Appeal for Help

The Presbyterians and the Congregationalists had an extremely difficult time working through their theological differences in the 1690s (see parts 1, 2, 3, 4). There are a number of reasons for this, some of which we have already considered, but one was that they approached the issues from opposite perspectives. Our theological views, or at least our theological emphases and expressions, are in part shaped and informed by our understanding of the times in which we live. What we see as threatening problems in the church will influence, not only what we believe, but how and how often we articulate our beliefs. The reverse is true as well. Our theological opinions and proclivities will affect our vision of the major problems plaguing the church. The opposing perspectives of the two parties of this old controversy impaired their view of each other, making it nearly impossible to work out their differences.
The chief problem that Daniel Williams saw in his own circles was that of Antinomianism. He believed that this was a serious theological error and that it was making inroads among the Dissenters including a number of ministers. As a pastor he was more concerned for the laypeople than the ministers who advocated this error because the latter “have Grace to preserve their Minds and Practices,” but the former had “no such Antidote.” As a churchman, Williams was grieved by the schism created by Antinomianism. He reported that “faithful Ministers [like William Bates and even the Congregationalist Matthew Mead] were deserted as Legalists, Churches divided, and Town and Country filled with Debates and Noise.” Furthermore, he was anxious to protect the reputation of the Dissenters. Antinomianism in those days was tied, rightly or wrongly, to moral and social chaos. In order to protect their present liberty and to maintain the slight hope of rejoining the Church of England, Williams wanted to make it crystal clear that he and his colleagues had nothing to do with Antinomianism. For a host of reasons, then, Williams strongly believed that it was necessary to go after Antinomianism and go after it with vigor. Consequently, his formulations of various doctrines were designed to counter this error.
Robert Traill, on the other hand, saw things quite differently. He didn’t think Antinomianism was on the rise at all. After scouring the scene, he confidently declared that he didn’t know “any one Antinomian minister or Christian in London.” In fact, he believed that the far more common danger is and always will be Arminianism because it is “far more natural to all men.” He acknowledged that some people in the past had been seduced by Antinomianism and maybe some in his own day, but he believed that this error “is but a meteor or comet, that will soon blaze out, and its folly will be quickly hissed off the stage.” The real danger that the church always needs to be on the lookout for is Arminianism, and Traill saw the Presbyterians as the purveyors of it in his own day. As a pastor, he was deeply concerned to defend the gospel and to protect laypeople from a corrupt gospel. In addition, he believed that the Presbyterians were creating trouble with their treatment of the Congregationalists. For similar reasons as Williams, then, Traill believed it was necessary to go on the offensive against the Arminian doctrine of the Presbyterians. Also, as was the case with Williams and Antinomianism, Traill’s formulations of various doctrines reflected his singular focus against Arminianism.
Opposites, in this case, didn’t attract. Anti-Arminian doctrine looked suspiciously like Antinomian doctrine to an Anti-Antinomian such as Williams; while Anti-Antinomian doctrine looked like Arminian/Neonomian doctrine to an Anti-Arminian such as Traill. Thus, when they looked at each other they didn’t see a mistaken view that should co-exist within a broad Reformed family; they saw a dangerous error afflicting a vulnerable church that needed to be eradicated at all costs.
What do you do in such a volatile situation? It is important for us to know because modern day theological controversies exhibit sometimes the same polarizing characteristics. Indeed, with a few minor tweaks I could have been describing a recent controversy. Although the Presbyterians and Congregationalists were ultimately unsuccessful in reuniting for a host of reasons, there is wisdom in some of the things they tried to do to heal the division. Our goal is to consider three of them but only one in this article as we bring it to a close.
One thing to do is to appeal for outside help. When two sides continue to see the situation from conflicting perspectives without any resolution it is time to look for an outside opinion by someone who is competent and impartial. That is exactly what at least some of the ministers involved did as they looked across the channel to someone who had lived among them in London for a time. That someone was the celebrated Dutch theologian Herman Witsius. Witisus accepted the invitation to help and produced a response in 1696 in the form of a book. Originally written in Latin, it was translated into English by the Scottish minister Thomas Bell and published in 1807 under the title: Conciliatory, or Irenical Animadversions on the Controversies Agitated in Britain, under the unhappy names of Antinomians and Neonomians. If readers are interested in Witsius’ contribution to this old debate, including his advice for both parties, they may read his book online or my journal article on the subject.
Patrick Ramsey