12 October 2005

The Real and Make-believe Errors of John Gill (Part 3 of 3)

As someone has already commented, John Gill's doctrine of eternal justification seems to have lead him into some form of "Calvinistic antinomianism." The problem is that term antinomianism has been abused almost as much as the term legalism. To clear up some of the confusion associated with this error, perhaps it would be helpful to divide the ways John Gill could have been called an antinomian into three categories.

(1) The term antinomianism has been applied to all those who see the Christian believer as free from the Mosaic law-covenant. Since the days of Zwingli, the Reformed tradition has proposed a theological unity of covenants. To use language that they would agree with, the Sinai covenant is an administration of the eternal Covenant of Grace, just like the New Covenant is. When Paul downplays the old covenant, he is generally referring to the legalistic interpretation of the covenant taught by the Judaizers. This understanding gave Zwingli, Calvin, and their followers a Scriptural basis for unity between church and state (on analogy with the theocracy of Israel) and for infant baptism (on analogy with circumcision).
Particular Baptists, while agreeing on the other essentials of the Covenant of Grace, generally defended a discontinuity between the Mosaic law-covenant and the New Covenant. This discontinuity was often in the background when Particular Baptists advocated a strict separation between church and state and adherence to credo-immersion. John Gill did teach this doctrine, but I do not consider it an error.
(Note that there is a strong subtradition of Calvinistic Baptists who do not maintain a discontinuity of covenants. Influential examples include James Petigru Boice and probably Carl F. H. Henry.)

(2) Antinomianism has been applied to those who teach that God's moral law is not the rule of life for believers. This is the most drastic definition of Antinomianism. Early examples of this error include some of Paul's Corinthian audience and probably John's opponents in his first epistle. Later on in church history, some of Luther's followers deemphasized or denied the fact that "the faith which saves is never alone." Also the Russian Orthodox monk Rasputin is reputed to have said something along the lines of "I will sin more so that God's grace will be greater." John Rippon is right when he calls these "infernal sentiments." Gill forthrightly condemned those who held these views in his day. Moreover he is too voluminous when it comes to "pracitical divinity" to be correctly categorized as this type of antinomian.

(3) Antinomianism has been applied to those who deny that sin has negative effects on the believer, especially as he relates to God. The main perpetrator of this heresy in Gill's day was probably Tobias Crisp (though my information on this is mostly through Rippon). While this category relates closely to the category above, it is not strictly the same type of antinomianism. Apparently based on the teachings associated with eternal justification, Crisp felt that a believer was so secure in his relationship with God that nothing he could do could ever impair or obstruct that relationship in any way. According to Rippon, Gill tried to nuance and correct Crisp's wording, but he did not fundamentally disagree with him.
However Gill did believe that sin does distract the believer from God and that it deadens his sensitivity to God. In his exposition of Hebrews 12:5, Gill is even willing to say that God uses "afflictive providences...by [which] he rebukes his people for their sins." Yet he still mitigates the force of texts which teach the believer's need for daily forgiveness of sin (e.g. Matthew 6:11-12). He understands these texts to refer to the Spirit's work in assuring the conscience that sins have already been forgiven on the basis of the believer's eternal union with Christ. But this text has Jesus teaching his disciples to ask for forgiveness daily. Assurance fits in here, but that is not what the text speaks to directly. The forgiveness here is relational ("Our Father" Matt 6:9); it speaks to progressive growth in our relationship with the holy God who has made us his children. To use modern categories, Gill seems to have emphasized the positional/forensic to the exclusion of the practical/relational.
In sum, to the question of antinomianism in Gill, we can give a resounding sic et non.


kevin mcfadden said...

Helpful Pitts. Sounds like Gill taught something like the position we have heard that Christians don't need to repent of sin.

Tony Byrne said...

I don't think Gill would say that Christians don't need to repent of sin. I think his eternal justification position just makes the elect entirely passive in their initial conversion experience. It's kind of like an awakening or inner illumination as to your eternally priviledged status.

Gill also has a strange distinction between natural and evangelical repentance/faith. He would say that everyone is responsible to do the former, but the latter is not a duty for anyone. Natural repentance is like a carnal changing of our behavior so as to escape a threatened calamity in this world (not hell). Those in Ninevah would be an example, according to Gill. Evangelical repentance/faith is something only the elect have (i.e. are given in a commercial sense), and it's not a duty. Something that is a duty implies some sense of conditionality and ability. What Gill failed to realize is that men are constitutionally able to believe/repent (they have a will by nature), but they are not morally able (this is what is meant by 'pervasive depravity' or 'total depravity'). Calvinists are not concerned about the 'will power' of the non-elect, but of their 'WON'T power'.

He also overreacted to Arminian senses of conditionality (since they presuppose a liberty of indifference in their conceptual system). John Flavel has some good comments on the issue of conditionality contra Baptist hypers. Be sure to check it out.

Tony Byrne said...
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Tony Byrne said...

p.s. Thanks for your distinctions between senses of Antinomianism. That's good to keep clear :-)