Regarding Richard Baxter, Curt Daniel writes:
“Considered a model pastor. Irenic and conciliatory for true ecumenism, though he was a leading opponent of Antinomianism” (Curt Daniel, The History & Theology of Calvinism).
Please note and keep in mind Daniel’s two commendatory words, “irenic” and “conciliatory.”
Vance Salisbury writes the following:
The England which Baxter knew represents a idealic time to some, and indeed it was in some respects. But, seventeenth-century England also gave birth to fratricidal quarrels and divisions which remain unhealed to this day.
In the midst of the wrangling and infighting stood Baxter, working tirelessly to bring reconciliation and cooperation to the factious whole. He wrote entire books on the subject of Christian unity, met with men, small and great, and proposed plan after plan to heal the major divisions within England’s national church. He sacrificed so very much for Christ’s body; time, money, friendship, and even his health. It is ironic then, that in these endeavors we often find Baxter at his very worst.
J.I. Packer reaches the sum in a few words:
“Baxter was a big man, big enough to have big faults and make big errors.”
It seems that Baxter, as one of a generation which produced many “big” men, was ineffective among his peers.
Among his faults was speaking his mind, when silence would have accomplished more. His habit of “plain dealing” offended many more than Oliver Cromwell and Charles II, as if they were not enough. Baxter often alienated the very men who were sympathetic to his ideals and could have exercised great influence for peace and harmony. Baxter’s sharp and undeserved criticism of John Owen, occupying thirty pages in his first published work, was perhaps his biggest blunder and one which would haunt him over and over in his quest for unity (Vance Salisbury, Good Mr. Baxter; underlining mine–CD).
Baxter, who is said by some to be a “neonomian” thought (from what I can recall) that Owen’s doctrine led to “antinomianism.” In his “practical writings” Baxter had written:
“…he that will blow the Coals must not wonder if some Sparks do fly in his face…”
Evidently Baxter was not mindful of the phrase, no toques el toro (or its Latin, Greek, Hebrew, or English equivalent) when he chose to meddle with the Owenic bull (by the way, this is NOT an endorsement of Owen as orthodox). From the writings of Owen and Baxter that are heterodox, it is easily ascertained that their theological battle was a battle between two brothers in Satan. Baxter, in hindsight acknowledges his “too forwardness” in meddling with John Owen:
I medled too forwardly with Dr. Owen… For I was young, and a stranger to men’s tempers, and thought others could have born a Confutation as easily as I could do my self; and I thought that I was bound to do my best publickly, to save the World from the hurt of published Errours, and not to meddle with the Person that maintained them. But indeed I was then too raw to be a Writer… It cost me more than any other that I have written… (2)
Baxter acknowledges: “But indeed I was then too raw to be a Writer… It cost me more than any other that I have written.” In other words, he, in meddling with the Owenic bull, got the horns. No toques el toro.
Vance Salisbury continues:
This is an accurate self appraisal of Baxter’s shortcomings and a sound warning for any young pastor, but it was a character flaw which was rarely overcome by Baxter his entire life.
One of Baxter’s many sayings, “Overdoing is the ordinary way of Undoing,”(3) was another bit of wisdom which he never really mastered. In controversies, he “made war to end war” and always sought to bring opposing parties to common ground. But, his pedantic and triumphalist style made failure a certainty. Baxter’s overtures of peace more often than not, had the effect of “an olive branch discharged from a catapault [sic].”(4)
Baxter’s peaceful entreaties to his brothers in Belial involved bouncing bullish branches off of their foreheads.
Perhaps the best example of Baxter’s “overdoing” was his role in the “Happy Union” between the Congregationalists and Presbyterians. This was an event which he had worked for nearly all his life, yet when a reconciliation of the two sects finally came about, Baxter played a major role in its demise. Hoping to counter what he perceived as antinomian tendencies, as he had with Dr. Owen years earlier, Baxter insisted on publishing his Scripture Gospel Defended in 1690. His friends advised him against it, but Baxter just couldn’t let the slightest error pass without comment. The book offended men on both sides, opened up old divisions, and ignited a controversy which was still raging when Baxter died in 1691. The “Happy Union” completely dissolved in the bitter quarrel which followed (Salisbury, Good Mr. Baxter).
Ready, fire, aim. That’s good, Mr. Baxter. That’s real good. Ah, but perhaps our enemies would accuse us of a “ready, fire, aim” approach in regards to those who profess the name of Jesus Christ. And many times our reply to that false accusation is “by what standard” does one judge who is and is not a true Christian? “By what standard” does one judge whether they are rebuking a true Christian fallen into sin, or rebuking a non-Christian whose sin or sins are clearly indicative of lostness?
2 Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae Part 1, 107
3 Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae 27
4 Newman cited in Martin Puritanism 158-9