On the bicentennial of John Gill’s death, martyn lloyd-jones noted that “Gill was a man, not only of great importance in his own century, but a man who is still of great importance to all of us.” If Gill is remembered today, it is often in relation to what is called hyper-Calvinism, the denial that the gospel is to be offered freely to all. Historians still debate whether or not Gill was a full-fledged hyper-Calvinist, but one thing is clear: Gill’s defense of the vital confession that God is a triune being helped preserve the orthodoxy of his Baptist denomination in the eighteenth century.
Born at the close of the Puritan era in 1697, Gill’s early schooling came to an abrupt end in 1708 when his school’s headmaster demanded that all of his pupils attend Anglican morning prayer. Gill’s parents were decided Baptists and consequently withdrew their son from the school. Due to their limited financial resources, they could not afford to have their son educated any further, and Gill’s formal education was over. But this did not check his hunger for learning.
Gill had acquired a good foundation in Latin and Greek before leaving school, and by the time he was nineteen, he was adept in both languages and well on the way to proficiency in Hebrew. Knowledge of these three languages gave him ready access to a wealth of scriptural and theological knowledge, which he used to great advantage in the years that followed as he pastored Goat Yard Chapel in London from 1719 to 1771. (This church later became the Metropolitan Tabernacle, which C.H. Spurgeon pastored during the second half of the nineteenth century.)
The age in which Gill lived is sometimes termed the “Age of Reason,” which many of the intelligentsia of Europe viewed as a day of unparalleled advances in the realms of scientific and philosophical thought. Although the designation Enlightenment did not come into vogue until the following century, the seventeenth-century intelligentsia regularly invoked the image of light when speaking of their age. Many of them had a naïve trust in the “omnicompetence of human reason,” which is antithetical to orthodox Christianity and its subjection of human reason to divine revelation. Not surprisingly, this era saw the beginning of a massive attack on the verities of the Christian faith, something that has persisted to the present day. One of the central truths of the Christian faith that came under attack was the doctrine of the Trinity.
A succession of intellectuals and theologians, whose thought had been molded by the spirit of the age rather than the Spirit of truth, insisted that the Scriptures be interpreted in accord with what they regarded as sound reason. Given this principle, it is not surprising that orthodox Trinitarianism came under attack. For instance, the poet Thomas Chatterton declared: “God being incomprehensible: [and so] it is not required of us to know the mysteries of the Trinity etc.” Thus, “it matters not whether a Man is a Pagan, Turk [Muslim], Jew, or Christian if he acts according to the religion he professes.”
It bears remembering that when other denominational bodies—for instance, the English Presbyterians and large tracts of Anglicanism—were utterly unable to retain a firm grasp of Trinitarian orthodoxy in the face of the onslaught of rationalism, the English Calvinistic Baptists retained their commitment to this mystery of mysteries. Of course, it was the grace of God that enabled them to remain orthodox. But God uses means, and in this case Gill’s writings were central in the defense of the Trinity. His The Doctrine of the Trinity Stated and Vindicated (1731) was an effective defense of the doctrine. The heart of this treatise was later incorporated into Gill’s Body of Doctrinal Divinity (1769), which became for many English Baptist pastors their major theological resource.
Gill watched his people by watching his pulpit. He would not, if he knew it, admit anyone to preach for him who was cold-hearted to the doctrine of the Trinity; who denied the divine filiation of the Son of God; or who objected to concluding his prayers with the usual doxology to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as three equal persons in the one God. He considered Sabellians, Arians, and Socinians to be enemies of the cross of Christ. They dared not ask him to preach, nor could he, in conscience, permit them to officiate for him. He conceived that, by this uniformity of conduct, he adorned the pastoral office.
He did more than adorn the pastoral office. Through the written word he helped shepherd the English Calvinistic Baptist community in the pathway of orthodoxy. Thus, when the fire of revival came in the latter third of the century, after Gill’s death, there were coals of orthodoxy to kindle and catch flame.