Written by J. I. Packer Reviewed By A. T. B. McGowan

This very substantial volume of over 400 pages is J. I. Packer’s doctoral thesis, as submitted to Oxford University in 1954, with only minor changes. It is a sympathetic account, although one which does not shy away from pointing out weaknesses in or disagreements with Baxter’s theology. Above all, however, the author wants to let Baxter speak for himself.

The book is divided into four parts plus an introduction and conclusion. Part I, chapters 1–4, deals with Baxter ‘The Theologian’; Part II, chapters 5–7, deals with ‘The Ruin of Grace’; Part III, chapters 8–11, deals with ‘The Redemption of the World’; and Part IV, chapters 13–15, deals with ‘The Restoration of the Elect’. As might be expected of a dissertation, there are copious notes, appendices and a bibliography.

Packer’s main concern in the book is to respond to those whom he believes have misunderstood Baxter. This includes those who do not believe that Baxter was clear and consistent; those who dismiss him as being less than a thoroughly competent theologian; those who believe that he was simply an Amyraldian; and those who have not taken the time and care to understand how his system of theology works. On this latter point, Packer argued that most commentators have failed to grasp ‘the key which unlocks his system: his so-called “political method” ’ (10).

Packer, in seeking to set Baxter in his context, says, ‘If Puritan theology is second-generation Calvinism, Baxter’s theology is second-generation Puritanism’ (43). He also wants to affirm that Baxter is in the mainstream of Puritanism, noting that the movement was dividing into ‘Platonic rationalists’ and ‘biblical Augustinians’ but that Baxter sought to hold both of these emphases together in a synthesis (94–95).

There were various factors which influenced Baxter but two in particular: ‘The doctrine of the covenant of grace was, chronologically, the first great influence moulding Baxter’s mind, and the Arminian controversy, which raged throughout his youth, was the second’ (193). He was orthodox on many matters. For example, on human nature, God’s nature and the Law of nature (105–127); on the fall and its impact on humanity (133–52); and so on.

There were, of course, problems in his theology, not least concerning the atonement. Packer sums up Baxter’s problem in this way: ‘Arminianism denied special grace to the elect, limited atonement denied general grace to the world’ (230). In solving this problem, however, Baxter moved along lines similar to those of Cameron, Amyraut and Usher who had developed a ‘hypothetical universalism’. He was not content with their position, however, recognising its theological inconsistencies and inadequacies and so developed what has come to be called ‘Baxterianism’, which sought to correct these (399). The way in which he expressed the doctrine of justification was also somewhat problematic, although Packer thinks the divergence with the other Puritans was more in expression than substance (405).

Throughout there are fascinating insights into Baxter. For example on his understanding of faith (363) and his critique of Antinomianism—of which Packer approved (ch. 14).

This book is well worth reading and repays careful study, although those who are used to Packer’s more popular writings will have to be prepared for a slower and more demanding read. This reviewer looks forward, however, to the promised further book on Baxter, not least because of the work which has been done on Baxter and on Amyraldianism since this thesis was written, for example, the work of Brian G. Armstrong and Alan C. Clifford. It would be good to see how Packer engages these men (and others, like R. T. Kendall) in the context of a fresh treatment of Baxter.

A. T. B. McGowan

A. T. B. McGowan
University of the Highlands and Islands
Inverness, Scotland, UK