Review of Adam Clarke’s “Christian Theology” – John Boruff

Clarke's Christian TheologyI just finished catechizing my daughter Mary with Adam Clarke’s Christian Theology (1835): its taken almost 2 years. I think this is a rare gem of theology. Its systematic, but it is also revivalist (a hard combination to find). The life of God is breathing on this book. Clarke was one of the successors of John Wesley and knew him in his old age. An Arminian couldn’t ask for a better starting point in studying Christian doctrine: it is sound doctrine, practical, and driven by a holy life. I would also suggest Wesleyana (1840) as a companion volume. Clarke does not waste time on speculative subjects. But all throughout the volume, he presents some interesting and convincing anti-Calvinistic arguments. Clarke’s style is more stream-of-consciousness: he writes as if he’s preaching his heart out. Like in Wesley’s sermons, you see lots of exclamation points (!) as he makes statements and pointed observations. Although there are perhaps hundreds of sentences in this book that use Biblical expressions, because he writes on the go, he doesn’t take the time to provide many Biblical proof texts (chapters and verses), but assumes the reader is already very familiar with the Bible. I think this is one of the weakest parts of the book, but one that can be easily remedied by careful scholarship. I would challenge some Wesleyan scholar out there to treat this book like Albert Outler treated Wesley’s works, and make some fruitful editorial notes and comments, for many could be made.

1. Scripture. He does not waste time trying prove the inerrancy of Scripture, but simply states that it is authoritative, inspired by God, sufficient for salvation, and does not hesitate to say that dreams and visions played a role in the writing of the Bible.

2. God. God is love, but He also has other attributes: goodness, happiness, self-existence, reason, excellence, moral perfection, lordship, unity of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Matt. 28:19, easily illustrated by a shamrock), that there are degrees of the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, God is a Spirit (an immaterial substance), God is eternal, omnipotent (all powerful), omnipresent (present everywhere through His Spirit), He makes Himself seen, heard, and felt by dreams, visions, voices, and the presence of God in worship and prayer, omniscience (all knowledge), justice, holiness, and benevolence (lovingkindness and charitability)–an attribute that is inconsistent with the Calvinistic doctrines of limited atonement and double predestination. Jesus is God (Col. 1:16-17).

3. Man. God made Adam, the first man, in the Garden of Eden; he was made in the image and likeness of God, not in the likeness of animals or monkeys or any beast. Evolution was not part of it, as this was before Darwin, and Christians actually believed in Genesis 1-3 without doubting. I also believe as Clarke does about creation. Adam was originally very smart and righteous; and had the capability of being physically immortal, if he had eaten from the tree of life. The first occasion of backsliding was the fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3 when they were seduced by a demon-possessed snake. Clarke makes the observation that if if “once saved, always saved” were true, then why would Adam have fallen? He was already in the state of salvation when God made him, but his freedom to resist God’s grace is what led to his downfall. The Arminian doctrine of conditional security has been true since the beginning of time.

