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.


  1. Alan D. Strange said,

    June 18, 2014 at 10:53 am

    Thanks, Lane. Good stuff. Just this little note: it’s Auchterarder (with a voiced dental).

  2. Harold Miller said,

    June 18, 2014 at 11:28 am

    More than ten years ago I heard for the first time the series of three lectures by Sinclair Ferguson on the “Pastoral Lessons of the Marrow of Modern Divinity”. It is well for us to learn that lesson of history!

  3. Chris C said,

    June 18, 2014 at 12:32 pm

    Does he reference David Lachman’s work?–The Marrow controversy, 1718-1723 : an historical and theological analysis (Rutheford Hourse, 1988). Where does that fit in his analysis? I sadly lost my copy somehow (neither a borrower nor LENDER be; rare as hen’s teeth to find; David needs to do a reprint).

  4. Anna H said,

    June 18, 2014 at 1:08 pm

    Lane – have you read http://www.amazon.com/Marrow-Controversy-1718-28-Rutherford-studies/dp/094606833X ? (Sorry, no I can’t get you a copy. I do occasionally nag him to reprint it, but there have been dreadful complications in that process.)

  5. Jack Bradley said,

    June 18, 2014 at 2:25 pm

    Harold, here is the link for the lectures you cited. They are well worth the time. http://tinyurl.com/k9j8d94

  6. Alan D. Strange said,

    June 18, 2014 at 3:36 pm

    It’s been a long time since I’ve heard Sinclair’s lectures on this, but they are excellent. And David Lachman’s analysis was similar to what Lane reported Ligon Duncan as saying: David certainly had a favorable view of the Marrow Men on the whole.You can find a summarized version of David’s view on the Marrow Controversy (outside of his fine book) in the Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology.

  7. p duggie said,

    June 18, 2014 at 3:47 pm

    Does anyone know why Calvin rejected the Theologia Germania

    “conceived by Satan’s cunning…it contains a hidden poison which can poison the church.”

    I wonder if the issues are similar (Luther liked it)

  8. Jason Loh said,

    June 18, 2014 at 5:15 pm

    According to what little information I had read online, Luther liked it but not necessarily “assented”(!) to Theologia Germani(c)a.

    Calvin was right to reject it. Luther was influenced by Theologia Germania just as he was an “insider” or a son of the Catholic Church. But as it was, Luther turned Theologia Germania inside out — by, for example, purging the terms and concepts in German mysticism of their original contents or meanings.

    “Raptus” for Luther did not mean what Tauler meant. A rapturous experience for Luther (synonymous with ecstasy) was intensely physical. It’s therefore also different from Puritanism. Ecstatic experience happens in an “I-it-Thou” relationship where knowledge is not justified true belief but the Hebrew yada (bodily intercourse). The “it” is word and Sacraments. In the promise of the gospel as proclaimed orally and sacramentally, the God-Man gives of Himself unconditionally and wholly, holding nothing back, in an act of Self-donation.

    This union and communion is echoed in the First Adam’s word, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh” in reference to Eve.

    So faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God, and if the word of God is proclaimed (speech-act) orally and sacramentally, therefore, faith comes by a hearing that is not alone but accompanied concomitantly by the other senses.

  9. Patrick said,

    June 18, 2014 at 6:18 pm

    The following lecture by Jonathan Moore on the Scottish marrow controversy is very worthwhile: http://bit.ly/1g8Py48

  10. tominaz said,

    June 21, 2014 at 1:28 pm

    I went to the other GRN seminar with Harry Reeder – excellent. I’ll be listening to Ligon’s presentation via CD. I deeply appreciated the GRN sponsored seminars.
    I’ve been listening to Dr. Ferguson’s lectures (Westminster Media CDs), reading The Marrow of Modern divinity and other works. Great stuff.

  11. June 24, 2014 at 12:03 am

    […] the Presbyterian Church in America and is pastor of Lebanon Presbyterian Church in Winnsboro, S.C. This article appeared on his blog and is used with […]

  12. July 3, 2014 at 11:09 am

    FWIW, I’ve been going through the Marrow here:


    see episodes 58-64, & 66


  13. musicosity1 said,

    July 3, 2014 at 12:18 pm

    I greatly appreciated both Duncan’s and Reeder’s talks. There were some really excellent presentations at GA this year. I hope the trend persists for future years.

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