Stephen Geree was one of several puritan ministers who wrote against the so-called Antinomians during the 1640’s. His main target was Tobias Crisp. Crisp, who has been regarded by some as the high priest of English Antinomianism, moved to London in 1642 where he quickly became an influential leader of the antinomian movement. Although he died the following year, his influence continued to grow due in large part to the posthumous publication of his sermons, entitled, Christ Alone Exalted. Geree used this book as the basis for his polemic against Antinomian doctrine in 1644.
My goal is not to discuss or evaluate Geree’s analysis of Crisp or Antinomian doctrine in general. Rather, I would like to highlight his reasons for engaging this theological battle, for the manner in which he engaged it, and for his focus on Crisp. Vigorous polemic aimed at an individual is not a relic of a bygone era; it is very much a part of our own culture. Indeed, with the advent of social media, it seems like it is everywhere, which is why many people today are turned off by it and argue against it. While the misuse of something makes it look ugly, it doesn’t mean that it is bad in and of itself. Hence, we should ask if there are good reasons for Christians to critique individuals, including fellow Christians, forcefully and publicly? If so, what are some of those reasons? Geree may be of help to us in this regard, or at least serve to generate thought on the matter.
One reason Geree engaged in heated theological debate with the Antinomians was to defend the Gospel. He was convinced that the “Gospel of Jesus Christ is absolutely overthrowne by this Antinomian, or rather Anti-evangelicall Doctrine.” If this hadn’t been the case then he would have held his peace and saved himself a “great deale of paines.” What made matters worse for Geree was that this “Anti-evangelicall Doctrine” claimed to be evangelical by “its seeming so much to magnifie the grace of God and Christ.” It was like sweet poison, which goes down so easily, or like a “guilded or sugared bait.” It deceived and entrapped unsuspecting Christians. Indeed, he testified that many people had been ruined by this error. Consequently, Geree didn’t hesitate to call them “mountebanks (con artists),” and “ignorant Quacksalvers, that doe but skin over the soares of mens soules, and doe not thoroughly cure their sinnes.”
The reason Geree engaged in the Antinomian debate is also the reason for his heated rhetoric. He didn’t pull any punches. He called it as he saw it because he believed that the Gospel and people’s lives were at stake. There was, however, another reason he used strong language at times, or as he put it, why he used “a little Vineger” now and then. He felt compelled to do so by his “adversaries.” He believed that his opponents had violently rejected his mild rebuke and doubled down on their errors. A soft touch would no longer do. Stronger medicine was called for. Geree explained:
And if at anytime I seeme somewhat harsh, know, that partly the cause itself, and partly the confidence of my adversaries, have compelled me hereunto. For having written most mildly some three or foure yeares agoe, I was answered so roughly and insolently, that made some judicious persons, that read both sides, admire. So that I saw a necessity of more roughness and smartness with this generation, when gentle medicines will not worke, then more bitter and biting must be used…This hath made me now and then use a little Vineger, which otherwise I have not used.
The reason Geree zeroed in on Tobias Crisp was because Crisp had many adoring fans and defenders. Rumor has it that Robert Lancaster, Crisp’s friend and publisher, wrote a pamphlet entitled, “Oh that Tobias!” though I have yet to confirm it. According to Geree, there were even some people who thought that Crisp could do no wrong and placed him in the same category as the apostle Paul. This led him to focus on Crisp and it forced him to rely on Crisp’s written words, even though he had heard Crisp preach, because Crisp’s admirers and friends would readily “deny what they have really held, as if they held no such thing.”
As I said at the beginning, my intention was not to evaluate Geree’s analysis of Crisp. He may be right or wrong on Crisp. The accuracy of his critique, however, does not affect his reasons for engaging in heated theological debate or for critiquing a particular individual. Drops of vinegar may well be in order when teachers are distorting the Gospel or leading people astray. They may be necessary when people are stubborn and stiff-necked in their errors. And they may be necessary when people harbor an unhealthy admiration for their favorite celebrity preacher.
D. Patrick Ramsey (@DPatrickRamsey) is pastor of Nashua Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Edinburg, Pennsylvania. He is a co-author (with Joel Beeke) of An Analysis of Herman Witsius's The Economy of the Covenantsand author of A Portrait of Christ.