4. Salvation and the Christian Life. God’s Spirit grants men REPENTANCE: its a spirit of repentance (2 Tim. 2:25): when a man has this spirit, he “feels deep anguish of soul, because he has sinned against God, unfitted himself for Heaven, and exposed his soul to Hell”…its “a deep and alarming conviction, that thou art a fallen spirit,–hast broken God’s laws,–art under His curse, and in danger of Hell fire” (pp. 122-123). He confesses his sin to God, hates his sin, and makes up his mind that he wants to get it out of his life: he sees and admires the purity of the moral law of Scripture, and looks upon his sin as something vile, impure, and shameful (Rom. 3:20). The first use of the law takes its effect in repentance: it is then that the Ten Commandments scream condemnation and Hell! The next stage is FAITH in the atoning blood of Jesus. This is justification by faith alone–not salvation by faith alone–because repentance and sanctification are also needed for final salvation (Heb. 12:14). But in JUSTIFICATION, the convicted sinner feels like a convict, a criminal about to face a fiery prison sentence, and here comes Jesus with His love to bail him out: he trusts and believes in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and comes to believe that the record of his sins have been erased. Faith in the cross can strengthen or weaken or completely fizzle out, so it is necessary for Christians to do their part and strengthen and keep their faith as much as possible through obedience to Biblical commands, taking the Lord’s Supper, heartfelt prayer and contemplation, Christian fellowship, and good works like evangelism and charity to the poor. Justification is the imputation of God’s forgiveness of our sins (see Romans 4), but it is not the imputation of Jesus’ obedience to the moral law, as Calvinistic antinomians love to preach: Christians are still fully responsible to obey God’s law. As justification also affords the believer a state of adoption into the family of God the Father (Rom. 8:15), the Scripture never insinuates that adoption cannot be cancelled or that persistent backsliders can’t be disinherited. REGENERATION, or the incoming of the Holy Spirit into the Christian’s heart, is an empowerment to live a godly life of SANCTIFICATION; and to hunger and thirst after righteousness and so be filled (Matt. 5:6). It is evidenced by “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control,” as the Holy Spirit regenerates or breathes new life, spirit, and emotion into the sinner’s heart, making a saint out of him (Gal. 5:22-23). Entire sanctification is the great myth of Methodism that I cannot believe, though Clarke teaches it. Nowhere in Ephesians 6, Galatians 5, or Romans 7-8 do I see any indication that the spiritual war with the flesh is supposed to stop at any point in the Christian life. THE WITNESS OF THE SPIRIT, or the spirit of adoption, is mentioned in Romans 8:15-16: “You received the spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” But the adoption remains conditional. This adoption is optional; and remains in the choice of the child of God; if the child runs away from God, he is a prodigal, and will die in his sins if he persists (John 8:24); but if a prodigal returns to God, he will be forgiven and accepted once again (Luke 15:11-32). A child of God can be lost and found, dead or alive again, saved or unsaved, depending on the state of his life, his repentance, and his faith. There is no basis in the Word of God that implies the doctrine of adoption contradicts the fear of Hell. Luke 12:5: “Fear Him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into Hell. Yes, I tell you, fear Him.” Jesus said this to the apostles. Romans 8:15 says, “Ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.” Yes this is true, but let’s not kid ourselves about whom this verse applies to: it only applies to people who are truly experiencing the Holy Spirit of adoption, and this can only be seen in the larger context of Romans 8: a life of purity and righteousness from walking in the Spirit. Such people do not live in constant terror of Hell, simply because their holy lives give them peace with God and comfort from the Holy Spirit. But those who rebel, choose Hell.

–PENTECOSTAL ADDITION–

[Let me add in right here some things that Clarke left out: THE BAPTISM IN THE HOLY SPIRIT, which is to me an outgrowth of regeneration and the witness of adoption. In this experience, clearly explained in chs. 7-8 in P. C. Nelson’s Bible Doctrines, the believer is immersed in the Holy Spirit and he feels the presence of God comforting him, energizing him, filling him with zeal for righteousness, and passion for God (Matt. 3:11; John 14:15). By the presence of this Spirit immersion he gets dreams and visions from God and prophesies based on them (Joel 2:28-29). Spirit-filled Christians have courage to do open-air preaching of the Gospel, like the apostles, George Fox, John Wesley, and the early Pentecostals (Acts 4:18-33). The fruit of the Spirit becomes stronger (Gal. 5:22-23), especially a holy, divine love (1 Cor. 13; Rom. 5:5). SPEAKING IN TONGUES is the most obvious, direct, physical, and observable sign of having been baptized in the Holy Spirit. Acts 2:4: “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” Nelson says that the tongue speaker “knows that his vocal organs are under the control of the Spirit” (p. 88). There were other occasions when it was taken for granted that tongue speakers had been baptized in the Holy Spirit: the house of Cornelius (Acts 10:46 & 11:16), the disciples in Ephesus (Acts 19:1-7), and the church of Corinth (1 Cor. 14). Pentecostals don’t mean that non-Pentecostals don’t have any degree of the Holy Spirit (Nelson, p. 87). That would be absurd; there are many, Wesley included, who did not speak in tongues, but had the witness of the Spirit, the interior fire, the voice of God, the fruit of the Spirit, and regeneration. Pentecostals don’t mean to suggest that they are automatically more godly than non-Pentecostals. They simply mean that they have more of the Holy Spirit available for them to use in the Christian life; but the level to which they use this power is up to them. Spirit baptism is a maximum overflowing of God’s presence, coming out of the man, and causing him to speak in tongues. Ephesians 4:7: “Unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ.” Pentecostals have received a higher measure of the Holy Spirit than other evangelicals, because 1. They want it and need it more and 2. They seek it more. Matthew 7:7: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find.” But where there is no desire nor faith for such things, skeptical evangelicals shouldn’t be surprised if they go on without ever speaking in tongues (e.g., John MacArthur and friends). I agree with Nelson when he says, “We esteem this gift so highly that we are willing to suffer reproach and loss for the sake of the wonderful privilege of receiving the Holy Spirit in the way the hundred and twenty did at Pentecost” (pp. 91-92). The next outgrowth of the Holy Spirit must be THE MIRACULOUS GIFTS (1 Cor. 12:8-10), explained at length by Donald Gee’s Concerning Spiritual Gifts, Jack Deere’s Surprised by the Voice of God, and John Wimber’s Power Healing.] Then what follows is that those who persevere in the state of salvation; and especially those who die in the state of salvation, will die and be in the state of GLORIFICATION, receiving heavenly bodies that will be incapable of thinking or feeling anything evil (1 Cor. 15:40).

5. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Like Wesley and the Anglicans, Clarke tries to find reasons to justify infant baptism, but comes out with no strong arguments. The reality is, every time baptism is referred to in the Bible, it is shown to be an outward symbolic action of death to a sinful life and resurrection to a new life of faith and holiness in the Gospel. The Greek word for baptize means to immerse in water; and so that excludes sprinkling. In the Bible, only adults who are making a free will confession of faith are seen being baptized. For this cause, the Anabaptists shed their blood as martyrs, that the true meaning of baptism would never be lost, nor that the true understanding of salvation would ever be distorted, because that is what ultimately happens when infants are misguidedly baptized for saving purposes. To baptize an infant also insidiously suggests that unbaptized infants who die will go to Hell, because of original sin. Clarke says that the Lord’s Supper should be shared once a month and only with true Christians who are repentant. All forms of irreverence should be avoided. While I will agree with Clarke that the Lord’s Supper is not transubstantiated into the physical body and blood of Christ (as Catholics say), I will believe with Luther that there is a “real presence” of God present in the elements to anyone who has faith (John 6:56). In addition to this, the ceremony is meant to remind Christians of the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross (1 Cor. 11:24).

6. The Christian Family. Clarke believes so strongly in marriage, that he rejects the idea of celibacy, something Paul would have disagreed with him about (1 Cor. 7:8). Spouses are expected to seek God and pray for the Holy Spirit to give them special help to love each other as Christ loves the church. They are expected to leave the control of their parents and cling to each other: “leave and cleave.” Clarke doesn’t hesitate to say that gold diggers, or “those who marry for money are committing adultery as long as they live” (p. 265), because they are liars, and are not truly attached to their spouses in their hearts. Parents, and especially mothers like Susanna Wesley, are to be seen as teachers of their children, they are to teach theology (catechism), reading and writing, and academics, so they can get a good job and take care of themselves when they are older. They should be taught spirituality, so they can know the Spirit of God. Nurture should be balanced by admonition and vice versa (Eph. 6:4), with no harshness, ill temper, or abuse: “cruel parents generally have bad children” (p. 274).

7. Social Policies. Clarke lived in a time when servants and slaves still existed in English society, and he plainly said, “A good servant never disputes, speaks little, and always follows his work” (p. 283). He also explains the different kinds of government: patriarchy, theocracy, monarchy (with autocracy, gynaecocracy, despotism, and tyranny), aristocracy (with oligarchy), democracy (with republicanism and federalism), and finally anarchy. At the time of writing, England was governed by monarchy and aristocracy, while America was governed by democratic republicanism. No matter what form of government is in power, Clarke reminds every Christian that they must still pay their taxes, just as Christ did to Caesar (Matt. 22:21); we are also supposed to honor our rulers and obey the civil laws (Rom. 13). Clarke had no high views of luxurious living. He said:

The affluently rich, full of sensuality, and pampered with the good things of this life, are only occupied with what they shall eat, what they shall drink, how they shall amuse and sport themselves, and wherewithal they shall be clothed according to the endless changes in fantastic flippery fashions; are too busy or too brutally happy to attend to the call of the Gospel; and because it would break in upon their gratifications, they hate religion, despise a crucified Savior and the men who proclaim salvation through His name alone (p. 289).

