The Theological Liberalism that Divided Spurgeon from the Baptist Union in the 1800s

When individuals consider great modern preachers, evangelists such as Billy Graham and pastors such as Chuck Swindoll, David Jeremiah, Greg Laurie, and the late Jerry Falwell may come to mind. However, if one were to consider who was among the greatest of preachers in the late nineteenth century, one would be amiss if Charles Haddon Spurgeon were not added to such a list. According to John Piper, Spurgeon preached “over six hundred times before he turned twenty years old. His sermons sold about 20,000 copies a week and were translated into twenty languages.”[1] Spurgeon preached at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, England. John Pitts writes of Spurgeon that his “theology was moderately Calvinistic, his sermons warmly evangelistic, and his presentation of the gospel so fresh and refreshing that within a few months of entering upon his London ministry, at nineteen years of age, the crowds flocked to hear him and continued to do so for thirty-eight years.”[2] Yet despite the great fame of the London preacher, in a bizarre twist, Spurgeon formally withdrew from the Baptist Union which was an association of Baptist churches of the time. The severance from the Baptist Union took a toll on Spurgeon. Pitts denoted that Spurgeon “died in 1892, his end probably hastened by the unhappy Downgrade Controversy in which he was involved.”[3] Thus, one must inquire—what was the conflict that led Spurgeon to abandon the Baptist Union? This paper will argue that it was the intrusion of theological liberalism within the Baptist Union that influenced Charles Haddon Spurgeon to abandon his association with the Baptist Union in the so-called “Downgrade Controversy.” This paper will demonstrate the influence of theological liberalism upon the Baptist Union, at least as it was perceived by Spurgeon, in four ways. First, the paper will investigate the influence of theological liberalism upon the Baptist Union’s soteriology. Then, the paper will demonstrate the influence of theological liberalism upon the Baptist Union’s spirituality. In addition, the paper will examine the influence of theological liberalism upon Baptist Union’s morality. Finally, the paper will observe the influence of theological liberalism upon the level of authority given to the Word of God. The paper will begin this investigation by observing the influence of theological liberalism upon the Baptist Union’s soteriology.

The Influence of Theological Liberalism upon Soteriology

Soteriology is the study of salvation—emanating from the Greek terms soter meaning “savior” and logos defined as “study of” or “word.” Salvation is defined by Kenneth Keathley as “the work of God that delivers us from sin and its penalty, restores us to a right relationship with him, and imparts to us eternal life.[4] Soteriology is central to the message of Christianity. Therefore, it is a serious challenge when one’s soteriological understanding is compromised. Spurgeon had issues with the influence of Arminianism promoted through the lens of liberal theology which led to Socinianism, a form of Universalism.

Among one of the more hostile topics of theology surrounds that of John Calvin’s view of salvation in contrast to that of Jacob Arminius’ view. While Spurgeon was a noted Calvinist, his flavor of Calvinism would be found in the moderate framework. Norman Geisler provides an excellent model for understanding extreme or hyper-Calvinism as opposed to moderate Calvinism as he denotes that the “extreme Sovereignty view is held by extreme Calvinists. The extreme free will view is embraced by extreme Arminians (also termed Open Theism). The balanced (or middle) view is maintained by moderate Calvinists and moderate Arminians.”[5] Calvin’s soteriology would be considered moderate Calvinism according to Geisler’s model. Estep denotes that Spurgeon’s “theology was basically the Calvinism that characterized much of the English Nonconformity of his time…On his first visit to Geneva he wore Calvin’s robe and preached in the Geneva Reformer’s pulpit in St. Pierre. And yet he was not a hyper-Calvinist.”[6] To demonstrate that Spurgeon was not an extreme or hyper-Calvinist, Estep quotes Spurgeon as saying, “I fear that I am not a very good Calvinist because I pray that the Lord will save all of the elect and then elect some more.”[7] Yet it would appear that Spurgeon was a better Calvinist than he may have imagined. Duncan Ferguson denoted that many of “Calvin’s heirs were not as balanced in their views. The sense of liberty in interpreting the text was replaced by dogmatic tradition and an airtight doctrinal system.”[8] Craig Skinner, writing of Spurgeon’s soteriology, denotes that Spurgeon’s strength “lay in the balance with which he espoused them and not in the ideas as they stood alone…He preached the atonement as potential for all and the gospel as an authentic free offer of grace. Yet he also insisted that, from an eternal perspective, the atonement was actually effective only for the elect who responded freely to God’s call of grace.”[9]

