July 29, 2017

David Mark Rathel’s Critique of Tom Nettles on John Gill (1697–1771)

Baptist historian Thomas Nettles remains an influential exponent of the idea that Gill did not deny duty faith, and his work has influenced other Gill researchers.35 One can center Nettles’ research on Gill around two key publications. In By His Grace and For His Glory, a work that features his first significant published work on Gill, Nettles rightly acknowledges that Gill did not believe in the free offer of the Gospel.36 However, he claims that Gill ‘affirmed that it was the duty of all men to repent of sin and the duty of all who heard the Gospel to believe it.’37 He contends that this fact frees Gill from the charge of hyper-Calvinism.

In claiming that Gill did not deny duty faith, Nettles unfortunately does not sufficiently explore Gill’s soteriology. Though he surveys some aspects of Gill’s thought – Gill’s ordering of the divine decrees, his understanding of sanctification, and his pastoral ministry practices – he fails to probe Gill’s desire to frame salvation as an eternal act of God that requires minimal human participation. Most notably, he does not address the doctrine of eternal justification in a significant manner even though it was a key component of Gill’s theological project.

This neglect causes Nettles to misrepresent Gill on the matter of duty faith. For example, Nettles cites a passage from Gill’s Cause of God and Truth that he admits prima facie appears to deny duty faith. Gill wrote, ‘God does not require all men to believe in Christ; where he does it is according to the revelation he makes of them.’38 Nettles tries to soften the implications of this statement by arguing that Gill intended only ‘to highlight man’s responsibility for that which is available to him.’39 Per Nettles, Gill wrote merely about those who have no access to the Gospel. He argued that such people are responsible only for what they receive through general revelation.

Though Gill indeed addressed this topic in this passage, Nettles leaves unaddressed the next sentence in Gill’s work. There Gill wrote, ‘Those who only have the outward ministry of the word, unattended with the special illuminations of the Spirit of God, are obliged to believe no further than the external revelation they enjoy, reaches.’40 Put simply, Gill indeed stated that people only have a responsibility for the revelation that they receive; those who receive no access to the Gospel are accountable only for the general revelation that they have, but those who receive only the external call are obligated only to perform legal repentance and not trust in Christ for salvation. Gill makes this point even more explicit in the subsequent sentences in which he contrasts the mere legal obligations attending the external call with the salvific obligations attending the internal call. Nettles’ argument, then, takes Gill out of context. It does so because Nettles has not sufficiently explored Gill’s work on the external and internal callings as well as the soteriological convictions that undergird them.

In a subsequent publication, Nettles attempts to associate Gill with those who participated in the Evangelical Revival. A lack of adequate attention to Gill’s soteriology also appears here, however, when Nettles implies several times that Gill held to the traditional understanding of justification by faith rather than the more eccentric position of eternal justification. This fact is troubling given Gill’s repeated protestations against justification by faith.41

Most interesting is the fact that in this publication Nettles nuances his earlier defense of Gill. He admits, ‘There is a central point, however, in which he [Gill] appears to hold the Hyper-Calvinist view [regarding duty faith].’ He offers as evidence a quote from Gill’s sermon entitled Faith in God and His Word in which Gill claimed, ‘Man never had in his power to have or to exercise [faith in Christ], no, not even in the state of innocence.’ Nettles then admits, ‘Theoretically, Gill held that the non-elect were not obligated to evangelical obedience, because the necessity of such obedience did not exist in unfallen humanity as deposited in Adam.’42

Surprisingly, despite this admission, Nettles remains cautious about labeling Gill a hyper-Calvinist, and he does not retract his earlier claim that Gill affirmed duty faith. He even continues to praise Gill, arguing that Gill’s works exhibit ‘the central concerns and zeal of the Great Awakening.’43

Nettles does so because he claims that Gill was only theoretically a hyper-Calvinist. He argues that in Gill’s scheme ‘while many [people] exhibit…only a legal repentance and a historical faith, and the non-elect may not be theoretically obligated to the “faith of God’s elect,” ministers of the Gospel preach repentance and faith in a Gospel way.’44 Nettles’ argument reduces to the contention that, even though Gill denied all people have an obligation to respond to the Gospel, at the practical level he still preached the Gospel, and this fact means that his hyper-Calvinism was merely hypothetical.

I have the utmost respect for Nettles and his contribution to Baptist scholarship, but I find this argument is unpersuasive. As noted, Gill’s commentaries and sermons reveal that his soteriological convictions often caused him to interpret Scripture in such a way that he minimized universal calls to respond to the Gospel. Such an act displays that he held his principles at more than just a theoretical level; they regularly affected his preaching and exposition of Scripture.

