The Marrow Controversy sprang up as wild fire in the Scottish Presbyterian Church in 1718 through the re-publishing of a book called “The Marrow of Modern Divinity.” It was originally published in England in 1646, and was written (most probably) by a Gloucestershire scholar and gentleman called Edward Fisher. The book was really a compilation of Reformed writing including extracts from Luther, Calvin, and English Puritans, along with the author’s interpretation and development of them in dialogue form. But so dangerous and divisive did the Church of Scotland consider this book that the General Assembly decided to condemn and ultimately ban it in 1720. However, the teaching was already out, and twelve ministers petitioned the Assembly to remove its condemnation. They were known as the “Marrow Men.”
In the Black Act of 1720, the Assembly levelled five charges against the Marrow with regard to doctrine which they believed to be clearly contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures and the Westminster Confession of Faith. The main points the Assembly faulted the Marrow for teaching include the following: that assurance of salvation is of the essence of faith, that the atonement is universal or unlimited, that holiness is not necessary for salvation, and that believers are not under the law as a rule of life. While all of these charges are most serious, and some of them of a fairly technical theological nature, only the second point is directly relevant to this historical examination. And so, the issue of the extent of the atonement and its relation to the gospel call, which is of most interest to us, will alone be developed more fully.
So what exactly did the “Marrow Men” believe concerning these matters? Well, there are many phrases in the Marrow which a Reformed believer would find obscure and puzzling, if not downright heretical. For instance, the Marrow teaches, among other things, that Christ has somehow “taken upon him the sins of all men,” and that every individual who hears the gospel has the right to say that “whatsoever Christ did for the redemption of mankind, He did it for me.” But the most notorious and infamous statement in the Marrow is the claim that “God made a deed of gift and grant of Christ to all men.”
To put it simply, while they held to a particular purchase of redemption for the elect out of God’s special “electing love,” they also held to a universal ‘giving love’ of God to all, and by this a general reference of the atonement. They said that, while Christ did not die for all, that is, to save all, yet He is available for all, was dead for all, if they would but receive Him. In other words, Christ died to remove the legal obstacles in the way of salvation for all mankind by making a perfect satisfaction for sins. As such, every man has a natural right to claim this pardon on condition of faith, and this is the basis for the universal offer of salvation.
And what, then, is to be our response to this teaching? Will we, along with Louis Berkhoff, accuse the “Marrow Men” of being guilty of nothing more than using “dubious language” in their “desire to establish firmly the warrant of the universal offer of salvation?”1 When considering this matter, we would do well to listen to the words of a Scottish minister who lived a century after the Marrow Controversy, but who found himself still fighting its erroneous teachings. His name was Dr. John Kennedy, and he was better placed than anyone else accurately to analyze the teachings of the Marrow. Dr. Kennedy was one of the few men in the British Isles to stand against the revivalism of D.L. Moody (which, by the way, he referred to as “hyper-evangelism: another gospel”), and was accused by many of his contemporaries of not preaching the free offer of the gospel. On this latter point, at least, his short-sighted critics were correct! He said:
“I believe that, in the Marrow definition of faith, there was the germ of all the errors which have been developed into (modern) Amyraldianism…. That definition implied that the sinner, before believing, has a certain right of property in the Gospel salvation, because of “a deed of gift and grant” from God. This mistaken idea…has carried them to the universal reference of the atonement, and to their dreamings of universal grace.2”
Here, in conclusion, lies the heart of the matter. The “Marrow Men” were guilty of the heresy of Amyraldianism. This has sometimes been called “Universalistic Calvinism,” but this is a clear contradiction, as true Calvinism, almost by definition emphasizes the particular over the universal. It has also been referred to as ‘Four Point Calvinism.’ This, too, is inaccurate, because, as we have already seen, there is much more at stake here than a simple denial of the ‘L’ in TULIP (limited atonement). All those modern Presbyterian believers and theologians who favour the “Marrow Men” would do well to remember this, and that the Spirit of truth, who was given by Christ to His Church to guide it into all truth, directed His Church to reject the teaching of the Marrow as false, all those years ago.
l The History of Christian Doctrine, p. 193.
2 Union and Unionism, p. 22.
Allen is from N. Ireland and currently attends our mission services there at the Covenant Reformed Fellowship.