May 30, 2011

Tom Ascol on John Gill's Federalism and Its Problems

Gill employs the retooled structure of English Federalism in his exposition of the works of God ad intra. All of the internal works of the Trinitarian persons take the form of covenant.21 The decrees of God must, therefore, be expounded along the lines of the federal construct. Since Gill radiates his soteriology from decretal ideas, the covenant becomes an essential principle in the organization of his theological system.22 He does not, however, develop his theology from within the federal structure. It is not his starting point. Rather, he employs the construct to serve his more foundational decretal interpretation of the Scriptures. God's decree, not the covenant, is the chief hermeneutical principle of his theology. The former gives form to and guides the expressions of the latter.23

By recasting Federalism along these lines Gill has significantly weakened one of that construct's chief assets. History is no longer meaningful, and man's responsibility becomes all but factored out of the salvation equation. The covenant of grace can no longer be set forth legitimately as a bonafide offer of salvation for all who will repent and trust in Christ as Mediator. As Gill himself consistently concludes, there are no offers of grace to any. His system precludes them. Evangelism is reduced to proclamation without invitation. The salvation which is to be proclaimed consists of the fulfillment of the covenant conditions by the Son, the certainty of the covenant blessings by the Father, and the bestowal of the covenant relationship by the Spirit. It is, in the words of Ivimey, a "non-application, non-invitation scheme" of preaching.24
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21. Gill, Body of Divinity, 1:246–47, 300–303; Muller, "The Spirit and the Covenant," p. 8.
22. The whole second book of the first volume of Gill's Body of Divinity reflects this relationship (Body of Divinity, 1:246–365).
23. After describing the nature and perfections of God, Gill sets forth "the internal acts and works of God" and "his decrees in general" in the second book of his Body of Divinity (1:246). The ad intra works are God's "purposes and decrees" which respect "not only the affairs of grace, but those of providence; even the whole earth and all things in it" (ibid., 246–47). Gill fits Federalism into this outline, rather than allowing the covenantal approach to dictate the direction of his thought at the outset. This represents a decisive difference between his views and those of the English federalists who precede him. For this reason, although he does employ Federalism's structure and salient tenets, it is inaccurate simply to designate Gill without qualification as a "Covenant theologian" (as does Robinson, "Legacy of John Gill," p. 118; cf. Muller, "The Spirit and the Covenant," p. 12, and Toon, Hyper-Calvinism, pp. 111–15.
24. Ivimey, History of the English Baptists, 3:272. There can be little doubt that Gill's views logically lead to this conclusion. The next chapter considers the degree to which Gill consistently follows his own logic at this point.
Thomas Kennedy Ascol, The Doctrine of Grace: A Critical Analysis of Federalism in the Theologies of John Gill and Andrew Fuller (Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1989), 77–79.

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