On the other hand, those who are miserably poor, should look on their trials as momentary, and should work hard to relieve themselves a bit: they should pray for God’s providence to come to their help as they trust in Him (pp. 290-291). Ministers should be zealous Christians and filled with the Spirit of holiness, strong proponents of lordship salvation, and baptized in the Holy Spirit (and I would add, speak in tongues). These are the men who should be ordained for this task. Lay hands on such men and commission them to preach on Hell, the law, and the Gospel! This person must have some level of theological hunger, to know the Bible, and apply the teachings of Jesus to life. I disagree with Clarke allowing women to preach which undermines Biblical male leadership. Nobody needs a preacher’s license: Christ has already commissioned His followers to preach. Preachers should follow in the steps of revivalists and should aspire to be carriers of evangelical revival. The preacher should denounce Calvinistic eternal security, antinomianism, and whatever doctrine throws water on fiery religion. Pastors should avoid talking to women, because it leads to scandals. Clarke would strongly differ with men like John Wimber, who advocated slackness in spiritual disciplines and cracked jokes during sermons. Personal discipline (as in Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline) and solemnity should mark a minister’s behavior at all times: especially during church services. Clarke would strongly differ with flamboyant Pentecostal preachers and televangelists: “Never shake or flourish your handkerchief; this is abominable; nor stuff it into your bosom; this is unseemly” (p. 324). Church members are expected to be Bible centered and support their pastors any way they can, not allowing them to get all worn out.

8. Angels and Demons. The word angel in the Greek means messenger, because their primary function is to bring visionary revelation to prophets, in visions and dreams, in cooperation with God. Angels are, first and foremost, God’s mailmen. Secondly, they also serve the purpose of guarding, protecting, delivering, and guiding true Christians to safety. Demons are fallen angels; and while they are made of the same spiritual light as angels, they have evil designs, and are often revealed to be dark and monstrous, by the revelation of the Holy Spirit, that men may not be deceived, whether as spirits of fear, or lust, or hate, they are evil, malicious spirits, and should be cast out by prayer in Jesus’ name, by Jesus’ blood. “Those who deny the existence of the devil are they who pray little or none at all” (p. 342), because prayer makes a person sensitive to the spirit world.

9. Temptations and Afflictions. Temptations are thoughts and situations that demons take advantage of in order to pull Christians into sinful practices that separate them from fellowship with God. These can often take on a sexual nature, as in the case of Potiphar’s wife, when Joseph rightly ran away from her (Gen. 39). Other temptations are purely mental; and require submission to God and resistance of the devil’s thoughts put into the mind (Jas. 4:7). Handling it by either fight or flight, no real Christian can be neutral with temptation: action must be taken against it in order to remain in salvation. Here lies another reason why “once saved, always saved” is a doctrinal fallacy: resistance to temptation would be unnecessary if eternal security were true. But the reality is that temptation is all around us, at every turn, trying to pull us away from God. “The best way to foil the adversary is by the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God” (p. 349). Afflictions come to all men, both Christians and non-Christians; they come in different forms, but it seems that Christians have more. Medical, financial, and social afflictions can hit anyone, but Christians seem to attract social afflictions more often, because they excite the devil to stir up hypocrites and God haters to come against them. But Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in Heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11-12). When afflictions come, and they usually come at the same time, or one right after another, it is the Christian’s responsibility to view these things as the devil testing their faith to see if it is genuine or false (see Job 1). Christians are advised to avoid Job’s error of blaming God for these things, but should rather bear up under them manfully, trusting God to deliver and bless those who remain faithful to God.

10. Providence. What we call the “providence of God” is the supernatural provision of finances for extreme needs brought about by afflictions. Without afflictions, it is impossible to experience providence: one follows the other, like the solution to a problem that only God can fix. It may come in the form of food or help from other people. But it usually comes in the form of money that has arrived just at the last minute, in the most timely fashion. It may also come in the form of stranded sailors at sea suddenly striking land; and coming into safety at the last minute. Either way, it generally comes in answer to prayer for these needs to be met; and is maintained through faith in God as a Provider. The story of Israel’s wilderness wanderings is one long 40 year lesson in the providence of God; the same with the angel providing food for Elijah; or the time that Jesus multiplied loaves and fish for 5,000 starving people; or the time when Paul and the men on the ship struck land on the island of Malta. All of these are examples of the providence of God.

