Blog Entry

Spurgeon's Evangelical Biblicism

By Timothy Gatewood Mar 15, 2019

“If you do not love the Bible, you certainly do not love the God who gave it to us, and if you do love God, I am certain that no other book in all the world will be comparable, in your mind, to God’s own Book.”[1]

 

Of the aspects highlighted by David Bebbington’s Evangelical Quadrilateral, “Biblicism” comes the closest to serving as Evangelicalism’s foundation. It was evangelicals’ understanding and interpretation of the Bible that led to their commitment to Activism, Crucicentrism, and Conversionism. Apart from a strong Biblicism, there would be no Evangelicalism. Furthermore, evangelicals demanded a high theology of the Bible be paired with a passion for the Word of God. Thus, it is important to understand both the intellectual and emotional aspects of Evangelical Biblicism. Whereas some drew hard lines between the theological and devotional aspects of the Bible, evangelicals claimed that the two were inseparably linked and no man should separate what God has joined together. Indeed, the Bible not only captured their heads but captivated their hearts.

These dual aspects of Biblicism defined the life and ministry of Charles Spurgeon. In his view, the Bible held the ultimate answer for every quandary concerning Christian worship and obedience. While he admired the work of great theologians and churchmen he placed their wisdom beneath Scripture for “nothing has any authority but ‘Thus saith the Lord of hosts.’”[2] A statement was only authoritative to Spurgeon if “you [could] put your finger upon the passage of Holy Writ which warrants the matter to be of God.”[3] Scripture directed the path of Spurgeon’s life, both public and private. While his adoration for the Bible is seen clearest in his relentless defense of its authority during the Downgrade Controversy, Spurgeon’s Biblicism was consistently displayed throughout his lifelong ministry.

A rich theological understanding of the Bible led Spurgeon to love the book. He treasured each word because he championed verbal plenary inspiration; he trusted Scripture because he believed in its infallibility; he joyfully submitted to its authority because he embraced the Bible for what it claimed to be – God’s self-revelation to his people. Spurgeon’s theology led to a passion for the Bible and formed a quintessential Biblicist.

To understand Spurgeon, one must understand the cultural contexts which shaped him. This can be accomplished by examining the increasingly narrow views of the Victorians, then evangelicals, and finally the Puritans. First, to live in Victorian England was to be surrounded by a culture which paid homage, at least nominally so, to the Bible. As Timothy Larsen wrote, “The Scriptures were the common cultural currency of the Victorians.”[4] Additionally, Larsen noted that most extant Victorian “novels will include biblical allusions that it never occurred to the author would ever need explaining.”[5] The Bible was taught in schools, referenced in arts and literature, and was held as the highest standard of personal morality by the culture at large. Even outspoken atheists could not ignore the Bible but instead “gave their best and most sustained labours to wrestling with Scripture,” as anything less would fail to impact a culture that recognized the Bible as “the book.”[6] Thus, Charles Spurgeon, a “representative Victorian” as he was called, would have grown up in a world saturated with a cultural affinity of the Bible.[7]

These Victorians, however, would step away from the Bible in the later years of Spurgeon’s life. Bebbington noted a few cultural changes when he wrote, “[A belief in] eternal punishment faded away, the Bible was studied critically, and evolutionary thought led to a stress on immanence.”[8] Proponents of higher criticism began to teach that the Bible should be critiqued as any other book. When the culture began to claim authority over Scripture, Spurgeon stood as “the greatest champion of the conservative standpoint during the later nineteenth century.”[9] When culture divorced itself from the Bible, Spurgeon held it tighter. This cultural abandonment of Scripture would deeply impact the later years of Spurgeon’s life. Yet, Spurgeon never stood alone in his defense of the Bible, as his ministry was marked with evangelical partnerships grounded on a love for God’s Word.

