Jacob Vernet – Lessons In Latitudinarianism

“We have no creed but the Bible.”
“Baptists use confessions descriptively, not prescriptively.
“Local church autonomy is an absolute.”
___________ violates “religious liberty.”
___________ violates “soul competency.”
___________ violates “priesthood of the believer.”
___________ violates “historic Baptist principles.”

or

If you don’t believe _______, _______, and _______, then you are to be disfellowshipped, even if these items exceed the parameters of our shared confession.

Who among us Baptists has not heard or read these ideas or exact words in Baptist politics in the past few decades? Why do we hear them?

We hear them because there is some truth to each one, yet there is another manner in which each objection can be taken in a misleading direction. We believe in Sola Scriptura. We use confessions, and Baptist history is littered with prescriptive and descriptive uses of confessions. We believe in local church autonomy, but we reserve the right to reprove our neighbors and, as a last resort, even disfellowship a church. On the other hand each of these principles can be abused.

In this article, I hope to elaborate a bit on the old adage that those who do not listen to history are doomed to repeat it themselves. Baptists are notoriously insular at times. One of the current concerns of Southern Baptists has, in the past few years, been the attitude on the part of other Southern Baptists that, “as the SBC goes, so goes the rest of evangelicalism.” On the other hand, there are those who have expressed concern about “Baptist identity” (defined by them in, for example, the IMB’s new missionary guidelines). In response, some have accused them attempting to so narrow the parameters of cooperation that they exclude all who do not share their beliefs from service, while at the same time accepting their support for missions.

From my perspective, one of the reasons this is a problem in the SBC is the nature of the Baptist Faith and Message. The current BFM is the fourth iteration of the New Hampshire Confession. It is used by churches and a denomination for which the NHC was not written. For example, given the history of the NHC, how can a soteriological synergist really read his doctrine into it, when the NHC was written with monergistic categories in mind? Logically, they cannot, yet many do. On the other hand, the BFM is quite clear on closed communion, but many SBC churches ignore it when it suits them, just as they seem to ignore the portion of the section on Religious Liberty that states clearly that the church should not resort to the state’s power in order to do its work.

One reason this may be problem in our current context arises from several generations who did not take the BFM seriously or as seriously as their forebears took the Philadelphia Confession when they signed the SBC Charter. In addition, seminary professors were signing off on the Abstract of Principles in some seminaries while not truly believing in them and teaching their content. Instead, they said they could sign them if they were allowed to (re)interpret them on their own. There are still some today who do the same thing, even on the conservative side of the aisle. As a result, on the one hand latitudinarianism arose and on the other pragmatism arose, for men decided “for the sake of ‘unity,” we shall put aside our differences.” That’s a laudable goal, but it resulted in a reductionistic approach on the one hand, as well as a pragmatic ethical undercurrent. In the end, as we shall see, doctrinal latitudinarianism and pragmatism, whether argued by theological conservatives or liberals, are just two sides of one coin on the crossroads to a slide into oblivion.

In this article, we examine the late 18th century period in Geneva under Jacob Vernet, as a case study. I think my Baptist brethren will recognize much of their history in the past century encapsulated in this article.

After the death of Francis Turretin, Amyraldianism (e.g. “moderate” Calvinism, in the parlance of that day), and then crypto-Arminianism invaded Geneva. This was followed by pragmatism, Enlightenment rationalism, and secularism. The door had been opened contrary to the desires of Turretin, within his own lifetime. It is also important to note that Vernet himself was one of the last orthodox men in Geneva, and, while this article will seem critical of his views, he is not to regarded as unorthodox in his personal views. Rather, his approach coupled with that of the others in Geneva’s Academy led to this situation. Vernet himself was a professor of theology from 1756 until his death in 1789. He inherited his theology, in part from Jean-Alphonse Turretin.

Turretin’s theology, he believed, was pastoral. Yet it resembled little in the way of orthodox Calvinism in Geneva of prior generations. Rather, it more closely resembled the Remonstrant theology. Amyraldianism had, contrary to the wishes of Francis, prevailed, and now it bore its fruit in Jean-Alphonse. Combined with the growing popularity of Enlightenment philosophy Geneva’s theology had so changed that by the time of Vernet, even those outside the Reformed faith were accusing Geneva of Socinian sympathies. These were somewhat overstated, but there is truth to the accusation, as we can tell from Vernet’s long and often convoluted responses to critics.

As we examine Vernet’s responses, read carefully, for you will find certain themes repeated today in broader evangelical circles and Baptist circles in particular. In the SBC’s fight against “liberalism,” ask yourself if the SBC, if it does not recover the material principle of the Reformation, the gospel itself, it will not sink into the depths of sloppy theology and pragmatic praxis, only to find itself walking down the same path from which they believe themselves to have recovered, only wearing a different pair of shoes, for, in the end, there is are often common principles that underwrite both radical separatist fundamentalism and syncretic liberalism.

