The Minister, a Book, and a Controversy

Thomas Boston was born in 1676 and died in 1732. He was born in Scotland to a covenanter family. He was educated at Edinburgh, and for a time, was a schoolmaster. In 1699, he became the pastor at a small parish church in Simprin. While he was the minister of this small congregation, he wrote a number of books.

Boston’s most well-known book is called Human Nature in its Fourfold State. It’s a wonderful book that discusses who we are in Adam and, so much more importantly and happily, who we are in Christ. At Simprin, he also wrote his memoirs and had a number of sermons that were published. One of these collections was called A Crook in the Lot, a series of sermons about God’s sovereignty and wisdom in the trials of the Christian life. Boston also wrote a very learned and scholarly treatise on Hebrew vowel-points called Tractatus Stigmologicus, Hebræo-biblicus. In the Hebrew language, the consonants are pointed by diacritical marks that indicate which vowels to use for pronunciation . Now, it’s interesting why Boston would write a book about Hebrew vowel-points. It was actually an issue of controversy in his day. There were some who thought the vowel points were inspired by God, and some who thought they were absolutely unnecessary. When Boston wrote his scholarly treatise, he was entering into that debate in defense of the Hebrew vowel-points.

This is not the debate or the controversy that anyone remembers. The controversy that people remember in relation to Thomas Boston has to do with a book that he actually did not write. He was visiting in the home of one of his parish members around 1700, and he noticed a little book titled The Marrow of Modern Divinity, which was published in 1645. It was written like a Socratic dialogue between four people, a minister named Evangelista, a young Christian named Neophytus, a legalist named Nomista, and an antinomian named Antinomista. The book was rather obscure in its day, but when Boston got ahold of it, it changed the way he preached the gospel, and it changed a number of other men who gathered around him, known as the “Marrow Men.” This set off the Marrow Controversy, which was sparked by the ordination exams of a minister in 1717. The controversy made its way to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1719, and for the next few years, ricocheted through the Scottish churches.

The issues in Marrow Controversy about the relationship between legalism and antinomianism and the presentation of the gospel is not only relevant to eighteenth-century Scotland; we also see vestiges of it in our own day. If you would some help with engaging with these issues, you should track down another Scotsman’s work: Sinclair Ferguson’s The Whole Christ.

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