English General Baptists: The Arminian Anti-rationalists (Part I/II)

Early English General Baptists’ firm adherence to the authority and supremacy of Scripture as the rule of faith and practice defies notions that all seventeenth century Arminians were rationalists.[1] That Arminianism as a whole was inclined towards rationalism has become a common critique from even renowned scholars. For example, Richard Muller contends that “of the three major systematic models arising out of Protestantism, the Reformed, the Lutheran, and the Arminian, only one, the Arminian, proved genuinely open to the new rationalism, particularly in its more empirical and inductive forms.”[2] While Muller may be right if the discussion were limited to the Remonstrants, his generalization proves unhelpful when considering the broader spectrum of Arminian theology in the seventeenth century, particularly in England.[3]

By examining the writings of Thomas Grantham and Thomas Monck, two of the foremost General Baptist theologians in the late seventeenth century, it becomes clear that a vibrant stream of anti-rationalism (or fideism) prevailed among the English General Baptists. In the end, Grantham and Monck embraced an epistemology that is quite similar to that of Reformed theologians such as John Calvin and the Westminster Assembly divines.

Remonstrant Rationalism

Scholars such as Keith Stanglin, Lambertus Jacobus van Holk, and Kęstutis Daugirdas have made a strong case for the rise of rationalism among the seventeenth century Remonstrants.[4] Van Holk contends that the Remonstrants Jean Le Clerc (1657–1736), Étienne de Courcelles (1586–1659), and Phillip van Limborch (1633–1712) were deeply influenced by the philosophy of René Descartes (1596–1650).[5] Stanglin has produced a particularly helpful work demonstrating the way in which the Remonstrants Simon Episcopus (1583–1643) and Étienne de Courcelles altered the doctrine of perspicuity[6] from its Reformation heritage in favor of a more rationalistic approach.[7] Whereas the Reformed Orthodox, as well Arminius, claimed that the illumination of Holy Spirit was essential to doctrine of perspicuity, Episcopus and De Courcelles contended that unaided reason was enough to make sense of the biblical text’s grammatical sense.[8] Furthermore, they essentially denied that the text had a spiritual meaning, thereby affirming that the grammatical meaning of the text was its only meaning.

Therefore, the meaning of Scripture, including all matters essential to faith, were perspicuous. Stanglin explains Episcopus’s view this way: “Just as scripture is sufficient in its revelation of necessary articles of faith, so scripture, he [Episcopus] claims, is also perspicuous in matters necessary for salvation (ad salutem).”[9] Contrary to the Roman Catholic Church’s Magisterium and the later Quakers’ claims of immediate revelation, the Reformed emphasized the perspicuity of Scripture on the basis of the illumination of the Spirit. The Remonstrants, on the other hand, maintained that Scripture was perspicuous on matters of faith through the use of unaided reason. Neither Arminius nor the English General Baptists followed the Remonstrant approach, despite contrary claims.

General Baptist Rationalism 

The Dutch Remonstrants aren’t the only Arminians scholars accuse rationalism. Geoffrey Nuttall has argued that the General Baptist movement in England was driven primarily by rationalism. He writes, “The Arminianism of the General Baptists, and of the Dissenters at large, was an Arminianism of the head.”[10] Nuttall then suggests that “Wesley’s Arminianism, on the other hand, and the Arminianism of the Methodist Societies, was an Arminianism of the heart, a precondition of missionary activity undertaken that all men might be saved by the power of Christ.”[11] Nuttall’s contention is that General Baptist Arminianism was driven by a sort of universalist logic whereas Wesleyan Arminianism was primarily concerned that the gospel truly be offered to the world. One scholar correctly notes that Nuttall’s assertion fails since General Baptists such as Thomas Grantham were deeply concerned with missions and emphasized the preaching of the gospel as the means of conversion.[12]

General Baptists are often accused of having been open to rationalism. This is likely due to the undue attention that the Caffyn controversy, which spanned several decades, has received as well as to the incorrect conclusions drawn from the conference at Salter’s Hall. The Caffyn controversy will be discussed in more detail below, but the debate centers on accusations that Matthew Caffyn rejected the standard Chalcedonian formula concerning the Incarnation of Christ. Recent scholars such as Clint C. Bass have reasonably demonstrated that Caffyn’s theological moorings were limited to one region of General Baptists and that his followers were very few even there.[13]

