"Down Grade" II
In April, The Sword and the Trowel carried a second article entitled "The Down Grade." In it, Robert Shindler continued his overview of the history of the decline of Puritanism. He laid the blame for the downhill slide at the feet of the church leaders. Even those who were orthodox in their teaching were not earnestly contending (Jude 3), but were weak in defending the faith, Shindler said. As one example, he cited Philip Doddridge (1702-1751), best known today as the hymn writer who penned "O Happy Day" and "Grace, 'Tis a Charming Sound." Doddridge, according to Shindler, "was as sound as he was amiable; but perhaps he was not always judicious; or more probably still, he was too judicious, and not sufficiently bold and decided."
Doddridge had been principle of the academy where most non-conformist ministers went for training in the mid-1700s. Shindler's judgment was that "[Doddridge's] amiable disposition permitted him to do what men made of sterner stuff would not have done. He sometimes mingled in a fraternal manner, even exchanging pulpits, with men whose orthodoxy was called in question. It had its effect on many of the younger men, and served to lessen in the estimate of the people generally the growing divergence of sentiment." In other words, Shindler felt that Doddridge's tolerance of unorthodox teachers obscured from his ministerial students the awful reality that these men were guilty of serious error, and left the students exposed to the deadly effects of their heresy. But, Shindler hastened to add, no one could "insinuate even the suspicion of heresy" against Doddridge himself.
Because of the attitude of tolerance implanted by Doddridge, the academy at last succumbed to Socinianism, then was dissolved in the generation after Doddridge's passing.
Shindler paraphrased Hosea 4:9: "Like priest, like people," and wrote, "Little good can be expected of such ministers, and little hoped for of the hearers who approve their sentiments." He warned against such tolerance, suggesting it is better to err on the side of caution:
In too many cases sceptical daring seems to have taken the place of evangelical zeal, and the husks of theological speculations are preferred to the wholesome bread of gospel truth. With some the endeavour seems to be not how steadily and faithfully they can walk in the truth, but how far they can get from it. To them divine truth is like a lion or a tiger, and they give it "a wide berth." Our counsel is—Do not go too near the precipice; you may slip or fall over. Keep where the ground is firm; do not venture on the rotten ice.
He gave specific examples of how tolerance had led to disaster, noting that the "tadpole of Darwinism was hatched. . . [in a pew] of the old chapel in High Street, Shrewsbury," where Charles Darwin had first been introduced to skepticism by a pastor who was enthralled with Socinianism. And he noted that the chapel once pastored by Matthew Henry, author of the famous commentary on the whole Bible, had for years been teaching "full-blown Socinianism."
The Baptists, Shindler noted, had seen their share of churches on the down-grade. He named several churches in the county of Kent that had embraced Socinianism: those at Dover, Deal, Wingham, and Yalding.
But, he noted, there were a few notable exceptions to the rule. Those churches willing to fight for the faith and uphold the doctrines of grace and God's sovereignty had managed to avoid the fate of those on the down-grade. They were singular illustrations of the up-grade, Shindler said, showing the down-grade in bold relief.
How did so many Bible-believing churches go astray? And why does this happen again and again in human history? Shindler raised these questions:
In the case of every errant course there is always a first wrong step. If we can trace that wrong step, we may be able to avoid it and its results. Where, then, is the point of divergence from the "King's highway of truth"? What is the first step astray? Is it doubting this doctrine, or questioning that sentiment, or being sceptical as to the other article of orthodox belief? We think not. These doubts and this scepticism are the outcome of something going before.
What was that "something"? What was the common denominator between all those who started on the down-grade?
The first step astray is a want of adequate faith in the divine inspiration of the sacred Scriptures. All the while a man bows to the authority of God's Word, he will not entertain any sentiment contrary to its teaching. "To the law and to the testimony," is his appeal concerning every doctrine. He esteems that holy Book, concerning all things, to be right, and therefore he hates every false way. But let a man question, or entertain low views of the inspiration and authority of the Bible, and he is without chart to guide him, and without anchor to hold him.
