Gilbert Tennent’s Theological and Ministerial Distinctives (2 of 4)

It is sometimes easiest to classify a man’s positions by considering his friends and foes. Tennent had plenty of both:

Tennent’s theological and ministerial positions are evident from his friends.

1. He was a student of Theodore J. Frelinghuysen and William Tennent.

2. He was a co-laborer and mentor of George Whitefield and Samuel Davies.

Whitefield wrote the following of his friend and co-laborer:

“I never before heard such a searching sermon. He convinced me more and more that we can preach the Gospel of Christ no further than we have experienced the power of it in our own hearts. Being deeply convicted of sin, by God’s Holy Spirit, at his first conversion, he has learned experimentally to dissect the heart of a natural man. Hypocrites must either soon be converted or enraged at his preaching. He is a son of thunder, and does not fear the faces of men.” [1]

Though Whitefield would eventually become the “Paul” and Tennent the “Barnabas,” some suggest that even Whitefield’s fiery preaching bore the fingerprints of Tennent’s influence. [2]

Samuel Davies, the fiery preacher and Tennent’s companion during his trip to Great Britain in order to raise funds for The College of New Jersey, grew to especially appreciate the older Tennent, referring to him as his “Spiritual Father.” [3]

3. He was greatly admired by C.H. Spurgeon.

Spurgeon, who lived a century and an ocean apart from Tennent, referred to him several times, calling him “one of the most earnest and seraphic men who ever proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ.” [4] Spurgeon at other times referred to him as “Holy Mr. Tennant….a man remarkable for eloquence” [5] and “the mighty American preacher.” [6]

His theological and ministerial positions are evident from his foes.

As stated earlier, Tennent was loved or hated; he left people no middle ground. And those who opposed him did so very publicly and venomously.

1. He battled “Old Light” Presbyterians.

These battles took place within the Presbyterian denomination with those often referred to as “subscriptionists” because of their insistence that those within their denomination subscribe to the Westminster Confession and Catechism. This label is somewhat misleading, however, because Tennent himself gladly agreed to the need for subscription to the creed as a test of orthodoxy. His differences with the so-called subscriptionists (for lack of a better term) were as follows:

(click the chart to enlarge it)

Tennent was especially critical of those whom he judged to be unconverted clergy within his denomination, a criticism which he made publicly in his famous sermon “The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry.” Alexander, though a great admirer of Tennent, calls this sermon “one of the most severely abusive sermons which was ever penned.” [7] It was this sermon which especially made the split of the Presbyterian denomination in the colonies inevitable. [8] The schism finally took place in 1741 when the revivalists were forced out by the majority subscriptionists. The division is summarized in The Concise Dictionary of Christianity in America:

“During the 1730s and 1740s Presbyterians suffered internal divisions over questions regarding the theological legitimacy and ecclesiastical propriety of the Great Awakening. Under the leadership of Gilbert Tennent, ‘New Side’ Presbyterians labored to advance the Awakening, against the objections of ‘Old Side’ traditionalists.” [9]

These battles – along with his revival preaching – especially characterized the first half of Tennent’s ministry. It is worth noting that aforementioned schism was healed—in large part due to Tennent’s efforts—in 1758. [10] Further, Tennent later regretted having preached the sermon. [11]

2. He battled Arminianism, especially as expressed by the Moravians.

Unfortunately, Tennent’s good emphasis on practical piety and experiential Christianity was taken to the extreme by some of his co-laborers and hearers. The result was an emotionalism that was not guarded by orthodoxy. A sect known as the Moravians especially hijacked the enthusiasm of the Awakeners. When they combined it with their extreme Arminianism (and even Universalism), the result was tragic. Tennent’s response to the Moravian enthusiasts was two-fold: like Nehemiah’s remnant in Nehemiah 4, he wielded both the sword and the trowel. With his literary sword he aggressively opposed the Moravians, publishing a 110-page attack on Moravian doctrinal errors entitled The Necessity of holding fast the Truth. [12] And with his trowel he aggressively built up his hearers in orthodox doctrine. This battle for truth especially characterized the second half of Tennent’s ministry.

As stated, Tennent’s later battles were vastly different from those he fought as a young man. Whereas critics saw this shift as a change of heart or position—a flip-flop—it was in reality a change of circumstance and need. Tennent never changed his theological position or ministry philosophy. He initially preached “terrors,” emphasizing the need for regeneration and experiential piety. But as the swelling support of pietism became man-focused emotionalism, he moved to correct it with strong doctrinal messages. Thus, he addressed different needs with different emphases: against dead orthodoxy, he preached the necessity of heart religion. When that message was taken to excesses by his hearers, he preached the necessity of orthodoxy against mere emotionalism. Like many good men, he fought a battle on two fronts against two differing extremes.

Coalter’s summary is insightful:

“Against the Old Lights, he had preached heart knowledge, conversion, and practical piety, while against the Moravians he had proclaimed the value of head knowledge, doctrine, and ecclesiastical order.” [13]

In modern terms, he was an active part of the “revival,” and he moved to correct it when it became “revivalism.”

Tennent’s theological and ministerial positions may aptly be described as “balanced.”

Coalter writes,

“Colonial New Lights like Gilbert Tennent were neither heretics nor anarchists. They sought a balance between the demands of individual conscience and ecclesiastical structure, between ecumenical cooperation and denominational integrity, and between heartfelt piety and doctrinal probity (integrity).” [14]

1. He carefully balanced doctrinal orthodoxy & experiential pietism.

a. Tennent was unquestionably orthodox.

He was especially dogmatic regarding his Calvinistic theology. Alexander writes that his sermons were “rigidly orthodox.” [15]

b. Tennent added to doctrinal orthodoxy the need for heart religion—pietism.

The Concise Dictionary of Christianity in America defines pietism as follows:

“In general terms Pietism represents a reaction against the lack of religious fervor, the moral laxity, the tendency toward cultural accommodation and the interconfessional bickering of the representatives of orthodoxy within the established Protestant communions….In 1720 Theodorus J. Frelinghuysen, a confirmed Pietist, arrived in America and presently took up his work in the Raritan Valley of New Jersey. Under his fervent preaching a revival broke out which attracted the Tennents – William Sr. and his son Gilbert. This fused the Pietist impulse with Puritanism.” [16]

Tennent’s pietism was pietism at its best. It was not a denial of doctrinal orthodoxy, but a complement to it…a matter of both/and as opposed to either/or. It required heart religion to balance the head. It demanded conduct that paralleled creed. In particular, it especially emphasized repentance and conversion and the godliness that would surely result from it. He was particularly adamant about the need for regeneration. His own words demonstrate his position:

“Assent is necessary but not sufficient; Laws are not sufficiently owned when they are believed to be the Kings Laws. There is something to be done as well as believed….words without practice nor a profession without reality will do.” [17]

Another of his statements demonstrate his balance of orthodoxy and pietism:

“[P]assion without knowledge and judgment [is but] vain fancy….knowledge and judgment without some degree of passion [is but] dead formality.” [18]

Notice again the unstated correction of both the Old Lights and the Moravians.

2. He carefully balanced transdenominationalism & militant separatism.

The first Great Awakening was strikingly transdenominational, including orthodox men from a wide variety of denominational positions. M. A. Noll describes it thus:

“The first Great Awakening (ca. 1735-43) is associated with the labors of the Dutch Reformed clergyman Theodore Frelinghuysen, the Presbyterian Gilbert Tennent, the Congregationalist Jonathan Edwards, and especially the itinerant Anglican George Whitefield – all Calvinists whose theological commitments provided a definite shape for their work.” [19]

Thus, their cooperation was based in their “like precious faith” and not prohibited by their differing distinctives and titles. Tennent, though a convinced Presbyterian, gladly co-laborered with these good men.

On the other hand, Tennent did not take his cooperative charity to an unbiblical extreme. When confronted with false teaching, Tennent (unlike Whitefield) separated on the basis of doctrinal error. Whereas Whitefield cooperated with the Universalist Moravians, who in Coalter’s estimation “were willing, if not eager, to achieve [union of all Christians] by ignoring differences of creed or form,” Tennent refused to fellowship with disbelief. [20] The exchange between Whitefield and Tennent is instructive. Because it is so parallels the thoughts of our day, a lengthy passage from Coalter’s book will be reproduced here:

“[Upon receiving a letter from Tennent concerning the Moravians’ errors], Whitefield admitted that he did not agree with most of the Unitas Fratrum’s principles, but he could not see why this disagreement should interfere with his or Tennent’s cooperation with them. After all, he asked, ‘Do not you and I preach up and profess a Cath[olic] Spirit.’ Whitefield was convinced the Moravians were the ‘Children of God’ and their ultimate purpose was the ‘glory of God and the good of souls.’ Therefore, he chided his colonial friend for being too confined by his Presbyterian principles. As for himself, Whitefield declared he would continue to attempt to bring ‘people to Jesus Christ and then let them join with such Congregations as they upon due urging judge to be nearest the Mind of Jesus Christ.’

