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.

Posted by: Jerad File | March 29, 2009

John Gill’s Collected Writings Give Away!!!!!!

I have recently acquired a free copy of Gill’s collected Writings on CD Rom (version 2.2) from Baptist Standard Bearergills-works. I already had a copy of my own. So I’ve decided to give this one away here on this blog. I will take entries for the drawing until midnight Sunday April 12. Here is how to enter:

1st. Post a comment in the comments section of this post linking back to your own blog. The post should say something like, “Hi, I’m Jerad File and I blog here. Please enter me into the drawing to receive a free copy of Gill’s collected writings.”

2nd. Create a post on your blog linking back to this post. This post should say something like, “For the Cause of God and Truth is giving away a free copy of John Gill’s Collected Works. Enter the drawing here.”

3rd.When the drawing deadline comes. I will enter each name into a hat and select one. I’ll announce the winner here on the blog and they can contact me by email with their contact information so that I can send them the prize.

So far in the two months that this blog has been in existance we’ve had around 340 hits. I’m sure that several have been repeat readers. We’ve not been around a long time, and don’t have many readers yet, so I would guess your chances of winning are pretty good.

UPDATE: 03-30-09

Please make sure to check your link to make sure that it is correct. If I can’t verify that it is a valid web address I can’t verify that you have properly registered for the giveaway. Also, please place a link in the comment section that will lead directly to your post on the give away. That will help me out as I find the post on your blog. Thanks.

UPDATE: 04-01-09

I’ve been asked a question about whether more than one contributor for the same blog can enter. Since this blog is also a blog with more than one contributor I sympathize, and so I will allow entries from more than one contributor on the same blog.

Also, Thank you to the light hearted Calvinist for pointing our my spelling mistake. I’ve corrected it.

UPDATE: 04-05-09:

OK. I’ve decided what I’m going to do about making sure that the registration is done correctly. I will enter everyone that leaves a comment in the comment section linking to their blog; however, if I select one that has not created a post linking back here, I will throw it out at that time and select a new winner. Most entries have worked fine, but a few seem to have skipped step two.

UPDATE: 4-10-09:

Only a bit more than 2 days till I hold the drawing. I have been amazed at the response. Before starting this thing we had only received 340 hits in the two months since creating this blog. Now we are pushing 900 just 2 weeks later. Thank you to everyone who has participated. I will continue to take new entries until Midnight, this Sunday.

UPDATE: 4-12-09: I’m sorry that it didn’t occur to me until today that though it may not be midnight yet for me, it may be midnight for someone who registers in the UK. Just to be fair, I’ll be following GMT for entries because wordpress keeps track of statistics based on GMT. So if you want to enter, do so by Midnight GMT today, which I believe is about 7 p.m. for me here in Texas.

Posted by: Jerad File | March 27, 2009

Worship Wars of the 17th Century

When one speaks of “worship wars” today, it usually refers to the style of music one prefers for public worship. However, this is no new debate. Worship wars seem to have been a part of Baptist life from the beginning of the English speaking movement. I had known this before, but was reminded while reading part of Ella’s biography of Gill this morning. It seems that the controversy was not about music style. It wasn’t even about whether it is permissible to be accompanied by music (as even some denominations claim today). Rather, the controversy was over whether singing was permissible in public worship at all! Singing was a part of the public worship of the established Anglican church. Baptists, as well as most other dissenters, rejected singing in public worship as being a vestige of Romanism.

Benjamin Keach, Gill’s predecessor at the Goat Yard Church, had been a pioneer in the use of congregational singing in public worship and was harshly criticized even in his own church. The controversy lasted for years and was even still alive when Gill became the pastor of this historic church–though most of the non-singing camp had already left by this time. This controversy is probably why the final article of Gill’s 1729 Declaration of Faith was included as important enough to belong in a confession of the church. It states, “We also believe that singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, vocally, is an ordinance of the Gospel to be preformed by believers; but that as to time, place, and manner, every one ought to be left to their liberty in using it” (Ella, 84-85).

