BURYING THE LEAD ON RICHARD BAXTER by R. Scott Clark

Burying The Lead On Baxter
Richard_BaxterThere is a phrase in journalism called “burying the lead” (or, since about 1979, the cloying variant lede). The lead (lede) is the paragraph in which the most important, salient facts are contained. In the old days (c. 1975), the writer was supposed to tell the reader the “who, what, where, when, and why” of the story in the first paragraph. Burying the lead has become commonplace as the line between journalism and analysis has been first blurred and then obliterated. Those who write about the history of Reformed theology also sometimes bury the lead. A great example of this phenomenon appeared just today. In a post celebrating the birthday of Richard Baxter (1615–91) an author waits until the 11th paragraph to tell us the following:

Despite his well-intentioned desires for a unified church, however, some of Baxter’s theological positions were unhelpful and divisive. His views on justification and atonement were not in step with the Reformed tradition. (Theologian Paul Helm has found similarities between Baxter and N. T. Wright in their views of justification.) Moreover, in trying to walk a middle path Baxter leaned toward Arminian sentiments in several major areas, though he was Calvinistic in others. This assorted theology annoyed contemporaries in both camps, and it can annoy us too.

According to many, Baxter was a model Reformed pastor, a tireless advocate for Christian piety, and evangelist except that the subdued concessions revealed in the 11th paragraph should give us pause to anyone proposing Baxter as a model for 21st-century Reformed theology, piety, and practice. Let us change the subject of the paragraph to Arminius. He too was a well-intentioned advocate of Christian unity. Some of his theological positions were unhelpful and divisive. By changing the subject of the paragraph we see the importance of not burying the lead. We may write all we will about how pious Arminius was, about his tireless service, and about how he presented himself to the world. He was, remember, was a minister in the Reformed churches. He died in good standing. He was even made “Rector Magnificus” of the University of Leiden and it could be said that the first and only great ecumenical synod of the Reformed churches of the Netherlands, Great Britain, the Palatinate, France (in absentia), Zürich, et al was dedicated to his memory. Of course, such a narrative about Arminius would be rightly regarded as grossly misleading.

I suppose that most who identify with the Reformed theology, piety, and practice do not realize that Baxter effectively scuttled the Reformation doctrine of justification by God’s unconditional favor alone (sola gratia), through faith resting, receiving, and trusting alone (sola fide). To put this error in context, J. H. Alsted (1618) said: “the article of justification is said to be the article of the standing or falling of the church.” As I wrote in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry, Richard Baxter sponsored a great crisis in the doctrine of justification in the Reformed churches. His 1649 Aphorisms on justification taught quite clearly that faith justifies because it obeys. Where the orthodox (e.g., Westminster Larger Catechism, 70–73) had been explicit that only Christ’s obedience is the ground and that, in the act of justification, faith’s only virtue is Christ’s finished work. Baxter’s revision of the doctrine of justification prompted sharp responses from John Owen, whose 1677 treatise On the Doctrine of Justification By Faith was an extended repudiation of Baxter.

As he damaged the Reformed cause by signing Evangelicals and Catholics Together, which document was the original impetus for organizations such as the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, sponsor of the Ref21 blog, so too J. I. Packer did not help the cause of Reformed and (truly) evangelical theology by downplaying, in his DPhil thesis (published in 2003), Baxter’s errors on justification. Even Packer, however, has called Baxter a neonomian. In 1992, he compared the theology of Norman Shepherd to Baxter’s:

Shepherd in effect reinvented the neonomianism of Richard Baxter in the 17th century—and from the same motive—recoil from the practical antinomianism that surrounded him, and a desire to state the gospel as to make perfectly obvious that persevering holiness is enjoined on all who hope to be welcomed by Christ the Lord on the day of judgment. Like Baxter, he never understood why was constantly being accused of reintroducing legalism into Reformed soteriology when his purpose of promoting holiness among Reformed people was so demonstrably right….

C. F. Allison, in The Rise of Moralism: The Proclamation of the Gospel from Hooker to Baxter (1966), offered a much more accurate assessment of Baxter’s doctrine of justification as a virtual return Tridentine Romanism. In 1998, Carl Trueman noted the need for interpreters of Baxter’s theology to account for its medieval roots. See his essay “A Small Step Toward Rationalism: The Impact of the Metaphysics of Tommaso Campanella on the Theology of Richard Baxter,” in Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment. See also his comments in The Claims of Truth: John Owen’s Trinitarian Theology (1998), 200–05. Even Hans Boersma concedes that Baxter made evangelical obedience “a secondary part of the condition of the continuation of justification.” He also says that Baxter’s denial that faith receives Christ’s righteousness directly, made room for human fulfillment of the conditions of the covenant by the “pepper corn” of evangelical obedience for justification. We are declared righteous partly because we are intrinsically righteous. Our works are “a condition of continued and consummate justification.” Even according to Boersma’s sympathetic analysis of Baxter, there is enough evidence to sustain Allison’s judgment. Joel Beeke and Randall Peterson conclude about Baxter’s doctrine of salvation:

Baxter’s writings are a strange theological mix. He was one of a few Puritans whose doctrines of God’s decrees, atonement, and justification were anything but Reformed. Though he generally structured his theology along Reformed lines of thought, he frequently leaned towards Arminian thinking. He developed his own notion of universal redemption, which offended Calvinists, but retained a form of personal election, which offended Arminians. He rejected reprobation. He was greatly influenced by the Amyraldians and incorporated much of their thinking, including hypothetical universalism, which teaches that Christ hypothetically died for all men, but His death only has real benefit to those who believe. For Baxter, Christ’s death was more of a legal satisfaction of the law than a personal substitutionary death on behalf of elect sinners.

