A Hot Pepper Corn
The theology of Richard Baxter has an intriguing complexity to it. Baxter has been described by his opponents as a Calvinist, an Amyraldian, an Arminian, a Roman Catholic and even as a Socinian. As a result many have simply resorted to the term "Baxterian" in an attempt to label his theology.
In his book, A Hot Pepper Corn, Hans Boersma seeks to examine a Baxterian view of justification. The content of the book is presented from the angle of analyzing justification through the lens of various controversies. The author focuses on justification specifically because Baxter was embroiled in controversy concerning it for over forty years. The picture of Baxter portrayed is one of a skilled disputant who was often able to turn arguments around on his opponents. Viewing justification through the lens of controversy maybe particularly helpful to some with regard to the recent controversies surrounding the New Perspective(s) and the nature justification. This angle of presentation provides one with a historic vantage point from which one may discern how the nature of justification was debated in the seventeenth century. The Christian faith is a historic faith and we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past if we do not strive to learn from them.
The author's main thesis is that Baxter's twofold view of God's will is the key to unlocking his theological system. Baxter distinguishes between God's legislative will (de debito) and his will de rerum eventu (regarding the actual outcome of events) (p. 23). Boersma suggests that it is within this bifocal framework that Baxter expounds the doctrine of justification.
For those interested further in the content of the book a brief summary of each chapter is provided.
Boersma begins his treatment with an analysis of secondary literature to highlight the state of research up to the present day. A historical introduction follows providing a biography of Baxter and introducing some of the figures with whom he debated and disputed.
Justification before Faith
Boersma suggests that one of Baxter's main concerns was Antinomianism. Baxter, he states, sees two pillars to the Antinomian structure: firstly, the theory of justification from eternity; secondly, the denial of the conditionality of the covenant of grace. For Baxter any attempt to place justification before faith in the ordo salutis opens up the door to antinomianism.
Boersma notes that Baxter repeatedly criticizes the views of William Pemble and William Twisse, with regard to justification from eternity, and therefore he gives an extended discussion of their ideas. Pemble apparently held to a twofold view of justification: justification in God's sight (in foro divino) and justification in ones conscience (in foro conscientiae). In one sense then actual justification is before faith but it is only revealed to the conscience of the elect after faith. With regard to Twisse, Boersma understands him to have held to a twofold view of God's will: decreed and revealed. This allowed Twisse to hold to a view of both justification before faith and conditional pardon.
Boersma's main thesis is that Baxter actually adopted Twisse's bifurcation of God's will into his own theology. However, with regard to justification, it lies at the basis of his opposition to an ordo salutis that places justification before faith. Baxter therefore uses Twisse's theology to argue against him.
In order to present a clearer picture, Boersma highlights the views of some of Baxter's opponents including the likes of John Owen, William Eyre, and John Crandon. In doing so he highlights the various nuances in High Calvinistic thought, while recognizing that Baxter treats his opponents as if they represent essentially the same viewpoint, namely, holding to justification before faith, in some form, stemming from eternity. Boersma concludes that in the views expounded by Baxter's opponents faith is consistently depreciated. They regarded faith not as a condition, because then one would be justified by works, but rather as the instrument by which we receive Christ. For Baxter this reeks of antinomianism and therefore he argues faith must precede justification.
Faith and Justification
With regard to faith Boersma depicts how Baxter differentiates between natural faith and moral faith. It is possible for an unbeliever to have natural faith but this act of faith has no moral quality because the motives are false. Baxter saw the natural act of faith as a preparatory step to the supernatural moral act of faith.
