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

In Part I we considered scholarly claims that, of the Reformed, Lutherans, and Arminians, only seventeenth century Arminians were genuinely open to the new rationalism. We’ve selected two representatives of the English General Baptists (Arminians) to consider the merit of such claims. In Part Two, we’ll consider the writings of Thomas Grantham and Thomas Monck on how one acquires religious knowledge and compare them to the views of John Calvin and the Westminster divines.

The Source of Religious Knowledge

Grantham

Grantham’s polemical defense of Scripture as the supreme source of religious knowledge and as the Church’s authoritative guide and rule in matters of faith and practice takes center place in Christianismus Primitivus, his magnum opus. Its underlying argument is that the Church must model itself after the New Testament rather than blindly follow an inherited tradition (Roman Catholicism) or the subjective inner witness of the Spirit (Quakerism). Like the Reformers, Grantham rejected Catholicism’s claim that Scripture and tradition were equal authorities or that the subjective inner witness of the Spirit apart from Scripture could be the source of objective truth. Grantham thus shows himself to be an inheritor of the Reformation’s sola scriptura principle.

Grantham’s affirmation of Scripture’s authority in religious matters, and therefore the source of religious knowledge, is most clearly seen in his overarching view of religious controversies. Grantham writes:

That amongst all such Parties of the Sons of Men, the only Infallible and Authoritative Judg of their Controversies about Religion, is the LORD Himself, as he speaketh by his Spirit in the Holy Scriptures; together with right Reason: Or thus, which is all one, the Apostles and Prophets, as they speak in their Holy Writings, are the only Infallible Authoritative Judg in these Controversies.[1]

Here, Grantham defends a Reformed epistemology against Roman Catholics and Quakers. Against the former, Grantham provocatively writes, “Cannot the pen of Peter the Apostle, give us as good information in this matter, as the pen of any Pope, pretending to be his successor?”[2] Grantham forthrightly rejected the Roman Catholic Church’s claim that doctrine was determined by the Magisterium, or the interpretation of Popes, councils, and decrees. Grantham’s intention is not that all councils and creeds or writings from the Fathers be discarded. Instead, he desired they be used within their proper bounds—subservient to and in service of Scripture, not the other way around.

Grantham also thoroughly rejected the Quaker belief that the inner witness of the Spirit apart from Scripture is a legitimate source of religious knowledge. Therefore, when the Quakers claimed: “what they speak they speak as they are moved by the Holy Ghost, &c.,” Grantham replied, “Then indeed we say we are to try what they thus tell us, by what the Spirit hath said in the Scripture; and when we find them to contradict what the Spirit saith in the Scripture, or wrest and abuse those Scriptures, &c. then we reject them as vain Boasters, led by Fancies, and not by the Spirit of God.”[3] Grantham believed that the acquisition of religious knowledge required the work of the Spirit, but he also believed that such religious knowledge only comes from the Spirit’s illumination through Scripture.

Grantham’s language on the authority of Scripture and its role in religious controversy resembles that of the Westminster Confession of Faith on the same subject. Westminster states of Scripture, “The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined,” which is precisely what Grantham stated. Furthermore, in standard Protestant fashion, Westminster, like Grantham, submits the authority of “all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers” as well as the “doctrines of men, and private spirits” to examination by Scripture.[4] In this way, Grantham, like Westminster, contends that Scripture is the infallible source of all religious knowledge, as well as the test of all religious claims. When religious claim that are at odds with Scripture are rejected on the basis of the supreme authority of Scripture.

Monck

Thomas Monck also affirmed the authority and supremacy of Scripture as the rule of faith and practice for the Church. In his Preface to An Orthodox Creed, Monck describes Scripture as, “an account of our Faith grounded upon God’s holy Word, written in the Scriptures of Truth, and wrought in us by his Infallible Spirit, which inspired by his holy Prophets, and Apostles, to write them for our Rule, both in Faith and Practice.”[5] Monck could hardly speak more clearly to the issue at hand, namely, the utter reliability of Scripture and its central role in the life of the believer and of the Church.