As with this morning’s memoir one must read quite a bit before finding that Baxter’s soteriology was as damaging as Arminius’ and Amyraut’s. Yet Reformed folk continue to write about Baxter in a way they would never write about Arminius.

The real question here is this: how does this lead get buried? Judging by past experience, when readers new to the HB find this post many of them will be shocked to read that Baxter denied the Protestant doctrine of justification. How could they not know it? That fact has been known since the 17th century, when John Owen refuted him. The first part of the answer is that Baxter was never condemned by an international Reformed synod as Arminius was. In this respect we have roughly the same problem with Baxter that we have with Moises Amyraut (1596–1664). Amyraut’s fairly radical revisions to the doctrines of election and the atonement (as well as his rationalism) were never formally condemned—the French Reformed Churches were unable to reach a judgment—even though, over time, a strong consensus developed among the confessional Reformed that Amyraut’s revisions constituted a significant threat to orthodoxy. J. H. Heidegger (1633–98) and Francis Turretin (1623–87) condemned Amyraut’s revisions and the Swiss Reformed Churches confessed in the Helvetic Consensus Formula (1675) against Amyraut until the broad, non-confessional evangelicals rejected the confession in the early 18th century in Geneva. To be sure, there is no way to square the doctrine we confess in the Westminster Standards with Baxter’s doctrine of justification. The inference is clear to anyone willing to pull the lever but many do not draw the correct inference.

This leads us to the second part of the problem. Not all of us who identify as Reformed either understand or agree that the doctrine of justification is, as Calvin wrote, the “axis” around which the Christian faith spins nor do we agree with Luther and Alsted that it is the article of the standing or falling of the church. Today’s remembrance of Baxter is a perfect example of the marginalization of the doctrine of justification. Its corruption is not presented as fatal to the church but as a source of irritation. An ill-fitting shirt is irritating but arsenic is fatal. Baxter’s doctrine of justification was theological arsenic.

The third part of the problem is the adjective puritan. Baxter is always labelled a puritan the moment that happens the read assumes what Baxter’s soteriology must have been. In philosophy the way we often use the adjective puritan is called a universal. A universal has certain qualities. Those qualities are imputed to everything that fall under that category. The problem with this category, however, is that there are too many discrepancies between the residents in this house. They are not really a family. The adjective puritan is about as useful as the adjective evangelical is today. Do self-described evangelicals (e.g., those who attend the Evangelical Theological Society) agree about much? No. There is no common doctrine of Scripture, God, man, Christ, salvation, church, or last things. The only thing about which self-described evangelicals agree is that they love Jesus (even though they vary wildly about who and what he was and what he did). Roughly the same sorts of discrepancies are true of the adjective puritan. Baxter and Owen shared an ecclesiology but little else. Owen was an orthodox, evangelical (in the old sense), Protestant, Reformed congregational minister and theologian who was as passionate for Reformed orthodoxy as he was for Reformed piety. Yet both are called puritans. We can hardly posit the adjective puritan of William Perkins (1558–1602), who was a resolutely Reformed minister and theologian, who did not separate from the Church of England, and Baxter without equivocating on the meaning of the word. We could continue this exercise but I trust that the reader takes my point. So long as we continue to use the word puritan to describe Baxter and the orthodox confusion will continue to reign.

The last part of the part of the problem is that which ostensibly united “the puritans,” despite all their many differences: piety. By leading with piety we create a misleading picture about Reformed theology, piety, and practice. Our piety is the product of our theology. When we lead with piety we unintentionally give the impression that so long as a fellow as pious the rest of what he did and said is less important. That is simply false. Arius was pious. Pelagius was famous for his ascetic piety. Arminius was pious but they were all condemned for gross theological errors that ultimately overshadowed their piety. It’s past time that we stopped giving Richard Baxter a pass because of his piety. At the very least doing so is unfair to Arminius and the many others condemned by the church. Logically it is special pleading. Further, does the evidence really support our assessment of his piety? What were the fruits of his theology for the piety of Kidderminster? Within less than a century after Baxter’s death, the Kidderminster congregation he served was split and it became formally Unitarian. The congregation traces its roots to Baxter. Is that fair? It is insofar as Baxter was a rationalist. It was rationalism that drove his revision of the evangelical Protestant soteriology. That rationalism first manifested itself in his soteriology but rationalism, like water, always seeks its lowest level. The Remonstrants, with whom Baxter shared so much, were also rationalists and they became Unitarians even more quickly than Kidderminster did. The same rationalism that has us accepted with God because of our sanctity cannot tolerate a God who is mysteriously one in three persons nor a Christ who is one person with two natures.

I understand that there is great concern today about the rise of a new antinomianism but Richard Baxter is not our model any more than Jacob Arminius is our model. We admire the aspects of the piety of Ignatius of Loyola (c.1491–1556). Baxter’s identification with congregationalists, or the dissenters in 17th century England and his quest for godliness does not qualify him as a pattern for Reformed ministry and preaching any more than Loyola’s does. Baxter disqualified himself as a model of Reformed ministry the moment he abandoned and corrupted the heart of our ministry and the source of true Christian piety: the message of God’s free grace in Christ and salvation sola gratia, sola fide. The lead of any story about Richard Baxter must be that he compromised the article of the standing or falling of the church. Everything else we say about him must follow that lead.

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Professor R. Scott Clark blogs at THE HEIDELBLOGGER. 

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