Vernet, according to Martin I. Klauber ( “Theological Transition in Geneva from Jean-Alphonse Turretin to Jacob Vernet,” in Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment, ed. Carl R. Trueman and R. Scott Clark, Paternoster, 1999, 2005, 256-270, hereafter called Klauber), defined religion as a relationship between God and man in which we are obligated to honor and obey, fear divine justice, and depend on God’s grace (Klauber, 262). In doing this, he reduced Christian religion to ethical and practical terms. His interest was the promotion of a utilitarian, natural theology that he believed both atheists and skeptics would find palatable and relevant, as a “neutral ground,” in which all citizens could find common cause.

Likewise, he used natural theology as proof for the truthfulness of the faith. Again, looking for common ground with unbelievers. He did not mention doctrines like predestination and election or the internal witness of the Holy Spirit. He believed that evidentialism in the way of fulfilled prophecy and biblical miracles was a reasonable and convincing basis and less “fideistic” than the more complex doctrinal and exegetical defenses of the faith common then, in which fideism and rationalism had, during this period, become radically opposed philosophically.

To a certain extent, there is some truth here, for many today would defend the faith from a fideistic posture, as if faith was some sort of reason free leap. On the other hand, others will defend the faith from an evidentialist posture, as if autonomous human reason is able, from a state of nature, to apprehend and love truth without the illumination of the Holy Spirit. The former operates from a less than robust definition of faith, which is opposed not to reason in Scripture, but sight, and the latter suffers from a diminution of the noetic effects of sin on the human mind. In the case of Vernet’s Geneva, they also suffered from a less robust presentation of the Christian worldview and Christian theology, resulting in a minimalist approach that did not live up to their expectations.

Problems would arise through this minimalist posture. If something was deemed “unreasonable” it was to be rejected. Thus revelation itself did not arbitrate the object and content of faith, doctrine, and practice; rather reason, e.g. the philosophies and theories that prevailed in the age, arbitrated. It is one thing to say that reason is the handmaiden of faith and the two are not logically opposed; it is quite another to allow the philosophies of the day and not Scripture itself dictate what is reasonable, ethical, and doctrinally true. Reason is a tool, but it rests on sinking sand if it can be swayed by the ever changing winds of literary theory. We have only to look at the history of higher-critical theory and its theological fruit to see this phenomenon at work. In the end, in Geneva, to be a good Christian meant to be a good citizen, and vice versa, without reference to doctrine, within just a few generations.

For example, Turretin had written The Necessity of Revelation. Vernet turned this title to The Usefulness of Revelation, again to promote natural theology. In the end, he came to teach that the foreign, “heathen” could be saved, perhaps, without specific knowledge of Jesus Christ, but by their response to whatever natural light they may have. Does this sound familiar?

Vernet employed five principles. Note the lack of clarity, for some are true in one sense, yet untrue in another. Note also the common thread, “reason,” loaded with its 18th century philosophical meaning.

1. Faith must never contradict reason.
2. Revelation cannot contradict itself and shows the reasonableness of the Christian faith.
3. Revelation perfects natural theology.
4. Revelation provides specific information about Christ and eternal life.
5. Biblical miracles and prophecy authenticate true revelation.

By way of reply:
1. Is that true, or is it that reason must never contradict faith? What determines the content of “faith,” and “reason?”
2. Clause one is true, so far as it goes, but, again, what arbitrates what is “reasonable?”
3. Is this so, or is revelation superior to natural theology?
4. True, but what if reason determines something is not reasonable? Which do we accept?
5. What if we come to believe that the Bible itself is inauthentic?

As you can see, the lack of clarity results in responses from either a more conservative direction or a more latitudinarian direction. In addition, Vernet also stated that he believed Christianity had become overlaid with too many traditions and needed simplifications. His response was to use only the language found in the Bible. This was in one sense, one of the calls of the Reformers; yet on the other, many in Christian history have also used this same argument, like Alexander Campbell and Mary Baker Eddy, the Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and even the Arians. It is also the call of many a separatist fundamentalist who claim he has “no creed but the Bible.”

Vernet came into conflict with the French philosophers of the age, particularly Voltaire. the center of the conflict centered on Voltaire’s desire to bring the theater to Geneva. Vernet’s opposition rose not on theological grounds, but on practical grounds. How many times in Baptist politics in the past year have we heard men opposed a perceived vice on ethical and dodgy exegetical ground or raise ethical and philosophical but not substantive exegetical objections to the doctrines of grace?

