Early one morning in the year 1738 a shepherd boy, with homespun clothes and bare feet, stood at the counter of Alexander McCulloch’s bookshop in the University city of St. Andrews. The startled shopkeeper was yet more surprised when he heard the youth’s request; it was for a Greek New Testament. ‘Boy,’ exclaimed the Professor of Greek who happened to be in the shop at that moment, ‘if you can read that book, you shall have it for nothing.’ Soon a rather thick leather volume was in the lad’s hands and to the astonishment of all present he read a passage and won his prize. By the afternoon sixteen year old John Brown was back amongst his flock on the hills of Abernethy, having walked some forty-eight miles since the previous evening to obtain his treasure.
To see the far-flung consequences of that walk to St. Andrews we must pass on nearly seventy years to 6 February, 1806. On that day in the Secession Church at Biggar, with snow sweeping over the silent moorland and surrounding hills, another John Brown stands to be ordained into the ministry of the Christian Church. He was too young to remember his grandfather, being only three years old when John Brown of Abernethy had died in 1787, but the spirit and influence of that great man lived on in the grandson. For the shepherd boy of Abernethy had risen to become one of the greatest preachers and divines in Scotland and his thirty-six years ministry at Haddington had made the name of that East Lothian town known all over the English speaking world. (See the fascinating biography, John Brown of Haddington, by Robert Mackenzie, 1918. He will perhaps best be known for his Self-Interpreting Bible, which was so popular that twenty-six editions of it are to be found in the British Museum).
Though in his last twenty years John Brown of Haddington (as he is best described) became the Divinity Professor of his denomination – training students during the summer months together with his ministerial work – and though his learning was such that he mastered nearly a dozen languages, yet he remained to the last singularly devoted to one aim, the exposition and preaching of the Word of God. He preached, men said, as though he had read no other book. There is no doubt that it was partly due to the fact that John Brown (1784-1858) was the grandson of such a man that he became one of the greatest Scottish exegetes of the nineteenth century.
Unlike his grandfather he started with no small advantages: his own father, John Brown of Whitburn (1754-1834), was a minister of no mean stature; his theological professor, Dr. George Lawson, was one of Scotland’s saintliest expositors; and his mother was a woman of uncommon piety and ability (Isabella Cranston met the eldest son of John Brown of Haddington when he was preaching in London just after completing his studies for the ministry. His father doubted if it was a suitable match and sent his other son, Ebenezer, to London to ascertain the position. Ebenezer returned with the astonishing report, ‘Father, if John does not marry her, I am going to marry her myself!’ John did marry her and their eldest son, the third John Brown, was born on July 12, 1784.)
These factors, and others, all moulded his outlook. From his earliest days at Biggar he viewed commentating on the Scriptures as his highest privilege and duty for, said his biographer, ‘he did not at all share the loose and unscriptural opinion that the duties of the pastor were superior or even equal in importance to those of the public teacher of Christianity’. Such was the time and study which he devoted to the Scriptures in his early years that after his death Andrew Thomson declared, ‘I believe there was scarcely a text or a paragraph of the Bible on which he had not formed a deliberate and definite opinion.’
The main facts of the author’s long ministry of fifty-two years can be quickly told. From 1806 till 1822, he laboured quietly and studiously at Biggar, a small town twenty-eight miles south-west of Edinburgh on the old high-road to Moffat. During this period the year 1815 stands out not only because it marked his first appearance as an author, but because from that date his ministry, always orthodox and serious, ‘was pervaded by a visibly increased earnestness and unction.’ The details of the spiritual conflict which led to this progress are not known, but it may well be they were connected with the death of his wife who died in the spring of the following year. ‘Prayer, meditation and temptation make a minister,’ said Luther, and in his days at Biggar John Brown found it to be so.
In 1822, at the age of thirty-eight, Brown was called to a wider sphere of usefulness in Edinburgh. For seven years he ministered in Rose Street Secession Church, then in 1829 he was translated to Broughton Place Church in the same city, where he remained until his death on 13 October, 1858. Throughout all the vicissitudes of his long years in Edinburgh – amidst the temptations of popularity, the struggles of controversy, and the responsibilities of leadership in his denomination – John Brown remained a spiritual Christian. He never forgot the passionate entreaty which old John Brown of Haddington when dying had addressed to his father, ‘Labour, labour for Christ while ye have strength.’
He was deeply interested in the prosperity of the cause of Christ in all denominations at home and abroad and his last illness was brightened by news of the 1858 revival in America. He was known for his attachment to vital religion and for his fear of worldliness in the Church. Brown, said C. H. Spurgeon, ‘is a modern Puritan,’ and if that was so it was in no small measure due to the fact that those old spiritual writers were his constant companions. At the commencement of his ministry his father had charged him to be ‘more acquainted with evangelical and practical divinity, such as Ebenezer Erskine’s, Dr. Owen’s, Trail’s, etc.’ And he obeyed the charge for even on his death bed we find him still studying John Owen and exclaiming with his very last words that he felt, ‘wonderfully well.’
John Brown possessed his grandfather’s gift in being at the same time a true scholar and an earnest preacher. His words brought both light and life and while he was probably most at home amongst students he nevertheless maintained a widely varied congregation of between 1,200 to 1,600 people at Broughton Place.
Dr. Brown’s most distinctive abilities were recognised by his denomination in 1834 when he was appointed to the chair of Exegetical Theology. The conception of this chair was new to Scottish theological training and it was due to John Brown’s own suggestion that this branch of study was introduced into the curriculum of the students who were training for the ministry of the Secession Church. The purpose was not only to teach principles of biblical interpretation – they had long been taught in Scotland – but to apply these principles in the actual exposition of large portions of Scripture in the original languages. Dr. Brown was profoundly disturbed at the all too common custom of ministers preaching a truth which was nevertheless not the truth of the text upon which they based their sermon. He would repeatedly declare to his students
It is of radical importance to you, that your views be not only consistent with, but derived from a careful exegesis of the ‘words which the Holy Ghost teacheth’ . . . it has been my sincere desire to bring out of the inspired words what is really in them, and to put nothing into them that is not really there; impressed with the conviction that imaginary exposition is one of the worst ways of adding to ‘the words of the prophecy of this book,’ and that he who thus adds to God’s Word, ‘deceiving and being deceived,’ is in great danger of ‘proving himself a liar’.
Expositio non imposito, was his curt definition of an interpreter’s business and nothing developed an exegetical conscience in the Secession students so much as the example of their professor gripped with the tremendous responsibility of bringing out the mind of God as he expounded to them from the Prophets, the Gospels or the Epistles. ‘Here is an old man,’ exclaimed John Brown on his death bed to a fellow minister, ‘going away to give in the account of his stewardship.’ But though a new experience, this was the end which he had strived to keep in view in all his preaching and commentating.
The fundamental importance of accurate exegesis was very much neglected in Britain in the first half of the nineteenth century, and it was the opinion of no less an authority than Dr. William Cunningham, that the publication of Dr. Brown’s first great commentary, Expository Discourses on the First Epistle of Peter, in 1848, ‘formed a marked era in the history of scriptural interpretation in this country . . . Too many of those who hold the office of ministers of the Word,’ wrote Cunningham,
attempt something in the way of applying the Scriptures, without being well qualified to ascertain and to establish their true and correct meaning, and without labouring to found the application upon its only sufficient basis, viz. a careful and accurate exposition of their actual import . . . This is the right and the only right mode of employing the Sacred Scriptures, and it is because we get so little of this either from the pulpit or the press, that we attach the highest value to Dr. Brown’s expository works.
Dr. Brown was already sixty-five when his first great commentary, mentioned above, appeared in 1848, but in the ten years that remained he produced a further eight expository volumes, not including his work on Hebrews which he more or less finished for the press, but which was not published until three years after his death. The explanation of the abundant literary output of the closing years of his ministry is that the commentaries he then published had been reaching their final form over a period of many years. He had, for example, expounded the Epistle to the Hebrews at Rose Street and at Broughton Place. With the exception of his exposition of Galatians, his commentary on Hebrews was written before any of his others and it was read several times to his divinity students being revised and enlarged in the process. Probably all Dr. Brown’s commentaries went through the same process of composition, being expounded in somewhat differing forms to both his congregation and his students, and it is this fact which serves to explain the somewhat unusual combination to be found in his writings of the teaching of the professor’s chair with the preaching of the pulpit. While this method has some defects it undoubtedly helped to preserve the devotional tone of the author’s commentaries; he never concentrates merely on the intellectual side of the Scriptures, nor did he – as so many German commentators of the same period – treat exegesis as an end in itself, for though essential as true exegesis is, it was for him only an instrument ‘to bring the minds of his hearers or readers into immediate contact with the mind of the Spirit.’
Dr. Brown, says his biographer, not only employed his entire powers in the study of the Scriptures, but resigned ‘his whole being to the empire of the Word of God.’ Without doubt, it is this spiritual quality of high devotion which has given to his commentaries much of their enduring value. ‘If I have written anything that will live after me,’ he declared, ‘it is because it has been linked on to the everlasting Word of God.’ This was a true prophecy. The explanation of the success of his life and the abiding worth of his works is all to be found in the text which he chose for his gravestone, ‘All flesh is grass. The Word of the Lord endureth for ever.’[Iain H. Murray in his ‘Biographical Introduction’ to John Brown’s Commentary on Hebrews (Geneva Series), February, 1961.]