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A Handful of Pebbles – A Review by Kenneth Macleod

Category Book Reviews
Date January 16, 2009

The Banner of Truth has published A Handful of Pebbles, Theological Liberalism and the Church1, by Peter Barnes. Liberalism (also referred to as modernism) is, in this context, ‘a belief system which rejects the orthodox view of the Christian faith as set out in the Bible, and summarised in the historic creeds’. A S Peake, one of its more prominent proponents 100 years ago, claimed: ‘The Bible is to be studied just like any other book. We can come to it with no prepossessions, but simply with an open mind.’ But Dr Barnes points out that, while ‘the liberal mind claims to be anti-dogmatic and humanitarian’, yet it, ‘for the most part, is not open to the notion of supernatural and infallible divine revelation’.

A historical sketch of the rise of liberalism includes some of the figures prominent in the background to the formation of the Free Presbyterian Church as a separate body in 1893. Marcus Dods, for instance, who succeeded the noted orthodox theologian George Smeaton in New College, Edinburgh, made the foolish claim: ‘The past 50 years have done more to promote the understanding of the New Testament than all the other Christian half-centuries put together’. Yet in his later years Dods had to confess: ‘Very often, I may say commonly, I cannot get further than the conviction that in Christ we see the best that our nature is capable of, and must make that our own’. This was the kind of man who, by the 1880s, was being appointed in the then Free Church to teach theological students.

However, the reference (p 26) to William Robertson Smith is inaccurate in describing him as having been ‘deposed’. He, in fact, retained his status as a minister when he was dismissed from his Hebrew chair in the Aberdeen Free Church College, after repeatedly publishing his blatantly-unbelieving views on the Old Testament in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Liberalism has no doubt changed in many ways over the years, but it has in no way lost its influence. Dr Barnes writes:

Michael Ramsay, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, declared in 1961: ‘Heaven is not a place for Christians only . . . I expect to see some present-day atheists there.’ Later, Billy Graham appeared to express similar sentiments.

The author uses the confession of the notorious American bishop Jim Pike to illustrate the damage caused by liberalism in theological colleges:

When I turned from being agnostic, I went to Union Theological Seminary, eager for and expecting bread; but when I graduated, all that it left me was a handful of pebbles.

This provides the eloquent title of a useful introduction to the subject, which provides all that most readers will ever need on this matter.


1. A Handful of Pebbles, Theological Liberalism and the Church

Taken from the Free Presbyterian Magazine, January 2009 with the permission of the author and editor.

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