D’Alembert later wrote an Encyclopedia article on Geneva in which he accused the Council of Pastors of Socinianism (Ibid, 266). Their response was lackluster at best. Here, it should be read for what it did not say as much as what it did say.

They affirmed the divine inspiration of Scripture. The affirmed the divinity of Christ and the Holy Spirit. They stated they believed reason is subservient to the Word of God, and they said we can know about eternal life by it. Then they defended their use of natural theology and philosophy, arguing these two did not contradict revelation.

The old orthodox adherents to the Second Helvetic Consensus saw this for what it lacked. There was, for example, no mention of the Trinity or a repudiation of Arianism or other others errors.
Vernet’s personal response was quite telling. He defended Genevan Christology, grace, and the Incarnation. However, he steered clear of words like “Trinity,” because he wanted to use the language of the New Testament alone. In the process, however, “no creed but he Bible,” gave way to heterodoxy as a result.

Vernet argued that he would not hold to even the most essential elements of the ancient ecumenical creed of Nicea in his vocabulary, for, he argued, they represented only the opinions of those bishops. That is, once again, true in one sense and not true in another, for Athanasius informed us that their deliberations were based on the exegesis of Scripture. Ironically, Vernet was also employing, in these statements, the same argument as the Socinians and, in another way, the Arians, who had wanted to only use biblical terminology and not dogmatic language. In fact, this was the argument of John Smyth among the General Baptists of the previous century, who eventually chose not to employ the Bible in any translation because anything, he believed, less than the original manuscripts should be avoided. Helwys parted ways with Smyth after he came to believe Smyth had adopted too many Anabaptist ideas, like their “heavenly flesh” Christology. General Baptists themselves had drifted into Socinianism by the time of Vernet. The next century, Alexander Campbell would employ similar argumentation, and it would become a familiar drumbeat employed by many crypto-liberal theologians in the 20th century, and it would also be adopted by many a fundamentalist up to the present day.

Should we appeal to tradition? Here is the problem: while it is true that Sola Scriptura means that Scripture is the only infallible rule of faith and practice for the Church in its normative state (e.g. past the time of inscripturation), it is not to be construed as “Solo” Scriptura, for the principle does state that we may also appeal to extra-biblical categories, like confessions, theological works, and creeds, as long as their authority and conclusions are subjected to Scripture and are valued in a secondary and fallible capacity. In departing from this second principle, the liberal and the fundamentalist who says he has “no creed but the Bible,” wind up walking hand-in-hand. On the other hand, those who disregard the first principle wind up piling error upon error and wind up with Sola Ecclesia, and not Sola Scriptura. Could it thus be that liberalism and fundamentalism, traditionalism and latitudinarianism, like antinomianism and legalism and hyper-Calvinism and Arminianism, are all two sides of the same coin?

Vernet even described the crucifixion distastefully as a “nude, disfigured, and bloody corpse” that is “not pleasing to the sight.” (Ibid, 268) Isn’t this precisely the language that opponents of the doctrine of penal substitution often employ in the present age?

He affirmed the unity of God and full divinity of Christ. However, he found himself reducing the Holy Spirit to a divine principle. He went on to affirm the Trinity, thusly redefined, and again emphasized its reasonableness and lack of logical contradiction. By 1814, Vernet’s successors had published a revised catechism, removed the doctrine of Christ’s divinity and redemptive work, and they denied that Christ should be worshipped. Instead, he should be honored.

Vernet stated that the pastors no longer strictly held to predestination, but stated that the doctrine was not contradictory to reason. It was a mystery and beyond reason’s scope. (One wonders then, if that is so, how he could know it was not contradictory to reason). How many times have we heard folks in our own church pews state that a doctrine is a “mystery,” in order to justify their own ignorance, or, worse yet, a seminary professor, theological writer, pastor, or denominational spokesman do the same thing in order to either cover up his own sloppiness or, even worse, hide latitudinarianism.

What of hell? Vernet refused speculation on it. To a certain extent, this is warranted, since Scripture is long on its reality but short on exact descriptions of it. However, Vernet came to argue that God might even grant a man pardon from hell after he had served his sentence there. Does this sound familiar? Are there not echoes of this today in the words of some Arminians who speak of the possibility of a post-mortem salvific encounter? Vernet also pointed out the utility of the idea of divine judgment to society at large, and liberals in the next centuries would also speak of the utility of certain ideas derived from theology for motivating people to ethical behavior. This was just another move toward a Christianity that was more “agreeable” and “palatable,” in a word, pragmatic or attractive, to unbelievers than the one of just a century before. Here is the fruit of being “seeker-friendly,” and “felt-needs” oriented. These are not, as I am hoping you are beginning to understand, modern ideas.

