The Marrow Controversy was the controversy over a seventeenth-century book, The Marrow of Modern Divinity, by Edward Fisher, a lay minister writing under the pseudonym “E. F.” The title, which sounds strange to modern readers, uses the word marrow to refer to the inmost or essential part and the word divinity to refer to a godly life. If the book were published today, it might be titled The Core of Christian Living. The book was originally published in two parts, in 1645 and 1649.
The Marrow of Modern Divinity is a fictional, four-way dialogue involving a young Christian, an antinomian, a legalist, and a minister. The book attempts to lead the reader down a path that avoids the extremes of legalism (an emphasis on keeping the law as a means of acceptance before God) and antinomianism (a rejection of any “required” standard of behavior for the Christian).
The Whole Christ is a book that Sinclair Ferguson wrote in 2016 about the controversy. The complete title is The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters. In this book, Ferguson explains the dispute between the “Marrow brethren” and those opposed to Fisher’s book, and he also points to the remedy for both legalism and antinomianism.
The Marrow of Modern Divinity was not widely read and may have remained in obscurity if it had not been read and republished in 1718 at the urging of the influential Scottish pastor and theologian Thomas Boston. However, some in the Church of Scotland objected to the book, claiming that it did in fact endorse antinomianism. From May 1719 to May 1720, a committee investigated the book and returned with the finding the book did encourage antinomianism. The Church of Scotland prohibited ministers from endorsing the book and instructed them to warn their congregations against it (which may have actually caused more people to want to read it). Boston felt that the committee had misunderstood the book and appealed the ruling, responding to the findings of the committee. This appeal was rejected, leading Boston to publish an annotated edition in 1726 in hopes of clearing up the controversy. Both the original and Boston’s annotated edition are still available in print today.
Those who were opposed to The Marrow of Modern Divinity felt that it endorsed antinomianism. Those who endorsed it leveled charges of legalism against opponents. Yet this “Marrow Controversy” was between people who were all in agreement with the Westminster Confession of Faith, which goes to great lengths to explain justification by grace through faith (avoiding legalism) and the responsibilities of Christian living (avoiding antinomianism). Legalism and antinomianism are not strictly doctrinal, but also have to do with our attitudes and outlook (see Tim Keller’s analysis in the forward to Ferguson’s book).
In the Christian life, even among genuine believers, some will tend toward legalistic thinking. Even though they “know” that their acceptance before God is not based on their performance, they still tend to live their lives in that way and perhaps judge others through the same lens. On the other hand, some genuine Christians are caught up in the freedom of grace and think that they can live any way they want. Sometimes they sin thinking it simply doesn’t matter.
The Whole Christ concept is Ferguson’s answer to both antinomianism and legalism. Ferguson writes that the cure for both legalism and antinomianism is “understanding and tasting union with Jesus Christ himself. This leads to a new love for and obedience to the law of God, which he now mediates to us in the gospel” (The Whole Christ, Crossway Books, 2016, p.157).
The answer to antinomianism is not a reasonable dose of legalism. The answer to legalism is not a reasonable dose of antinomianism. Ferguson says the answer to both is simply Christ and the gospel. The ruling sentiment should be love for and fellowship with Christ. When we truly experience Him and get to know His love, we are freed from the necessity of performance but also freed to do good works that He has for us (see Ephesians 2:8–10). In terms of Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son, the prodigal was antinomian, and the elder brother was legalistic. Both sons needed to come to their father, who stood ready to extend grace and enjoy their fellowship.