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Book Reviews > Theology > The Systematic Theology of John Brown of Haddington

Ray VanNeste

Ray VanNeste
Director of the RC Ryan Center for Biblical Studies and Assistant Professor of Christian Studies

The Systematic Theology of John Brown of Haddington
intro. by Joel R. Beeke and Randall J. Pederson
Details: 2002, Christian Focus Pub. & Reformation Heritage Books, Amazon.comISBN: 1892777665
Posted: June 16, 2004


John Brown of Haddington was a giant of the faith in a land of giants - 18th century Scotland. I first became familiar with him in the famed story of him teaching himself to read Greek while watching his sheep as recorded by A. T. Robertson in his big grammar. Brown was indeed a man of peculiar gifts, an enormous capacity for hard work and a strong devotion to Christ. It is our loss that the church is largely ignorant today of this great servant of God.

This book is a reprint of John Brown’s influential book, A Compendious View of Natural and Revealed Religion, originally published in 1782 and republished several times in the nineteenth century. The new introduction to Brown's life and writings is an inspiring read itself. Then, Brown's work opens with an ‘Address to Students of Divinity’ where he exhorts his readers as to his aim in writing which he says is not to cause them to read but to think much. I have found this address to be a useful resource in various settings with ministerial students.

The work itself is arranged in seven books: scripture, God, covenants of works and grace, Christ, salvation, dispensation of the covenant of grace (Law, gospel, ordinances), and the Church. Brown's approach is very logical and orderly. He states a basic point with biblical support and then proceeds to sub-points with biblical supports. He does not produce much flowing prose but rather a very full systematic list. As one would expect he presents a solid evangelical, Reformed, Presbyterian position. Three things particularly stood out to me as striking.

First, the plethora of scriptural citations on each point was astounding. I looked back to the introduction and saw that Brown provides more than 26,000 proof texts. When one considers that this was done without the aid of computerized concordances and in a day when resources for biblical study were scarce in comparison to today, this shows how deeply immersed this man was in Scripture! Pondering this point has been one of the chief benefits of this book to me. Perhaps it will be useful to include a portion of his reflection at the close of his discussion of Scripture:

“Ponder now, my soul! Are these oracles of God, these testimonies and testaments of Jesus Christ, my heritage, the words upon which he hath caused me to hope? Are they my divine charter for my everlasting life? – Are they even now my food, and the rejoicing of my heart? – Are they sweeter than honey to my taste, and more gladdening than great spoil? – Are they my counselors, with whom I converse by day and by night, - in the house, or on the way, - when I lie down and when I rise up? … Dare not, my soul, to commence or continue a preacher of these divine truths, while I myself have no spiritual knowledge of their power. – Alas! How shall I hold up my face at Jesus’ tribunal, if I wickedly take his covenant in my mouth, - publishing it to others, before my own heart say of it, This is all my salvation, and all my desire."

Secondly, most chapters conclude with a reflection which is a prayerful meditation. As with most work of this time, there is no false divide between deep study and piety. This work of theology is self-consciously written as an act of devotion intending to lead its readers to worship and holiness.

Thirdly, and related to the above, the work is significantly Christocentric. This is why it is a work of devotion. He does not merely contemplate religious ideas but seeks more fully to know Christ and this comes through in his deliberations. For example in his final reflection he closes the book writing: >p?"to glorify the God of all grace, let me conclude my work, with a solemn surrender of myself, as a poor, an unparalleled, ignorant, guilty, polluted, an enslaved sinner, - to Jesus Christ …. Let my conscience, let angels, let the redeeming THREE, bear me witness, that I consent, heartily consent, that Jesus and all he is and has, be mine, and that I be his from henceforth and forever;- and that in me, the first-rate sinner, he may shew, in the ages to come, all his long-suffering, and the exceeding riches of his grace. If my soul love not this Lord Jesus, let me be ANATHEMA, MARANATHA. accursed at his coming" (576).

Such passion for Christ is a model for us in doing our theological work. While the typesetting (verse references bunched amidst the text) may make this harder to use as a handy reference, the reflections can help us much in considering the applications of these doctrines. The publishers and authors of the introduction are to be thanked for giving us access again to this work.

Ray Van Neste

Union University