If Victorians were Spurgeon’s neighbors, then evangelicals were his family. For evangelical leaders “one book – the Bible – was the Alpha and Omega of life and thought – the foundation stone and the unrivalled pinnacle.”[10] On this note, Bishop J.C. Ryle, a contemporary of Spurgeon, wrote, “The first leading principle of Evangelical religion is the absolute supremacy it assigns to Holy Scripture.”[11] Indeed, this commitment to Biblicism continues to this day. Modern Evangelicals, like John Stott, still claim, “We evangelicals are Bible people.”[12] Such is the relation that a dismissal of the Bible continues to be a dismissal of Evangelicalism. As for Spurgeon, he was happy to cross denominational lines, as long as his partners shared his passion for Scripture. Indeed, ministries such as the Stockwell Orphanage and the Pastors’ College were directed by men of various denominations who embraced common evangelical convictions. These men, with a shared affection for the Bible, would work alongside Spurgeon to spread its message.

Before Spurgeon spoke as a leading voice for evangelicals, however, he listened to the voices of the Puritans. As a child, Spurgeon cut his theological teeth on the works of the Puritans and was influenced by their love of the Bible. E.W. Bacon, one of Spurgeon’s many biographers, wrote, “[Spurgeon] was completely moulded and fashioned by those spiritual giants of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.”[13] Indeed, not only did Spurgeon learn from the Puritans, he continued their legacy. Historically, “[Spurgeon] stood in their noble tradition, in the direct line of their theology and outlook.”[14] Thus, he could “without question be called the heir of the Puritans.”[15] As Duncan Ferguson explained, the heart of Puritan theology “was the assertion that the Bible was the very voice and message of God to humankind.”[16] In Puritan writings, the Bible was not only seen as the authority of doctrine and worship, but also of “daily work, home life, dress, recreation, and duty.”[17] As such, Spurgeon saw the Bible’s authority extend over every aspect of life, religious or otherwise.

Spurgeon’s understanding of the Bible is marked by three crucial features: inspiration, infallibility, and power. First, the Bible was the result of verbal-plenary inspiration, meaning that every word was exactly as God intended. Spurgeon wrote, “We contend for every word of the Bible, and believe in the verbal plenary inspiration of Holy Scripture, believing indeed that there can be no other inspiration but that.”[18] Second, as an extension of Spurgeon’s belief in God-breathed Scripture, he believed that the Bible must be infallible and without error. Spurgeon wrote, “These words which we find in the Old and New Testaments are true. Free from error, certain, enduring, infallible.”[19] If the Bible was infallible, then it would be foolish for the congregation to leave Spurgeon’s sermons untested. Instead of blindly accepting his viewpoints, Spurgeon charged his congregation “to hearken only to [the] Master and yield your faith only to the infallible book.”[20] Third, Spurgeon believed that the many conversions which occurred under his ministry was the result of the preached word of God. Spurgeon wrote, “I have marked, that if ever we have a conversion at any time, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, the conversion is rather traceable to the text, or to some Scripture quoted in the sermon, than to any trite or original saying of the preacher.”[21] This Bible was not only inspired and infallible, but powerful.

Spurgeon’s beliefs about the Bible expressed themselves through acts of devotion. He loved the Bible and provided an example for his people to follow. Spurgeon prioritized private morning devotions as he believed it was a “good rule never to look into the face of a man in the morning till you have looked into the face of God.”[22] To Spurgeon, the Bible was beautiful and seemed “as necessary food.”[23] Spurgeon went so far as to say, “The Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible, is our religion.”[24] Spurgeon’s beliefs, however, were put to the test at the onset of the Downgrade Controversy.

