In the midst of her controversy with the London pastor William Huntington over the gospel and the law, the Particular Baptist authoress and hymn writer Maria de Fleury made a telling point.
She rightly noted: ‘Angry passions and bitter words ought never to be brought into the field of religious controversy; they can neither ornament nor discover truth, but they can grieve and quench that Holy Spirit, in whose light alone we can see light, and without whose divine illuminations, we shall walk in darkness.’
This consciousness of the danger of controversy – the way that it engendered ‘angry passions’ harmful to the soul and fed into ‘bitter words’ that made deep emotional wounds and gashes in the souls of others – was a consistent theme in the best evangelical writers of the 18th century. One only has to read the writings of men like Jonathan Edwards, the American Congregationalist divine who once rebuked the great evangelist George Whitefield for unwise public comments about those who disagreed with the Great Awakening, as well as the Anglican John Newton, and his protégé, the Particular Baptist John Ryland, to see this. It was a long-held maxim of Ryland, for instance, ‘never to dispute with the infallible’, a reference to men who prided themselves on never having changed their minds on non-essential issues and who were utterly resistant to persuasion.
These men, and a host of other godly men and women of that era, knew the dangers of theological controversy, though there were some people who, by their public speech, seemed to live for a theological brouhaha. But Edwards, Newton and Ryland insisted that such men by such delight revealed that they were not men of the Spirit. Some of those who gloried in controversy came to deeply regret what they had done (e.g. James Davenport, and Gilbert Tennent – ‘the son of thunder’, as he was known to some), while others never learnt that such delight is not the way of the Holy Spirit (e.g. William Huntington, and Andrew Croswell – a Congregationalist minister from Connecticut, who has been well described as ‘implacable and choleric’).
A ‘lamblike, dovelike spirit’
Here is Jonathan Edwards – by common consensus, one of the pre-eminent guides to evangelical piety – speaking about this danger in his classic work The Religious Affections, in which he delineates 12 marks, or signs, of true spirituality. This is his eighth sign: where there has been a genuine conversion, Edwards notes, it is accompanied by a Christ-like character, ‘the lamblike, dovelike spirit and temper of Jesus Christ’. This does not mean that boldness for Christ or Christian zeal are wrong per se, and that Christian spirituality must perforce be wimpish. Edwards, though, is concerned that sometimes a ‘boldness for Christ … arises from no better principle than pride’ and that zeal for Christ can be marked by ‘bitterness against the persons of men’. He had seen this failing first-hand in public comments that Davenport, Croswell, and even Whitefield, had made in their sermons about opponents of the Great Awakening. Christian boldness and zeal are ‘indeed a flame, but a sweet one’.
He instances Christ in His fiercest battle against the forces of darkness, namely at the cross and in the events leading up to it. What temper marked Him then, he asks. His holy boldness and valour were not shown in ‘fierce and violent speeches’, displaying ‘sharp and bitter passions’. On the contrary, there was an ‘all-conquering patience’, love and prayer for His enemies: ‘never did He appear so much a Lamb, and never did He show so much of the dovelike spirit, as at that time’.
A modern application
Are not these words of Edwards – and those of other 18th-century figures, like Maria de Fluery – an outworking of the vital advice of Paul to Timothy: ‘…the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.’ (2 Tim. 2:24– 25a)?
Michael Haykin is Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.