This is also reflected in Chapter VII of Gill’s Body of Practical Divinity, entitled “Of Singing Psalms, As a Part of Public Worship.”  Here Gill treats singing as “an ordinance of divine and public service” (BOD, 957). Gill was an advocate of vocal singing in public worship. As to the question of what is permissible to sing, he argued that the command to sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” all refer to singing songs that were contained within the pages of Scripture.  Though, Gill was known to quote the lines of hymns by Isaac Watts. According to Ella, Gill never really came down firmly in the debate over public singing, merely opting for prudence (Ella, 90).

Two things I think are of note in this matter: 1) Gill refers to public singing as an ordinance. This deserves some later discussion. Hopefully I will return to this in a later post. 2) The General Baptists were the strictest in thier oposition to public singing in worship. It was the Particular Baptists who were more open to singing.

Posted by: Jerad File | March 20, 2009

Gill Preached Christ

A friend of mine asked me yesterday if I knew of a Biblical text that characterized the life and ministry of Gill. A few texts came to mind. The first text that came to mind was Genesis 3:9, “Then the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” This was the text preached by his pastor, William Wallis, when Gill was 12 years old. It was this text that moved Gill with a sense of his lost estate and this lead to his conversion to Christ. The next text that I thought of was Isaiah 53. The night Gill was baptized he met in a house meeting with some other believers. Here he read the text of this passage and made a few comments. It pleased those gathered, and Gill was asked to preach a full sermon the next week. The third text that came to my mind is the text that he preached that next week, 1 Corinthians 3:2, “For I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ and him crucified.” This was the text that Gill preached his first full sermon on, and it was a text that fully characterized the life and work of John Gill. For example, early in his ministry Gill preached a series of 122 sermons on the book of Solomon’s Song. These sermons were later published as Gill’s first commentary. Gill preached the excellencies of Christ and his love for his Bride throughout 122 sermons on Song of Solomon! What an example to follow!

These are just a few scriptures that come to mind when I think about the life and ministry of John Gill–the most significant one being 1 Cor. 3:2. Does anyone else know of other good biblical texts that would characterize the ministry of this great man? If so, please share them in the comments section.

Posted by: Jonny | March 5, 2009

Did Gill Read Edwards?

It appears that Jonathan Edwards at least read Gill’s Cause of God and Truth (footnote on p. 374, Freedom of the Will, Yale University Press).

The question I have is, was Gill familiar with Edwards and did he read Edwards? Phil Roberts, in his book, Continuity and Change, wrote that Gill read Edwards avidly (p. 138). However, there is no footnote and Dr. Roberts, although confident there was a reason for making such a statement, has been unable to recall what specific research led him to this conclusion.

This is interesting since the distinction between natural and moral in regard to man’s ability/freedom was made by Gill years before Edwards made the distinction in Freedom of the Will. The distinction likely predated Gill. Is anybody aware of any evidence that points to Gill reading Edwards?

Posted by: Jerad File | March 1, 2009

Paul Helm on Gill

Paul Helm has been writing some posts on Gill throuhout the months of January and February. You can find them here, here, and here.

I was working on reading through George M. Ella’s biography of Gill this morning and I found the funniest thing. Chapter 2 is about the context of the world that Gill lived in, and in this chapter there is a section where Ella discusses the phenomenon of Baptist coffee houses. Apparently, these served as a meeting place for pastors to discuss denominational organization and unity. I couldn’t help but think of the modern phenomenon of coffee house style churches, though I’m sure that the ones today bear very little resemblance to the ones in 1697. Ella states:

The difficulties found in adopting a common creed prevented the Particular Baptist churches and their General Baptist brethren from enjoying true fellowship with one another but a number of pastors believed that if they could only persuade their fellow office-bearers from the various Baptist churches to meet in fellowship, eventually some form of church unity could be worked out. The venue chosen for these minisers’ fraternals or clubs, sometimes meeting within the denomination, sometimes together, were not the Baptist chapels but the many coffee-houses springing up at the time in London and other major towns.

