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Archive for the ‘Down-Grade Controversy’ Category

According to Bob L. Ross, Spurgeon blamed the Down Grade on Calvinism, or specifically, the “Hybrid Calvinism” that Ross says is taught by Reformed paedobaptists as well as some “Reformed Baptists” and those who are affiliated with Founders Ministries. As will soon become clear, nothing could be further from the truth, unless by “Hybrid Calvinism” Ross means baptismal regeneration. But since the Down Grade was a significant problem among Baptists and there is no evidence that either Calvinism or “Hybrid Calvinism” were the cause, it would seem obvious that there is another explanation.

In March 1887, two articles on the “Down Grade” appeared in the Sword and the Trowel. This marked the beginning of the famous Down Grade controversy that continued until Spurgeon’s death. The issue contained two articles that were issued anonymously which were authored by Robert Shindler, a Baptist pastor who was an associate of Spurgeon’s. They can be found here and here.

Generally, the articles trace the decline of orthodoxy (i.e. the Down Grade) among the dissenters. Now, as Ross notes, the first article does say that the Presbyterians were the first to “get on the downline”. But one searches it in vain to find “hybrid Calvinism” given as a cause. In the 18th Century the English Presbyterians embarked upon a path toward apostasy. This was hastened by their view that “baptized” children were to be regarded as regenerate* and entitled to participate in the Lord’s Supper so long as they were outwardly moral.  There was also a tendency to pay inordinate attention to “classical attainments” as Shindler notes. However, the Presbyterians decline was also due to their defection from Calvinism that eventually led to them embracing various heretical views, as the same article makes clear. Indeed, that theme is repeated several times in both articles. The reasons for the Presbyterians leading the way on the “downline” were attributable primarily to their ecclesiology and to a lesser extent to cultural factors that had nothing to do with why Baptists and other nonconformists eventually did the same by the 19th Century.

For some reason the following passages from the Sword and Trowel Down Grade issue were ignored in the post “The Ignored Spurgeon”:

“The General [i.e. Arminian] Baptists have yet to be noticed. And here we must draw a line hard and sharp between the Old Connexion and the New Connexion. The latter was formed in 1770, and was the result of the heterodoxy of the former. The Old Connexion generally became Arianized, and, with hardly an exception, followed on “the down grade” to Socinianism. A writer of acknowledged repute, writing at the early part of the present century, makes this rather startling statement:—
“Arminianism among the dissenters has, in general, been a cold, dry, and lifeless system, and its effects upon the heart have been commonly weak and spiritless. With the General Baptists, who avowed it to be their creed, this was remarkably the effect, and their congregations did not increase. Besides, from facts too stubborn to be bent, and too numerous to be contradicted, Arminianism has been among them the common road to Arianism and Socinianism. Their ministers and congregations were the first who openly professed these opinions; and their societies have felt the decay which these opinions have uniformly produced.”

“The writer is of opinion that the great majority of those who are sound in the doctrine of inspiration, are more or less Calvinistic in doctrine”

“Perhaps it cannot be contradicted that, in proportion as any sect recedes from Calvinism, their veneration for the Scriptures is diminished The Bible is the Calvinist’s creed.”

“Arminianism has been among them the common road to Arianism and Socinianism”

The article gives examples from the Presbyterians, Independents and Baptists that suppport the idea that generally moving from Calvinism toward Arminianism is often the first step in the Down Grade that eventually leads to heresy if not outright unbelief.

Now, I don’t know that Bro. Ross would necessarily disagree with this concept of a slippery slope from abandoning Calvinism for Arminianism and eventually to unbelief since he says he holds to “creedal Calvinism.” But the idea that a move away from Calvinism is a move away from orthodoxy is objected to strongly by those non Calvinists in the Southern Baptist Convention who have reveled in Bro. Ross’ attacks on “Hybrid Calvinism.” Indeed, at the recent John 3:16 conference we heard the opposite assertion, that a move toward Calvinism is a move away from the gospel. Ross notes that Spurgeon said that the “great evangelical truths” are far more important than Calvinism vs. Arminianism and that many evangelical Arminians were in agreement with him on the Down Grade. I agree wholeheartedly. But nonetheless the idea that a move toward Arminianism is often the first step on the downgrade was repeated several times in the Down Grade articles, and it was repeated by Spurgeon himself in the Notes from the Downgrade article from April 1887. Spurgeon and Shindler certainly didn’t blame Calvinism for the Down Grade. The following from that article appears to be a good summary of Spurgeon’s views on the matter:

We care far more for the central evangelical truths than we do for Calvinism as a system; but we believe that Calvinism has in it a conservative force which helps to hold men to the vital truth, and therefore we are sorry to see any quitting it who have once accepted it. Those who hold the eternal verities of salvation, and yet do not see all that we believe and embrace, are by no means the objects of our opposition. Our warfare is with men who are giving up the atoning sacrifice, denying the inspiration of Holy Scripture, and casting slurs upon justification by faith. The present struggle is not a debate upon the question of Calvinism or Arminianism, but of the truth of God versus the inventions of men. All who believe the gospel should unite against that “modern thought” which is its deadly enemy.

Those on both sides of the Calvinism debate would do well to pay heed to these words.

Baptismal regeneration is a worse error than evangelical Arminianism. But very few conservative Presbyterians today are guilty of believing it, certainly not to the extent that the English Presbyterians who followed Doddridge did. This is particularly true of the type of Presbyterians who are involved in things like Together for the Gospel. Now, it is clear that many “Reformed Baptists” would rather fellowship with Presbyterians rather than otherwise sound Baptists who just don’t happen to be 5 pointers. Not for nothing have they sometimes been termed “High Water Presbyterians.” As Spurgeon recognized, there are many things that confessional Presbyterians and Particular Baptists have in common. What separates us was perhaps clearer in Spurgeon’s day than ours since ecclesiology is too often a neglected subject. But it would seem that we’d be better served to refrain from selectively quoting a few statements that have the tendency to give a false impression of a work as a whole, especially given the current situation in which some are looking to blame Calvinism for the perceived ills in the SBC. Further, whether or not someone believes that regeneration precedes faith, the idea that baptized infants are always regenerated in their infancy as Ross appears to suggest in his attacks on “hybrid Calvinism” is clearly not supported by the Presbyterian’s Westminster Confession of Faith, as I believe Ross has noted in the past. Whether we agree with it or not, the idea that regeneration precedes faith really has nothing to do with paedobaptism at all. This is demonstrated by the fact that several of those who Bro. Ross cites in support of his “creedal Calvinist” views were paedobaptists themselves.

In closing, I do want to make clear how thankful we should be for Bro. Ross’ labors in publishing unabridged versions of all of Spurgeon’s works. Through the years he has also published a number of helpful books, including Old Landmarkism and the Baptists which I have recently found to be very helpful.

*The debate on how to view the so called “children of the covenant” (baptized children) has been a long running one among Presbyterians. Few conservative Presbyterians today would agree with the practice of the English Presbyterians that led to “children of the covenant” being admitted to the table without a profession of faith. Those who do believe that children should be admitted to the table without a profession of faith have recently had their views rejected by every conservative Presbyterian denomination of significance.

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