This theological excursus is merely to define Spurgeon’s involvement in this theological debate. Spurgeon’s issues were not as much with the Arminianism construct (although Spurgeon certainly disagreed with Arminians) as much as it was the extreme version of Arminianism which liberal theologians used to demerit God’s involvement in the salvific process. Liberal theologians began to introduce Socinian ideologies into the Baptist Union. Socinian beliefs held that Christ began to exist at the Virgin Birth and also held that God did not know every future contingent truth.[10] Alan Cairns denotes that Socinus, from whom Socinianism is named, “denied that Christ offered any atonement or satisfaction to God for sinners, advocating the example theory of the atonement. He held that sinners are pardoned and accepted by God, through divine mercy, on the ground of their own repentance and reformation.”[11] Such teachings were unacceptable to Spurgeon. Spurgeon denotes that “We too often measure God after a human standard, and hence make mistakes. Remember that God has such an abundance of mercy, and grace and power, that he never has to calculate how much will be necessary for the accomplishment of his purpose.”[12] Spurgeon inquired, “Saved on different footings, and believing different doctrines, will they enjoy eternal concord, or will heaven itself be only a new arena for disputation between varieties of faith?”[13] Spurgeon appreciated the differences between orthodox believers so long as such believers remained orthodox. Spurgeon denoted that “Although upon the doctrines of grace our views differ from those avowed by Arminian Methodists, we have usually found that on the great evangelical truths we are in full agreement, and we have been comforted by the belief that Wesleyans were solid upon the central doctrines.”[14] Thus, Spurgeon was not out to create divisions due to minor theological variances, rather Spurgeon discredited any attempt to deprive the exclusivity of the Christian faith—something that some in the Baptist Union were attempting to assert.

Spurgeon’s stand for the biblical understanding of soteriology is important and one that should be promoted among Christians in modern times. Theologians and sociologists alike have labeled the present period of thought as post-modernism. While this paper does not have space enough to describe the details of post-modernism, suffice it to say, post-modern thinkers are more susceptible to the acceptance of alternative soteriological constructs. Whereas it was important that Spurgeon took his stand for the biblical case for soteriology, it is just as, if not more, important that modern Christians do the same.

This section has noted Spurgeon’s issues with the ultra-Arminianism did not stem from a particular problem with orthodox believers who adhered to a differing viewpoint. Spurgeon was not one who sought trouble where none existed. Rather, Spurgeon had issues with particular theories which evolved into systems which would be found beyond the umbrella of Christian orthodoxy, a system that elevated humanity over divinity which is a hallmark of liberalism. Spurgeon had another issue with the liberal theology growing in the Baptist Union—the lack of trust in biblical authority.

The Influence of Theological Liberalism upon Authority

Whereas Jesus is the foundation upon which Christianity rests, nonetheless the truths of Christianity—those truths presented about Jesus—are presented in the Bible. The Old Testament provides the foundation upon which the Messiah and the early church would emerge. The New Testament provides the foundational doctrines pertaining to the life, ministry, and teachings of Jesus and the early church. If a person begins to deny the authority and/or reliability of the Bible, then the foundation of one’s faith begin to crumble. Walter Elwell describes the importance of biblical authority as being so “vital to understand that this doctrine, far from playing a minor role on the fringes of Christian belief, brings us face to face with the authority of God himself. What is at stake in the authority of Holy Scripture is the authority of its divine author.”[15] Thus, biblical authority is critical if one is to accept the core teachings of Christianity. Liberal theologians throughout the history of the church have a reputation for dismissing the authority of Scriptures.[16] Spurgeon was one who remained steadfast upon the conviction that the Bible is inspired and infallible. Ferguson denotes of Spurgeon that at “the foundation of his approach to Scripture was his deep Christian faith and belief in the truth of the Biblical testimony. Faith in the redemptive acts of God as recorded in Scripture is the ground of Spurgeon’s hermeneutical system.”[17] Therefore, it is not surprising that part of Spurgeon’s problem with the infiltration of liberal ideologies into the Baptist Union was the liberal theologians’ denial of the Bible’s authority in their convictions. Spurgeon denoted that “The case is mournful. Certain ministers are making infidels. Avowed atheists are not a tenth as dangerous as those preachers who scatter doubt and stab at faith…A gracious woman bemoaned in my presence that a precious promise in Isaiah which had comforted her had been declared by her minister to be uninspired.”[18] One can appreciate Spurgeon’s sentiments. For a minister to discredit the Bible would be comparable to an electrician discrediting Ohm’s law. Such a one loses the foundation upon which they stand. Spurgeon thought that an acceptance of biblical authority was an example of the grace of God in one’s life. Spurgeon denoted that “A still surer evidence of grace is the mind’s perception of revealed truth and its obedience to it.[19] In contrast, if one were to deny the Scriptures, then where was the grace of God? With the apparent dismissal of biblical truth by some liberal adherents and the refusal of the Baptist Union to address the intrusion, one can understand why Spurgeon decided to withdraw from the Union.

Modern Christians can learn much from Spurgeon’s stand. While Baptists hold a bad reputation for divisions, certain times present themselves where such a division is permissible. If the authority of the Bible is denigrated, then what is left for those proclaiming its truths or those hearing them? Jesus himself stated that “if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand” (Mark 3:25).[20] If the authority of a denomination, a church, a pastor, or a layperson is not standing upon the authority of Scripture, then such a one is divided against itself. Suffice it to say, Spurgeon was justified in his concerns in the denigration of biblical authority within the Union. Yet, Spurgeon would hold another issue with the influx of liberal theology upon the Baptist Union, one that is the outflow of one’s dismissal of biblical authority—the lack of spiritual integrity.

The Influence of Theological Liberalism upon Spirituality

To Spurgeon, spiritual integrity was essential. Spurgeon writes that “When man confides in God, there is a point of union between them, and that union guarantees blessing. Faith saves us because it makes us cling to God, and so it brings us into connection with him.”[21] Due to the emphasis on prayer and spiritual integrity, one would not be surprised when one discovers that Spurgeon’s complaints pertaining to the Baptist Union, surrounded, as McBeth denotes, “the decline of prayer meetings among Baptist churches, the worldliness of ministers…and doctrinal decay.”[22] Some might claim that Spurgeon was intruding into affairs that did not concern him. However, such a one would not understand the emphasis that Spurgeon placed upon prayer. To Spurgeon, prayer and a strong relationship with Christ was essential for ministry. Peter J. Morden denotes that “The corporate prayer meeting, as well as being critical to his ministry, was a means of personally experiencing close communion with God. Such times were certainly vital to his prayer life; they were vital too, to his overall spirituality—the way he related to God.”[23] Thus, for Spurgeon, if one did not possess a strong relationship with God, then one would become susceptible to heterodoxy and heresy. In contrast, if one were to remain faithful to God in their spiritual lives, then one would be kept safe in the confines of orthodox beliefs and practices. Spurgeon denoted that “if thou canst trust God in thy trial, thou wilt prove and enjoy the power of prayer. The man that has never needed to pray cannot tell whether there is anything in prayer or not.”[24] Since liberal theology had invaded other areas, the lack of spiritual fervor resulting from such liberal tendencies added further reasons for Spurgeon to leave the Union. If one did not believe in the authority of the Scripture, then why would one desire to live by what the Scriptures claimed?

For modern Christians, the spiritual decline among leadership must also be combated. Dave Earley denoted that recent surveys demonstrated that “only 16 percent of Protestant ministers across the country are very satisfied with their personal prayer life.”[25] Like Spurgeon, the modern church needs to place a high value upon spiritual health—for the pastors and the laity alike. The natural progression of spiritual decline begins with humanistic soteriology and a low integral value for Scripture. It then progresses to decay one’s spiritual life with God before eroding one’s moral integrity. The forthcoming section of the paper will evaluate theological liberalism’s influence upon the moral integrity of the ministers of the Baptist Union in the late nineteenth century.

The Influence of Theological Liberalism upon Morality

Theological liberalism had brought forth moral depravity among those who were supposedly redeemed in the Baptist Union in the late 1800s. Spurgeon called one of the evils penetrating his time the “growth of wickedness in the land, especially in two forms, which we ought not to overlook. One is, the growing worldliness among professing Christians. They are indulging in extravagance in many ways; in luxurious habits, dress equipages, feastings, and so on, and wasting the substance of which they are stewards.”[26]  David Nelson Duke denoted that “Spurgeon’s social concern was grounded in his devotion to God in Christ.”[27] For Spurgeon, living a sinful life was essentially rejecting the authority and even the existence of God. Spurgeon denoted that “There are some, whose lives have proved how sinful their nature was, for their sin has taken the form of open and gross vice…Opposition to divine sovereignty is essentially atheism. Men who have no objection to a god who is really no god; I mean, by this, a god who shall be the subject of their caprice, who shall be the lackey to their will, who shall be under their control.”[28] According to Spurgeon, many among the Baptist Union, both clergy and laity, had engaged in immoral and rebellious acts which demonstrated a lack of commitment and a lack of belief in the sovereign God.

The modern Christian should benefit greatly by Spurgeon’s example, standing against immorality in the Baptist Union. Immorality is the end result of liberal theology. If one does not hold to the authority of Scripture and does not place a high value of the grace of God, then one will be less inclined to maintain a strong spiritual walk with God. If one does not maintain a strong spiritual walk with God, then one will collapse into a worldly lifestyle. According to Spurgeon, such a collapse was transpiring in the Baptist Union in the late nineteenth century. Since Spurgeon had no backing by the leadership of the Baptist Union, the only recourse left for Spurgeon was to resign his association from the Baptist Union.

Conclusion 

This paper has evaluated the influence of theological liberalism upon the Baptist Union and in the decision of Charles Haddon Spurgeon and the Metropolitan Tabernacle leaving the Baptist Union. The paper has demonstrated that, according to Spurgeon, theological liberalism had led many ministers to minimize the influence of God in salvation, even leading many to Unitarian beliefs. In addition, the paper evaluated Spurgeon’s claims that theological liberalism had lessened the authority that many had placed upon Scripture. Due to these influences, theological liberalism was shown to influence the spiritual and moral lives of the clergy, ultimately influencing the laity, also. The downside to such a paper as this is that only one side of the equation is offered. For those who were accused of liberalism, those individuals may have claimed that Spurgeon was reaching beyond the boundaries, becoming greatly involved in the lives of others. Nonetheless, history tends to reveal the truth. While Spurgeon’s withdrawal did not hold a huge impact upon the Baptist Union at the time, eventually it would. The Baptist Union remained in steady decline throughout the twentieth century. Perhaps one of the greatest tragedies was the remarkable impact the controversy factored into the famed preacher’s health.

While certain aspects of Spurgeon’s ministry are not accepted by this paper—perhaps mostly the disdain that Spurgeon held for apologetics seen so clearly in some of his messages; this paper commends Spurgeon for the convictions he held pertaining to the authority of Scripture, proper theology, and the impact that a relational walk holds in the life of the believer. Modern Christians would do well to share these convictions even if they do not agree with Spurgeon on all fronts.

 The previous paper represents the academic work of Brian Chilton. The work has been submitted and thus any attempt to plagiarize this work in future academic works will be noted by one’s academic institution. As always, be sure to offer proper citations for any work used in this piece.

Copyright July 2, 2015. Brian Chilton

Bibliography

Cairns, Alan. Dictionary of Theological Terms. Belfast; Greenville, SC: Ambassador Emerald International, 2002.

Duke, David Nelson. “Charles Haddon Spurgeon: Social Concern Exceeding an Individualistic, Self-help Ideology.” Baptist History and Heritage 22, 4 (October 1, 1987): 47-56. Accessed May 28, 2015. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost.

Earley, Dave. Prayer: The Timeless Secret of High-Impact Leaders. Chattanooga, TN: Living Ink Books, 2008.

Elwell, Walter A. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Baker Reference Library. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996.

Estep, William Roscoe. “The Making of a Prophet: An Introduction to Charles Haddon Spurgeon.” Baptist History and Heritage 19, 4 (October 1, 1984): 3-15. Accessed May 28, 2015. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost.

Ferguson, Duncan S. “The Bible and Protestant Orthodoxy : The Hermeneutics of Charles Spurgeon.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 25, 4 (December 1, 1982): 455-466. Accessed May 28, 2015. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost.

Geisler, Norman L. Chosen But Free: A Balanced View of God’s Sovereignty and Free Will. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2010.

Keathley, Kenneth. “The Work of God: Salvation.” A Theology for the Church. Edited by Daniel L. Akin. Nashville: B&H, 2014.

McBeth, H. Leon. Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness. Nashville: B&H Academic, 1987.

Morden, Peter J. “C. H. Spurgeon and Prayer.” Evangelical Quarterly 84, 5 (October 1, 2012): 323-344. Accessed May 28, 2015. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost.

Piper, John. Charles Spurgeon: Preaching Through Adversity. Minneapolis: Desiring God, 2015.

Pitts, John. “British and American Preaching Since 1900.” Baker’s Dictionary of Practical Theology. Edited by Ralph G. Turnbull. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1967.

Skinner, Craig. “The Preaching of Charles Haddon Spurgeon.” Baptist History and Heritage 19, 4 (October 1, 1984): 16-26. Accessed May 28, 2015. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost.