Late in his life, Spurgeon saw the Baptist Union, of which he was a part, creep toward theological liberalism. The beliefs which Spurgeon treasured ­– the Bible’s inspiration, infallibility, power, and authority – were brought into question. If the Baptist Union was to jettison the Bible, then it would do so without Charles Spurgeon. As the Union failed to embrace an evangelical statement of faith, Spurgeon officially removed his membership on October 28, 1887. Rather than repairing the Baptist Union, this decision led to a public outcry against Spurgeon. Even a collection of students from the Pastors’ College joined the attack against Spurgeon, penning a letter calling him to modernize his archaic beliefs regarding the Bible. To his credit, Spurgeon never changed his views in spite of social pressure from peers, students, and public opinion.

Even in the midst of calls to abandon traditional beliefs regarding the Bible, Spurgeon encouraged others to “be Bible men, go so far as the Bible, but not an inch beyond it.”[25] For Spurgeon, the Bible did not need his help. Rather, Spurgeon heralded the power of Scripture as he proclaimed, “The answer to every objection against the Bible is the Bible.”[26] This undying commitment to the Bible followed Spurgeon throughout his life and continues to impact Evangelicalism long after his death. Nearing the end of his life Spurgeon prophesied, “I am quite willing to be eaten of dogs for the next fifty years; but the more distant future shall vindicate me.”[27] Indeed, the ongoing power of Evangelical Biblicism in the modern day is a continuing testament that Spurgeon has in fact been vindicated.


Timothy Gatewood is a Residency PhD student in systematic theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. He also studies in the Pastoral Residency at Emmaus, KC, and serves as a Research Assistant at The Spurgeon Library.

 

 

 

 

 


[1] C. H. Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit: Sermons Preached and Revised by C.H. Spurgeon. Vols. 7-63 (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1970-2006), MTP 54:206.

[2] MTP10:535.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Timothy Larsen, A People of One Book: The Bible and the Victorians (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 2.

[5] Ibid., 4.

[6] Ibid., 6.

[7] Patricia Stallings Kruppa, Charles Haddon Spurgeon: A Preacher’s Progress (New York: Garland, 1982), 6. Cited in Larsen, 251.

[8] David Bebbington, The Dominance of Evangelicalism: The Age of Spurgeon and Moody (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 259.

[9] Ibid., 260.

[10] Larsen, 1. Larsen used this phrase to describe the Biblicism of John Wesley. This commitment to the Bible, however, has been evident in a multitude of evangelical Christians throughout Church history.

[11] J.C. Ryle, Knots Untied: Being Plain Statements on Disputed Points in Religion, from the Standpoint of an Evangelical Churchmen (London: William Hunt and Company, 1874), 4. Cited in David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Routledge, 2003), 3.

[12] Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, 4.

[13] Ernest W. Bacon, Spurgeon: Heir of the Puritans (Arlington Heights: Christian Liberty Press, 1996), 101.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Duncan Ferguson, “The Bible and Protestant Orthodoxy: The Hermeneutics of Charles Spurgeon,” in Journal of Evangelical Theological Society 25:4 (1982), 456.

[17] Ibid.

[18] MTP 43:430.

[19] C.H. Spurgeon, My Sermon Notes: A Selection from Outlines of Discourses Delivered at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Part IV (New York: Funk and Wagnals, 1891), 395.

[20] MTP 22: 247.

[21] C. H. Spurgeon, The New Park Street Pulpit: Containing Sermons Preached and Revised by the Rev. C. H. Spurgeon, 6 Vols. (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1970-2006), NPSP 4:60.

[22] MTP 19:597.

[23] C.H. Spurgeon, C.H. Spurgeon’s Autobiography. Compiled from His Diary, Letters, and Records, by His Wife, and Private Secretary. 4 Vols. (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1897-1900), Autobiography 1:117.

[24] MTP 20:698.

[25] Ibid.,707.

[26] C.H. Spurgeon, Speeches at Home and Abroad (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1878), 17.

[27] C.H. Spurgeon, ed., “The Preacher’s Power, and the Conditions of Obtaining It,” in Sword and Trowel; A Record of Combat with Sin & Labour for the Lord. 37 Vols. (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1865-1902), ST August 1889:420.