The Systematic Theology of John Brown of Haddington
by Tony Reinke (5/14)
Meet John Brown of Haddington (1722-1787). Brown was a man sovereignly fitted with incredible gifts, who rose from the shadows of poverty and ignorance into the public spotlight as a herald of God's Word. He was a man bleeding bibline, who lead crowds of souls to the Cross for eternal healing. Now 220 years after his death, Brown's printed works stand as an Ebenezer-like reminder of God's graciousness to sinners.
Brown entered the world in Scotland in 1722, the son of a dirt-poor Christian father who supported his family through a meager income generated by weaving. But it was a Christian home, and John's parents were loving and faithful. However, his childhood would be remembered by greater struggles. By his thirteenth birthday, John's father and mother were dead, their lives claimed by ravaging sicknesses. And as a thirteen-year-old orphan, it appeared John Brown stood next in line to die from sicknesses. But God graciously spared John's young life and restored his health.
Being birthed into the cradle of poverty and orphaned as a teenager, John Brown had very little education -- with the exception of one month of language studies in Latin. Without the influence of Christian parents, John entered the world to support himself, and under his new freedoms he fell into "practical apostasy." Neglecting prayer, ignoring Scripture, and lacking concern for his soul's health, John Brown demonstrated the evidence of an unconverted heart.
As an orphan teenager, John supported himself as a hired shepherd. It was during these teenage years, knowing his apostate heart and being troubled over his spiritual apathy, that Brown began traveling to hear sermons by local preachers. By God's grace two consecutive sermons (one on John 6:64 and another on Isaiah 53:4) opened his eyes to the Cross of Christ. Brown, now aware of his sinfulness, clung to the Cross for his personal forgiveness before a holy God.
For the next several years Brown worked as a peddler, selling various things door-to-door, and then fought as a soldier for the Seceders defending the Edinburgh castle. But in the years following his conversion, Brown was convinced God had called him into pastoral ministry. And it was in these teenage years, by diligent personal study, Brown exhibited an amazing aptitude for disciplined learning.
John Brown's family poverty made educational opportunities scarce. The most striking feature of Brown's intellect is that (although being limited to one formal month of language lessons) he would build from this little knowledge to teach himself Greek and Hebrew and later French, Italian, Dutch, German, Arabic, Persic, Syriac and Ethiopic! This was not, Brown stressed, the result of a born-genius, but of diligent self-teaching and prayerful study.
As a teenager, Brown first set out to learn Greek. Brown turned to identical passages in the Greek New Testament and his Bible. By comparing Greek names to their translation in his Bible he learned the Greek alphabet because he understood the letters would correlate exactly from the Greek New Testament. Once he learned the Greek letters he moved on to the shortest biblical sentences, comparing the Greek to his Bible translation. Brown continued in this manner until he picked up sentence structure and built a vocabulary. Brown wrote in an autobiographical account later in his life: "He (God) left me a young orphan without any relations on earth that were able to help me to any purpose, he carried me through to a larger stock of learning than many others who had the greatest plenty; and all this without my being obligated to be ever in debt to, or dependent on, any person whatsoever."
So how would achievements that normally work to the puffing up in pride, work in Brown's life towards humility?
Word spread of this poor orphaned shepherd and his knowledge of biblical Greek. The question on the local's minds was simple: How did he learn? And those close to John quickly filled the listening ears with their own suspicion. Clearly John learned Greek through the direct tutorship of Satan himself, they said. The fumes of the gossip ignited throughout the community. While the slanderous report was idiotic (Satan equipping the ignorant in the Scriptures?) it fueled speculation, inflamed further slanders, and cut Brown to the heart. Brown struggled under the hurtfulness of the slander, but endured the pain silently. Decades later, Brown would point back to this humbling as critical in his life and ministry.
Brown recalls, "the Lord most clearly delivered me and vindicated me, when I made least carnal struggling, but labored to bear his indignation as quietly as I could. The sting I had found in my learning which I had so eagerly hunted after, tended to keep me humble under what I had attained, or afterwards attained. The reproach which I myself had met with, tended to render me less credulous of what I heard charged on others."
