Book Review: The Marrow of Modern Divinity, by Edward Fisher
Throughout Church history, there has been a constant tendency, new with every generation, to fall into one or the other of the twin errors of legalism and antinomianism. I know of perhaps no other text that better addresses both of these dangers from a wise, biblical, and evangelical perspective than Edward Fisher's Marrow of Modern Divinity. Anyone who reads this classic volume will come away much richer in the knowledge of the gospel; with a deeper understanding of the unity of the biblical message as a whole; and vastly better able to pursue a genuinely Christian life in a manner solidly rooted in the true gospel. This new and well done publication of the Marrow is a considerable boon to the modern Church, which I hope will be taken full advantage of.
Fisher's Marrow is an unusual book, structured in the form of two dialogues. The first is between Evangelista, a gospel minister, Neophytus, a recent convert, and two false Christians, Nomista (a legalist) and Antinomista (an antinomian). The second dialogue is between Evangelista, Neophytus, and Nomologista, a â€œPrattler of the Lawâ€. In the first dialogue, the gospel minister, Evangelista, in order to address the confusion caused by the false perspectives of Nomista and Antinomista, describes the threefold perspective of the Law as revealed in the Bible: the Law of Works, which says, â€œDo this, and liveâ€; the Law of Faith, which promises free pardon in the gospel; and the Law of Christ, which says, â€œLive, and do thisâ€. The first two portions lay out the redemptive-historical, covenantal understanding of the gospel in as clear and helpful a fashion as is likely to be found anywhere; and the last of the three gives immensely practical guidance for living the Christian life in a manner that does not deny the gospel either by despising the Law and living in sin or by coming back under the Law as a Covenant of Works.
The second dialogue, which gives a very thorough explanation of the Decalogue, and indicates the proper way of putting it to use when dealing either with an unbeliever or with a genuine Christian, is also quite helpful. The vast extent to which the ten commandments reach is very helpfully described â€“ much to the discomfiture of the legalist â€“ on the basis of six principles: first, â€œwhere any evil is forbidden, the contrary good is commanded; and where any good is commanded, the contrary evil is forbiddenâ€. Second, in every specific commandment â€œall of the same kind or nature [of action] is comprehendedâ€. Third, the law is â€œspiritual, reaching to the very heart and soulâ€. Fourth, the law â€œmust not only be the rule of our obedience, but it must also be the reason of itâ€. Fifth, obedience to the law must be directed to the end â€œthat God alone may be glorified by usâ€. And finally, â€œwe must be careful to do all our actions after a right mannerâ€. After giving these premises, Evangelista describes in order the full import of each of the ten commandments, with great insight, showing how vast and all-inclusive is their extent; and with them, he adeptly breaks down Nomologista's self-sufficiency, but comforts Neophytus with the free grace of the Gospel.
One of the elements of Fisher's treatment of the gospel that I found particularly encouraging was the thoroughly Christ-centered treatment he made of the Old Testament. Without a true and genuine knowledge of Christ, interwoven throughout every page of the Hebrew scriptures, there is no profit to be had, either for us or for the Old Testament saints before us. â€œThere is no question,â€ he says, â€œbut every spiritual believing Jew, when he brought his sacrifice to be offered, and, according to the Lord's command, laid his hands upon it whilst it was yet alive (Lev. 1:4), did, from his heart, acknowledge that he himself had deserved to die, but by the mercy of God he was saved, and his desert laid upon the beast [typically]; and as that beast was to die, and to be offered in sacrifice for him, so did he believe that the Messiah should come and die for him, upon whom he put his hands, that is, laid all his iniquities by the hand of faithâ€ (emphasis mine). Much more of the same could be adduced, but the sum of it is this, that the whole bible, when Fisher is speaking of the Law of Faith, or in other words, the gospel, is treated in a truly evangelical manner, which is very refreshing to see.
Fisher is also very gospel-centered in his teaching on sanctification, or in other words, how the believer is still subject to the Law, not as a law of works, but as the law of Christ. Although there is a sense in which the believer is under the law, it is never divorced from his gospel-freedom from the law. This makes for some very powerful and practical teaching on the Christian life. â€œIf a man will go about this great work, to change his life, to get victory over any sin, that it may not have dominion over him, to have his conscience purged from dead works and to be made partaker of the divine nature, let him not go about it as a moral man; that is, let him not consider what commandments there are, what the rectitude is which the law requires, and how to bring his heart to it; but let him go about it as a Christian, that is, let him believe the promise of pardon, in the blood of Christ; and the very believing the promise will be able to cleanse his heart from dead worksâ€ (emphasis mine).
When you read Fisher's work, and in particular this edition of it, you will come away with much more than just Fisher's (significant!) wisdom; for Fisher himself mined the treasures of all the Reformers before him, and he quotes extensively from Luther, Calvin, and others; and in this edition, the very extensive commentary of Thomas Boston (one of the greatest Puritans) is included in an easy-to-follow format. Boston's comments alone would be worth purchasing, and contribute no small incentive to acquiring the Marrow. I hope may readers will put this treasure trove to good use.