John Gill and His Defence of the Trinity

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In some remarks that Martyn Lloyd-Jones made about John Gill on the bicentennial of his death, he noted that “Gill was a man, not only of great importance in his own century, but a man who is still of great importance to all of us.”[1] If Gill is remembered today, it is often in relation to what is called hyper-Calvinism, the denial that the gospel is to be feely offered to all and sundry. Historians still debate whether or not Gill was a full-fledged hyper-Calvinist, but one thing is clear, namely, that Gill’s defence of the vital confession that God is a triune being preserved the orthodoxy of his Baptist denomination in the long eighteenth century.

Born at the close of the Puritan era in 1697, John Gill’s early schooling came to an abrupt end in 1708, when his school’s headmaster demanded that all of his pupils attend Anglican morning prayer. Gill’s parents were decided Baptists and consequently withdrew their son from the school. Due to the fact that his parents had limited financial resources, they could not afford to have their son educated any further and so Gill’s formal education was over. But this did not check their son’s hunger for learning.

Gill had acquired a good foundation in Latin and Greek before leaving school, and by the time that he was nineteen he was adept in both of these languages and also well on the way to becoming proficient in Hebrew. Knowledge of these three languages gave him ready access to a wealth of Scriptural and theological knowledge, which he used to great advantage in the years that followed as he pastored Goat Yard Chapel  in London (this was the congregation that later listened to later Spurgeon in the Metropolitan Tabernacle) from 1719 to 1771.

Now, the age in which Gill lived is sometimes termed the “Age of Reason,” which many of the intelligentsia of Europe viewed as a day of unparalleled advances in the realms of science, worldview, and philosophical thought.  Although the term “Enlightenment” did not come into vogue until the following century, they regularly invoked the image of light when speaking of their age. The Anglo-Irish philosopher George Berkeley, for instance, spoke of “that ocean of light, which has broke in and made his way, in spite of slavery and superstition.” Many of these intelligentsia had a naïve trust in the “omnicompetence of human reason,” which is clearly antithetical to orthodox Christianity that affirms the ultimacy of divine revelation. Not surprisingly this era saw the beginning of a massive attack on the verities of the Christian faith, something that has persisted down to the present day. And one of the central truths of the Christian faith that came under heavy attack was the doctrine of the Trinity.

A succession of intellectuals and theologians, whose thought had been moulded by the spirit of the age rather than by the Spirit of Truth, insisted that the Scriptures be interpreted in accord with what they regarded as sound reason. Given this hermeneutical principle, it is not surprising that orthodox trinitarianism should come under attack. For instance, the poet Thomas Chatterton declared: “God being incomprehensible: [and so] it is not required of us to know the mysteries of the Trinity etc.” and thus “it matters not whether a Man is a Pagan, Turk, Jew, or Christian if he acts according to the religion he professes.”

It bears remembering that when other denominational bodies—for instance, the English Presbyterians and large tracts of Anglicanism—were utterly unable to retain a firm grasp of trinitarian orthodoxy in the face of the onslaught of rationalism, the English Calvinistic Baptists did retain their commitment to this mystery of mysteries. Of course, it was the grace of God they enabled them to remain orthodox. But God uses means, and in this case it was the London pastor and theologian John Gill whose writings were central in the defence of the Trinity.

His The Doctrine of the Trinity Stated and Vindicated (1731) was an effective defence of the fact that there is

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.

The heart of this treatise was later incorporated into Gill’s Body of Doctrinal Divinity (1769) which became for many Baptist pastors their major theological resource. John Rippon, Gill’s pastoral successor, bore testimony to Gill’s faithfulness to trinitarian orthodoxy.

The Doctor not only watched over his people, “with great affection, fidelity, and love;” but he also watched his pulpit also. He would not, if he knew it, admit any one to preach for him, who was either cold-hearted to the doctrine of the Trinity; or who denied the divine filiation of the Son of God; or who objected to conclude his prayers with the usual doxology to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as three equal Persons in the one Jehovah. Sabellians, Arians, and Socinians, he considered as real enemies of the cross of Christ. They dared not ask him to preach, nor could he in conscience, permit them to officiate for him. He conceived that, by this uniformity of conduct, he adorned the pastoral office.

He did more than “adorn the pastoral office.” Through the written word he helped shepherd the English Baptist community in the pathway of orthodoxy. Thus, when the fire of revival came in the latter third of the century, after Gill’s death, there were coals of orthodoxy to kindle and catch flame.

 

 

[1] An earlier version of this article appeared in Tabletalk in 2012 and is used here by permission.

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