Calvin and Scottish Theology: The Doctrine of Assurance. By M. Charles Bell. 33 Montgomery Street, Edinburgh: The Handsel Press, 1985. 211 pp. Cloth, no price.
Few recent books are more significant for the doctrine of salvation than this one. The author is currently a Presbyterian minister in California and this volume is a revision of his doctoral dissertation done at the University of Aberdeen in 1982. It is a worthy follow-up to R. T. Kendall’s invaluable work, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649 (Oxford, 1979), which in turn was based on Kendall’s own D. Phil. thesis at Oxford.
The author’s basic contention is of the highest interest to all members and friends of the Grace Evangelical Society. Bell’s own statement of this deserves quotation:
The major thesis of this study is that, whereas Calvin taught that faith is fundamentally passive in nature, is centered in the mind or understanding, is primarily to be viewed in terms of certain knowledge, such that assurance of salvation is of the essence of faith, and is grounded extra nos, that is, outside ourselves in the person and work of Jesus Christ, Scottish theology, on the other hand, gradually came to teach that faith is primarily active, centered in the will or heart, and that assurance is not of the essence of faith, but is a fruit of faith, and is to be gathered through self-examination and syllogistic deduction, thereby placing the grounds of assurance intra nos, within ourselves (p. 8).
From this, of course, it is clear that Bell aligns himself unmistakably with Kendall. The same defection from John Calvin’s doctrine of faith and assurance which Kendall so effectively documented for English Calvinism is to be found as well, Bell affirms, in the Federal theology of Scotland.
Indeed, in his first chapter Bell defends the conclusion reached by Kendall that the doctrine of universal atonement was fundamental to Calvin’s doctrine of faith and assurance. He refutes the critiques of Kendall’s position that have been offered by R. W A. Letham, A. N. S. Lane, and Paul Helm. Bell concludes that Kendall is right in his contention that, if Christ died only for the elect, one is ultimately left without assurance of salvation.
Of special interest to readers of this journal is the brief section (pp. 28–29) in which Bell discusses the place of works in Calvin’s doctrine of assurance. Noteworthy is Bell’s assertion (furnished with documentation from Calvin himself) that, “Calvin emphatically warns against looking to ourselves, that is, to our works or the fruit of the Spirit, for certainty of our salvation” (p. 28). Nevertheless, Bell is not wholly without criticism of some facets of Calvin’s theology (e.g., double predestination: see p. 32). But by and large he stands firmly with Calvin’s view of faith and assurance. Chapters 2 through 5 trace the loss of Calvin’s view within Scottish Calvinism, while chapter 6 affirms that, in the Westminster Confession, “we have the codification of the same teaching on faith and assurance which we find in Scottish Federal theology” (pp. 127–28). Like Kendall before him, Bell concludes that the Westminster documents enshrine a view to which John Calvin himself would not have subscribed!
The final three chapters in Bell’s work are a survey of the tensions and controversies within Scottish theology as some reacted against the stultifying effect of Federal theology’s doctrine of saving faith. For Bell, the most impressive figure was John McLeod Campbell (chap. 9) who was able to escape the constrictions of Federalist thought and fundamentally to return to Calvin’s view of the atonement and assurance. His reward for this, however, was condemnation by the General Assembly in 1831 and deposition from the ministry.
But Bell has written something quite a bit more than a mere historical survey. As he puts it in his conclusion, “The problems dealt ‘with in this study are problems which continue to confront us” (p. 200). And so they do! In fact, it is for that very reason that no one truly interested in the contemporary controversy over the Gospel can afford not to read this book. It will not only give him historical perspective on the modern debate, but it will galvanize him with the realization that the biblical insights of the great Reformers, like John Calvin, must be grasped afresh in every generation. And when grasped, they must also be proclaimed!
Zane C. Hodges
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society