Boersma gives the key for Baxter, with regard to the nature of faith, as the prevalency of the interest in Christ. Saving faith is one by which ones main bent is toward Christ. Boersma argues that Baxter believed there are only, materially, varying degrees of faith. Formally however there is a specific difference. As the degree of natural faith increases there is a point at which one may be said to be a sincere believer. At that point one has fulfilled the condition of the covenant of grace. For Baxter then God does not demand perfect conformity to fulfill the condition. Sincerity marks the difference between common and saving grace. However, Boersma further points out that Baxter does not believe that sincerity is the only requirement of the law. The duty or requirement, which is perfection, extends beyond the condition of sincerity. Sincerity for Baxter is perfect evangelical personal righteousness. Evangelical righteousness is perfect even though the duty is unfulfilled because the condition of sincerity has been met. Assurance then is gleaned from anything that functions as a mark of sincerity. Only if an interest in Christ prevails in a given duty may one be sure that he has a mark of sincerity. Personal evangelical righteousness is the "hot pepper corn" that Baxter's opponents saw as justification by works.
Boersma suggests that Baxter feels strongly about the need to prepare for special grace. He who is nearer to Christ is more disposed to come to him by faith. Baxter then gives a prominent place to the means and secondary causes through which God works. For Boersma, Baxter thought that God gives strong encouragements to seek his grace and that therefore he will not deny men the blessing should they use the means well. Boersma concludes that Baxter comes close to asserting a promise of special grace upon the use of common grace but he stresses that while God generally uses means he is not bound by them.
Boersma asserts Baxter's view on the instrumentality of faith in justification as the hinge on which the role of faith and works in justification stands or falls. In the author's presentation the majority of Baxter's opponents rejected faith as an instrument of active justification but not as an instrument of passive justification in one's conscience. Baxter is convinced however that faith is active in its reception of Christ. Boersma posits that he is afraid of calling God the author of sin because if faith is solely passive in its reception then a person cannot be blamed for his unbelief. Baxter will therefore distinguish between an active reception, which is the fulfillment of the condition of the covenant, and a proper passive reception of actual justification.
Here again Boersma sees Baxter's reliance on the twofold view of God's will. In this case his bifocal view distinguishes between the conditional (revealed) and actual grant of justification (decreed). Faith actively fulfills the condition and gives one a right to Christ. Boersma concludes therefore that strictly speaking Baxter views the covenant as the instrument of justification not faith. After the condition is fulfilled the covenant justifies, as justification is made actual.
Atonement and Justification
With regard to Baxter's theory of universal redemption Boersma presents an analysis and comparison with the views of John Owen. His purpose is to highlight the different pattern of theological thinking between the two, which results in the divergent views regarding the extent of the atonement.
Owen's approach is presented as being determined by a "one-end teleology", namely, the glory of God. Thus even man's salvation must be subservient to this end. Owen argues from the eternal covenant of redemption between Father and Son while Baxter places his emphasis on the conditionality of the new covenant between God and man. Baxter regards the covenant of redemption as nothing more than a decree or prophecy. The result, according to Boersma, is two different types of federal theology. Baxter's view removes the covenant in which the sacrifice of Christ was exchanged for the salvation of the elect. Boersma states that this allows him to broaden the extent of redemption, introduce the conditionality of the covenant and posit a view that denies the strict imputation of Christ's righteousness.
Owen's approach cannot accommodate universal redemption because it would imply that Christ failed in his intention, which was to save the elect. Christ's sacrifice is seen as sufficient for all but is not meant for all. Baxter maintains that if Christ's sacrifice was sufficient price for all then it must necessarily be a price for all; otherwise Christ suffered more than was necessary. Therefore he argues that Christ never intended to save all those for whom he died.
Again Boersma highlights Baxter's bifocal thinking. Baxter distinguishes between the antecedent and consequent will of Christ. In Christ's antecedent will justification is granted equally to all. However according to Christ's consequent will, which includes the condition of belief, justification is only for the elect. In other words prior to the fulfillment of the condition Christ's benefits are available to all. However, taking the condition of the covenant into consideration, Christ died for only those who believe. Boersma believes that this bifurcated view allows Baxter to accept both the conditional and the absolute aspects of salvation.
