Bill VanDoodewaard serves as Associate Professor of Church History at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. Recently Bill’s doctoral work was published by Reformation Heritage Books under the title The Marrow Controversy and Seceder Tradition. As he served as a pastoral intern in our congregation for two years while he completed his thesis, I have been greatly blessed by Bill and his work. I thought you might like to find out more about it. Bill graciously responded with the following interview.
GR: Bill, for those unfamiliar with The Marrow of Modern Divinity, could you give a brief summary of what the book is about?
BV: The Marrow of Modern Divinity is cast as a conversation between four people: Evangelista, a minister, counsels three friends, Nomista (a legalist), Antinomista (an antinomian), and Neophytus a young Christian, towards a biblical understanding of law and gospel. Written during the period of the Westminster Assembly (1640’s) in England, the book pursues a balanced, biblical path between the twin errors of legalism and antinomianism, both by refuting error and positively stating the gracious truths of God’s Word.
GR: One of the aspects of your book that I enjoyed, and you wrote about in your introduction in the wonderful reprint of The Marrow by Christian Focus, was the “Whodunnit?” You had to do some detective work on identifying the author of The Marrow. He was mysteriously only known by his initials E.F. for a long time. Can you tell us why he did not give his name and perhaps one of the best clues you found that helped identify him?
BV: I can’t tell you why, but we can make some contextual guesses. Persecution for Puritan sympathies was a recent reality which the author, Edward Fisher, had experienced some degree of personally. While London was Parliamentary territory at this point in the Civil War, and others were certainly writing publicly, E.F. (Edward Fisher), along with others, did not. Public address was a potentially costly venture. He was seeking to address what he viewed as theologically and spiritually dangerous tendencies in the English Puritan community, areas of controversy. It may simply have been a spirit of modesty: he was a lay-theologian, a barber-surgeon by trade, though his writing certainly did receive the commendation of notable Puritan preachers and theologians of his day. The clues that lead us to conclude he was Edward Fisher, the barber-surgeon, sometime resident of London, include court, tax, and parish records, along with his social and theological connections, the theological content of his work, and contemporary references to his work.
GR: Your book is a tracing of what then became known as Marrow Theology and its impact on the life of the church in Scotland through the 18th century. What influences led you to choose this subject and period of time for your study?
BV: There were a variety of influences. First, in my own background and circles I had seen and wrestled with varieties of preaching that tended to hedge the full sufficiency of Christ, free offer of the gospel, and an assured faith by creating conditions or categories of experiential piety mingled with aspects of legalism and hyper-Calvinism. I wanted to pursue a biblical road, much like E.F., and similar to my father and grandfather in my Dutch Reformed background, without reacting against errant tendencies in a way that would lose the riches of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Second, among contemporary pastor-theologians, I have deeply appreciated the preaching ministry and writing of men such as Sinclair Ferguson and Ian Hamilton. Hearing The Marrow come up and seeing Ferguson, Hamilton and others treasure this as something valuable, along with having come into the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (a denomination rooted in Marrow theology) made it a natural connection to see if work could be done in this area. At heart there was the fact that I wanted to grow in knowing God, loving Him; delighting in Christ. I desired to grow in preaching the whole counsel of God’s Word, the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and remain faithful in it. As such it was a joy to trace the doctrines of the atonement, saving faith, and gospel offer from the controversy over The Marrow of Modern Divinity into ensuing Scottish church history.
GR: What areas of the modern church do you think need the guidance and even correction that Marrow Theology could bring?
BV: Marrow theology, as it presents a scriptural theology of law and gospel, and freely offers Christ in His full sufficiency to all, addresses two perennial dangers of the human heart. On the one side we easily slide into legalism, pride, moralism, and self-sufficiency – whether in the form of I am pretty good, I can please God, or I need to be moral, or work up penance, so that I can come to Him: the end result is that the grace of God revealed in Christ is diminished, obscured, or made inaccessible. Legalism was a key concern of Thomas Boston and the Marrow brethren in the Marrow controversy in Scotland. On the antinomian side, we all too quickly treat our sin, and the great cost of our redemption in Christ lightly. We conveniently forget that the imperative call of the holy Triune God, and necessary fruit of His grace in us includes sorrow over and aversion to sin, putting it to death, and pursuing holy, thankful devotion to His perfect law. Sometimes we do this by saying to ourselves God’s grace is sufficient, yet at the same time treating His costly love as cheap. The holiness of God in Christ is diminished. In our sin we are a blend of legalisms and antinomianism. Our complete and perfect Savior Jesus delivers us from both. So, to get back to the question: I need this guidance and correction, confessional Presbyterian and Reformed churches do, as does the rest of the contemporary/global church.
GR: I know that you would recommend anyone interested in reading your work also to have and read a copy of the recent edition of The Marrow of Modern Divinity (Christian Focus Publications, 2009). For someone wanting a further introduction to Marrow Theology, can you recommend an online lecture you or others have done?
BV: I would highly recommend listening to Sinclair Ferguson’s lectures on the Marrow controversy as available on Sermonaudio; I’d recommend this above the lecture on The Marrow I gave at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary last years, though of course you’re certainly welcome to listen to it as well. Some folks over at the Marrow Project are blogging their way through The Marrow of Modern Divinity which is also worthwhile.
If you are interested in purchasing Bill’s book, you can click the picture above to go to the Reformation Heritage website. For the updated version of Fisher’s book that has an introduction by Bill and helpful explanatory notes by Thomas Boston, you can click the picture to the right. In addition, here are the links to above mentioned lectures by Sinclair Ferguson, the lecture by Bill, and the Marrow Project blog.