Certainly Scripture was to be read using right reason, but reason was subservient to Scripture at all times. “For reason it self,” writes Monck, “as well as Tongues or Humane Learning, ought to be subservient to the Mind of the Holy Ghost, or Divine Mysteries of Faith, revealed in Scripture; for we believe it, ex authoritate dicentis, relying upon the Truth of him that saith it, and not upon Reason.” Furthermore, “all the Evidence which we get by Reason, is nothing to this Certitude.”[6] Monck affirms not only that human reason bows Scripture but also to Scripture’s divine authorship and self-authentication.

Monck’s contention, nearly identical to Grantham’s at points, echoes that of Calvin in his Institutes as well as that of Westminster.[7] Concerning the Church and the authenticity and authority of Scripture, Calvin writes, “It is utterly vain, then, to pretend that the power of judging Scripture so lies with the Church that its certainty depends upon churchly assent.”[8] He continues, “Thus, while the church receives and gives its seal of approval to the Scriptures, it does not thereby render authentic what is otherwise doubtful or controversial. But because the church recognizes Scripture to be the truth of its own God, as a pious duty it unhesitatingly venerates Scripture.”[9] And in another place, “Scripture indeed is self-authenticated; hence it is not right to subject it to proof and reasoning.”[10]

Westminster is consistent with Calvin on the self-authenticating nature of Scripture: “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore is to be received, because it is the Word of God.”[11] Monck and Grantham, then, following Calvin and The Westminster Confession of Faith, affirm the self-authenticating nature of Scripture not upon the basis of reason or an innate authority within the Church itself but on the basis of God being its author and the guarantor of its authenticity, infallibility, and authority.

In addition, Monck does not subscribe to either the philosophy of Descartes (Rationalism) or that of Locke (Empiricism) regarding the acquisition of truth or religious knowledge. Evident in the quotation above, Monck, unlike the Remonstrants, contends that religious knowledge can be acquired only from Scripture by the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Monck, speaking for the majority of Midlands General Baptists, states that their faith is “grounded upon God’s holy Word, written in the Scriptures of Truth, and wrought in us by his Infallible Spirit.”[12] In this way, Monck affirms that the supreme authoritative source of religious knowledge is Scripture. Furthermore, the Spirit’s work of illumination must occur for the genuine apprehension and acquisition of truth touching matters of salvation. Therefore, Scripture is perspicuous in every sense, but only through the work of the Spirit, not through unaided human reason.

Monck’s approach is not unlike that of Calvin who contends, “[T]he testimony of the Spirit is more excellent than all reason.” But Calvin also affirms the necessity of the “inward testimony of the Spirit” before the Word will “find acceptance in men’s hearts.”[13] Calvin summarizes his point this way: “The Same Spirit, therefore, who has spoken through the mouths of the prophets must penetrate into our hearts to persuade us that they faithfully proclaimed what had been divinely commanded.”[14]

Westminster maintains the necessity of the inward illumination of the Spirit for a right understanding of Scripture and Scripture’s self-authentication: “[Y]et notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.”[15] Westminster affirms the utter perspicuity of Scripture as well as the reality that it contains everything “necessary for his [God’s] own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life.”[16] “Nevertheless,” it continues, “we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word.”[17] Monck echoes and affirms this necessity.

Excursus and Conclusion

One cannot help but think that Muller’s recurring claim that seventeenth century Arminianism was more open to rationalism than either the Reformed or the Lutherans is a bit narrow-sighted and somewhat ahistorical. Such claims are narrow-sighted because they fail to take into account genuine Arminianism in the English Context, namely the English General Baptists, which was a significant branch of Arminianism. Such claims are somewhat ahistorical because they fail to account for the fact that the English Presbyterians, whom Muller would presumably place within the Reformed tradition, defected from orthodoxy at the end of the seventeenth century continuing into the eighteenth century on essential doctrinal issues such as the deity of Christ.

