Lessons Learned From the Thomas Collier Incident

The Particular Baptists were not strangers to controversy. One of, if not their biggest, disagreements with the establishment around them was on the issue of infant baptism. They were distinct in that they generally argued against it from the perspective of covenant theology (see Sam Renihan’s book, From Shadow to Substance). Although they agreed with Reformed orthodoxy on many things, they would not capitulate to the Church of England nor to their Puritan brothers, whom they identified with as Separatists. Controversy not only found itself from the outside, but also from within. The Particular Baptists, beginning in the 1640s, were faced with a substantial threat from a prominent and active member among them: Thomas Collier.

Historical Background

Thomas Collier was not a fringe or silent member of the Particular Baptists. He was quite active and, “served as a chaplain, pastor, evangelist, church planter, and associational leader in the west. Over the span of his long ministry, Collier covered considerable territory, geographically and theologically.” (Renihan, From Shadow to Substance, 174) Just because a man is in this position does not mean error will not follow, although one would think he would have the spiritual maturity to avoid the heresies he would espouse. But espouse heresy he did. In the 1640s and into the 1670s he was teaching heresy. Renihan gives us a picture of his teachings:

…Collier published heretical expressions regarding the trinity, denying the distinction of the persons…In 1674, Collier boldly placed himself outside the boundaries of Protestant orthodoxy in a book entitled The Body of Divinity. Two years later he espoused heterodoxy even more explicitly in his Additional Word to the Body of Divinity. Among other things, he taught that God exists in a “increated” heavens, that Christ died for the universe, that man is able to believe the gospel of his own power, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, that believers could lose their salvation, that salvation remained possible after death, and other heresies regarding the hypostatic union of the Mediator, Jesus Christ, asserting that God the Son was a creature.”

Renihan, From Shadow to Substance, 174-175

In other words, Collier was attacking the biblical teachings of the church. These deviations went to the heart of the Christian, let alone Particular Baptist, faith. This was not just about baptism or who the members of the new covenant were anymore. This was a fight for the faith itself. And the response of the Particular Baptists was one that needed to be proportionate to the teachings brought against them. Given he was no small fish in the Particular Baptist pond, this problem had to be dealt with quickly. And try they did.

A prolific author and active church-planter, Collier’s open and published embrace of heresy could not go unanswered. In fact, regional pastors and some of the members of the church in Southwick where Collier was pastoring took notice and requested help from London leaders in order to deal with his deviations.

Renihan, From Shadow to Substance, 175

Collier was addressed by Nehemiah Coxe, William Kiffen, and others, although there was no repentance on the part of the heretic. “…it was clear that Collier had no intention of changing his mind or putting down his pen on the matter.” (Renihan, From Shadow to Substance, 178)

In response to the beliefs of Mr. Collier, and to distance themselves from him, what would come to be known as the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith would be published (it was originally called A Confession of Faith put forth by the Elders and Brethren of many congregations of Christians (Baptized upon profession of their faith) in London and the country).

In fact, the Confession was published the same month (August of 1677) that elders from London and Bristol were declaring Collier a heretic (Renihan, From Shadow to Substance, 178).

Lessons Learned

While there are probably many things that could be learned from the Collier incident, there are three items that can be gleaned.

  1. Sound doctrine is crucial to eternal life. This should seem rather obvious but it is good to re-iterate. What you believe will impact how you live especially as it relates to what we believe about God, His Word, and the Gospel. With the Gospel in particular, Paul was adamant about ensuring it was taught, and if another “Gospel” was taught, those who espoused it were damned to hell (Galatians 1:8). What Collier taught was against orthodoxy and ultimately went to the heart of the faith. Who God is, salvation, who Christ is, all these things were taught in a way that could not be reconciled with the Christian faith and really led to another Gospel, thereby securing him as a heretic.
  2. Having association with other like minded churches can be very helpful. While associationalism is not commanded in the Scriptures, it is a very helpful way for churches to support one another. We see this clearly in the Collier incident. Churches worked together to try to stamp out Collier as he made a stink among the brethren with his heresies. This strong associationalism can allow other knowledgeable brethren to deal with issues in other churches without being authoritative over a local church or substantially interfering in their affairs.
  3. Properly defining what we believe is very important. The 2nd LBCF coming out of this incident with Collier showed how important it was to clearly define what orthodox doctrine is and what the Particular Baptists believed. The Particular Baptists did not want to be associated with Collier in any way and wanted to ensure that there was no confusion in what “real” Particular Baptist theology was. This Confession was that official response. Properly defining as a church what is believed in said church is crucial. The Reformed were very careful to define their beliefs and were not casual or lazy in how they defined core orthodoxy. This meant that substantial time had to be given to their expositions and defenses, but it meant they could clearly define who they were as opposed to those around them, namely Rome (although the Particular Baptists were primarily dealing with the Church of England, Presbyterians, Independents, and Anabaptists, but there may be more). We need to clearly define what we believe and use this to take a stand against heterodoxy.

Conclusion

Collier is by no means an isolated incident in false teaching creeping into the church. The church has constantly been dealing with false teaching in one way or another and it was no different for the Particular Baptists. Their commitment to Biblical truth was what guided them through this difficult time and the Lord ultimately united them in it. May we have the strength and passion for truth as the Particular Baptists.

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