Richard Baxter

The Gospel Truth

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Alan C. Clifford
  • Charenton Reformed Publishing
    , November
     2016.
     460 pages.
     $25.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780992946531.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Richard Baxter: The Gospel Truth, Alan Clifford takes the reader into the intense debate amongst Reformed scholars on soteriology in general, and the extent of the atonement in particular. In this study of historical theology, Clifford deploys important theologians, notably but not exclusively Richard Baxter, in an attempt to vindicate his position of Amyraldism, also known as hypothetical universalism. Hence, the reader should not be misled by the title: this book is not a biography of Richard Baxter.

Following his preface, Clifford begins by quoting from Baxter’s first book, Aphorismes of Justification (1649): “The Love of God to the World was the first womb where the work of Redemption was conceived, John 3: 16” (3). Clifford chooses this verse not only because it shows us Baxter’s beautiful way of conveying the Christian faith, but also because this love is “to the World,” a position not shared by adherents of hyper-Calvinism.

This book is an example of using scholarship for advocacy, and at times the “celebratory” tone (8) is hagiographic (28), as Clifford argues that Baxter, not John Owen, was “the Calvin of England” (99). Clifford contends that Calvin did not teach limited atonement and that Owen’s doctrine of limited atonement is a wide departure from the teachings of Geneva’s most famous reformer. Instead, he sees Baxter as Calvin’s theological heir who plotted a via media between Arminianism and “Owenism” (98). In this sense, Clifford attempts to reopen the “Calvin versus the Calvinist” debate brought to the fore in R.T. Kendall’s monograph Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649 (Oxford University Press, 1979).

Clifford continues with a short biography of Baxter, “the Apostle of Kidderminster” (58), followed by “an extensive theological vindication of Baxter” (29). Clifford then analyzes the reception history of Baxter as the author looks at Baxter’s positive reception by Matthew Sylvester (1636-1708), William Bates (1625-1699), and Edmund Calamy (1671-1732). Clifford’s chapter on “Calamy on Baxter” is strong as he weaves Baxter’s life and doctrine into the life and doctrine of Calamy in a narrative that brings out the personal side of Baxter. Clifford then engages with those historians and theologians who are less sympathetic to Baxter’s theology, such as J.I. Packer, Iain Murray, and Geoffrey Nuttall. The book contains eighteen illustrations and Clifford also inserts two prints of Baxter’s works: Making Light of Christ and Salvation (1691) and The Grand Question Resolved (1692). At the end of the book reprints of Clifford’s papers and book reviews are attached. One problem in simply collating different articles in this way, however, is that the book has plenty of repetition, which sometimes is word for word. For example, Clifford repeats verbatim a very lengthy biography of Calamy (61-66, 294-299) and also material on Baxter’s view of the atonement (117-120, 401-405). Hence the book does not flow well. Overall, the book is long but this is in part because of the very long citations of Baxter that Clifford gives, often running to over a page. In this way, Richard Baxter: The Gospel Truth also acts as something of a sourcebook that brings together key Baxter texts on soteriology.

By choosing a theme that he wants to defend, Amyraldianism, and then going through the sources seeking to defend it, Clifford certainly sets himself up for rebuttal by his theological opponents. For example, in his article on “John Calvin & John Wesley,” he writes, “Notwithstanding Wesley’s standard Arminian response to Calvinism, none can doubt the Calvinistic elements in his thought” (344). Clifford does go on to explain Wesley’s soteriology in a way that nuances this claim, but his methodological approach, namely that Amyraldianism is true and great Christians of the past have believed in it, opens the door for a cherry-picking of the sources. Clifford concludes: “The inescapable conclusion is obvious, that regarding the doctrines of the atonement and justification, Arminian Wesley is the Calvinist!” (344). However, the way in which John Wesley admired the Puritan Arminian John Goodwin and reprinted some of his works shows us that Wesley was far from a Calvinist.

This attempt to appropriate respected Christians to the Amyraldian cause continues throughout the book. Clifford calls J.C. Ryle an “Amyraldian” and in support of this references one of his own writings (378). He also refers to the “‘proto-Amyraldian’ Augustine” and the “‘quasi-Amyraldian’ Jonathan Edwards” (394). Again, the problem is that these theological giants never claimed to be Amyraldians.

Clifford sometimes slips into arguments that are ad hominem rather than detached. For example, he expresses criticisms of G.F. Nuttall’s biography on Baxter (Richard Baxter, Thomas Nelson, 1965) as not engaging enough with Baxter’s theology (101). Clifford makes this valid point clearly and substantiates his claim but then proceeds to state that “when Dr Nuttall does drift into theological matters, one detects a liberal ecumenical agenda at work” (101). This is surely an irrelevant point in a scholarly book. Having read and appreciated Nuttall’s work on the history of congregationalism during the seventeenth century, which after all is historical rather than theological, I dispute this personal attack on Nuttall as inappropriate and inaccurate.

The book’s polemical tone is particularly strong in the first two chapters and the final chapter. Indeed, in the final line of the book Clifford cites the “arrogance and ignorance” of those who deny his distinction between the teachings of Calvin and the later Calvinists and he finishes by naming Iain Murray amongst the “pseudo-Calvinists” (422). Overall, there is a lexical misunderstanding in this debate as what Murray and Clifford define as “Calvinism” obviously differs substantially. Hence the book ends with division within the Reformed camp on this issue as strong as ever.

In conclusion, this book, which takes the reader from Geneva to Kidderminster and then to Saumur, is, according to Clifford, a sustained attempt to “help restore ‘compassionate Calvinism’ to the Church of the twenty-first century” (248). Clifford does this by raising up Baxter’s soteriology and critiquing that of Owen. Depending on one’s prior theological convictions, one will either love or hate this book, but I can assure you that no reader will come away feeling indifferent.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lawrence Rabone is a doctoral student in Jewish/Christian Studies at the University of Manchester.

Date of Review: 
December 30, 2019

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