Strong evidence does not exist supporting a pervasive rationalism amongst English General Baptists until the eighteenth century, when many General Baptists did in fact join the Presbyterians in rejecting essential Christian doctrines. The point here is not simply to say that eighteenth century General Baptist heterodoxy had Presbyterian company, thereby softening their defection. The significance of Presbyterian and General Baptist (one being Calvinist and one being Arminian) heterodoxy in the eighteenth century is that it demonstrates that it was not the theological system of Arminianism that “proved more open to Rationalism than either the Lutheran or the Reformed,” but was due to the philosophical and theological milieu of the era.

Thomas Monck and Thomas Grantham, two of the foremost leaders of the English General Baptists in the late seventeenth century, firmly adhered to the authority and supremacy of Scripture as the rule of faith and practice. While these two figures cannot speak for every English General Baptists of their era, they are two of the strongest candidates to stand as representative figures. They clearly submit themselves and the Church’s doctrine to the authority of the biblical text, being willing to forsake any doctrine that does not accord with it. They do so because they are firmly convinced that Scripture is truthful at all points due to the fact that it is the very Word of God Who is the very fountainhead of truth. However, they are also careful to note that that a right understanding of biblical doctrine, even for the believer, requires the inward working of the Holy Spirit, or illumination. On these points, they do not deviate from the Reformed tradition in general or from Calvin and The Westminster Confession of Faith in particular.

____________________

[1] Thomas Grantham, Christianismus Primitivus, Book IV, 1-2. All citations from this work retain the original spelling, italics, and capitalization unless otherwise noted.

[2] Thomas Grantham, Christianismus Primitivus, Book IV, 24.

[3] Thomas Grantham, Christianismus Primitivus, Book IV, 50.

[4] The Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.10.

[5] Monck and Grace II, “Transcriber’s Preface to An Orthodox Creed,” 135.

[6] Monck and Grace II, “Transcriber’s Preface to An Orthodox Creed,” 139.

[7] Grantham writes, “[T]he Truths made known by the Scripture (the change of Dispensations considered) are of the same Authority now, as when Spoken audibly by God, by Jesus Christ, or indited by the Holy Spirit. And I explain my self thus; That when Men read these words, Thou shalt not Kill, thou shalt not Steal, thou shalt not commit Adultery, &c. These words have the same Authority, as if God should speak the same things to Men from Heaven immediately. . . . These words have the Authority of God in them, and are to be believed, as much as if Peter were present to speak or testifie the same thing by the Spirit immediately.” And, “There is as much Authority in these words, as when they were immediately spoken in the Apostle.” And again, “[T]he Authority of the Spirit cannot be separated from Scriptures as they reveal God’s will to us, and our Duty to God; and where its Authority and Virtue is not received by Faith unto Life, it will operate by reason of their unbelief unto Death” (Grantham, Christianismus Primitivus, Book IV, 49, 50).

[8] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols., Library of Christian Classics 20-21 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 2006), 1.7.3.

[9] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.7.3.

[10] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.7.5.

[11] The Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.4.

[12] Monck and Grace II, “Transcriber’s Preface to An Orthodox Creed,” 135; italics added.

[13] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.7.4.

[14] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.7.4.

[15] The Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.5.

[16] The Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.6.

[17] The Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.6.

Author: Jesse Owens

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2 Comments

  1. “The significance of Presbyterian and General Baptist (one being Calvinist and one being Arminian) heterodoxy in the eighteenth century is that it demonstrates that it was not the theological system of Arminianism that “proved more open to Rationalism than either the Lutheran or the Reformed,” but was due to the philosophical and theological milieu of the era.” Very much agree. Its easy to claim that Arminianism philosophically leads to rationalism or theological liberalism, but much too hard to prove. It only works if one is a priori committed to the belief that Arminianism is the root of all evil and ignores historical evidence. In American history the Presbyterian Church went down the same path that the Methodist church did. I always love when actual history can disprove absurd theological claims.

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    • Thank you for the comment. Your assessment of the American context is helpful as well.

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