And so what others meant for evil, God used for Brown's good. The sharp blade of slander he felt was a divine gift of humility, cutting away his pride and equipping him for further spiritual duty. And what duty did the Lord have in store!
By the end of his fruitful life, Brown would serve as the beloved pastor in Haddington for 36 years, and a professor of divinity for 20 years, teaching languages, theology, church history and homiletics. He is noted for authoring many books including A General History of the Christian Church, A Dictionary of the Holy Bible and the Self-Interpreting Bible, a massive 4 volume study Bible used in its day as a detailed commentary on the whole of Scripture. But here in this review we are concerned mostly with a work worthy of clearing space in your library collection: The Systematic Theology of John Brown of Haddington (Christian Focus; 2002).
To understand the theology of John Brown of Haddington we must see into his heart. Brown was no mere intellectual theologian, resting content if his students were intellectually challenged. While holding high intellectual standards for his students, everything in his theology applied to the heart. The rich application of Brown's theology makes it especially suited for pulpit preparation.
Brown was a man sensitive to his own spiritual failings and need of God's grace. For example, Brown's wife of 18 years died when he was 49. In writing a letter to a friend shortly after this loss, Brown reveals a deep sensitivity to his remaining personal sinfulness. "In short my life is and has been a kind of almost perpetual strife between God and my soul. He strives to overcome my enmity and wickedness with his mercies, and I strive to overcome his mercy with my enmity and wickedness. Astonishingly kind on his side, but worse than diabolically wicked on mine! After all, I wish and hope that he, not I, may obtain the victory at last."
This spiritual sensitivity filters through the Systematic Theology. Theology was not merely the content for a textbook but truth deeply pondered and applied as medicine to his own soul. Brown closes each chapter with serious questions for reflection connecting the theology of Scripture to the heart. For example in the section on Bibliology, the reader is not only told Scripture is precious but asked the pointed question: Is Scripture precious to your soul? He then proceeds to humbly answer the question and reveal his own heart: "Blush deep, O my soul, -- that I have so long enjoyed this scripture glass, and turned my back to it; -- so little beheld Jesus and his salvation in it! That I have had in my house this treasure, this live coal of infinite, of redeeming love, and yet my heart so little moved, melted, and inflamed by it!" (p. 98). This humble confession is part of what it means to learn Bibliology (and all of theology).
In Brown's day, as in our day, preachers are tempted to make a name for themselves through tricks, creativity and humor. In other words, preachers are tempted to supplement God's Word with the personality they bring into the pulpit. With Brown's intellectual caliber, he was tempted to supplement Scripture with poetic imagery and intense creativity. It was a temptation he fought. Instead, Brown sought to saturate his expositions with the illustrations and language of Scripture. He writes,
"... notwithstanding all my eager hunting after most part of that lawful learning which is known among the sons of men, I was led generally to preach as if I had never read a book but the Bible. And the older I grew, I more and more aimed at this, (an observation which I had made in the days of my youth, that what touched my conscience of heart was not any airy flights or well-turned phrases, but either express scriptural expressions, or what came near to them), and led me to deal much in scriptural language, or what was near it. My imagination being somewhat rank and inclined to poetic imagery when I commenced a preacher, sometimes led me into flighty thoughts or expressions. But the Lord made me ashamed of this as a real robbing of him, in order to sacrifice to my own devilish and accursed pride."
Here is why Brown's systematic theology does not fit the traditional mold. Brown's work is a catechism on steroids, comprised of almost 27,000 biblical citations (about 50 per page)! His goal is to make a statement and let you see it in Scripture for yourself. He is a trial lawyer building his case from the evidence of Scripture. He is a man mighty in the Scriptures, bleeding bibline, speaking carefully the words of another as a delegate entrusted with a priceless message. Brown's theological textbook shows him to be a man consumed with biblical phrases, terms, word pictures and imagery (I will show you this biblical density in a later excerpt).
The Systematic Theology of John Brown of Haddington begins with an excellent trademark biography by Joel R. Beeke and Randall J. Pederson, followed by Brown's 16-page "Address to Students of Divinity." This address is one of the more powerful and humbling challenges to preachers. It's Baxter's Reformed Pastor abridged and set on fire. Preachers, watch your own hearts, he says.
The rest of the book is divided into seven sections. The general structure follows:
Book 1 (pp. 1-98): Of the standard of all religion, the law of nature, in its foundation and contents; the insufficiency of the light of nature to render a man truly virtuous and happy; the possibility, desirableness, necessity, propriety, reasonableness, credibility, divine authority, properties, and parts of that revelation which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament.
Book 2 (pp. 99-191): Of God, the author, object, and end of all religion, in his perceptions, persons, purposes, and works.
Book 3 (pp. 192-255): Of the bonds of religious connection between God and men, the covenant of works and grace, in their origin, parties, parts, and administrations in time and through eternity.
Book 4 (pp. 256-335): Of Christ, the Mediator of the covenant of grace, in his person, offices, and states.
Book 5 (pp. 336-449): Of the blessings of the covenant of grace, effectual calling, justification, adoption, sanctification, spiritual comfort, eternal glory.
Book 6 (pp. 450-549): Of the dispensations of the covenant of grace by means of the law, the gospel, and ordinances thereof. (This book also includes a lengthy study of the 10 commandments and the ordinances like reading Scripture, meditation, preaching, hearing sermons, prayer, singing, vowing, fasting, thanksgiving, sacraments, Lord's supper and baptism).
Book 7 (pp. 550-576): Of the new covenant society or church, in her constitution, members, offices, and government.
The text is a facsimile from an earlier edition, though no date is given for the original text. Two drawbacks should be noted here. First, because the facsimile is aged, the thousands of Scriptural citations are noted in Roman numerals. This will slow some readers down. Secondly, contrary to most titles in this class, the Christian Focus edition is not clothbound nor smyth-sewn. Notwithstanding these drawbacks, this is an excellent work.
So you're looking at your bookshelf and you have Reymond, Erickson, Grudem, Culver, Calvin, and maybe even Turretin. Why another systematic theology? John Brown's theology is a square peg in a round hole. It does not fit into the classic category of "systematic theology." The original title for the work was A Compendious View of Natural and Revealed Religion. Brown aimed at a different goal, namely to bring the reader under the waterfall of biblical content to be immersed in its theology and saturated by its language. Brown's goal is to help the reader see the width of biblical revelation on a given topic and then to experience the truth personally. This systematic theology is especially suited for readers seeking to be driven deeper into Scripture to experience God's marvelous truth.
John Brown does not want you to be amazed at his story, intellect or far-reaching understand of theology. He wants you to look at Scripture for yourself and be amazed at its comprehensive theological tapestry woven from Genesis to Revelation. Brown's intention is nothing short of making you "mighty in the Scriptures." This, by God's grace, is what makes The Systematic Theology of John Brown of Haddington special.
EXCERPTS (Roman numerals have been converted)
Excerpt from page 212: Notice the experiential understanding of the heart as Brown explains why the soul is naturally drawn towards legalism.
"All men by nature, and even believers, in so far as they are unrenewed, desire to be under the covenant of works, and to obtain happiness by their own righteousness, or the condition of it. 1. It is natural to men, and hence men of every form or religion, station, office, education, or manner of life, agree in it (Rom. 9:31,32, 10:3; Jonah 1:16; Matt. 19:16; John 6:28; Acts 2:37; Luke 15:19). 2. Our own working or suffering, in order to obtain happiness from God, is exceedingly suited to the pride of our corrupt nature, and makes us to look on God as our debtor (Rom. 10:3, 7:9,13; John 5:45; Isa. 58:3). It is like pangs of death to quit our hold of the law (Rom. 7:4,9; Gal. 2:19). 3. Men's ignorance of the extensive and high demands of the broken law, and of their own utter inability to keep it, -- or their care to abridge their apprehensions of them, and to enlarge their conceit of their own ability, mightily promote their desire to be under it (Rom. 7:9-13, 10:3; Gal. 4:21). 4. Men have naturally a peculiar enmity against God and his gracious method of redemption, -- against Jesus Christ and his whole mediation, particularly his sacrificing work; and hence love to oppose the honor of it be cleaving to legal methods of obtaining happiness (Rom. 8:7; John 15:24; Rom. 10:3; 9:32; 5:21; Gal. 2:21; 5:2,4)."
