Dr. Ligon Duncan’s Seminar on the Marrow Controversy

In today’s theological climate, antinomianism and the Sonship theology are rife within Reformed circles. The Marrow Controversy therefore has much to teach us about the relationship of grace and law.

Dr. Duncan started by sketching a short history of the Marrow Controversy, emphasizing Boston’s role in recommending the Marrow of Modern Divinity. The book, of course, caused waves in the Scottish Presbyterian church. There had been a professor at Glasgow who had showed affinity for Socinianism and Arminianism. This man was tried by the church and basically given a slap on the wrist. So those heterodox doctrines would find a refuge in the Scottish Presbyterian Church, but the evangelical Calvinism was not found congenial. The Auchterarter Presbytery had a question that they asked candidates about the relationship of coming to Christ and forsaking sin. Understood properly, the question was designed to make clear that a person does not forsake sin in order to come to Christ, but rather comes to Christ in order for sin’s hold on the person to be broken. The General Assembly rebuked the Auchterarter Presbytery for asking the question this way. What would later be called “moderatism” had its beginnings in the General Assembly. Enlightenment thinking took over, to the point where, as one writer puts it, a typical “moderatism” sermon was like a winter day: cold, clear, and brief. The Marrow, on the other hand, was condemned by the General Assembly. The defenders of the Marrow, such as Thomas Boston, and the Erskine brothers appealed the decision, which was rejected. This almost guaranteed that everyone in Scotland would purchase a copy of the book! There’s Scottish contrariness for you.

There are three interpretations of the Marrow controversy. Some argue that it was an internecine dispute of two sides that both held to the Westminster Standards. Those who condemned the Marrow quoted the Westminster standards against the Marrow men, which creates a certain plausibility for this view. This view is wrong in Duncan’s mind, though.

The second view says that the Marrow men represented a revolt against classical Calvinism (this is held by J.B. Torrance). In other words, the Marrow men were trying to liberate the Scottish church from the Westminster Standards. The Marrow men, however, vowed ex animo in strict subscription to the Westminster Standards.

The third view is that the Marrow men were the Westminster theology men. This is the proper view.

Dr. Duncan then shared many of the most important quotations from both Boston and Fisher.