Posted by: allenmickle | April 6, 2009

Gill, the Enlightenment, and the Trinity

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 example.[1] 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.[2]

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. In particular, Samuel Clarke was quite influential in the Arian controversy through his writing of Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity (1712) which clearly had Arian tendencies. This particular controversy came to a head during the Salter’s Hall Synod (1719).[3] 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 voted no, and moved into areas of Unitarianism and other heretical doctrines. The Independents and Particular Baptists however 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, 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.[4] Robert Robinson (1735–1790), the Baptist pastor and hymn-writer, seemed to deny Trinitarian theology near the end of his life as well.[5] 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.[6] 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’s (1697–1771) 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.”[7] 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.[8]

Further posts will seek to highlight aspects of Gill’s trinitarian theology.

—–

[1] Getrude Himmelfarb, The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments (Essex, England: Vintage Books, 2005).

[2] See Philip Dixon, ‘Nice and Hot Disputes’: The Doctrine of the Trinity in the Seventeenth Century (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2003), p. 215.

[3] For more on this see Roger Thomas, “The Non-Subscription Controversy amongst Dissenters in 1719: the Salter’s Hall Debate,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 4 (1953): 162–186.

[4] See Arthur Paul Davis, Isaac Watts: His Life and Works (Published PhD Dissertation, Columbia University, 1943), pp. 109–126.

[5] See Two Original Letters by the Late Mr. Robert Robinson (London: J. Marsom, 1802). For the whole story of Robinson’s life see Graham W. Hughes, With Freedom Fired: The Story of Robert Robinson, Cambridge Nonconformist (London: Carey Kingsgate Press, 1955).

[6] Robert Letham, The Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2004), pp. ix–x.

[7] Richard A. Muller, The Triunity of God in his Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2003), IV, 140. Despite the lack of scholarly study in the Baptist stream of historical theology, Gill can rightly be included in the stream of other Post-Reformation Reformed theologians and thus is important to be studied in and of himself (see 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, 2007): 51–68. See especially pp. 55–56.

[8] John Rippon, A Brief Memoir of the Life and Writings  of the Late Rev. John Gill (Reprint ed., Harrisonburg, VA: Gano Books, 1992), 127–128. Emphasis in original.

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Responses

  1. Thanks for this blog.
    I was wondering if Gill had any works on the Trinity outside of his Body of Divinity?

  2. JLS,

    His key work is “The Doctrine of the Trinity Stated and Vindicated” which was published in two editions (1731 and 1752). That is the key work you would want to look at on the Trinity.

    Blessings!

    Allen Mickle

  3. Allen,
    Thanks

  4. […] Gill, the Enlightenment, and the Trinity […]


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