These coffee-house fraternals of special approved pastors (club members determined who could join them, not the churches) gradually became the true governing bodies of both the General and Particular Baptists in the years between 1697 and 1720 when Gill succeeded Benjamin Keach’s son-in-law Benjamin Stinton as pastor of Goat Yard. Their unifying aim was made clear right from the start as, when the Hanover Coffee House club was founded by Keach and like-minded brethren, it was done so with the recorded determination to seek union with the General Baptists. Thus by the time of Gill’s ‘preaching with a view’ at Goat Yard, it had become generally recognized by the average church members that the coffee-house brethren were their central body of elders who were to officiate at the ordinations of local deacons and pastors. In effect the coffee-house fraternals had become not churches within churches, but governing church bodies outside of the churches. These ‘elders’ had formerly criticized the House of Bishops for their aloofness from and authority over the Anglican churches but they had, in effect, become a House of Bishops themselves. The only difference was that the Anglican bishops met in Lambeth Palace whereas the Baptist bishops met over a bowl of tobacco provided for the occasion in a London coffee-house of far more humble nature.

It would seem most odd that the London coffee-houses should be so closely associated with the development of Baptist history. Whitely argues that as the armed forces, civil administration and municipal services–he could have added much of the academic world including all of the English universities–were closed to Baptists, they had only farming and commerce left to turn to as a means of livelihood. A number of Baptists, including pastors and the widows of pastors, thus set up coffee-houses in London to rival the taverns and also provide meeting-places for the numerous clubs and societies which were springing up at the time. James Jones of Southwork, a Baptist pastor and contemporary with Keach combined being a tailor and coffee-house keeper with his quite enormous pastoral duties (pp. 35-36).

I find this passage fascinating. Coffee Houses are very popular today, and sometimes associated with the emergent church; however, a look at Baptist history shows that there is a long heritage of Baptist coffee drinking. This passage also highlights the spirit of cooperation existing among the Particular Baptist leaders of the time.

Ella, George M. John Gill and the Cause of God and Truth. Eggleston, England: Go Publications, 1995.

Posted by: Jerad File | February 25, 2009

Gill Poll #2: Collected Writings

Posted by: Jonny | February 24, 2009

Immanent vs. Transient

In John Gill’s discussion of the acts and works of God he divides them into two categories: internal and external. The external acts are those that are done in time, such as creation, providence, and redemption. The internal acts of God are those that are immanent and eternal. Under the category of internal acts of God, Gill also has two divisions: personal and essential. The personal internal acts deal with those that are particular to each person of the Trinity. The essential internal acts are those that are common to all persons of the Trinity.

Gill’s definition of “immanent” is that these immanent works “are in God, and remain and abide in him; and whilst they are so, they put nothing into actual being, they are concerned about, until they bring forth, or are brought forth into execution: then they pass upon their respective objects, terminate on them, and issue in actual operation; and then they are called transient acts; and till then they are secrets in God’s breast, and are unknown to men.”

In speaking of the eternal aspect of these internal acts, Gill says, “They are eternal; as God himself is eternal, so are they; for, as some divines express it, God’s decrees are himself decreeing, and therefore if he is from everlasting to everlasting, they are so likewise.” (Both quotes are found in Gill’s Body of Doctrinal Divinity, p. 175). This distinction between immanent and transient is important for understanding Gill’s theology, as well, I believe, for understanding Scripture correctly.

Posted by: Jerad File | February 24, 2009

New Gill Bibliography Page

A bibliography page has now been added to this blog. This bibliography consists of secondary literature on John Gill and is taken from my own bibliography for my thesis. I have not included everything in my bibliography of course–because not everything is relevant to this blog. If you know of other sources not listed here, please let me know and I will consult them. I have also added some resource links on the side column of the blog.

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