Debate over the Trinity, from time to time, has given rise to some of the fiercest of church debates. Much of the theological energy of the fourth century was consumed with defeating the threat of Arianism. And in the 18th century a growing tide of rationalism led to what historian Philip Dixon has called a ‘fading of the trinitarian imagination’ and to the doctrine of the Trinity coming under heavy attack. Informed by the Enlightenment’s confidence in human reason, the intellectual mindset of this era either increasingly dismissed the doctrine of the Trinity as a philosophical and unbiblical construct of the post-Apostolic Church and turned to classical Arianism as an alternative perspective. Or they simply ridiculed it as illogical and argued for Deism or Unitarianism.
Even a stalwart Christian like Isaac Watts was clearly confused as to what to believe about the Godhead in his final years. Thankfully, there were communities that stood fast on the biblical truths summed up in the ancient creeds.
‘The doctrine of the Blessed Trinity’
The English Particular Baptists, for example, tenaciously held to a trinitarian understanding of the Godhead throughout the 18th century, as other communities of Dissenters, such as the English Presbyterians and General Baptists, largely ceased to be trinitarian. The Particular Baptists maintained that the doctrine of the Trinity is, in the words of the London Baptist minister Benjamin Wallin, the ‘first and grand principle of revealed truth and the gospel’.
As another example, in 1690 the London Baptist layman, Isaac Marlow, had published a treatise on the Trinity in which he stated his conviction that of those elements of divine truth that redound most to the glory of God and best further the fellowship of believers, ‘the blessed doctrine of the holy Trin-unity is the chiefest’. Nearly 50 years later, the renowned preacher Joseph Stennett II similarly affirmed that ‘the doctrine of the ever blessed Trinity is of the greatest importance to his [that is, God’s] glory.’
And when the members of Chertsey Street Baptist Church in Guildford, Surrey, renewed their church covenant in 1744, they asserted their corporate belief in ‘the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity; viz. That the Godhead consist in Father, Son and Holy Ghost, and that these three are one living and true God; the same in substance, equal in power and glory’.
‘Eternal Son by ineffable filiation’
The most impressive Particular Baptist exposition of the doctrine of the Trinity during this era was its treatment by the voluminous author John Gill, pastor of Goat Yard Chapel, Southwark, later Carter Lane Baptist Church, London, from 1719 to 1771. His The Doctrine of the Trinity Stated and Vindicated – first published in 1731 – proved to be an extremely effective defence of the fact that there is, as Gill put it, ‘but one God; that there is a plurality in the Godhead; that there are three divine persons in it; that the Father is God, the Son God, and the Holy Spirit God; that these are distinct in personality, the same in substance, equal in power and glory.’
Fancying new light
Gill was especially concerned about some in his day who were ‘nibbling at’ Sabellianism or modalism, ‘fancying they have got new light, when they have only imbibed an old stale-error, an ancient work of darkness, which has been confuted over and over.’ As an antidote to Sabellianism, Gill affirmed the eternal Sonship and generation of the second person of the Godhead. As he explained in a letter he wrote to John Davis, the Welsh pastor of the Baptist Church in the Great Valley, Devon, Pennsylvania, in March of 1745: ‘Jesus Christ is the Son of God by nature and not office, … he is the eternal Son of God by ineffable filiation and not by constitution or as mediator in which respect he is a servant, and not a Son. … for the distinctions of persons cannot be supported, unless Christ is the Son of God in his divine person, nor can those men who go into the other way of thinking … call the first person Father, for that supposes a Son …
In the midst of significant controversy and confusion about the Trinity in the 18th century, Gill’s trinitarian thought thus played a vital role in shepherding the English Particular Baptist community along the pathway of biblical orthodoxy.
Michael Haykin is Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.