In looking carefully over the history of the times, and the movement of the times, of which we have written briefly, this fact is apparent: that where ministers and Christian churches have held fast to the truth that the Holy Scriptures have been given by God as an authoritative and infallible rule of faith and practice, they have never wandered very seriously out of the right way. But when, on the other hand, reason has been exalted above revelation, and made the exponent of revelation, all kinds of errors and mischiefs have been the result.
Shindler noted a correlation between Calvinistic doctrine and a high view of Scripture, suggesting that the great majority of those who remained committed to the authority of Scripture were "more or less Calvinistic in doctrine." In the "Notes" section of that same issue of The Sword and the Trowel, Spurgeon added this: "We care far more for the central evangelical truths than we do for Calvinism as a system; but we believe that Calvinism has in it a conservative force which helps to hold men to the vital truth." The clear implication to both Spurgeon and Shindler was that a high view of Scripture goes hand in hand with a high view of divine sovereignty. Moreover, Shindler noted, those churches that held firmly to sound doctrine remained healthy and flourished, while those that embraced Socinianism inevitably began to dwindle and die. Shindler quoted the Rev. Job Orton, a man who evidently had Socinian leanings himself but nonetheless wrote a warning to pastors flirting with liberal theology:
"I have long since found," says [Orton] "(and every year that I live increases my conviction of it), that when ministers entertain their people with lively and pretty things, confine themselves to general harangues, insist principally on moral duties, without enforcing them warmly and affectionately by evangelical motives; while they neglect the peculiars of the gospel, never or seldom display the grace of God, and the love of Christ in our redemption; the necessity of regeneration and sanctification by a constant dependence on the Holy Spirit of God for assistance and strength in the duties of the Christian life, their congregations are in a wretched state; some are dwindling to nothing, as is the case with several in this neighbourhood, where there are now not as many scores as there were hundreds in their meeting-places, fifty years ago. . . . There is a fatal deadness spread over the congregation. They run in 'the course of this world,' follow every fashionable folly, and family and personal godliness seems in general to be lost among them. There is scarcely any appearance of life and zeal."
Shindler wryly added, "It would seem that Orton had seen the folly of 'the down grade' course, and was anxious to bear his testimony, to deter others."
Then he closed that article with an appeal to the centrality and sufficiency of God's Word:
But leaving men and their opinions, the Word of the Lord standeth fast forever; and that Word to every one who undertakes to be God's messenger, and to speak the Lord's message to the people, is "He that hath my word, let him speak my word faithfully. What is the chaff to the wheat? saith the Lord."
"The Lord help us all to be 'steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as we know our labour shall not be in vain in the Lord.'"
With that the two-part series ended.
Shindler appended it with a third article for the June Sword and Trowel. The June article offered an analysis of a heresy trial in America involving some professors from Andover Theological Seminary, Andover, New York. Andover had been founded less than a hundred years earlier in response to Socinianism at Harvard. Andover's founders, Shindler wrote, "were sound Calvinists of the Cotton Mather type, and the College was instituted for the special purpose of training men in that faith." Shindler accused "the five gentlemen who now fill professorial chairs" with having "seriously departed from the faith of the founders." They did this by deceit, Shindler said. Having subscribed to the school's doctrinal statement, they were now undermining it by their teaching, which had been labeled "Progressive Orthodoxy" by some. Shindler had his own assessment: "Indeed the progression is so considerable that the "orthodoxy" is lost sight of. He went on to chronicle the heresies taught by these men, which, though considered subtle in the late nineteenth century, were indeed serious defections from the faith.
Shindler saw the Andover disaster as an object lesson on the dangers of the down-grade, and he did not hesitate to make the point, using American Baptists as an illustration, that The Baptist Union in England was headed down the same road.
Three months later, Charles Haddon Spurgeon himself would write about "the down-grade." The controversy was only beginning to heat up.