The Marrow of Modern Divinity (Book Review)

momdA couple years ago I began examining my reading habits. You see, I’ve always been a book reader, particularly Christian books since my college years. But it occurred to me that the kinds of books I had been reading were mostly published in the last 20 years or so, and the bulk of them published in the last 5 years. In other words, I’ve only been reading contemporary books written by authors who live in the same time I inhabit. Although not on purpose, I had been neglecting some of the truly great books that have survived the test of time. So I resolved to read at least one Puritan book a year, and one “old classic” book (defined by me as a book at least 100 years old) annually. Often these kinds of books are harder to read for various reasons: (1) the typeset is old-fashioned, (2) the concepts are expressed in antiquated language, (3) the particular issues are no longer current but resigned to history, (4) the sentence structure and logical argumentation requires more concentration than today’s author’s demand. There are other reasons too, but classic books are usually worth the extra effort. The payoff is often bigger than reading today’s voices. Not necessarily because they are smarter or better writers, but because in many ways they are not us. It is the same payoff one gets from reading books that come from a different culture, subculture, or language group, except the distance is heightened by time as well. And old books that have survived the test of time offer an additional benefit. According to C.S. Lewis (from his Introduction to Anthanisius: On the Incarnation),

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. … To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

So I set out to read Edward Fisher’s 17th century classic The Marrow of Modern Divinity (MOMD). This book met both my “old classic” and Puritan book goal. And although it took awhile, I’m glad to have taken the time to digest its contents.

MOMD is a unique book divided into two parts. Part One is penned as a theological conversation between four gentlemen: a minister (Evangelista), a new Christian (Neophytus), a legalist/Pharisee (Nomista), and a “no-law” and “cheap-grace” advocate (Antinomista). Each is a humble and honest character, willing to engage Evangelista in dialogue about the nature of the Christian life, the relationship between law and grace, and the two great errors of Christian living in regard to the commands of God (legalism and antinomianism). The author takes great pains to describe why these questions are so important to understand the gospel and what God requires of man. Annotated throughout by the eminent 17th century Scottish puritan Thomas Boston, the prose is surprisingly accessible for its age. Even though Fisher’s and Boston’s English has not been updated, they obviously wrote for the common person to understand. The effect is that non-scholars can read and comprehend it quite sufficiently more than 300 years later. Although Boston’s notes are helpful for explanation and providing historical background information pertaining to the “Marrow Controversy” in the Church of Scotland, I found they became somewhat tedious, distracting and a hindrance to enjoying the dialogue. Perhaps that is my fault, since they are meant for study after one is familiar with the body of the book. I read Boston’s notes in tandem, which slogged me down in my reading.

Part Two is a separate dialogue between Evangelista, Neophytus, and a new character Nomologista (similar to Nomista in Part One). Neophytus has become confused by his friend Nomologista who claims to have more or less kept the 10 Commandments. Since Neophytus doesn’t believe this is possible for anyone (even a Christian), they both agree to consult Evangelista, who proceeds to explain the spiritual nature of God’s law following the Westminster Larger Catechism’s outline. Each of the commandments in expounded in its positive and negative requirement, and rooted in the heart and motive for obedience. It becomes clear to Neophytus and Nomologista that neither had truly understood the extent of the Law until Evangelista explained it to them, for which they are quite thankful.

MOMD has been printed and reprinted in many different editions over the centuries.  This edition from Christian Heritage is the new standard.  It includes all of Thomas Boston’s essays and annotations in perhaps the least intrusive yet accessible format possible, an introduction to the book describing its historical importance to Scotland, England, and America, and the appended historical document on “The Occasion of the ‘Marrow’ Controversy.”  A full scripture index and bibliography of all books pertaining to MOMD round out this edition.

In today’s church the distinction between the covenant and works and the covenant of grace is sometimes blurred. Worse, today’s church is oftentimes confused about the role (if any) of the law in the Christian’s life. As far as I can tell, MOMD answers every possible question that may come to mind regarding these issues, quoting liberally from various puritans, reformers, reformation era catechisms and confessions, and most of all from Scripture itself. To reorient yourself, family, friends, and church to the grace of the gospel and its requirements, while steering clear of the dangers of legalism and antinomianism, you’ll find MOMD a helpful and classic guide.  Sinclair Ferguson, who preached an excellent three-part series on the Marrow Controversy, says, “Anyone who comes to grips with the issues raised in The Marrow of Modern Divinity will almost certainly grow by leaps and bounds in understanding three things: the grace of God, the Christian life, and the very nature of the gospel itself.  I personally owe it a huge debt.”

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