian culture and civilization, the depth of its historic influence on human culture and the reasons for its enduring strength.”
I have the privilege of contributing two brief biographical entries in this encyclopedia. John Gill, the great Baptist Theologian, and Bob Jones, Sr., the 20th century evangelist and founder of Bob Jones University.
Keep a look out for this helpful up-coming encyclopedia.