Baxter is presented as arguing against any theory that allowed for a strict imputation of Christ's righteousness. He refuses to separate the unity of Christ's righteousness into active and passive obedience. Boersma is keen to defend Baxter from charges that he denied the imputation of Christ's righteousness. Baxter, he argues, was not concerned with whether, but how Christ's righteousness was imputed. Boersma posits that Baxter, according to his bifocal view, distinguishes between Adam's federal headship by nature and Christ's by contract. This idea of contract allows, for Baxter, Christ's suffering to have been for all mankind in general. Christ is head for all but not actually a head to all unless they fulfill the condition of belief. Christ's headship however does not dissolve the obligation for man to fulfill the condition. Baxter holds that to strictly impute all our sins to Christ would be to esteem him as the greatest sinner in the world and therefore be blasphemy. Baxter therefore makes a threefold distinction of guilt in order to indicate that Christ did not bear the guilt of the sin himself but only the penalty. If Christ bore our guilt then forgiveness becomes redundant.
Boersma concludes that this all boils down to the fact that for Baxter, Christ's righteousness is the formal cause of his own righteousness as Mediator, not of the righteousness of those who belong to him by faith. In this way Baxter creates room for man's own righteousness in justification.
Works and Justification
In this chapter Boersma looks at the question of the relation between Christ's righteousness and man's righteousness and between faith and works.
The author presents Baxter's view of a twofold righteousness: a legal righteousness and an evangelical righteousness. The former is universal and belongs to Christ while the latter is personal and corresponds to the believer's fulfillment of the condition of the covenant. The latter is the condition to partake in the former. Baxter therefore would disagree that a believer's evangelical righteousness is equivalent to Christ's legal righteousness imputed.
With this twofold righteousness comes a twofold justification. Boersma indicates that Baxter always relates justification to the conditionality of the covenant of grace. One is justified when one fulfills the condition. Again Baxter does not appear to place Christ's legal righteousness and man's evangelical righteousness on the same level. Personal evangelical righteousness is therefore, as indicated earlier, just a "pepper-corn" thereby indicating its subordinate nature. Boersma concludes that Baxter's distinction of the twofold will of God is the framework in which he develops his theory of twofold righteousness.
Furthermore Boersma suggests that Baxter also sees a twofold accusation: sin on the one hand and failure to fulfill the condition on the other. Christ's righteousness must be pleaded against the former and personal evangelical righteousness (the "hot pepper corn") against the latter. For Baxter then, according to the author, one's personal evangelical righteousness justifies in the last judgment but ones initial justification is by faith alone and thus not accompanied by works. Good work follows both faith and initial justification and, for Baxter, is the condition for continued justification.
Baxter's insistence on continued justification leads to problems regarding the perseverance of the saints. If people are only conditionally justified then they may be unjustified for their non-performance of the condition. Boersma suggests that Baxter responds to this dilemma by stressing God's twofold will. According to God's revealed will it is possible to be unjustified however according to his decreed will this will never actually happen.
This book certainly provides one with a comprehensive treatment of the subject at hand. It is very well structured with coherence and continuity throughout. With regard to style the author's repetitive nuanced statements are most welcome and help the reader to grasp key concepts fully. Another positive aspect is how the author traces the impact of individual theologians on Baxter's thinking. Initial data is given in the historical introduction chapter, which highlights the chronological development of Baxter's views, while in subsequent chapters this information is provided in a helpful thematic style.
While this book is a comprehensive study there are still areas for future research, some of which the author himself proposes. This book is a republication of the author's doctoral dissertation and therefore a scholarly work. It is not for the faint hearted. One would even recommend a basic knowledge of Latin to more clearly follow the author's arguments. This book is therefore highly recommended for the student of Baxter, Puritan theology in general or for those interested in a scholarly treatment of the doctrine of justification in its historic seventeenth century context.
By Hans Boersma - Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2003
Review by Tony Layzelle, M.Div. student at Reformed Theological Seminary.