John Brine: A Baptist’s Letter for Our Easter Theology

Baptists don’t always know where to look within our own tradition when big theological questions arise. In my study, when I turn to trustworthy historical sources, I might frequently appeal to Puritan divines like Richard Sibbes or John Flavel, Independents like John Owen or Thomas Goodwin, or Reformed writers like John Calvin, Francis Turretin, Petrus van Mastricht, or whatever’s being published by Banner of Truth or Reformation Heritage. I might even look up some Lutheran and Roman Catholic perspectives, depending on the topic.

But where are the Baptist writers? Are they junior varsity compared to the real heroes in the big-leagues? Why would I waste my precious time on views I doubt will move me toward my destination just because they’re in “my tribe?”

Well, if that’s what you think about Baptist theologians—that they’re junior varsity—you’d be wrong. Their writings exist, and they’re doctrinally sound, but you must know where to look. I’d love for Baptist students of the Bible and theology to have John Gill on the short list of essential reading. Gill should be every Baptist’s first historical instinct or reflex. Gill was the first Baptist to write what we’d think of as a systematic theology, and he is also the first Baptist to write a verse-by-verse commentary on the whole Bible (and it’s all free online now).

But let me add another name to your list that you might not know: John Brine (1703–1765).

Brine was a friend and follower of Gill, and in a letter dated March 30, 1754, Brine wrote to his young friend John Collett Ryland (1723–1792) responding to a request for help in answering objections from Socinians concerning the atonement of the Lord Jesus on the cross. Socinianism was a contagious anti-trinitarian heresy, and the eighteenth-century Baptists were not immune. Socinians denied the deity of Christ and rejected the divine revelation of the Bible. As a young man in seminary, Ryland had wrestled through his own crisis of faith in dealing with the intellectual allure of Socinianism in the Age of Reason. While Ryland remained faithful and orthodox throughout his studies, the Socinian question frequently reemerged in the first half of his ministry as a pastor at a Particular Baptist church in Warwick, Northamptonshire. Ryland saw the issues but needed assistance to formulate a sound answer.

Specifically, Ryland wrote to Brine for help in answering the following objection: If Jesus Christ is truly divine and one with the Father, did he satisfy his own wrath in his death? Is that not “impossible, unparalleled, and absurd?”

Brine responds to this question in three parts.

First, he says that we should not liken the atonement of Christ to any human parallel. “It is a mystery so far above the reach of a limited understanding that, without a special revelation from God, it could never have entered into the heart of any creature.” In other words, we must accept the testimony of Christ’s atonement by faith based on the special revelation provided in Holy Scripture.

The second part of Brine’s answer displays a remarkable grasp of orthodox trinitarianism. He helpfully distinguishes between what is proper to the divine nature of Christ and what is proper to the human nature of Christ. He writes, “As man, he was capable of bearing our guilt, and he was a capable subject of suffering that punishment which it demerited. In his human nature, with his own free and full consent, he did bear our sins, and was made a curse for us.”

Therefore, as a true man, he was a satisfactory substitute. But also, “The infinite dignity of the person of Christ put an infinite value upon the sufferings which he endured. His blood being the Blood of God, that is truly divine, or who is really God. It is in worth and merit immense, as his person is, and is an adequate price of our redemption.” In other words, the person of Jesus Christ was divine, and when he refers to Christ’s blood as being “the Blood of God, that is, truly divine,” he’s not confusing categories. It’s his way of confessing the incarnate divinity of Christ.

In addition to properly distinguishing the divine and human natures of Christ, Brine distinguishes what is true of the divine nature in general and what may be appropriated to a particular person of the Triune God. Certainly, in one sense, God acts simply and unitedly in his external works as each of the three persons of the Trinity acts inseparably from the others. Yet, the doctrine of divine appropriations supplies a category for attributing certain divine acts or features to one particular person of the Trinity. The actions aren’t truly divided, but the doctrine of divine appropriations helps us to understand something of God’s internal works.

Because Brine has a category for appropriations (even though he doesn’t use the term), he’s able to say that “it was not impossible that the Son of God incarnate should make satisfaction for sin.” He proceeds to appropriate particular aspects of atonement to the Father and to the Son. He writes that, “Satisfaction was made to divine Justice, requiring it of Christ, as our Surety, in the person of the Father; so that the solution of our debt was not unto the person of the Father, considered as peculiarly due to him, in distinction from the person of the Son and the person of the Holy Spirit. But this payment was made to Justice, demanding it in the person of the Father, as in the character of a righteous Judge.” In other words, the justice that Jesus satisfies on the cross is the divine Justice shared in common by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and Brine appropriates the exacting of the penalty to the Father and the payment of the penalty to the Son. But the actual satisfaction is rendered to their common attribute of Justice.

He then offers five clarifications:

  •  “This was not a debt due to either of the divine persons, on account of their personal distinctions, but to divine Righteousness, which is possessed by each person of the adorable Trinity.”
  • “It is divine Justice which is satisfied by the death of Christ, and not the person of the Father by reason of his subsisting distinctly in the divine essence.”
  • “It is not impossible that the person of the Father, the person of the Son, and the person of the Spirit should act distinctly unto the honour of the infinite perfections which they unitedly possess. The Father did so in this wonderful affair, requiring satisfaction of Christ; and the Son did so, in offering himself an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
  • “The satisfaction of Justice as much respects the person of the Son, as the person of the Father, because it doth not peculiarly regard either of the divine persons, as a person subsisting distinctly from the other persons in deity; but it primarily respects divine Righteousness, or Justice, which is common to the sacred Three.”
  • “The distinct persons in the divine essence have not distinct interests or rights. Their right is one by reason of their essential unity, and therefore, the right of Justice is not the right of the Father in distinction from the Son, nor is it the right of the Son in distinction from the Father; but it is a right common to both, because their essence is one and the same.”

Here we find a careful and orthodox presentation of the unity of the Triune God and the appropriation of acts to particular persons in the economy of salvation. Brine shows that the Socinian objection Ryland asked about is no match for orthodox trinitarianism, but the orthodox argument requires close attention to proper trinitarian grammar.

Brine’s third and final answer in response to Ryland’s question is that it is not absurd for the Son of God to atone for sins. He says that the incarnate Son, acting in his office of Mediator, poses no problem to divine Justice. And, Brine concludes, there is no absurdity, “in supposing that the distinct persons in deity act distinctly unto the honour of any perfection which is common to each, by reason of their essential unity.” In other words, there is no impropriety in the person of the Son serving as the Mediator and Surety between the Father and sinners. The distinctions matter in the way we reason about these issues.

Brine’s letter proved reassuring for Ryland, and decades later Ryland published three books of his own against the Socinians. Ryland appealed to Reformed writers like Herman Witsius, Moses Amyraut, and Turretin, along with Puritan divines like John Owen and John Howe, among others. But he also leaned heavily on his Baptist brothers, John Gill and John Brine.

As the Easter season approaches, and we reflect on the cross of Christ and the love of God, we should hone our doctrinal sensibilities. For Baptists, we need to be reminded that we have a wealth of resources within our own tradition to stimulate theological reflection and devotional piety.

Editors Note: The London Lyceum publishes a range of original pieces and book reviews from various faith traditions and viewpoints. It is not the mission of the London Lyceum to always publish work that agrees with our confession of faith. Therefore, the thoughts within the articles and reviews may or may not reflect our confessional commitments and are the opinions of the author alone. Rather, we seek to generate thinking and foster an intellectual culture of charity, curiosity, critical thinking, and cheerful confessionalism.


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