Friday, April 9, 2010

My Favorite Anglican: William Henry Griffith Thomas (1861 - 1924)

Though W.H. Griffith Thomas emerged as a British scholar with a sterling education and prestigious positions in the church and academia and Lewis Sperry Chafer was a “self-made” student of the Scriptures, the two shared much in common that bound them together. The commonalities were theological and ministerial. Both men were a blend of theological traditions. They were certainly not Arminian, nor were they comfortable with traditional five-point Calvinism; both were conservatives, but they were not fundamentalists.

Five theological points may be noted about their views. First, both men embraced the Reformation concept of sola Scriptura. Unlike his principal mentors, James Orr (professor of apologetics and theology in the United Free Church College of Glasglow, Scotland) and P. T. Forsyth, Thomas believed the Bible was the inerrant Word of God, a conviction on his part that was foundational. His philosophical approach to the Scriptures was not rooted in Baconian empiricism reinforced by Common Sense Realism. He affirmed that Christ is the central, all-consuming point of the Bible and life, and the Bible is the means of cognitively experiencing Him. Knowledge is limited; it can make something seem real, but it requires the witness of the Spirit of God to know that it is true. Thus Thomas did not possess confidence in the role of apologetics that was embraced at Princeton Seminary. As a teacher of apologetics, a position denied him in Canada, he said its role was not to construct the edifice of faith. Why? Because it is not a source of revelation equal to “the revelation of God.” Instead the function of an apologist is to demolish his opponent’s arguments and to demonstrate the reasonableness of faith. Supernatural truth is not beyond the grasp of knowing, but it is beyond the grasp of a whole-hearted affectional embrace. To Thomas and Chafer the Holy Spirit is the only Teacher of religious knowledge because well-crafted arguments can never produce certainty. A correct philosophy of ministry must be erected on a correct epistemology. Consequently the focus of ministry in Thomas’s view, and here Chafer would agree, must be on proclamation, not clever arguments or transient contemporary issues.

Second, while Thomas adhered to the Calvinism enshrined in the Anglican Prayer Book and the Thirty-Nine Articles, which he defined and explained meticulously in The Catholic Faith and The Principles of Theology, his Calvinism was at odds with the Reformed Faith. (Like Chafer, he might be described as a “reluctant Calvinist” and a “marginal Fundamentalist.”) Though Thomas knew and embraced predestination as “a Fundamental principle of Protestantism” and his adherence to the Princetonian, he did not extend the logic of his theology to double predestinarianism or limited atonement. In explaining the doctrine of irresistible grace Thomas was willing to live with such ambiguity that Benjamin B. Warfield furiously condemned him. Yet Thomas was a Calvinist, and Princeton theologians were forced grudgingly to recognize it. Sharing Thomas’s Calvinism, Chafer too felt the probing of Warfield’s surgical pen. Neither Thomas nor Chafer was Arminian. They shared a modification of Reformed dogma with which they were comfortable. Chafer may have been a little misleading when he wrote in a publicity statement that the curriculum of the new (Dallas) seminary was “in full agreement with the Reformed Faith and its theology is strictly Calvinistic.”

Third, while Thomas did not embrace the intricate distinctives frequently made by advocates of classic dispensationalism, he was aware of the stream of dispensational thought that ran from John Darby via James Brookes and C. I. Scofield to Chafer. In organizing and interpreting the Scriptures Thomas adopted a dispensational framework that included “three dispensations of the Divine revelation to man, involving a progressive economy of grace.” (emphasis added)

There were a few differences between Thomas and Chafer. For example, though a premillennialist, Thomas did not see the millennium as a dispensation (he did not embrace the details of the dispensational system advanced by Scofield and Chafer). By the standards of classic dispensationalism today Thomas might be perceived as suspect, but he was a committed proponent of the system as a whole. When Chafer sent a copy of the proposed doctrinal statement of the new seminary to Thomas for review, Thomas had only two suggestions for revision, neither of which pertained to dispensationalism.

Thomas was an heir of the premillennial tradition within English evangelicalism, though he spoke on eschatological themes with restraint. As he moved outside English evangelicalism, and more so when he moved from Canada to the United States, he increasingly spoke on these themes. Thomas wrote an article in The Fundamentals on this theme and contributed articles to the Sunday School Times (one of which he coauthored with Scofield), Our Hope, Christian Workers Magazine, and others. When he chaired the resolutions committee of the World Christian Fundamental Association, he affirmed premillennialism in its creed. Again he was not as detailed in his delineation of premillennialism as Scofield and Chafer, but he was firmly in that camp. “In his dispensationalism, as in his theology in general, Thomas demonstrated his preference for a few major articles and avoided a rigid and comprehensive system.”

Fourth, Thomas emphasized the spiritual life, accepting, like Chafer, a form of Keswick theology that rejected perfectionism and taught a progressive, counteractive view of sanctification...

As Thomas explained, there are three views on the believer’s relationship to indwelling sin. One view is eradicationism, the notion that sin can be entirely done away with. This is biblically unjustifiable and contrary to human experience. Another view is suppressionism, the idea that the believer must war against the remnants of sin without any hope of succeeding in this life. But this too is not the teaching of Scripture. Suppressionism, as Thomas called Warfield’s view, has the advantage of being more realistic than eradicationism, but it fails because it is too pessimistic. A third view is counteraction, the belief that believers have responsibilities and that spiritual progress and victories are more than an ideal. Though it is frequently asserted that the Keswick motto is “Let Go and Let God,” neither Thomas nor Chafer were passivists; they were, however, triumphalists and this brought on them the wrath of Warfield for their supposedly being too naive. Thomas and Chafer’s view is better captured in the words “Let us go on.”

Fifth, in Thomas’s dispensational approach to Scripture, he believed that the present era is “the age of the Holy Spirit.” He stressed that the work of the Holy Spirit is integral to the Christian faith. The Holy Spirit inspired the Scriptures, the Spirit alone regenerates, the Spirit is the key to the spiritual life, and the Spirit alone is the believers’ Teacher. Thomas believed, as Chafer often repeated, “at Dallas Seminary we have but one Teacher.” What they meant by this is that the Christian faith is beyond the grasp of the merely rational; being supernatural, it requires a believing, regenerate, affectional heart change. The Christian faith is not merely a careful collection of maxims; it is beyond a teacher’s ability to explain it fully or a preacher’s talents to describe it adequately. To become a Christian, to embrace Christian truth, to have the hope of heaven is to have an assurance of knowledge that is described in the Bible but that goes beyond it to the living Christ described in it. For both men apologetics has a narrowly defined function that was at the foundation of their common educational philosophy.

“The ‘Thomas’ in the W.H. Griffith Thomas Memorial Lectureship,” by John D. Hannah, Bibliotheca Sacra, no. 163 (January-March, 2006).


clumsy ox said...

From a dispensationalist perspective, "Age of the Holy Spirit" is a much more accurate description than "Age of Grace" or "Church Age".

This was a very interesting read.

Chuck said...

Thanks so much for taking a look, Mr. Ox. I have read several articles by Griffith Thomas, but really want to get my hands on his Principles of Theology. I like his devotional emphasis; I fall within the "reluctant Calvinist"/Molinist spectrum.

Chuck said...

I ordered a used copy of Griffith Thomas's The Catholic Faith today.

clumsy ox said...

"I fall within the "reluctant Calvinist"/Molinist spectrum."

Of course you do!