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Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Clarion Call From Scotland to the Episcopalian Church of Sydney (Part 1)

This is the first of a two part blog based on an article written by R. A. Finlayson in the September 1976 issue of The Banner of Truth Journal. The article was titled: HOW LIBERAL THEOLOGY INFECTED SCOTLAND.

I repeat the article because it provides parallels with a slide taking place in the Episcopalian Diocese of Sydney through its theological seminary - Moore Theological College. The article commences herewith:

To many it will seem strange indeed that some 20 years after 'the glorious Disruption', in which the majority of the ministers of the Church of Scotland severed the ties with the State on the ground of spiritual liberty and fidelity to the Evangel, the Free Church, thus formed, should be the body first infected by the Liberal virus that was playing such havoc with the Protestant churches in Germany. That, however, is the historical position, and it requires some explanation. The fervour that accompanied the Disruption of 1843 was strong and widespread. The mere spectacle of 474 ministers in serried ranks marching from the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland - leaving less than a hundred behind - was something that touched many hearts, especially when it was known that they were leaving, not only their legal stipends, but the manses that were home to themselves and their families. It was left to Lord Jeffrey of the Court of Session to give expression to the feeling of the moment when, on hearing the news, he sprang to his feet, and explained: 'I am proud of my country. There is not another country on earth where such a deed could have been done.'


The popularity of the movement was very apparent throughout the whole of Scotland. And there lay the seeds of spiritual pride and rapid spiritual deterioration. The newly formed Free Church was ambitious to justify its stand for spiritual liberty by all means within its power, eminence in scholarship being one of these. She was not content with opening three Colleges, in Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen, but her theological students would not deem their course complete, or their standing in the Church assured, without a post-graduate course of one or more years in one of the more famous Colleges in Germany. From that folly, the product of spiritual pride, the Free Church was to reap a bitter harvest. Germany, then, was the nursery of Liberal Theology, which was spreading like prairie fire through the Protestant churches of Europe. Its popularity was, perhaps, at its height in the second half of the 19th Century, with which we are now dealing.


What the Critical Rationalism of Colenso, Kuenen, and Wellhausen had originated, the more plausible teaching of Schleiermacher, Ritschl, and Troelsch propagated, till it took firm hold of the Reformed seminaries of Europe. Its main premise was that Christianity could no longer be held as rooted in divine revelation, but as the product of human reason and cultural evolution. The Bible had authority only as the repository of religious sentiments borrowed from many ethnic religions. Christianity would, therefore, have to be regarded as merely a variety of religion in general. There was no room for the supernatural, and so divine revelation, miracle, and personal redemption were but expressions of the universal religious consciousness. The fact so difficult to understand is that this barren nationalism captured so many of the Reformed Colleges within a few decades, and that Church leaders, professing to be evangelical, could not see that it could produce only bankruptcy in the realm of faith, and complete sterility in the life of the church. Our concern, at the moment, is with its rapid progress through the Scottish Divinity Halls, as they were then called.


It is indeed a strange fact that the new unbelief in the Free Church of Scotland should have raised its head first of all in the classroom of Dr John Duncan, the saintly Rabbi whose piety was as deep as his scholarship was extensive. But the good man - no mean judge in such prognostications - was quick to see the course it was likely to follow. He is on record as expressing to his students, as early as 1867, his opinion that 'the attempts are mainly on the Old Testament. It needs more charity than I possess to believe that some of the critics do not know where all this will lead us. The Person of Christ, his Work, his Salvation, are the things against which these attacks are really levelled.' And so it proved to be. What he could not foresee was that the rot would start his own classroom.

In 1863 the Rev A. B. Davidson was appointed Colleague and Successor to Dr Duncan in the Chair of Hebrew and Old Testament Literature in the New College, Edinburgh. Dr Duncan was by then elderly and in feeble health, and his appearances in the College were few. Thus Prof Davidson had the field to himself, and he made the fullest use of it in a subtle way. Deeply versed in the German theology, he gave it to his students with the caution: 'Be careful to give this to your congregation in small doses'. [This given to the writer on the witness of one of them]. But the leaven was working, and the first public evidence of it was the notable Church case of Professor William Robertson Smith, who, while still a student-probationer, was appointed in 1870 to the Hebrew Chair in the Free Church College, Aberdeen. He had been a student in the New College, Edinburgh, under Prof A. B. Davidson, and afterwards in Germany under Prof Wellhausen in the University of Greifswald, and what he had imbibed of the destructive Criticism from his first master, he had it strengthened under the second. Wellhausen's opinion of Robertson Smith, expressed when he had gained prominence, is memorable: 'Smith was not a scholar, but clever at presenting other men's views the very man to do the job in Scotland! But clever or not. Prof Smith's lack of caution came out in a particularly offensive insolence. Articles of his in a new issue of the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1875 on 'Angels' and 'The Bible' brought it all, in its most offensive form, into the open, and the reaction of the older section of the Free Church was quick and decisive in the presence of what they termed 'the cold and poisonous air of negation, irreverence, and pride' seen in his articles. Robertson Smith was not without his friends, and, in the first instance, the Principal of New College, Dr Robert Rainy, gave him considerable support, and, stranger still, Prof James Candlish of the Glasgow College, made it known that that, in his opinion. Prof Smith's views could be reconciled with the Confession's Doctrine of Scripture, on the ground that our belief in the authority of Scripture is said to be derived from the inner witness of the Spirit and is, therefore, 'independent of criticism.' But after an admonition for his first article Robertson Smith, with all the brashness of youth, was more offensive still in his second article, and the General Assembly had to take action. It was for the deposition and dismissal of Prof Smith, the motion to that effect being supported by Principal Rainy, a shrewd but very inconsistent ecclesiastic, who was well able to assess which way the wind was blowing. Where did Prof A. B. Davidson stand in the crisis that his student was passing through? Silent as usual. It is reported that Robertson Smith approached him on his lack of support, and used the argument: 'I learned all this from you, and you are sitting safe in your Chair', and that Prof Davidson replied, in somewhat undignified terms: 'And why did you not keep your blethering tongue to yourself?' These were the high ethics of the new Modernism of the day!

Part 2 of the blog will be posted in a few days and I will comment then.

Sam Drucker

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