Thursday, March 1, 2007

A Pleasant Discovery at Tyndale House Library

Today has been preparation day for my departure from Tyndale House tomorrow. One of my tasks has been to replace the stacks of books that I have been using for research. (The library is a self-serve resource center. Use a book and replace it when finished with it. The design is efficient and saves on paying someone to do what we researchers can do ourselves.) Well, as I was replacing a Ph.D. dissertation, I spied another dissertation that I could not resist taking back to my study carrel.

I sat down and began to read the dissertation. After reading the introduction and preliminary pages, one chapter in particular, Chapter X, caught my attention. So I devoted a fair amount of time to give it a careful reading. The chapter is titled "Justification by Faith." Oh, I didn't tell you whose dissertation it is. It is J. I. Packer's Ph.D. dissertation. Packer gave the copy as a gift to Tyndale House in May 1957. It is titled, "The Redemption and Restoration of Man in the Thought of Richard Baxter: A Study in Puritan Theology," presented for the degree of D.Phil. in the University of Oxford, Trinity term, 1954. Packer's dissertation is extremely long; it is 499 pages. Yet, to look at it on the shelf, one would think that it was only 150 to 175 pages. How does it look so thin? It is typed on onion skin paper. Imagine a dissertation that is 499 pages. No supervisor today would allow such length.

My friend and fellow Ph.D. student and candidate at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Tim Beougher, now Billy Graham Professor of Evangelism and Church Growth at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, wrote his dissertation on Richard Baxter. I know that he accessed J. I. Packer's dissertation, and Dr. Packer was his External Reader for his dissertation. As I recall from several conversation with him, Tim Beougher focused his dissertation on Baxter's beliefs concerning justification. Hence, I was eager to read Packer's treatment of Baxter's view.

Richard Baxter forges his beliefs concerning justification on the anvil of controversy with men called "Antinomians," particularly men such as Tobias Crisp (Christ Alone Exalted) and James Saltmarsh. Whether they were justly called "Antinomians" is disputable. Nevertheless, Baxter took a view of justification by faith that he distinguished from the view articulated by Crisp and others. Baxter saw his own view as in agreement with that of the Puritan Divines, such as William Perkins, Samuel Bolton (True Bounds of Christian Freedom), Thomas Hooker, and others. Baxter's views roused several critics and
caught the sharp point of John Owen's pen as they engaged one another. This, then, is the focus of Chapter X of Packer's dissertation.

It seems suitable to quote a portion of J. I. Packer's commentary on the controversy stirred by Richard Baxter's beliefs.


But in fact Baxter's alleged heterodoxy amounted merely to this: he had assimilated the four characteristic Protestant positions concerning justification (that it is a forensic act, done in this life; that it is grounded on Christ's satisfaction; that it is secured through faith; and that a dead fait justifies nobody) to his 'political' doctrine of the new covenant as a legal instrument for its conveyance; and he had distinguished two decisive moments in justification, one present and one future, where other Protestants recognize only the first. The charges brought against him were ludicrous. But we can see why they were made. His readers were completely bewildered by the 'political method'. It involved re-definition right and left: terms like law, works, merit, righteousness, justification, imputation, instrument, all meant something different in Baxter from what they meant in the rest of Protestant literature. Few had the patience or the ability to master his method and definitions; consequently, a great deal of breath and ink were wasted in confuting what he would have meant had he been using these key words in the accepted sense. The controversial wranglings between Baxter and his critics on justification make tedious and unprofitable reading, for the two side make no intellectual contact at all. Both Baxter and the orthodox Calvinists had perfectly consisten positions granted their first principles, and constructive discussion between them could only take place at the level of their first principles. But their endless acrimonious dissections of each other's statements never got down to this level. The only issue of these exchanges was that each side learned to state its own position more accurately. The root difference between Baxter and orthodox Calvinism, from which all their other disagreements sprang and to which they can all be reduced, may here be pin-pointed. It concerned the idea of law. . . .

To orthodox Calvinism, the law of God is the permanent, unchanging expression of God's eternal and unchangeable holiness and justice. It requires perfect obedience from mankind, on pain of physical and spiritual death, and confers salvation and eternal life only upon those who perfectly obey it. God could not change this law, or set it aside, in His dealings with men, without denying Himself. When man sins, therefore, it is not God's nature to same him at the law's expense. Instead, he saves sinners by satisfying the law on their behalf, that He might continue just when He becomes their Justifier. . . .

Baxter's 'political method' led him to a very different idea of God's law. To him, God's justice is merely a rectoral attribute, a characteristic quality of His government, and His laws are no more than means to ends. Like all laws, they may under certain circumstances be changed, if the desired end is attainable by other means. When man had fallen, and God purposed to glorify Himself by restoring him, He carried out His plan, not by satisfying the law, but by changing it. . . . Where orthodox Calvinism taught that Christ satisfied the law in the sinner's place, Baxter held that Christ satisfied the Lawgiver and so procured a change in the law. Here Baxter aligns himself with Arminian thought rather than with orthodox Calvinism. And from this source, as is now clear, all his differences with orthodoxy on the subject of justification took their rise.

We may think that Baxter was wrong; we may even judge him wrong-headed; but we must recognize that it was not gratuitous pedantry that drove him to new ways of stating old truths. He was sure that they were Scriptural and necessary for the Church's holiness and peace ("The Redemption and Restoration of Man in the Thought of Richard Baxter," 302-306).

I quote these words at length because they seem quite relevant to the controversy that swirls in the church today. Another Englishman is at the center of the current vortex, N. T. Wright. One may disagree with N. T. Wright, but wouldn't it be wonderful if disagreement would bring about more than the controversy of the seventeenth century yielded in Puritan times?