History of the English Calvinistic Baptists, 1771-1892

Tom J. Nettles

Entering deeply into the documents of the history as well as the theology of the period, Oliver contributed to a profound and comprehensively integrated vision of Baptist identity. He engaged the historical documents critically and defended his judgment that some viewpoints transgressed the parameters of historic Baptist theology and others accelerated their demise.

He showed the place that historic orthodoxy has had in Baptist confessional life and how neglect of serious engagement with orthodoxy led to errors that stained Baptist development. Discussions of the Trinity, the eternal sonship of Christ, pre-existarianism (the pre-existence of Christ's human nature), and the idea of eternal generation are all considered from the sources. Oliver sees historic orthodoxy as endemic to a balanced and faithful Baptist presence and witness. (216, 217)

Issues of evangelicalism are discussed mainly within the context of the hyper-Calvinist/evangelical-Calvinist conflict that endured throughout, and beyond, the time period covered. With some caveats Oliver defended the stream of thought that gave theological rationale for the full and free proclamation of the gospel and a general issue of its invitations to all people as fully consistent with the particular purposes of God in salvation according to sovereign grace. (See particularly the chapter on Spurgeon, 337-356). The long and respectable history of this viewpoint finds expression in the Second London Confession (1689), Andrew Fuller, and Charles Spurgeon. Oliver viewed this as most consistent with the historic Baptist view of the gospel, the believers' church, Christian discipleship, and the issue of law-and-gospel.

Ecclesiology enters profoundly into the conflict between the open-communion and closed- or strict-communion Baptists. The connection of church discipline to baptism and communion provided the larger context for this intense dialogue in Baptist history. Its earliest expression developed in the conflict between John Bunyan and William Kiffin, but, given his chronological limitations, Oliver unpacked these issues in the writings of Robert Hall, Jr., and Joseph Kinghorn. (231-259)

Confessional theology provides the underlying theme in all these discussions. Oliver's dominant thesis is that departure from the biblically sound, comprehensively-expressed doctrinal stance of the Second London Confession explains many of the doctrinal idiosyncrasies and hurtful variations that occurred throughout the nineteenth century. For example, Oliver opines, "It is to be regretted that Hyper-Calvinistic logic in this area was applied to this subject without any serious consideration of the teaching of early Particular Baptists. This is further evidence that many were no longer seriously considering the Confession of Faith." In addition he observes concerning the relentless theological decline of the nineteenth century, "In all of the attempts to promote union among the churches from the 1830s onwards, no attempt was made to bring the churches back to the original basis of Particular Baptist unity as expressed in the 1689 Confession of Faith. The various discussions took place as though that Confession had never existed" (336) The prescriptive and guiding use of a confession, in other words, does not hinder a true exhibition of Baptist identity, but helps protect and even constitutes a vital part of Baptist identity.

Robert Oliver / Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2006
Review by Tom J. Nettles, Professor of Historical Theology, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY