Theology and Doxology

by

In December 1967, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones gave an address to what was then known as the Puritan Conference, speaking on what some might have considered an esoteric topic: the teachings of a small eighteenth-century movement known as Sandemanianism. Ever a believer in the value of church history for guidance in the present, Lloyd-Jones argued that the errors of this movement had much to teach his hearers, for he felt that there were far too many in contemporary evangelical circles who were replicating the central Sandemanian error, namely, that true faith can be held without deeply felt affections.

Robert Sandeman, the Scottish theologian after whom this error is named, maintained that saving faith is “bare belief of the bare truth.” Sandeman was insistent that faith becomes a work of human merit if it includes anything beyond simple assent to the truth of what God has done through Christ’s death and resurrection. In a genuine desire to exalt the utter freeness of God’s salvation, Sandeman sought to remove any vestige of human reasoning, willing, or desiring in the matter of saving faith. He was wrongly convinced that if the actions of the will or the affections are included in saving faith, then the Reformation assertion of “faith alone” is compromised. Thus, in the Sandemanian system, saving faith is reduced to intellectual assent to the gospel proclamation about Christ.

It should occasion no surprise that many of those who embraced Sandeman’s intellectualist view of faith became stunted in their Christian lives. Andrew Fuller, the Baptist theologian whom Lloyd-Jones identified as the key opponent of Sandeman’s thought, could admit that there were “things worthy of imitation” among the Sandemanians, such as their diligence to study the Bible and live under its authority. Yet, he said, their spirituality “resembles a rickety child, whose growth is confined to certain parts.” Christmas Evans, an influential Welsh Baptist leader and a contemporary of Fuller, adopted Sandemanian views for a number of years in the late 1790s. He soon found himself in the grip of “a cold heart towards Christ, and his sacrifice, and the work of his Spirit,” and dwelling in the “sterile regions of spiritual frost.” Only with much effort and prayer was Evans thankfully freed from the grip of this cold intellectualist system.

Of course, Sandemanianism did not go unopposed. A number of key eighteenth-century evangelical leaders wrote replies and rebuttals of this system, including the Arminian Methodist leader John Wesley, as well as William Williams of Pantycelyn, the ardent Welsh Calvinistic Methodist hymnwriter. It was Fuller, though, who drew up what is regarded as the definitive response to the system of Sandeman in his Strictures on Sandemanianism (1810).

Essentially, Fuller argued that if faith and theological reflection concerned only the mind, there would be no way to distinguish genuine Christianity from nominal Christianity. A nominal Christian mentally assents to the truths of Christianity, but those truths do not grip his heart and so re-orient his affections to glory in God. The opposite of saving faith in Scripture, Fuller noted, is not “simple ignorance,” which it would be if the Sandemanian view of faith were correct. Its opposite is an ignorance that has its roots in a deep-seated hatred of the true God. Christ can therefore state that unbelief rejects Him because, in the words of John 3:19, “people [love] the darkness rather than the light.” Likewise, Ephesians 4:18 talks about the understanding of unbelievers being darkened “because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart.” Surely, Fuller reasoned, the ignorance in view here is much more than mere lack of knowledge. Does it not entail, he asked, a deepseated aversion to God and holy things?

But if unbelief comprises much more than ignorance, then faith and right theology must entail more than knowledge. If unbelief involves an aversion to the truth and a forthright rejection of the gospel, then faith in and reflection on the truth must include a love for and joy in the truth.

Twenty years before the publication of Strictures on Sandemanianism, during the winter of 1790–1791, Fuller paid a visit to a gifted, though quite unconventional, evangelical preacher named John Berridge, the vicar of the Anglican church in Everton, Bedfordshire. After conversing for a while, the two men prayed together. As he later reflected on this visit, Fuller noted that what deeply impressed him about Berridge’s prayers was what he described as “such sweet solemnity, such holy familiarity with God and such ardent love to Christ.” The affective and doxological element that is prominent in this description of Berridge’s prayers epitomizes Fuller’s understanding of some of the necessary elements of saving faith and biblical theology. Measured by this standard, Sandemanianism’s view of faith was a shadow of the real thing, for true faith and right theology are indeed passionately doxological.

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