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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

All about Me or All about God: Charles Chauncy, John Gill, and God’s Sovereignty.

Published Wednesday, July 13, 2022 By H. A. Hopgood

Earth shadows on the sky are caused by the sun’s rays striking a geographical body (such as a mountain) at a low angle, causing its shadow to be projected upward. From man’s limited perspective he is continually in danger of projecting his own conceptions and theories upward onto God instead of receiving the image of God through revelation from above. “It is right for the ordinary Christian—and for the philosopher too, for when he stands at the font or kneels at the altar he is as ‘ordinary’ as anyone else—to state his faith in the most commonplace and straightforward way that he can; but it is also necessary to remember that because we are enmeshed in the created order—because we are, so to speak, at the thin end of the Creator-creation relation—we habitually see everything upside down.” (E. L. Mascall, Christ, the Christian, and the Church, 43.)

The outworking of this inverted view of God is most evident in theology regarding God’s sovereignty and the freedom of man’s will. Misconceptions of God’s sovereignty spring from misconceptions of God’s nature, or ontology, due to the application of humanistic, anthropocentric reasoning, as evidenced in the primacy of the doctrine of soteriology and subordinationism in the doctrine of the Trinity in the teachings of Charles Chauncy (1705–1787) and John Gill (1697–1771). A study of the writings of Charles Chauncy and John Gill is a study in comparison and contrast. Charles Chauncy, a proto-Unitarian Universalist, and John Gill, a committed Trinitarian with hyper-Calvinist leanings, both reveal the influx of rationalism in their interpretation of Scripture. Both men had a spiritual background in the Puritan strain of the Reformed tradition; both were well studied in the current theological and philosophical theories of their day. That both should exhibit to different degrees the same doctrinal weaknesses regarding the nature of God and incorrect, though opposite, views of God’s sovereignty demonstrates that those dangers do not lie merely in one’s position on predestination or man’s free will. The real problem lies in the misconceptions of God’s nature that, in turn, arise from a wrong view of the relation of reason to Scripture.

Although leaders of their respective movements, Charles Chauncy and John Gill have received a great amount of bad press during their lifetimes and since.[1] Such ad hominem attacks fail to acknowledge that these men were zealous for the right understanding of doctrine and for the good of their fellow men. In failing to recognize this, the critics fail to detect where the two men went astray. The result is that the critics can and do fall into the same errors; therefore, the point is to learn from these two men’s mistakes. As leaders, Charles Chauncy and John Gill did not begin movements as much as crystalize and systematize teachings that had been developing in a broad, undefined manner. Both men read widely and had superior mental faculties. Furthermore, both desired to preserve and advance the doctrines that they had received. Unfortunately, their writings do not evidence serious attempts to evaluate those received doctrines by Scripture as a whole but merely to support them by individual Scripture texts. Such mental confines are by no means unique to the Puritans. People from all eras have worked to reconcile to the point of absurdity the differences within the theological and philosophical concepts they have received without stopping to consider whether those concepts accorded with divine revelation or if other orthodox possibilities existed.

Yet Charles Chauncy and John Gill were indeed leaders. The philosophically adapted theology that they consolidated has affected thousands until this present time, especially in America. Most significantly, the definition they gave to their opposing schools of thought makes their writings valuable in identifying the errors to which all Christians are prone.

Earth Shadows on the Sky: The Holy Trinity, Divine Sovereignty, and Humanistic Philosophy focuses not as much on the questions concerning sovereignty as what questions should or should not be asked and how those questions should be approached. In order to obtain a clearer view of theological concepts and to situate the persons in their proper historical context, terms and positions are defined by the ancient ecumenical councils and creeds, as well as the writings of the Protestant Reformers. Although the general Puritan background of Charles Chauncy and John Gill is briefly described, the doctrinal teachings of these men are chiefly represented by their own writings.

Furthermore, this study relies on the excellent work that has already been done regarding the doctrine of the Trinity, especially in its historical development. Hopefully, as this is brought together with the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writings, some light may be shed on the sovereignty debates. However, the study assumes that though the church as a whole increases in knowledge of God, true theology supersedes any single historical setting.

While seeking to learn from the experiences of Charles Chauncy and John Gill, this book explores the manner in which those historical doctrines may be practically understood today. Every part of man, including his reason, was created by God and obtains its fulfillment only in God. Energetic effort on the part of the soul is required to know the God who has revealed himself faintly in creation, clearly in the Scriptures, then finally and definitely in the Incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ. This view may be summed up in Christ’s own words, “worship him [God] in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:23, 24) These are the Keys to the Kingdom.

Yet the unaided intellect, no matter how acute, cannot discern truth on its own from the Scriptures or creation. Human reason is not a mechanical processor into which pieces of the Scriptures can be poured to yield a smooth, accurate doctrine. Reason at its best is fallible and therefore cannot be relied upon when dealing with truth. God can only be known and hence loved as he reveals himself to man. God’s ontology is the basis for all theology. Only Scripture can clearly reveal to man both God’s nature and God’s works.[JS1] Nevertheless the Scripture remains a closed book to man until illuminated by the Holy Spirit, God himself speaking through his Word.

The Spirit that enlightens believers is the Spirit of Christ sent by Christ from the Father and equal with both in the Godhead. Only as man recognizes the Godhead in Christ, properly relating the Persons to each other, will he be able to perceive the truth about God’s character and nature. Any misconceptions about the relations of the Father to the Son and of either to the Spirit will eventually result in a misconception of God’s nature and sovereignty over his creation. A correct Christology is indispensable to a true theology. Man can only understand God’s true view of man in the Father’s view of Christ. “Any anthropocentric conception of man is refuted by the assertion of a radically Christocentric anthropology.” (Emilianos Timiadis, The Nicene Creed, 39)

As a believer contemplates Christ through the Spirit’s light on the Scriptures, he will develop a humble confidence in God’s guidance. God did provide the Scriptures. Christ did become incarnate, “taking of the manhood into God.” (“Athanasian Creed,” in The Book of Common Prayer, 1662). The Spirit did descend upon the church as promised. God has sought and found the lost sheep. Now he will lead by the green pastures and still waters of his own revelation.

H. A. Hopgood, ThD, DREd, is Professor of Theology and New Testament Greek at Andersonville Theological Seminary, Camilla, Georgia, and contributes to studies of biblical Hebrew and Aramaic. She is also the author of To Every Thing There Is a Season.

Editor’s note: This article has been adapted from Dr. Hopgood’s recent book, Earth Shadows on the Sky: The Holy Trinity, Divine Sovereignty, and Humanistic Philosophy (Wipf and Stock, 2021) and is used here with permission.

[1] See Robert W. Oliver, “John Gill (1697-1771),” in The British Particular Baptists, 1638-1910, ed. Michael A.G. Haykin, Vol. 1, Springfield, MS: Particular Baptist Press, 1998, 162. This has proved true of Charles Chauncy also.

  • H. A. Hopgood

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