Theological Dictionary

by Charles Buck

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Charles Buck (1771-1815) was an English Independent minister, best known for the publication of his “Theological Dictionary”. The first edition was printed in 1802, followed by fifty reprints. Buck writes:[1]

“I had been for some time employed in preparing for the press my Theological Dictionary, a work which cost me much labour day and night, and no one to assist me, except now and then the bare copying of an article. The vast variety of books to be consulted, the discriminations to be made, the difficulty of seizing those accurate definitions I wanted, the various opinions of authors on the same subject, the including every article in Ecclesiastical History, Theology, and Morals, rendered it rather a formidable work for one man, and that a weak one. The fact was, I began it for my own use, without ever thinking of making it public to the world: but as I advanced, it still grew of more importance. On showing it to some friends, they were of opinion that such a manuscript should not be locked up in obscurity, and that the sooner it was given to the public the better, being a distinct thing from all other dictionaries which had been published. I have said it was a work of labour, but I must add also that it was a work of pleasure. Here indeed I realized the motto Labor ipse voluntas. It seems as if it were to be done; for though often interrupted by indisposition, I shall never forget the ardour, the eagerness I felt in passing from one article to another, until the whole was done. On looking back to some of my papers, I found this memorandum, which the reader, perhaps, will not think it superfluous for me to record:

Dec. 11, 1802.— This evening, after near four years, I finished the last article in my Theological Dictionary. I desire to be thankful for health and strength given me to finish it. O! Father of mercies! let it be a lasting blessing to thy church, and to all who shall peruse it! During the time I have been employed in it, I have met with some of the greatest trials both in body, mind, and circumstances I ever experienced, yet hitherto the Lord hath helped me. Bless the Lord, O my soul! Should my life be spared, may it be still employed in some useful service; that while I live, I may live for God, as well as to him. Amen.”

The work was published. It met with the approbation of the public, far beyond any hopes I could indulge; and I here desire to offer my most unfeigned thanks to Almighty God, for the usefulness with which it has been attended, and that my life has been spared to correct and enlarge, and greatly to improve it in succeeding editions.”

According to the “Dictionary of National Biography”, a Particular Baptist minister named John C. Ryland (1723-1792) assisted Buck by writing many of the articles for the “Theological Dictionary”:[2]

“Ryland’s passion for book-making once or twice involved him in pecuniary difficulties. Neither printer, publisher nor engraver could turn out their work half as fast enough for him. As his friends James Harvey I714-1758) and Augustus Toplady told him, he would have done more had he done less. With James Ferguson (1710-1776) he issued ‘An Easy Introduction to Mechanics,’ 1768, 8Vo, and ‘A series of Optical Cards.’ He contributed to the ‘Baptist Register,” edited by John Rippon, wrote many of the articles for Buck’s ‘Theological Dictionary,’ London, 1802, 8Vo, and edited Edward Polihill’s ‘Christus in Corde,’ Quarles’s ‘Emblems,’ Jonathan Edward’s ‘Sermons’ (1780), and Cotton Matther’s ‘Student and Preacher’ (1781).”

As suggested by his friendships with James Hervey and Augustus Toplady, John C. Ryland belonged to a circle of High(hyper)-Calvinist churches. It is therefore telling, but not surprising, that Buck commissioned him to write articles for the Dictionary. I say it is not surprising, because Buck acknowledged his admiration for Ryland in his journals and letters. Buck writes:[3]

“In July, this year, I went one evening to hear Mr. Abdy preach at Bow Church. During his sermon I found my mind rather suddenly, but very strongly impressed with the thought of entering into the ministry. I am no advocate for sudden impulses; but so it was, that this impression remained and I mentioned it to my friend and companion, who gave me every encouragement, and promised to do all that he could in due time to further the object. He also lent me a book, entitled “Eades’s Gospel Ministry,” from which I trust I derived profit. About this time the life of Mr. Whitfield fell into my hands; this fired me beyond measure, and strengthened my desires for the ministry exceedingly. A sense of its importance and difficulties at times rather appalled me, but encouraged by some serious friends, I still kept the object in view.

My heart was now set on doing good in every way I possibly could. With a friend I visited Newgate, to see a young man under sentence of death for house-breaking. He appeared on the whole penitent and attentive; but I was shocked to observe others in the same situation, in the condemned yard, apparently careless, playing at fives, as if nothing was the matter. The young man we visited was afterwards executed with several others. He came upon the scaffold first, and, looking up towards heaven, began singing and seemed to die penitent. As these cases are sometimes doubtful, I must leave the decision to the Great Judge of all the earth.

My desire for entering the ministry continuing, I was very anxious to cultivate my mind. My young friend was now removed to a distant academy to prepare him for that great work. I was connected with no society where I could exercise my gift, I therefore licensed a room in Black-horse Court, Fleet Street, and opened it on the 21st of January 1788, with an exhortation from 2 Chron 15:7—“Your work shall be rewarded.” Our numbers increased, and I was assisted by several other speakers, having exhortations twice a-week. This Society lasted about ten years. Many ministers occasionally assisted, and I have great reason to believe good was done.