The differences between Gill’s ministry and that of the evangelists of the Evangelical Revival, those to whom Nettles wishes to compare Gill, are therefore stark. Gill constructed a ministry philosophy that emphasized encouraging only sensible sinners to respond to the Gospel and often eschewed giving Gospel exhortations to all people. The evangelists of the Evangelical Revival did not.

With Nettles, then, readers find a contradictory portrayal of Gill. In one work, Nettles claims Gill did not deny that all people have an obligation to respond [to] the Gospel. In another, without retracting this claim, he admits that Gill likely held to the hyper-Calvinist tenet of denying duty faith but deems this point irrelevant because he does not believe it affected Gill’s ministry. Both claims are incorrect, and Nettles could have avoided these errors by more completely examining how deeply Gill’s soteriology shaped his thought and practice.
35. Nettles’ research has influenced two other defenses on Gill. These two works, coupled with those works already mentioned in this paper, constitute the entirety of contemporary defenses of Gill. See Jonathan Anthony White, ‘A Theological and Historical Examination of John Gill’s Soteriology in Relation to Eighteenth-Century Hyper-Calvinism’ (PhD diss., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2010). White surveys Gill’s soteriology but relies on the work of Nettles, his supervising professor, when interpreting Gill. As I demonstrate here, Nettles does not interpret Gill correctly, and this fact hinders White’s argument. In addition, Timothy George offers a very cautious defense of Gill. He rejects Gill’s soteriology – especially eternal justification – but relies heavily on Nettles when assessing Gill’s ministry practice. The incorporation of the Nettles material, material that does not examine Gill in light of his soteriology, gives George’s argument an unbalanced feel. Readers are warned of the dangers of Gill’s soteriology but do not see how that soteriology shaped Gill’s understanding of Gospel offers or duty faith. This is an unfortunate occurrence in an otherwise excellent essay. See George, ‘John Gill,’ pp. 26–9.
36. Thomas J. Nettles, By His Grace and For His Glory: A Historical, Theological and Practical Study of the Doctrines of Grace in Baptist Life, rev. ed. (Cape Coral: Founders, 2006), pp. 27–8, 47–8.
37. Ibid., p. 42.
38. Ibid. This quotation originally appears in The Cause of God and Truth, p. 307.
39. Nettles, By His Grace, pp. 42–3.
40. Surprisingly, Nettles quotes this sentence but does not address it. See Ibid., pp. 42–4.
41. See Tom J. Nettles, ‘John Gill and the Evangelical Awakening,’ in The Life and Thought of John Gill (1697–1771): A Tercentennial Appreciation, ed. by Michael A. G. Haykin (New York: Brill, 1997), pp. 136–7. Here Nettles praises Gill for defending the doctrine of justification by faith, but the form of justification Gill emphasized in the work which Nettles cites is eternal justification. See Collection of Sermons and Tracts, vol. I, pp. 200–16. Furthermore, when comparing Gill to John Wesley, Nettles associates Gill’s understanding of justification with that of George Whitefield. See Nettles, ‘John Gill and the Evangelical Awakening,’ 137n, 163. While Whitefield, like Gill, would have rejected some of Wesley’s convictions, Nettles makes no mention of the unconventional aspects of Gill’s theology of justification. Whitefield would have brokered no agreement with those. E.g. Gilbert Tennent, an occasional critic of Whitefield, once correctly noted Whitefield’s rejection of eternal justification. Thomas S. Kidd, George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Founder (New Haven: Yale, 2014), pp. 196–7.
42. Nettles, ‘John Gill and the Evangelical Awaking,’ p. 153. Italics added. Proponents of the no-offer position – men such as John Brine – denied that prelapsarian Adam had an ability to believe the Gospel. Gill’s position on this matter is rather complex, though there is no doubt that he did at times affirm Adamic inability. C.f. Cause of God and Truth, 307; Andrew Gunton Fuller, The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, ed. by Joseph Belcher. (Harrisonburg: Sprinkle Publications, 1988), vol. II, p. 421.
43. Nettles, ‘John Gill and the Evangelical Awaking,’ p. 170.
44. Ibid., p. 154.

David Mark Rathel is presently a PhD candidate in systematic theology at the University of St Andrews under the supervision of the Rev. Dr. Stephen R. Holmes. He is the author of Baptists and the Emerging Church Movement: A Baptistic Assessment of Four Themes of Emerging Church Ecclesiology (Wipf & Stock, 2014).

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