This is not to say that Vernet himself was unorthodox doctrinally. However, it is to say that his lack of clarity led to a great deal of justified criticism. In the end, his critics were proven right, not about Vernet himself, but his overall approach. He had so “simplified” Christian religion that he had reduced it to ethics and overly simple doctrine that was, in that state, unclear and indefensible, for it was designed not for the edification of the saints, but wide, pragmatic appeal for society at large. In rejecting the more rigorous approach of the major Reformed confessions and the rigor of the wider Protestant Scholastic tradition in the academy, as well as a latitudinarian approach to the essentials of the first creedal formulas of the Ancient Church, Vernet and the Genevan pastors left the door open for secularism. In fact, in just one generation, Geneva was overrun by those with deistic and atheistic presuppositions.

Vernet is thus a parable for many today, including my fellow Baptists, especially, I think my Southern Baptist brothers and sisters. We must guard against latitudinarianism on the one hand and radical separation on the other. We must not succumb to pragmatism; nor should we so press our opposition to the latest social ills (abortion, gay marriage) that we so wed the church to the state that we begin to sacrifice doctrine for “common ground,” for history tells us that in the end, the outcome is not good. Neither can we be so inclusive with each other that we lack clarity in our doctrinal convictions, whether they be personal or denominational. In our desire to reach the lost, we can not accord the ability to apprehend truth to the unregenerate, autonomous mind working on human reason alone; neither can we reduce apologetics to fideism in order to make ourselves more attractive to “seekers.”

Doctrinal latitudinarianism and radical fundamentalist separatism are, like Arminianism and real hyper-Calvinism, two sides of the same coin. The same is true of rigid traditionalism and pragmatism and of antinomianism and legalism Let us learn from these examples, unless we repeat these same errors yet again.

It is also worth noting that these events were set in motion in Geneva not by confessional, orthodox Calvinism, but by the triumph of Amyraldianism in one generation and then the insertion of Arminianism. This is one reason why men like Dr. Philip Ryken and James Boice have stated, “The pathway from Calvinism to liberalism – and even atheism – is well worn, and it usually passes through Arminianism.” (The Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel, Crossway, 2002, 66).

In addition, and more importantly, the lack of clarity and the “can’t we all just get along” attitude today hearkens back to Geneva of this period too, does it not? Why should we be concerned about debating theology in public? That’s “divisive.” Why not just reduce doctrine to a few bare essentials and leave it at that? The Fundamentals of the beginning of the last century were a brave attempt, but did that really serve its purpose?

This is not to say that those who disagree over the doctrines of grace should not cooperate with those who accept them, rather we both should both cooperate and debate theology. We should cooperate and, whatever we teach, teach with precision and clarity. That, incidentally, is one of the biggest problems I have with some of the theology I hear from the anti-Calvinist camp. They can tell us what they believe Calvinism is, but they can’t seem to articulate a coherent theology of their own with any clarity, and they seem to prize an eclectic approach where doctrines are held together in disjoined, unsystematic fashion. For example, I’ve stated many times, that if they were consistent, they’d be functional Unitarians, because in soteriology they place the Father’s work and the Spirit’s work outside a chain of grace. Instead, only the cross is in view. Likewise, we can’t afford to write “broad” and imprecise confessions in which two parties can find radically divergent meanings. Neither can be make every doctrine in the confessions we may draft in the future first order, such that all those who do not agree with us on every jot and tittle are outside the camp.

We can also see, in Vernet’s Geneva, the obvious danger in reducing the faith to ethics and equating being a good Christian with being a good citizen. That is the essence of liberal theology, liberation theology in particular. It can happen if we so bring the church and state together that the state is made an organ of the church, for politics and religion become so entangled in the minds of the people that, when combined with apologetic reductionism and theological latitudinarianism on one hand or doctrinal “simplicity” and “fideism” on the other they can’t tell the difference between ethics and doctrine. On the other, if we too radically separate them, doctrine becomes a mental exercise and we divorce sound piety and service both to each other and in reaching out and serving unbelievers with the gospel and by other means. We cannot let James Dobson determine what makes a good Christian, and we can’t spend so much time passing around petitions against gay marriage that we forget to actually take the gospel to the homosexual or the to women having abortions and to the politicians making the laws. Good citizenry is laudable, but it does not make a new heart, and “Can’t we all just get along,” said by a theological latitudinarian is not functionally different than a separatist fundamentalist making doctrine “simple” or “palatable” for the masses or a reductionist apologetic method. There’s a reason Van Til began his magnum opus with a discourse on Christian theology. We walk a fine line, and we Baptists need to get it together and start talking to each other and not at each other about these issues. Let’s try that this year and see what happens.

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