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Liberalism: A Warning From History

Category Articles
Date August 12, 2008

‘How Liberal Theology Infected Scotland’ is a deeply instructive short article1 written by R. A. Finlayson, the late professor of Systematic Theology in the Free Church College in Edinburgh.

Finlayson attributed the nineteenth century infiltration of Liberalism into a confessional Church to wrong priorities by the leaders. He wrote:

…not content with opening three colleges, in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen…her theological students would not deem their course complete, or their standing in the Church assured, without a postgraduate 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.2

Reading this assessment reminded me of the words of Archibald Alexander to the young Charles Hodge. Hodge has been given leave by the Seminary to spend two years studying in Europe. As well as developing his linguistic skills, Hodge would become acquainted with biblical criticism. Alexander cautioned him:

Remember that you breathe a poisoned atmosphere. If you lose the lively and deep impression of Divine truth, if you fall into scepticism or even into coldness – you will lose more than you gain from all the German professors and libraries . . .

At the start of the twentieth century a similar situation was faced by the young Gresham Machen as he studied in Marburg, Germany, under the renowned Liberal scholar Wilhelm Herrmann. Machen said that Herrmann believed hardly anything essential to Christianity. Yet here was a man who at the same time exuded an incredibly impressive piety. Although he rarely spoke of the profound spiritual struggle that he went through in Germany, one of Machen’s students recalled him saying that:

. . . the great Dr. Herrman presented his position with such power I would sometimes leave his presence wondering how I could ever retain my confidence in the historical accuracy of the Gospel narratives. Then I’d go to my room, take out the Gospel of Mark and read it from beginning to end in one sitting – and my doubts would fade. I realized that the document could not possibly be the invention of the mind of a mere man.3

It was a remarkable act of mercy that kept the young Charles Hodge, and the young Gresham Machen, from capitulating to the errors of their teachers. Embracing orthodoxy, and remaining orthodox, cannot ultimately be attributed to our own powers. How different would the history of Princeton have been if the poison of Liberalism had infected the blood stream of Charles Hodge. Perhaps we can see what it would have looked like by observing the influence of a notable Hebrew scholar on the other side of the Atlantic.

It ought to be kept in mind that, more often than not, theological teachers who embrace errors remain convinced that they are still orthodox. In Scotland, A. B. Davidson, who was appointed in 1863 to the Chair of Hebrew Old Testament Literature in the New College, Edinburgh, had drunk deeply at the wells of German Liberal theology. He subtly began to introduce the new theology. Finlayson notes that Davidson gave this counsel to his students:

Be careful to give this to your congregations in small doses.

A. B. Bruce, professor at the Glasgow College, is a further tragic example of the deleterious effects of Liberal theology:

Of some others in the forefront of the movement, it can only be said that there was a breakdown in character as well as in faith, over which the veil of charity must be drawn. As sad a case as any was, perhaps, that of A. B. Bruce, because of the early promise of his work on the teaching of Christ; and yet at the end of the day one of his closest friends commented sorrowfully: ‘Sandy Bruce died without a single Christian conviction.’4

From the vantage point of the 21st century, as we survey the wreckage of Liberalism and the emptying of the churches, we rightly wonder why this was not seen to be the logical outcome of the new theology. Finlayson touched on that very point:

The fact so difficult to understand is that this barren rationalism captured so many of the Reformed Colleges within a few decades, and 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.5

As deluded as this marriage of evangelical convictions to Biblical criticism now appears, at the time it was considered necessary for the survival of Christian faith in the modern world. This was the ‘New Apologetic.’ But it was a compromise with the spirit of the age. Tragically, when it was preached it was to sound the death knell of authentic Christian faith. The damage done was unspeakable. Considered in the light of the Day of Judgement it is deeply traumatic to contemplate.

Marcus Dods, who was to become Principal of New College, Edinburgh, in 1907 wrote in a letter to a friend:

The churches won’t know themselves fifty years hence. It is hoped some little rag of faith may be left when all’s done.

The story in Scotland of what I have called ‘Liberalism: A Warning from History’ is poignantly told by R. A Finlayson. Iain Murray gives a much fuller account, from which I have also drawn, in his chapter ‘The Tragedy of the Free Church of Scotland’, in A Scottish Christian Heritage6. It is a chapter that should be read by every theological student, and every seminary professor. It is a sobering warning to our own generation.

We ought to pray for the preservation of the gospel in the seminaries. This “holding fast to sound words” is the application of an apostolic mandate, as the pastoral epistles make clear. Seminaries are for churches, and not for the sake of the academy.

We ought to pray specifically that men would not be ashamed of Jesus and his words (Mark 8:38).

We ought to pray for clarity to think through the consequences of compromise, and for courage to fight battles. As Luther put it:

If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the Word of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Him. Where the battle rages there the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battle front besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.

In the nineteenth century many Liberals started out as evangelicals, and as confessional Reformed men. Many sought to reach a modern culture that they knew was departing from previous Christian influences. They tried to hold together views destructive of historic orthodoxy, a fervent spirituality, and an evangelistic and apologetic concern. But when they lost their grip on the truth their spirituality and evangelistic concerns merely masked the presence of another gospel, which was no gospel at all.


  1. The Banner of Truth magazine, Issue 156 (September 1976), pp. 24-28.
  2. R A Finlayson, Reformed Theological Writings (Tain: Mentor, 1996), p.195.
  3. Quoted in David B Calhoun, Princeton Seminary: The Majestic Testimony (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1996), p.230.
  4. Reformed Theological Writings, p.198.
  5. ibid., p.195.
  6. Iain H Murray, A Scottish Christian Heritage (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2006), pp.367-396.

Martin Downes is pastor of Deeside Evangelical Church, Shotton, North Wales. This article was posted on his Against Heresies blog on 25 June 2008. For more on this subject, see the Trust’s recently-published A Handful of Pebbles: Theological Liberalism and the Church by Peter Barnes.

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