‘A dirge for the down-grade?’

I recently had a meeting in London at the Oasis Waterloo centre; arriving slightly early, I stayed on the tube for one more stop and went to the Metropolitan Tabernacle bookshop, which I frequent fairly regularly, mostly for its republications of older Puritan and Baptist material that is not easily available elsewhere. I picked up, amongst other things, a slim paperback promising Spurgeon’s original source materials on the ‘Down Grade’ controversy, the event that led to his withdrawal from the Baptist Union, and to several strained relationships.

The volume is not complete (most obviously to my eyes, MTP2085, ‘A Dirge for the Down-Grade’, is missing; that said, I had the privilege of discovering and cataloging Spurgeon’s own notes on this sermon back in the day, so I may be ascribing it undue prominence…); it does, however, collect the relevant notes from the Sword and Trowel, which is valuable. I had not read the material abstracted like this before, and several consistent themes jump out from it, when read in sequence.

Spurgeon is deeply concerned about a general falling-away from Biblical Christianity infecting the churches in his day; he constructs this, not as a matter of degree, but as a fundamental binary: ‘A new religion has been initiated, which is no more Christianity than chalk is cheese…’ (S&T, Aug. 1887) One is, on his construction, faithful – or one is apostate. There is no middle space.

Now, of course, every evangelical will have some sympathy with this; we believe in conversion and the new birth; there is a basic binary divide: once-born vs twice-born; in Adam vs in Christ; … But every thoughtful evangelical will also hesitate, because in our history we have repeatedly and wrongly aligned this basic binary with other opinions which, whilst perhaps important, are not direct correlates. Far too often, we have questioned the salvation of people with whom we disagree about this or that; it is a habit we desperately need to break.

Spurgeon repeatedly insists that in speaking of a ‘down-grade’ he is not speaking of Arminianism; this is interesting: a century or more earlier a Calvinistic Baptist like Spurgeon would have absolutely identified Arminianism as a departure from Biblical Christianity – and rightly so; seventeenth-century Arminianism was, basically, a rationalistic system. In the eighteenth century, an ‘evangelical Arminianism’ developed which – right or wrong (my sympathies here remain with Spurgeon…) – was nonetheless recognisably committed to the authority of Scripture and the necessity of the new birth.

What is he speaking of? Strikingly, his most common illustration, cited in almost every reference he makes to the ‘Down-grade’, is that pastors not only attend the theatre, but defend the practice of so doing. Next to the theatre, he references the decline of attendance at prayer meetings, and some more theological themes, but this is his most regularly repeated point.

Here, my sympathies are not with Spurgeon.

It happens that, presently, I do not go to the theatre very often; our local theatre closed a couple of years back. In a different context I would go more often. I do not regard this as a basic failure of morality, or a departure from Biblical Christianity (‘theatre’ not being a common Biblical term, as far as I recall…), I know why seventeeth-century Puritans objected to the theatre of their day – they were right to – I do not think their concerns speak meaningfully to the theatre of our day, or of Spurgeon’s. Now, of course, I may be wrong about this, but I suspect there will be relatively few who are wholly with Spurgeon on this one today, and even fewer who would hold up, as he did, theatre-going as the key demonstration of apostasy from the Biblical faith.

I read the texts finally with some sadness; Spurgeon’s basic concerns were not misplaced; there was unquestionably a broad departure from evangelical Christianity amongst the English nonconformists of his day. His mode of waging the campaign, however, seems to me to have been very unfortunate; even he acknowledged that he was drawing a divide not between the faithful and the apostate, but through the middle of the faithful camp, as he separated from those who, whilst remaining committed to Scriptural faith, did not agree with his response to ‘the down-grade’. Further, as the example of the focus on the theatre shows, his illustrations of what constituted apostasy were sometimes rather eccentric, and often enough very poorly aimed. He knew that the central points were the authority of Scripture and the necessity of the new birth; why not stand there, rather than seeking proxies?

Of course, in every age, including our own, the church has been very energetic in seeking out supposedly-plausible proxies for the authority of Scripture and the necessity of the new birth. I have lost count of the number of things I have heard or read faithful Baptists, like Spurgeon, denounce as ‘of primary importance’ because the speaker/writer could not imagine how someone committed to Bible and conversion could accept them. If I take one thing from reading Spurgeon on the down-grade, however, it is a forceful reminder that the limits of my imagination are not interesting theological data. Spurgeon could not imagine how anyone could be faithfully Christian and frequent the theatre; a British Baptist a century later probably could not imagine how Spurgeon could be faithfully Christian and smoke a pipe; a century earlier Mr Wesley (Anglican, not Baptist, admittedly) could not imagine how one could be faithfully Christian and drink tea or coffee.

In evangelicalism today I hear similar things about various issues; I hear very little about the dangers of denouncing the theatre, or similar proxies. And I fear that this might be our real temptation, to which we are comfortably blind: elevating inappropriate proxies to the level of central issues, on the basis that we ‘cannot imagine how’ someone could believe X and still be committed to the authority of Scripture or the necessity of the new birth. Scripture is infallible; our imaginations are not.

2 Comments

  1. Andrew Kleissner
    Mar 3, 2015

    Hallo Steve:

    You have left us hanging in the air and wondering what today’s “inappropriate proxies” might be?

    I could think of some … but I wondered if there are any which jump out at you?

    • John
      Mar 13, 2015

      I don’t know what today’s “inappropriate proxies” are. You generally don’t hear evangelical clergy thundering on about alcohol, dancing, music, theatre, sport, styles of hair or clothing, or other similar issues that were popular targets in the past. I’m referring to the UK in particular, where the only groups that tend to comment on these areas are very small indeed. The situation is different in, for example, America. Interestingly, since Steve mentioned it at the start of his piece, Peter Masters and the Metropolitan Tabernacle, and the people who relate to him, do often express strong views on these subjects.

      But there are plenty of theological subjects where people say you can’t believe in X and be committed to Biblical authority and the necessity of the new birth. Here are some suggestions …

      Same-sex relationships
      Women in church leadership / teaching men
      Evolution / old earth / non-literal Adam and Eve
      Any historical part of the Bible being a myth (related to the above but much wider)
      Atonement as something other than penal substitution
      Ecumenism
      Any view of eschatology other than mine
      Any view of baptism other than mine
      Any view of charismatic gifts other than mine

      The first two probably attract most attention today.

get facebook like button