Excerpt from the Preface on pages viii-xi: This comes from a humbling and useful Address to Students of Divinity.
"See that your minds be deeply impressed with the nature, extent, and importance of your ministerial work, -- that therein it is required of you, as ambassadors for Christ, as stewards of the mysteries and manifold grace of God, -- to be faithful; -- to serve the Lord with your spirit, and with much humility in the gospel of his Son: -- to testify repentance towards God, and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ, not keeping back or shunning to declare every part of the counsel of God, or any profitable instruction, reproof, or encouragement; and not moved with any reproach, persecution, hunger, or nakedness, -- to be ready not only to be bound, but to die for the name of the Lord Jesus, in order to finish your course with joy. Bearing with the infirmities of the weak, and striving together in prayer, that the word of the Lord may have free course, and be glorified, and your message provided by God, and made acceptable to your hearers, you must labor with much fear and trembling, determined to know, to glory in, and to make known, nothing but Jesus Christ, and him crucified, -- preaching the gospel, not with enticing words of man's wisdom, as men-pleasers, but with great plainness of speech, in demonstration of the Spirit and with power, -- speaking the things which are freely given you by God, not in the words which man's wisdom teaches, but in words which the Holy Ghost teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual, -- as having the mind of Christ, always triumphing in Him, -- and making manifest the savor of the knowledge of him in every place, that you may be a sweet savor of Christ in them who are saved, and in them who perish; -- as of sincerity, as of God, in the sight of God, speaking in Christ, and through the mercy of God, not fainting, but renouncing the hidden things of dishonesty; -- not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully, or corrupting the truth, but manifesting the truth to every man's conscience, as in the sight of God; -- not preaching yourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and yourselves servants to the church for his sake, always bearing about his dying, that his life may be manifested in you; -- and knowing the terror of the Lord, and deeply impressed with the account which you and your hearers must give to him of your whole conduct in the day of judgment, -- awed by his infinite authority, constrained and inflamed by his love, you must persuade men, beseeching them to be reconciled unto God, and making yourselves manifest to God and to their conscience, -- and, as their edification requires, changing your voice, and turning yourselves every way, and becoming all things to all men, in order to gain them to Christ, -- jealous over them with a godly jealousy, in order to espouse them to him as chaste virgins, -- travailing in birth, till he be formed in their hearts. You must take heed to your ministry which you have received in the Lord, what you may fulfill it; -- stir up the gifts which were given you, -- give yourselves wholly to reading, exhortation, and doctrine; -- and perseveringly take heed to yourselves and to the doctrine which you preach, that you may save yourselves and them that hear you; -- watching for their souls, as they who do, and must give an account for them to God, -- rightly dividing the word of truth, and giving every man his portion in due season, faithfully warning every man with tears night and day, teaching every man, particularly young ones, and laboring to present every man perfect in Christ Jesus, -- and warring, not after the flesh, nor with carnal weapons, but with such as are mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds and casting down imaginations, and subduing every thought and affection to the obedience of Christ. Having him for the end of your conversation, and holding fast the form of sound words in faith in, and love to him, -- not entangling yourselves with the affairs of this life, nor ashamed of the Lord, or of his cause or prisoners, but ready to endure hardships as good soldiers of Jesus Christ, and to