Burying The Lead On Baxter

Baxter’s doctrine of justification was theological arsenic

I understand that there is great concern today about the rise of a new antinomianism but Richard Baxter is not our model any more than Jacob Arminius is our model. We admire the aspects of the piety of Ignatius of Loyola (c.1491–1556). Baxter’s identification with congregationalists, or the dissenters in 17th century England and his quest for godliness does not qualify him as a pattern for Reformed ministry and preaching any more than Loyola’s does. Baxter disqualified himself as a model of Reformed ministry the moment he abandoned and corrupted the heart of our ministry and the source of true Christian piety: the message of God’s free grace in Christ and salvation sola gratia, sola fide.


There is a phrase in journalism called “burying the lead” (or, since about 1979, the cloying variant lede). The lead (lede) is the paragraph in which the most important, salient facts are contained. In the old days (c. 1975), the writer was supposed to tell the reader the “who, what, where, when, and why” of the story in the first paragraph. Burying the lead has become commonplace as the line between journalism and analysis has been first blurred and then obliterated. Those who write about the history of Reformed theology also sometimes bury the lead. A great example of this phenomenon appeared just today. In a post celebrating the birthday of Richard Baxter (1615–91) an author waits until the 11th paragraph to tell us the following:

Despite his well-intentioned desires for a unified church, however, some of Baxter’s theological positions were unhelpful and divisive. His views on justification and atonement were not in step with the Reformed tradition. (Theologian Paul Helm has found similarities between Baxter and N. T. Wright in their views of justification.) Moreover, in trying to walk a middle path Baxter leaned toward Arminian sentiments in several major areas, though he was Calvinistic in others. This assorted theology annoyed contemporaries in both camps, and it can annoy us too.

According to many, Baxter was a model Reformed pastor, a tireless advocate for Christian piety, and evangelist except that the subdued concessions revealed in the 11th paragraph should give us pause to anyone proposing Baxter as a model for 21st-century Reformed theology, piety, and practice. Let us change the subject of the paragraph to Arminius. He too was a well-intentioned advocate of Christian unity. Some of his theological positions were unhelpful and divisive. By changing the subject of the paragraph we see the importance of not burying the lead.

We may write all we will about how pious Arminius was, about his tireless service, and about how he presented himself to the world. He was, remember, was a minister in the Reformed churches. He died in good standing. He was even made “Rector Magnificus” of the University of Leiden and it could be said that the first and only great ecumenical synod of the Reformed churches of the Netherlands, Great Britain, the Palatinate, France (in absentia), Zürich, et al was dedicated to his memory. Of course, such a narrative about Arminius would be rightly regarded as grossly misleading.

I suppose that most who identify with the Reformed theology, piety, and practice do not realize that Baxter effectively scuttled the Reformation doctrine of justification by God’s unconditional favor alone (sola gratia), through faith resting, receiving, and trusting alone (sola fide). To put this error in context, J. H. Alsted (1618) said: “the article of justification is said to be the article of the standing or falling of the church.” As I wrote in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry,

Richard Baxter sponsored a great crisis in the doctrine of justification in the Reformed churches. His 1649 Aphorisms on justification taught quite clearly that faith justifies because it obeys. Where the orthodox (e.g., Westminster Larger Catechism, 70–73) had been explicit that only Christ’s obedience is the ground and that, in the act of justification, faith’s only virtue is Christ’s finished work. Baxter’s revision of the doctrine of justification prompted sharp responses from John Owen, whose 1677 treatise On the Doctrine of Justification By Faith was an extended repudiation of Baxter.

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