In 1719, a meeting of dissenting London ministers convened at Salter’s Hall to decide whether or not their ministers ought to be required to subscribe to a historically Trinitarian confession of faith. Of the fifteen General Baptists present at Salter’s Hall, fourteen voted against requiring subscription, apparently maintaining their former hesitancy to force their ministers to subscribe to creedal formulas. As Nettles notes, “Ostensibly, the issue at hand was not the Trinity but subscription to a creed.”[14] Therefore, General Baptists in the late seventeenth century likely deemed subscription, not Trinitarianism, unnecessary. However, even if some of the London General Baptists were anti-Trinitarian by the early eighteenth century, their heterodoxy could not be projected upon General Baptists of the seventeenth century, and certainly not on all English General Baptists.

In summary, these two events, the debate at Salter’s Hall and the Matthew Caffyn controversy, are unfairly used to create an inaccurate portrayal of English General Baptists in the seventeenth century.[15] The writings of Monck and Grantham help to demonstrate their inaccuracy.

Thomas Monck and Thomas Grantham

It is very difficult, and in some cases nearly impossible, to demonstrate that one person’s work is representative of a group. That difficulty certainly exists when attempting to select adequate theological representatives of the English General Baptists. However, one would be hard pressed to find two individuals who exerted more influence upon the English General Baptists in the late seventeenth century than Thomas Monck and Thomas Grantham. Grantham is well known for being their foremost theologian. Monck is lesser known but equally important since he served as their greatest defender of orthodoxy in a rapidly changing religious setting. Therefore, while not claiming that English General Baptist theology, or even Monck and Grantham’s theology, was monolithic, it seems accurate to say that Monck and Grantham fairly represent the mainstream views of late seventeenth century English General Baptists. A more detailed defense of their adequate representation may prove helpful.

Thomas Monck exerted massive influence over the Midlands General Baptists through his Cure for the Cankering Error of the New Eutychians (1673) and through his apparent leadership in the development of An Orthodox Creed (1678).[16] Both works served as antidotes to the apparent heresy of the General Baptist Matthew Caffyn in a turbulent time for General Baptists. Caffyn’s heretical views centered on his understanding of the Incarnation, particularly whether Christ truly took His human flesh from Mary.[17]

Monck realized the danger of such claims and responded to Caffyn’s reported beliefs first with his Cure for the Cakering Error, which carefully expounded not only Chalcedonian Christology but also the Reformation’s emphasis on the necessity of Christ’s being fully God and fully man in order for Him to act as the perfect Mediator between God and Man. An Orthodox Creed was a full-orbed confession of faith, apparently written primarily under the direction of Monck, but it took a rather unusual twist. Articles IV-VII in the Creed address the person of Christ with the language and cadence of Chalcedon, thereby refuting Caffyn’s errors from the very beginning of the document.

Confessions of faith and creeds are not always word-for-word expressions of the personal beliefs of those who subscribe to them. That is not to say, though, that historians should always employ a hermeneutic of suspicion when researching confessional communities. The fact is, however, that many confessional churches in eighteenth century England, particularly the Presbyterians, had strayed far from their confession of faith. An Orthodox Creed is unique in that it was composed during the 1670s (the time of Caffyn’s supposed errors) almost singlehandedly by one individual: Thomas Monck. Therefore, An Orthodox Creed can reasonably be considered expressive of Monck’s theology as well as of the fifty men who voluntarily signed it. By examining the Preface to the work as well as its statements on the purpose and role of Scripture in matters of faith and practice, it will become evident that Thomas Monck and the majority of the Midlands General Baptists were not rationalists in any significant sense of the term.[18]

Thomas Grantham (1633–92) was born in Hatton, England, a region near Lincolnshire. Like many seventeenth century figures, his early life is largely unknown but we know that he came to faith in Jesus Christ around the age of fifteen. Although his family had been either irreligious or Roman Catholic, he surprisingly joined the General Baptists and was baptized by them in 1653. By 1660, Grantham stood before King Charles II on the General Baptists’ behalf, detailing the harassment, fines, and imprisonment that his fellow Baptists had endured.

Though he was never formally educated, Grantham’s theological skill is clearly displayed in his most famous work Christianismus Primitivus (1678). Over 600 pages in length, this work covers everything from believer’s baptism to original sin to a Christian’s involvement in government to instructions on Christian marriage. By briefly exploring Christianismus Primitivus on the doctrine of Scripture, we can gain a better understanding of what Grantham and late seventeenth century General Baptists believed.