endure all things for the elect's sake, that they may obtain salvation with eternal glory; -- ye must go forth without the camp, bearing his reproach, and, exposed as spectacles of suffering to angels and men, must not faint under your tribulations, but feed the flock of God which he has purchased with his own blood, and over which the Holy Ghost has made you overseers, -- preaching the word in season and out of season, reproving, rebuking, and exhorting with all long-suffering and doctrine, -- taking the oversight of your people, not by restraint, but willingly, not for filthy lucre of worldly gain, or larger stipends, but of a ready mind, -- neither as being lords over God's heritage, but as examples to the flock, -- exercising yourselves to have a conscience void of offense towards God and towards man, -- having a good conscience, willing in all things to live honestly, -- exercised to godliness, -- kindly affectioned, disinterested, holy, just, and unblamable, -- prudent examples of the believers in conversations [daily life], in charity, in faith and purity, -- fleeing youthful lusts, and following after righteousness, peace, faith, charity, -- not striving, but being gentle to all men, -- in meekness, instructing them who oppose themselves, avoiding foolish and unlearned questions, and old wives' fables, -- fleeing from perverse disputings and worldly mindedness, as most dangerous snares; and following after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness; -- fighting the good fight of faith, and laying hold on eternal life, -- keeping your trust of gospel truth and ministerial office, and, without partiality or precipitancy, committing the same to faithful men, who may be able to teach others; -- and, in fine, faithfully laboring, in the Lord, to try, and confute, and censure false teachers, restore such as have been overtaken in a fault in the spirit of meekness, -- and having compassion on them, to pull them out of the fire, hating even the garment spotted by the flesh, and never conniving at, or partaking with an in their sins. Who is sufficient for these things? May your sufficiency be of God; and as your days are, so may your strength be. (Ezek. 2:7, 3:9, 17-21, 33:7-9; Isa. 58:1; Jer. 1:17-18, 15:19-20; Mic. 3:8; Mal. 2:6-7; Matt. 10:16-39, 19:28-29, 20:25-28, 23:3-12, 24:42-51, 28:18-20; Acts 18:24-28, 20:18-35, 24:16, 26:16-23; 1 Cor. 2:1-5,9,12-13, ch. 1-5, 9, 12-14; 2 Cor. ch. 2-6, 10-13; Rom. 1:9,16, 9:1-2, 10:1, ch. 12 and 15; Gal. 1:8-16, 4:19; Eph. 3:7-9, 4:11-15, 6:19-20; Col. 4:7,17, 1:23-29, 2:1-2; 1 Thes. ch. 2, 3, 5:12; 1 Tim. ch. 3-4; 2 Tim. ch. 1-3; Heb. 13:7,17-18; 1 Pet. 4:10-11, 5:1-4; Jude 22, 23; Rev. ch. 2, 3, 11:3-7, 14:6-11)."
Excerpt from pages 427-428: Taken from the chapter on sanctification, this excerpt covers the important connection between justification and our growth in godliness.
"There can be no proper study of true holiness, without being first in order, furnished with an inward inclination to it, -- a real persuasion of our reconciliation with God through the imputed righteousness of Christ, -- a well-grounded hope of eternal life -- through his obedience and death, -- and a cordial belief that God, by his grace, will enable us to perform our duty in an acceptable manner.
I. We must have a fixed and abiding inclination towards holiness of heart and life implanted in us: For, 1. The duties of the law, such as delighting to do God's will, -- loving him with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, -- loving our neighbor as ourselves, etc. cannot be performed without such an inclination (Ps. 40:8; Matt. 22:37,39; 1 Tim. 1:5; Luke 8:15; Gal. 5:16,17,24; Job 23:12; Ps. 19:10, 42:1,2, 63:1,2, 84:2). 2. Both Adam and Christ were formed with such an inclination to qualify them for their study of holiness (Ecc. 7:29; Gen. 1:27; Luke 1:35; Heb. 7:26). 3. By nature we have no such inclination, but the contrary in us (Matt. 12:33, 15:19; Rom. 8:7-8; Jer. 17:9). 4. All believers find the receipt of this inclination absolutely necessary to their studying holiness (Ps. 51:10; 119:36,37). 5. God not only requires it, but hath promised to bestow it, in order to our practicing holiness (Eze. 36:26, 11:19,20).
