The Doctrines of Grace in an Unexpected Place: Calvinistic Soteriology in Nineteenth-Century Brethren Thought. By Mark R. Stevenson. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2017. 320 pp. Paper, $37.00.
This book explores the presence of Calvinistic soteriology among the Plymouth Brethren. JOTGES readers will be especially interested in Chap. 7, “‘What Must I Do to be Saved?’: Brethren Perspectives on Saving Faith, Repentance, and Assurance.” People often ask about the
historical roots of Free Grace Theology. Although that is not the subject of Stevenson’s book, he nevertheless does an excellent job of summarizing the answer.
The chapter begins by tracing the history of some Calvinist theologians in Scotland who held to the idea that saving faith means simply believing that God’s promises are true and that assurance is the essence of such faith. These figures included the Marrow men, John Glas, Robert Sandeman, John McLeod Campbell, and Thomas Erskine. This view of faith came to be known as Sandemanianism, and it caused a great deal of controversy among Calvinists, especially those of Puritan convictions. Stevenson defines the Sandemanian movement this way: “it is most remembered for its intellectualist view of faith. Accordingly, saving faith consists solely in mental assent to the facts of the gospel; neither the will nor the affections play any role. As Andrew Fuller summarized, Sandemanian faith consists of ‘the bare belief of the bare truth’” (p. 210).
Next, Stevenson seeks to determine whether or not the Plymouth Brethren were Sandemanian in their view of faith. His discussion in the rest of the chapter shows three things.
First, Stevenson demonstrates that the Plymouth Brethren were commonly thought to teach a Sandemanian view of faith. Critics were especially alarmed that Brethren evangelists rejected the necessity of repentance to be born again.
Second, Stevenson shows this criticism was mostly unwarranted. The best known Plymouth Brethren writers—men like Darby, Macintosh, and Kelly—explicitly rejected the Sandemanian view of faith. “Darby rejected Sandemanianism by name” (p. 223). He quotes Darby as saying, “If there is merely a mental conclusion…or assent to a proposition, it is worthless” (p. 223). He quotes C. E. Stuart as arguing, “At all times after the fall, and under all dispensations, repentance on the part of fallen man was needful” (p. 230). For William Kelly, “there is no true faith without repentance. Faith (so-called) without self-judgment is nothing more than the mere assent of the natural mind, not a Spiritformed faith in the heart” (p. 232). According to F. W. Grant, “We all believe that a fruitless faith is no faith” (p. 236). And one James Campbell even went so far as to make this complaint: “But there is a more dangerous thing still—we read John 3:16 and make them believe because they believe it they are saved” (p. 238). These quotes will come as a shock to many readers of this journal who may have assumed the Brethren were essentially Free Grace in their understanding of the one condition of eternal salvation.
Third, Stevenson shows the critics were not wholly mistaken, that some Brethren were Sandemanian. These were mostly minor figures and popular evangelists. For example, Alexander Marshall—an Arminian Plymouth Brethren—seems to have been one. Here is a good quote from him: “Men may speak about a ‘living faith’ and a ‘dead faith,’ and a ‘saving faith’ and an ‘intellectual faith,’ but Scripture speaks of believing what God says. Faith in man and faith in God are the same exercises of mind; the difference is not in the faith, but in the person on whom the faith terminates” (pp. 241-42).
Here is Stevenson’s summary of his findings: “while some Brethren—particularly (some) evangelists influenced by revivals and zealous for conversions—advanced something akin to Sandemanian faith and repentance, many of the most respected Brethren teachers (and some important evangelists too) strongly rejected that position” (p. 243).
This book is important for the Free Grace movement because it provides a wealth of footnotes for further research and effectively challenges the assumption that the majority of Plymouth Brethren were implicitly Free Grace. While it is not the final word on this subject, it raises important questions and is an important resource for further research. Recommended.
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society