In Part II we’ll consider the writings of Thomas Grantham and Thomas Monck concerning how one acquires religious knowledge and compare them to the views of John Calvin and the Westminster divines.

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[1] My use of “rationalist,” “rationalistic,” or “rationalism” is intended to refer to the tendency of some theologians to accept only that which accords to reason; or the tendency to affirm that religious knowledge can be acquired from creation and rightly appropriated without divine revelation; or that religious knowledge can be acquired from Scripture without the illumination of the Holy Spirit.

[2] Richard A Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book, 1991), 282-85. Muller states this claim in a variety of ways throughout the pages listed here, but they all emphasize the point that Arminius’s theology of God, creation, and providence led to an openness to Enlightenment rationalism among later Arminians.

[3] One might argue that Muller’s claim is limited to the Remonstrants and is therefore a fair critique. I am not convinced, however, that such an argument is effective since seventeenth century Arminianism cannot be limited to the Remonstrants alone. The English General Baptists certainly represent a thoroughgoing expression of Arminius’ theology on key points but are not inclined towards rationalism. For several examples of the relationship between Arminius’s theology and the theology of the General Baptists, see J. Matthew Pinson, Arminian and Baptist: Explorations in a Theological Tradition (Nashville: Randall House, 2015).

[4] Much of Stanglin’s work seems to be an extension of Daugirdas’s. See Kęstutis Daugirdas, “The Biblical Hermeneutics of Socinians and Remonstrants In the Seventeenth Century,” in Arminius, Arminianism, and Europe, ed. Th. Marius van Leeuwen, Keith D. Stanglin, and Marijke Tolsma, vol. 39, Brill’s Series in Church History (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2009), 89-113.

[5] Lambertus Jacobus van Holk, “From Arminius to Arminianism In Dutch Theology,” in Man’s Faith and Freedom: The Theological Influence of Jacobus Arminius, ed. Gerald O. McCulloh (New York: Abingdon, 1962), 38-40.

[6] By perspicuity I mean something like “clarity.” The Reformers maintained that Scripture is clear in its intended meaning.

[7] Keith D. Stanglin, “The Rise and Fall of Biblical Perspicuity: Remonstrants and the Transition toward Modern Exegesis,” Church History 83, no. 1 (March 2014): 38-59.

[8] Stanglin, “The Rise and Fall of Biblical Perspicuity,” 41-49. Stanglin notes this departure from Arminius: “Like his Remonstrant successors, Arminius had previously asserted that things necessary for salvation can be ‘perceived’ by anyone using right reason. But he went on to say that these senses are ‘perspicuous’ only to those who are illumined by the light of the Holy Spirit. According to Arminius, one cannot understand Scripture’s sublime mystery without the illumination of the Holy Spirit” (Stanglin, “The Rise and Fall of Biblical Perspicuity,” 48-49).

[9] Stanglin, “The Rise and Fall of Biblical Perspicuity,” 44.

[10] Geoffrey F. Nuttall, The Puritan Spirit: Essays and Addresses (London: Epworth P., 1967), 78; cited in Clint C. Bass, Thomas Grantham (1633–1692) and General Baptist Theology (Oxford: Regent’s Park, 2013), 155.

[11] Nuttall, The Puritan Spirit, 78; cited in Bass, Thomas Grantham, 155.

[12] Bass, 155. Bass also notes later on in his work that the English General Baptists, particularly Thomas Grantham, were deeply concerned with evangelizing the entire world with the Gospel. In fact, the central role of the office of Messenger, an office the General Baptists took very seriously, was to evangelize places where the Gospel was either sparsely proclaimed or not proclaimed at all. The General Baptists viewed the office of Messenger as a continuation of the office of the Apostles. They did not, however, consider Messengers to be under the divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit as were the first Apostles. Grantham often refers to them as “subordinate apostles.” For Grantham’s exhortation on the propagation of the Gospel, see Thomas Grantham, Christianismus Primitivus, Or, The Ancient Christian Religion, in Its Nature, Certainty, Excellency, and Beauty, (Internal and External) Particularly Considered, Asserted and Vindicated, from the Many Abuses Which Have Invaded That Sacred Profession, by Humane Innovation, or Pretended Revelation. Comprehending Likewise the General Duties of Mankind, in Their Respective Relations; and Particularly, the Obedience of All Christians to Magistrates. And the Necessity of Christian-Moderation about Things Dispensible in Matters of Religion. With Divers Cases of Conscience Discussed and Resolved (London: Printed for Francis Smith, 1678), Book IV, 210-13.

[13] Bass, Thomas Grantham, 181-216. As far as I can tell, Bass provides the most detailed research and exploration of the Caffyn controversy to date.

[14] Tom Nettles, The Baptists: Beginnings in Britain (Scotland: Mentor Imprint, 2005), 206. Nettles’s use of “ostensibly” here seems to imply a certain level of doubt on this point. While it is certainly possible that there already were some General Baptist anti-Trinitarians at this point, and some amongst those at Salter’s Hall, there was certainly what I would call a naïve rejection of or hesitancy to enforce ministerial subscription by some of the most orthodox General Baptists.

[15] Bass rightly notes: “A small group of Melchiorites were present among the General Baptists for much of the latter seventeenth century, but this group remained small and was, for the most part, limited to the southeastern counties of Kent and Sussex. Grantham and most General Baptists upheld and orthodox understanding of the Godhead.” And, “The tendency to magnify the Caffyn controversy has led to misrepresentation. The vast majority of General Baptists in the latter seventeenth century were not Arians, let alone Socinians, nor was mere head knowledge or the sovereignty of reason the driving force behind their doctrine. Their theology was not characterized by detached speculation, but rather, it required a full surrendering of their person, consuming their whole lives, both their minds and their emotions, as they sought to discover what the scriptures had to say. Their theological approach was one that was still largely characterized by their Puritan roots” (Bass, Thomas Grantham, 213).

[16] The Midlands General Baptists were those in the counties of Bucks, Hertford, Bedford, and Oxford, which is clearly stated in the “Advertisement to the Reader” at the beginning of An Orthodox Creed.

[17] Caffyn’s views seem to have been similar to that of the Anabaptist Melchior Hoffman who affirms that Christ did not—indeed he could not—take his flesh from Mary. See Walter Klaassen, ed., Anabaptism In Outline: Selected Primary Sources, Sixth edition (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1981), 27.

[18] The reason specific mention is made here of the Preface is due to the fact that no reprint of An Orthodox Creed included it until 2006 when W. Madison Grace II reprinted it. Therefore, all citations of An Orthodox Creed will come from this edition, but other editions have been consulted. See Thomas Monck and W Madison Grace II, “Transcriber’s Preface to An Orthodox Creed: Unabridged 17th Century General Baptist Confession,” Southwestern Journal of Theology, March 1, 2006.

Author: Jesse Owens

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7 Comments

  1. Hey, great article. I love seeing as much on these early General Baptists as possible. Please keep up the good work. Also, Id love to see you all explain the general Baptists covenantal (federal) theology as compares to 1689 (second London Baptist) federalism. I am aware that Grantham helped to write a lot of it, and it is clearly seen in the Orthodox Creed (I only disagree with that creed’s understanding of perseverance or I would adopt it myself) when it speaks on the continuity of the old and new testaments. Could you, at some point, elaborate on any differences between general Baptist and particular Baptist schemes of federalism, if there are any? thank you so much for all you do!

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  2. Great article but just a minor correction in that Grantham was born at Halton not Hatton, or more precisely Halton Holegate.

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    • My use of Hatton is based on John Inscore Essick’s research on Grantham which was published in 2013 by Mercer University Press. With the uncertainty surrounding Grantham’s early life, Essick could be incorrect. Essick includes a map that has both Hatton and Halton Holegate on it.

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  3. Good research here. I always enjoy when articles are published about the English General Baptists. I look forward to part II

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  4. KC, Thanks for reading! Something on federalism would be great. I’ll keep that in mind for future posts. Is there a particular aspect you’re interested in?

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  5. Thank you very much! Yes, with all the steam that 1689 (second London) Federalism is getting id love to hear differences and similarities the early General Baptists had in comparison. Such as the unconditional/conditional aspects of our federalism. In The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology: Pascal Denault , he names Grantham as one of the key formulators of Baptist federalism. I also see Baptist federalism in the Orthodox Confession by Monck in the union of the two testaments. Maybe even see some differences between General Baptist Federalism vs dispensationalism, New Covenant theology, traditional covenant theology (padeobaptist), progressive covenentalism, etc. Thank you so much for considering this! Id love to see this system brought back to light in the Arminian Baptist mainstream. Thank you!

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