II. We must be persuaded, on God's own testimony, of our new covenant reconciliation with him as our friend: 1. Adam was created in high favor with God, that he might exercise himself in the study of holiness (Gen. 1:26,27, 2:16-17) and Christ was God's beloved Son, high in his favor (Matt. 3:17, 17:5; Isa. 42:1; Col. 1:13). 2. Our conscience, when thoroughly convinced, dictates, that we can do nothing that is spiritually good, unless God, in his free favor, enable us (1 Cor. 15:10; 2 Cor. 3:5; Phil. 2:12,13; 1 Thes. 5:23) which he can only do, in consequence of removing his curse, which condemns us to lie under his displeasure and wrath (Gal. 3:13; Rom 6:14, 8:2; 7:4,6). 3. The duties required by the law, cannot be performed without persuasion of our reconciliation to God (Matt. 22:37,39; John 4:16-19). 4. Our conscience must be purged from dead works to serve the living God (Heb. 9:12,15; 10:1,2,4,14,17,22; 1 Tim. 1:5). For, if sin lie on our conscience, it will dispose us to curse God rather than to serve him (Job 1:5). 5. By manifesting himself as reconciled, God ordinarily encourages and excites to holiness (Jer. 3:14,22; Hos. 14:1-8; Isa. 44:22; Eze. 16:62,63; 36:25-31). His sacraments of initiation into his service import reconciliation (Gen. 17:7-14; Acts 2:38,39). God began the publication of his law at Sinai with declarations of his being a reconciled God (Ex. 20:2,5,7,8,12, 19:5,6, 24:1-8). All the Jewish priests and Levites were admitted into their holy service by sacrifices and washings, which imported reconciliation (Ex. 29; Lev. Ch. 8,9; Num. 8). Every Jewish day, month, and year began with one or more sacred festivals of reconciliation with God (Num. ch. 28,29; Lev 23). Our Christian week begins with a sacred festival, and a sacramental feast of reconciliation (Acts 20:7; John 20:20,26; 1 Cor. 11:23-26, 10:16. 6. Reconciliation with God is represented as the source of all genuine study of gospel-holiness (Eph. 4:31,32, 5:1,2; 1 John 2:12,15; Heb. 12:28; Ps. 119:32, 116:16; Luke 1:74,75; 2 Cor. 5:14,15,19; 2 Cor. 6:18, 7:1; Titus 2:11,12).
III. We must have a well-grounded hope of everlasting happiness in the full enjoyment of God, through the imputed righteousness of Christ, as its proper condition and price. 1. The nature of our duty, particularly our love and gratitude to God, require this (1 John 3:1-3, 4:9,10,19). 2. Since the fall, God hath always proposed this hope as men's encouragement to holiness (Heb. 12:1,2; 2 Cor. 4:16-18; Heb. 10:34,35; 11:26; 1 Cor. 15:58; Ps. 119:166; Tit. 2:12,13; 2 Pet. 3:11,14,18). 3. This the more effectually induces to holiness, as our eternal happiness has perfect holiness as its principal ingredient (1 John 3:2-3; Ps. 119:166; Hos. 11:4).
IV. We must have a well-grounded persuasion of God's making us able and willing to serve him acceptably. 1. We have no natural ability or willingness to serve him in this manner (Eph. 2:1; Rom. 5:6; 8:7-8; Jer. 17:9; 2 Cor. 3:5; John 15:5). 2. The study of true holiness is very difficult, and there are many adversaries (Gal. 5:17,24; Eph. 6:10-20; Rom. 7:14-24; 8:13; Col. ch. 3,5; Matt. 15:23-28, 16:24, 19:29). 3. God never sent any a warfare on their own charges; neither Adam (Gen. 1:27; Ecc. 7:29); nor Moses (Ex. ch. 3-4); nor Joshua (Josh. 1; 5:13,14); nor the apostles (Matt. 28:20; John 20:21-22; Acts 1:8; Acts 26:17,18); nor Christ (Isa. 42:1, 49:1,2; 50:7,9; Isa. 61:1; 11:2). 4. He hath secured ability for, and willingness in the study of holiness for his people (Rom. 6:13,14; Eph. 6:10,11; 1 John 2:13,14; Phil. 2:12,13, 4:13)."
Title: The Systematic Theology of John Brown of Haddington (formerly, A Compendious View of Natural and Revealed Religion)
Authors: John Brown of Haddington, Joel R. Beeke, Randall J. Pederson
Reading level: 3.5/5.0 > moderate due to density of content
Boards: hardcover (not cloth)
Dust jacket: no
Binding: glued (not smyth-sewn)
Topical index: no
Scriptural index: no
Text: facsimile from older edition (no date)
Publisher: Christian Focus in partnership with Reformation Heritage Books
Price USD: $35.00 / $25.99 from Monergism Books
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All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright (c) 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
All content including reviews and photographs Copyright (c) 2007 Tony Reinke