The Marrow Controversy and Seceder Tradition

Article by   October 2012
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William VanDoodewaard, The Marrow Controversy and Seceder Tradition: Atonement, Saving Faith, and The Gospel Offer in Scotland (1718-1799), Reformation Heritage Books, 2011

This study in the Marrow Controversy of the eighteenth century is a welcome addition to the series of Reformed Historical-Theological Studies from Reformation Heritage Books. It represents the doctoral research of the current associate professor of church history at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids. Professor VanDoodewaard is a minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, whose roots lie in part in the controversy which he so ably describes and assesses in these pages.

VanDoodewaard's work is in two parts. The first examines the era of the Marrow Controversy itself, introducing us to the work from which the Scottish doctrinal war of words took its name, The Marrow of Modern Divinity. The vexed question of the authorship of the book which Thomas Boston so warmly recommended, thereby sparking off the debate on the nature of the gospel, is ably discussed, and anyone unfamiliar with the contours of the dispute will have clear orientation here. 

Thereafter VanDoodewaard examines the controversy which ensued in a pamphlet warfare and in General Assembly discussions. Chapter two highlights the three contentious issues raised in the controversy: the nature of the atonement, of saving faith, and of the gospel offer. VanDoodewaard then introduces readers to the opponents of the Marrow (James Hadow, Thomas Blackwell and John Willison). Chapter three examines the position of its defenders James Hog, Thomas Boston and Robert Riccaltoun, representatives of the 'Marrow men' (or 'Marrow brethren', as the author prefers). 

These historical descriptions are thorough and rewarding. But the chapter of conclusions of this first part of the work is equally penetrating, not least VanDoodewaard's observation that 'Sometimes individuals on opposing sides of the Marrow controversy had more in common with one another than with those on their own side' (104). This is a salutary reminder that no ecclesiastical division or theological debate is represented clinically or tidily. 

Notwithstanding this, VanDoodewaard concludes that the Marrow men were uniform 'in holding to particular redemption and penal substitution' as well as denying universalism (104-5). The issues of faith as a condition of the covenant of grace and the relationship of faith to assurance were also critical to the debate, and the author shows the care which the Marrow men took to nuance these concepts. 

But it is in the area of the gospel offer that the Marrow controversy, it seems to me, came into its own. While upholding particular redemption, the Marrow men were impassioned in their free and unfettered gospel offer to all. VanDoodewaard's careful analysis of the controversy shows that any tendency to universalise Christ's redemption or to conditionalise God's covenant of grace logically leads to a truncated and compromised position on the free offer of salvation. 

The Marrow controversy in itself would have been interesting; but its repercussions are not less so. In the second part of the book, VanDoodewaard goes on to examine the way in which views and ideas which were thrown up in the debate reverberated throughout the Church of Scotland after the watershed Assembly of 1720, and led to the formation of the Associate Presbytery (1733-47) and the Associate Synod (1747-99) thereafter. This part is a tour de force of historical investigation into eighteenth century Scottish Church history, examining historiographical continuities with the Marrow controversy as well as evidences in church publications afterwards which demonstrate a continuity of Marrow doctrine in Scotland. 

This naturally leads to a discussion of the position of the Erskine brothers; Ebeneezer Erskine is described by VanDoodewaard as 'the father of the Secession' (148). Connections between the Secession theology and the Cambuslang Revival (associated with the itinerant ministry of George Whitefield) are carefully assessed in chapter 8, and the main names connected with the formation of the Associate Synod in chapters 9 and 10. 

VanDoodewaard concludes not only that the Marrow doctrine was sustained in the Associate Synod, but that it was disseminated as a result of 'migration, colonialism and missionary endeavour' (273). In fact, he suggests that 'both the Scottish context and the global diffusion of Marrow theology indicate that Marrow theology may have a greater significance in Scottish church history and the history of Reformed thought than has been assumed previously' (274). 

The publication of The Marrow Controversy and Seceder Tradition is not only welcome as an important piece of research into Scottish church history; it also raises issues that are perennial sources of debate wherever the gospel is preached. For whom did Christ die? What is the nature of faith? How is the gospel to be preached? These are questions of eternal moment. In drawing our attention to the way in which eighteenth century Scottish Presbyterianism became an arena of debate over these questions, Professor VanDoodewaard has reminded us of how much hangs on answering them biblically. 

Above all, he reminds us that there is no discrepancy between a biblical view of definite atonement and an impassioned evangelism that offers Christ freely to all. If this book convinces us Calvinists of the necessity of impassioned evangelistic preaching, it will have served its purpose in showing that history is full of practical wisdom. 

A native of Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis, Iain D Campbell has been called to minister in the Free Church of Scotland on his native island. He is the author of numerous books, including The Gospel According to Ruth and Heroes and Heretics.


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