The British Antinomian Controversies -- By: Jonathan W. Arnold

Journal: Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society
Volume: JOTGES 25:49 (Autumn 2012)
Article: The British Antinomian Controversies
Author: Jonathan W. Arnold

The British Antinomian Controversies1

Jonathan W. Arnold

Skiff Lake Bible Church
Clarklake, MI

But I see the corrupting Design is of late, grown so high, that what seemed these Thirty Four Years suppressed, now threatneth as a torrent to overthrow the Gospel.

—Richard Baxter,
‘Defence of Christ’ (sig. A3v)2

I. Introduction

With an indignant cry of frustration, the eminent Presbyterian leader, Richard Baxter (1615-1691), announced to the theological world his surprise at what he believed to be the return of a controversy which he and his colleagues had attempted to quell some three decades prior. Baxter’s frustration was aroused by the 1690 re-publication of a collection of sermons written by Tobias Crisp (1600-1643), a London theologian who had been branded an antinomian during the first outbreak of the controversy. This particular publication, entitled Christ alone exalted, included previously unpublished sermons which had been collected by his son, Samuel, along with a letter signed by twelve

leaders of London dissent intended to certify the authenticity of the new sermons included in this publication. In reality, this letter of certification was received more like a commendatory letter and launched the first volley in what would become a bitter fight over this strain of antinomianism. Significantly, that letter also signaled—to Baxter’s pronounced horror—that the antinomianism which he had attempted to marginalize in the first half of the century had made headway into the prominent leadership of London dissent.3 Even at that point of the nascent second controversy—as modern scholarship has chosen to name this late-eruption—the juxtaposition of the core aspects of this debate with those from the earlier debates appears much more stark than most modern scholarship has admitted.

II. The Original Controversy

That being said, Baxter’s fears were completely understandable. The controversy which had raged since at least the 1630s and which had been quieted in the mid-1650s had, at times, become quite heated. As David Como has ably shown, the vast majority of those labeled antinomians during that original British controversy had been closely identified with the Puritan movement. As such, those theologians posed an imminent and internal threat to the very existence of the godly congregations in Laudian England. Thus, a clear line of demarcation proved essential in ord...

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