Spurgeon, Charles Haddon. All of Grace. n.g.: CountedFaithful.org, 2012. Kindle Electronic Edition.

Spurgeon, Charles Haddon. “The Child of Light Walking in Darkness.” The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons. Volume 33. London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1887.

______________________. “A Sermon for the Time Present.” The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons. Volume 33. London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1887.

______________________. “General Yet Particular.” The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons. Volume 10. London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1864.

______________________. “It Pleased God.” The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons. Volume 56. London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1910.

______________________. An All-Round Ministry. Edinburgh, UK; Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2003.

______________________. The Downgrade Controversy. Charleston, SC: BiblioBazaar, 2008.

[1] John Piper, Charles Spurgeon: Preaching Through Adversity (Minneapolis: Desiring God, 2015), 1.

[2] John Pitts, “British and American Preaching Since 1900,” Baker’s Dictionary of Practical Theology, Ralph G. Turnbull, ed (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1967), 14.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Kenneth Keathley, “The Work of God: Salvation,” A Theology for the Church, Daniel L. Akin, ed (Nashville: B&H, 2014), 543.

[5] Norman L. Geisler, Chosen But Free: A Balanced View of God’s Sovereignty and Free Will (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2010), 19.

[6] William Roscoe Estep, “The Making of a Prophet: An Introduction to Charles Haddon Spurgeon,” Baptist History and Heritage 19, 4 (October 1, 1984): 6, retrieved May 28, 2015.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Duncan S. Ferguson,”The Bible and Protestant Orthodoxy: The Hermeneutics of Charles Spurgeon,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 25, 4 (December 1, 1982): 455, retrieved May 28, 2015.

[9] Craig Skinner, “The Preaching of Charles Haddon Spurgeon,” Baptist History and Heritage 19, 4 (October 1, 1984): 22, retrieved May 28, 2015.

[10] The realm of God’s knowledge of future contingents resembles that of modern Open Theism.

[11] Alan Cairns, Dictionary of Theological Terms (Belfast; Greenville, SC: Ambassador Emerald International, 2002), 420–421.

[12] C. H. Spurgeon, “General Yet Particular,” The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, Volume 10 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1864), 238.

[13] C. H. Spurgeon, “Progressive Theology,” Sword and Trowel (April 1888), in C. H. Spurgeon, Down-grade Controversy (Charleston, SC: BiblioBazaar, 2008), 88.

[14] C. H. Spurgeon, “Notes,” Sword and Trowel (1891), in Charles H. Spurgeon, The Down-grade Controversy (Charleston, SC: BiblioBazaar, 2008), 148.

[15] Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 154.

[16] Two examples of this are found in the demythologization of the Bible presented by Rudolf Bultmann and the ideas of Paul Tillich.

[17] Ferguson, “The Bible and Protestant Orthodoxy,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 458-459.

[18] C. H. Spurgeon, “Another Word Concerning the Down-grade,” Sword and Trowel (August 1887), in The Down-Grade Controversy (Charleston, SC: BiblioBazaar, 2008), 36.

[19] C. H. Spurgeon, “The Child of Light Walking in Darkness,” The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, Volume 33 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1887), 557.

[20] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture comes from the English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001).

[21] C. H. Spurgeon, All of Grace (n.g.: CountedFaithful.org, 2012), Kindle Electronic Edition, 591.

[22] C. H. Spurgeon, The “Down-Grade Controversy: Collected Materials Which Reveal the Viewpoint of the Late Charles Haddon Spurgeon (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publishing, n.d.), 513-514, in H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville: B&H Academic, 1987), 303.

[23] Peter J. Morden, “C. H. Spurgeon and Prayer,” Evangelical Quarterly 84, 5 (October 1, 2012): 325, retrieved May 28, 2015.

[24] Spurgeon, “The Child of Night Walking in Darkness,” The Metropolitan Tabernacle, 550.

[25] Dave Earley, Prayer: The Timeless Secret of High-Impact Leaders (Chattanooga, TN: Living Ink Books, 2008), 1.

[26] C. H. Spurgeon, An All-Round Ministry (Edinburgh, UK; Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2003), 102.

[27] David Nelson Duke, “Charles Haddon Spurgeon: Social Concern Exceeding an Individualistic, Self-help Ideology,” Baptist History and Heritage 22, 4 (October 1, 1987): 47, retrieved May 28, 2015.

[28] C. H. Spurgeon, “It Pleased God,” The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, Volume 56 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1910), 292-293.

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