11. Apostasy. Samuel Dunn was responsible for arranging the topics in this theological work, not Clarke. At first glance it seems that the subject of apostasy should come in right after “entire sanctification” in ch. 12 or XII. But he places it here after the subjects of temptation, affliction, and providence; and rightly so. That is because apostasy usually comes about in destroying a Christian’s faith and holiness through times affliction and temptation. Affliction causes hardship and distraction from God; temptation then comes as a worldly or demonic means of relieving that hardship, deceiving the afflicted soul who has now turned his eye away from God for the moment, and is all consumed with his afflictions: then he accepts the temptation as the solution to his problem, to comfort him in his distress, because he finds no immediate relief from God’s presence or providence; and as a result of continuing in the temptation long enough, finds that the temptation helps him to cope with the afflictions he has been facing, and makes him feel stronger. In this situation, he hardens himself against God, because he feels that God was too weak of a source to turn to for such an affliction as this; but in the temptation he found what he thought was a good enough coping mechanism and stress reliever. In such a case, the Christian fails to pass the test of affliction; and is too impatient to wait for God’s providence to come. He loses his faith and patience in God’s timing; and he compromises for an earthly means of relief: bar hopping, alcoholism, sexual immorality, drug use, secularist rock music and movies, profanity, worldly friends, and other vices of the flesh. Anyone living like this is in a state of damnation if they don’t turn back to God (1 Cor. 6:9-10); they have lost their salvation, but can gain it back immediately if they repent and turn to God. This might be something they have to do over and over, in order to fight themselves out of the devil’s grip, but fight they will if they want to be free from his grip again (Rev. 2:4-5). Calvinists deny that any of this can happen; or they deny that the danger is real enough to be a possible damnation issue. So avoid Calvinism!

12. Death, Judgment, Hell, and Heaven. These four subjects appear together in a cluster intentionally, because they are what the Puritans called “the four last things.” For example, see Robert Bolton’s The Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Hell, and Heaven. They were called this, because they were traditionally the four last subjects dealt with in theology books, and because they were the four last things that Christians will face at the end of their lives. (This was Puritan eschatology, not the rapture, the Antichrist, and the millennium.) All men will experience death because of sin; and then they will be judged by God to see whether they will be fit for Heaven or Hell (Rom. 5:12; Heb. 9:27). Those who die in the state of repentance and faith in the cross will be fit for Heaven, but those who die in the state of impenitence and unbelief, will go to Hell. Faith in the Gospel is the deciding factor, not double predestination, not Purgatory, not annihilation, not universal love and salvation–but personal faith and holiness. Luke 16 shows us a number of things about living in Hell: sorrow, pain, thirst, regret, desire to escape, desire to warn loved ones on earth but being unable, burning in fire, etc. There is no escape from this burning heart of the earth. In Hell the earthly state of probation is over; now all chances of returning to God through repentance and faith are lost: those in there must suffer eternally under the wrath of God. Heaven is the eternal living space of those who die in the state of repentance and faith in the cross (salvation). New Jerusalem is its capital city and the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit reside there in full manifestation and glory. It is the third heaven, above the realm of outer space, far above the domain of demonic principalities and powers. It is what Christians have been looking forward to for all of their lives. In this holy paradise of God, there is no pain and suffering, and no sin. Everyone lives in a heavenly body and is without the taint of original sin: they have a perfect sense of the fruits of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23).

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About John Boruff

John Boruff is the founder of WesleyGospel.com, a husband, father, and sometimes an open air preacher. He graduated from UNC Pembroke in 2008 with a B.A. in Philosophy and Religion and views himself as a Baptistic Pentecostal. As a Christian, he feels connected with all members of the body of Christ, but can identify the most with churches like the Assemblies of God and the Vineyard. In 2015, he released "The Gospel of Jesus Christ," which is meant to be a Bible study for open air preaching. For his other writings, search articles on this site or see the E-Books section.
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