John Taylor: critiqued by Edwards and Wesley

Posted by: Michael Haykin

It isn’t every theologian who can claim to have been critiqued by two of the leading Evangelical authors of his day. John Taylor (1694–1761), however, pastor of the Presbyterian work in Norwich—then one of the leading towns in England—was indeed a recipient of this dubious honour. 

Taylor was most well-known for his Hebrew Concordance (vol. I: 1754; vol. II: 1757), which placed him in “the forefront of the leading Hebrew scholars” of his era (Geoffrey T. Eddy, Dr. Taylor of Norwich: Wesley’s Arch-heretic [Peterborough, England: Epworth Press, 2003], 47). But he also became infamous for being a “radical champion of freedom of thought on theological questions” (Eddy, Dr. Taylor, 40). Possessing an optimistic confidence in human reason that was typical of many intellectuals in his day, he frequently railed against what he called “Athanasianism” due to what he saw as its denial of God’s unity. Taylor himself was probably closest to Arianism in his theological convictions about the Godhead. Also, though he believed in the infallibility of the Scriptures, Taylor saw no foundation for the doctrine of original sin, a position which made him the target of attack by two of the most famous Evangelical authors of that era: Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), who critiqued him in his The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended (1757), and John Wesley (1703–1791). 

In his biography of Taylor, Eddy is very dismissive of Edwards’ response: “Modern readers are unlikely to think it worth while to plough through the book, based as it is upon a cosmology and a view of Scripture neither of which can any longer be the basis for argument” (Eddy, Dr. Taylor, 96). At a later point, Eddy, with regard to what he believed to be Wesley’s failure to mount an effective response to Taylor, revealed his own theological perspective when he comments that the doctrine of original sin had “simply ceased to be credible” (Eddy, Dr. Taylor, 121). Taylor’s own teaching with regard to salvation is “frank Pelagianism,” in which “we are saved by our own efforts, with a little help from the Holy Spirit” (Eddy, Dr. Taylor, 119). 

Little wonder that many regarded Taylor as an arch-heretic. Eddy relates the way that one of Taylor’s critics, a Particular Baptist minister by the name of John MacGowan (1726–1780)—minister of the historic Devonshire Square Baptist Church in London and a man, in Eddy’s words, “over-addicted to irony and vituperation” (Eddy, Dr. Taylor, 236, n.5)—attacked him. In a tract that appeared in the year of Taylor’s death, MacGowan depicted Taylor as now sinking down in hell in “despair, while the direful floods of omnipotent vengeance rolled upon him” (Eddy, Dr. Taylor, 6). Though Eddy termed this tract the “weirdest of all the attacks” upon Taylor (Eddy, Dr. Taylor, 5), a careful reading of the words of the Lord Jesus about the final state of unbelievers would show that MacGowan’s words may not have been so weird after all. 

There is no doubt that part of what makes a good biography is an author’s impulse towards sympathy. In Eddy, John Taylor found both a sympathetic biographer and enthusiastic advocate. This author, however, would strongly disagree with Eddy’s easy dismissal of such “critics” as Edwards and Wesley. Not only were such men no negligible students of the Scriptures, but they sought to subject all their thinking to the body of divine truth. They themselves would likely have been very surprised at Eddy’s conclusion that in their convictions concerning original sin, they were simply under the thralldom of Augustine (Eddy, Dr. Taylor, xi)! Rather, they likely would have stated—and this writer would say, rightly so—that such teaching has an apostolic ring about it.

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