By Ian Hugh Clary
The Confessing Baptist website recently linked to an article by pastor Mike Waters of Heritage Reformed Baptist Church in North Canton, OH. Pastor Waters and I are acquaintances, so I thought it would be nice to read what he had to say, especially as he encourages us to read John Gill (1697-1771). Having studied Gill at some length, I am thankful for pastor Waters’ five reasons for reading “Dr. Voluminous,” possibly the leading Baptist theologian of the eighteenth century. We should read Gill, according to Waters, because he was Reformed, baptistic, theological, pastoral, and Christocentric. These are all very good reasons, and I’m glad pastor Waters shared them with us.
I would like to add my own endorsement of reading Gill, but with one caveat: be careful. In many ways, Gill is worth regular and sustained reading. In certain areas, he is absolutely stellar. I am thinking pre-eminently of his work on the Trinity and the deity of Christ, and also, of course, his work on baptism. I advocate care in reading Gill, however, because of the serious problems in Gill’s theology noted by pastor Waters, namely Gill’s high Calvinism and his tendencies to antinomianism. I am more than aware of the debates surrounding the interpretations of Gill on both scores, and I agree that Gill was nuanced enough as a theologian and exegete to be able to dodge those charges in absolute terms. But there can be no doubt that many of his disciples—such as John Brine in the eighteenth century, and the Gospel Standard Baptists of the nineteenth—were not as careful.
Our biggest concerns should be those expressed by subsequent Baptists like Andrew Fuller, who admired Gill, but saw the necessity of critiquing those dangerous elements in his theology. For instance, Gill was against the idea of “offering” the gospel to sinners, he advocated eternal justification, and though he wrote against antinomianism, there is a strain of it in his works. All of this comes out more strongly in the writings of his followers. While Gill was a noteworthy exegete—he was a leading Hebraist in his day, and a master of many ancient languages—he also took to performing exegetical back-flips to suit his theology. I think here of his distinctions between “active” and “passive” justification, and “legal” and “evangelical” repentance. Both of these are notions that Fuller took to task in his justly famous Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation.
Of course, being involved with the Andrew Fuller Center, I would recommend reading Fuller’s works—especially Gospel Worthy. Fuller, like Gill, also wrote on the deity of Christ and baptism, and was a great defender of evangelical Calvinism. I would also recommend reading Abraham Booth, another great Baptist theologian from that period who is, by and large, quite trustworthy. Even better, if you are really interested in Baptist theology, read all three! But keep the problems with Gill in mind, and take to heart the criticisms that have been laid at his feet, whether by the men of that earlier period, as I have noted, or those today like Tom Nettles, Peter Naylor, or Robert Oliver. Critical appreciation is a must!
Ian Hugh Clary is finishing doctoral studies under Adriaan Neele at Universiteit van die Vrystaat (Blomfontein), where he is writing a dissertation on the evangelical historiography of Arnold Dallimore. He has co-authored two local church histories with Michael Haykin and contributed articles to numerous scholarly journals. Ian lives in Toronto with his wife and two children.