About this time I was introduced to the late Rev. John Ryland. His eccentric manner, his venerable appearance, his vehement language, so overwhelmed me, that I was scarcely able to give any account of myself. By degrees, however, we became familiar, and as he resided near my place of abode for a short season, I attended him at six o’clock in the morning, and became his amanuensis. He was a man of genius, of a most vivid imagination, a determined enemy to the doctrines of Socinus, and possessed a fund of anecdote and information which rendered his company very entertaining. Had he applied himself to any one subject he would have been a proficient; but he wanted to grasp everything —his life of Hervey is a curious specimen of this. He was also perhaps too sanguine in his plans of teaching a shorter way to science; perhaps he thought he had discovered the royal road so much desired by some of the kings of antiquity. There are many anecdotes told of him which I believe are not altogether correct. The advice he gave me, I suppose, was the same he gave to many others;—”1. Don’t buy too many books, for that will hurt your pocket.—2. Don’t sit up late at night to study, for that will hurt your constitution.—3. Don’t go a courting, for that will hurt your mind.”

In another entry, Buck writes:[4]

“Tuesday, May 18. — Was much delighted in reading Mr. Ryland’s sermon, preached at Broad Mead, August 28, 1780, being the day of the Annual Meeting of the Bristol Education Society; found many remarks worthy of notice. He has discovered himself to be a man of sound judgment, a capacious understanding, great ingenuity, and a good definer of terms.”

In a letter dated the 8th August, 1792, Buck writes concerning Ryland’s death:[5]

“———— “The last letter I received from London, brought me the unwelcome intelligence of your being indisposed; but I hope this will find you much recovered. Alas! How precarious is health, how soon are our frail tabernacles disordered; how suddenly arrested by pain, how easily invaded by sickness. I cannot say I have reason to complain at present, though my animal frame is enervated, and my hand trembles while it writes; yet I would bless my God that it us, as it is. I find his voice in this, yea in all my afflictions to be “Arise and depart, for this is not your rest.” Indeed we have need of perpetual monitors to remind us of the inconsistency of being too warmly attached to sublunary things, and to show us that “inordinate affection is the way to inordinate affliction.” And have we not, my dear friend, ere now been ready to take up our abode here? Have we not imagined ourselves to be surrounded with delights, and thought that prosperity attended our steps; when lo! in the midst of all, we have no sooner endeavoured to pluck some sweet flower, but it hath withered in our hands; or some sharp thorn was hid behind, in order to create a pain with our pleasure? What then, shall not these grievous, and I may say repeated repulses teach us that all on earth is shadow; shall it not induce us to write mutability on every object? Shall it not lead us to depend on him in whom is no variableness or shadow of turning! It is true wealth may be agreeable, abilities may be desirable, and friendship may be sweet; but yet if these are the only sources of our joy we shall be very far from obtaining real peace and permanent pleasure. And however fanatical it may appear to an unthinking world to implore the Supreme Being for true happiness, yet let such remember that he is the alone author of it, and without his Spirit it is impossible to find it.

And cannot I congratulate my friend on his being sensible of this; and do not I see him imitating the Psalmist, and saying, “My soul wait thou upon God, for my expectation is only from him.” Yes, I trust he knows whose smile it is that makes a heaven; whose frown it is that creates a hell! To exhort you, therefore, would be needless, but to rejoice with you is my privilege.

I find that great man of God, Mr. Ryland, is gone home. I cannot say, but that I experienced some emotions of sorrow when I heard it, because I respected him as a man of grace as well as intellect. Where was the man that possessed such a capacious understanding; such a rich genius, such unaccountable fire and zeal, and a soul fitted with die noblest ideas of God; with such hatred to sin, with such love to holiness, with such unbounded desire to promote the glory of Christ? Though his body was debilitated, and he for some months rendered incapable of attending to public duty, yet I never was in any company, but I was sure to find something profitable; yea, what he has said I believe, will not be easily erased from my mind, while I am this side of the grave. But he is gone, and that to dwell with Him whom he ardently loved, and now incessantly adores. O let us be anticipating the happy time when we also shall be called away, to enter into that rest which remains for the people of God.

I now subscribe myself,

Your willing servant,

C. B.”

Buck’s “Theological Dictionary” is a helpful resource identifying the basic meanings of many biblical and religious terms. Generally speaking, the definitions are approached from a High(hyper)-Calvinist point of view, which renders the work helpful to those who nurture sharper views of sovereign grace.

In its original form, Buck arranged the terms in alphabetical order. For this online publication, I have rearranged the terms in topical order—(1) Being and Perfections of God; (2) Sovereignty of God; (3) Word of God and Theology; (4) Creation and General Topics; (5) Religions and Sects; (6) Covenant of Works; (7) Covenant of Grace; (8) Church of Christ; (9) World to Come; (10) Social Obligations and Expectations.

I have excluded a fair number of terms which do not fit into these categories. The reader is encouraged to obtain his/her own copy of the Dictionary, which can be downloaded online for free. It may then be asked, “Why upload to the online resources of the AHB an abridged version of the Theological Dictionary?” The dictionary will serve as a companion to Robert Hawker’s “Morning Devotion”, which will appropriately be called the “Daily Definition”.

To that end, it is my prayer Buck’s “Theological Dictionary” will be blessed of the Lord, building up His people in their most holy faith.

Jared Smith

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[1] John Styles, “Memoirs And Remains Of The Late Rev. Charles Buck” (1817), 310-312
[2] Sidney Lee, “Dictionary Of National Biography: Vol 50” (1897), 56,57
[3] Styles, “Memoirs And Remains” (1817), 39-41
[4] Styles, “Memoirs And Remains” (1817), 57
[5] Styles, “Memoirs And Remains” (1817), 158-160



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