“When Tennent answered Whitefield’s letter in June 1742, he expressed deep disappointment over his colleague’s views. ‘Your high opinion of the Moravians and attempts to join with them Shocks me Exceedingly and opens a Scene of Terror and distress. Oh my dear brother! I believe in my Soul You never did anything in all your Life of such dreadful Tendency to the Church of God as your favouring that Sect of Enthusiastical Hereticks…’

“Tennent warned that ‘there can be no scriptural valuable union without an assent to main Doctrinal Principles [for] any other Union is but a Confederacy against Truth and a betraying the Cause of God into the hands of Enemies.’” [21]

Tennent was neither sectarian nor ecumenical. When faced with disobedient Presbyterians, he corrected them. When faced with orthodox men from other denominations, he worked with them. When faced with unbelievers, he separated from them. Coalter again effectively summarizes the balance struck by Tennent:

“In the last analysis, theological systems were not as important to Whitefield as the fellowship of reborn Christians. Therefore, while he differed significantly with [the Moravians] in doctrine, he preferred to cooperate with the Moravians in practice.

“Tennent would not accept this strategy. Against the Old Lights of his synod, he had defended theological tolerance because he believed many doctrines were not essential for Christian fellowship or cooperation. But the sort of tolerance that required association with the Moravians amounted to theological suicide, in his opinion, since it necessitated relinquishing essential tenets of the Reformed tradition.” [22]

Tennent would later write that “tho’ we are earnestly to prosecute peace, yet not so far as to barter truth and holiness to obtain it.” [23] At his funeral, Tennent’s friend Dr. Samuel Finley (himself a Log College graduate) said the following of his denominational balance:

“[A]lthough he was a great lover of the truth, and very zealous for its propagation; yet, he was so far above a narrow, party spirit, that he loved and honored all who seemed to have ‘the root of the matter in them,’ and made it their business to promote the essentials of religion, though they were in various points, opposed to his own sentiments.” [24]

It is worth noting that Whitefield later published his disagreement with the Moravians and their doctrine at Tennent’s encouragement.[25]

3. He carefully balanced Reformed doctrine & aggressive evangelism.

Regarding his evangelistic zeal. Tennent is especially noted for his “preaching of terrors,” through which he would convince his hearers of their depravity and guilt before a righteous God in a manner analogous to Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” He insisted that men must be shown their guilt and desperate need before they could be ready to hear of the remedy in Christ. Thus, to quote Coalter, Tennent believed that “warning was the truest mark of a Christian minister.” [26]

Tennent’s method of “preaching terrors” had a tremendous influence on other revival preachers, most notably on George Whitefield. As carried out by these men, it was fervent application of Bible truth. It is easy to see how men with less scruples and doctrinal soundness would later abuse it, however.

4. He balanced higher education & practical godliness.

· As stated earlier, he was educated by his father before the formal foundation of the Log College.

· As stated earlier, he taught the first year at the Log College.

· He received an honorary M.A. from Yale in 1725 (before the controversy of the Awakening). [27]

· He became a trustee of the College of New Jersey in 1747. [28]

· He raised money in Great Britain for the College of New Jersey in 1753.

· He assisted with a student revival at the College in 1757. [29]

The balance between education and piety is seen even in his famous sermon “The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry”:

“The most likely method to stock the church with a faithful ministry, in the present situation of things, the public academies being so much corrupted and abused generally, is to encourage private schools or seminaries of learning, which are under the care of skilful and experienced Christians; in which those only should be admitted who, upon strict examination have, in the judgment of a reasonable charity, the plain evidences of experimental religion.” [30]

[1] Ibid., 73.

[2] Ibid., 73.

[3] Ibid., 147.

[4] Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 46, p. 114.

[5] Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 16, p. 639.

[6] Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 42, p. 661.

[7] Alexander, 38.

[8] Ian Paisley, Those Flaming Tennents!, 16.

[9]“Old School Presbyterians” in Concise Dictionary of Christianity in America , Daniel G. Reid, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 249.

[10] Alexander, 40.

[11] Archibald Alexander, ed. Sermons of the Log College (Ligonier, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1993), 404.

[12] Coalter, 102.

[13] Ibid., 115.

[14] Ibid., 92-93.

[15] Alexander, Biographical Sketches, 66.

[16] “Pietism” in Concise Dictionary of Christianity in America , Daniel G. Reid, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 267.

[17] Coalter, 6, 8.

[18] Ibid., 120.

[19] M. A. Noll, “The Great Awakenings” in The Concise Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Walter A Elwell, ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991), 211.

[20] Coalter, 101.

[21] Ibid., 111-112.

[22] Ibid., 112.

[23] Ibid., 157.

[24] Alexander, Biographical Sketches, 28.

[25] Coalter, 130.

[26] Ibid., 22.

[27] Paisley, 11.

[28] Coalter, 144.

[29] Ibid., 151.

[30] Alexander, Sermons, 388-389.


One Response

  1. […] 2. Gilbert Tennent’s Theological and Ministerial Distinctives […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: