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Sunday, April 22, 2012

Elements of Down-Grade in Sydney Episcopalian Church

Readers may or may not be familiar with the late 19th Century "Down-Grade Controversy" of the English Nonconformist church with Charles Haddon Spurgeon at the forefront of the battle to defend the Word of God in the life and practice of the church. Provided hereunder is an extract of an article dealing with the background to the Down-Grade Controversy written by Michael Boland for the February 1968 issue of The Banner of Truth Journal.

"The story of the progress of the critical view of the Bible among Nonconformist denominations has been well told from the point of view of one who sympathises with the movement, in Evangelical Nonconformists and Higher Criticism in the Nineteenth Century by Dr Willis B. Glover. Glover concedes that the abandonment of the traditional attitude towards the Bible was not necessarily the result of objective scientific discoveries, so much as of the spirit of the age [p 71]. According to his account, the take-over process was certainly rapid. Higher criticism did not get a foothold in England until after 1880 [p 36]. Yet by the mid I890's 'the new approach to the Bible had been accepted by the overwhelming majority of Nonconformist leaders and was taught in all the leading Nonconformist colleges.' [p 213], although 'there remained large numbers of laymen and some ministers who never accepted the new criticism even in principle.' Nonconformist leaders had, in fact, rejected the doctrine of inerrancy before 1880. In 1868, Alexander Raleigh declared in his Chairman's address to the Congregational Union that there were errors and mistakes in the Bible, and R. W. Dale, who succeeded him, took the same position the following year.

The path of higher criticism was smoothed by several factors. For one thing, Glover shows how it attained respectability through being adopted, or at least tolerated, by men whose orthodoxy or piety was unchallenged. 'The men who led England into a critical view of the Bible were men known for theological orthodoxy', men like William Robertson Nicoll, Editor of the British Weekly, and regarded as an evangelical, who could uphold the doctrine of eternal punishment in his columns and at the same time give a hearing to Higher Criticism. Alexander MacLaren, bar Spurgeon the great Baptist preacher of his day, was classed among the conservatives at the time of the Down-Grade controversy. Yet of him Glover writes, 'The example of so great a preacher who was tolerant of higher criticism and who even entertained the possibility that the story of the fall was mythical could not have been without effect.' [p 139]. Glover also shows how 'the experiential emphasis of the evangelicals could relegate the whole problem of criticism to insignificance.' [p137]. 'Evangelicals would tolerate almost any divergence in doctrine provided the individual concerned was known to have a fervent evangelical experience, and above all if his ministry awakened the same experience in others.' [p 93]. An example of this was when Robert F. Horton advocated critical views in Inspiration and the Bible. This aroused strong criticism, which was, however, blunted by the fact that 'the Biblical critic was also a prominent missioner.'

One remarkable feature of the introduction to Nonconformist churches of critical views of the Bible pointed out by Glover, was their 'gradual acceptance without serious and church-splitting controversy.' This was, as we have just seen, partly because Nonconformity's trusted leaders accepted them, either positively or by default. Another reason was the policy of stealth adopted by some who had embraced higher criticism. Glover speaks of 'the tendency of some who were in advance of the general movement of opinion to hide their more unorthodox ideas from the public' 'This', he claims, 'was unquestionably an instance of sound political sense.' Others may agree with Spurgeon's view that it was more like dishonesty. In the event, however, these men were successful in keeping their churches, and preserving their denominations from splits, which presumably was the reward they were seeking.

In a sense, then, when Spurgeon wrote his Down-Grade articles, English Nonconformity was in the thick of a conflict over the Bible, as to whether it could any longer be accepted as an infallible rule for doctrine and practice. In another sense, however, the battle was already over and lost. Conservative scholars, Glover argues, were accepting the presuppositions of the critics. When Alfred Cave tried to answer the critics on the Old Testament, he sought to establish the authority of the Bible on a critical and historical basis. Glover points out that while Cave claimed that what was involved was a battle of standpoints, he himself seemed to have accepted the standpoint of higher criticism, [p 193]. Thus the English conservative scholars fought the battle on points of detail, rather than by challenging the over-all approach of the critics, as did the American Princeton school of Greene and Warfield, whom Robertson Nicoll claimed were 'the only respectable defenders of verbal inspiration.' Spurgeon, who was not primarily a theologian though by no means a theological ignoramus, was one of the few who had not yielded the battle, and he rejected the Higher Critical approach root and branch [although one review did appear in the Sword and Trowel of a book by C. A. Briggs expressing 'our unqualified approval and our lively admiration of this entire work,' being subsequently repudiated when the British Weekly drew Spurgeon's attention to the character of the book, 'a somewhat advanced and superficial product of the critical school.']

On Spurgeon's attitude to Higher Criticism, Willis B. Glover concludes, 'Spurgeon was so far behind the general movement of opinion that his own more logical judgment was scarcely understood.' This is at least a tribute to his consistency."

Later this week I intend applying some principles and observations derived from that article to the present Episcopalian Diocese of Sydney.

Sam Drucker

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