Section navigation

A Scottish Christian HeritageA Review by Rev. H M Cartwright

Category Book Reviews
Date May 11, 2007

Just over half of A Scottish Christian Heritage1 by Iain Murray consists of biographical accounts of five Scottish ministers, a form of writing at which Mr Murray excels. Each chapter is slanted towards highlighting specific lessons which the author considers its subject exemplifies. The second part has two chapters dealing with missionary themes. One focuses on the missionary spirit as illustrated by Scottish missionaries to the New Hebrides. The other concentrates on Robert Moffat ‘Africanus’ (1795-1883) as representative of his generation of Scottish missionaries. The third part, which contains much of the more controversial material in the book, has a miscellaneous collection of subjects: ‘The Churches and Christian Unity in Scottish Church History’, ‘Scottish Preaching’, ‘The Problem of the Elders’, and ‘The Tragedy of the Free Church of Scotland’.

Without endorsing every conclusion drawn, we found the chapters on John Knox (c.1514-1572), Robert Bruce (c.1554-1631), Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) and John MacDonald (1779-1849) stimulating profitable reflection. Knox’s pivotal place in the Scottish Reformation, and the centrality of preaching and prayer in the influence he had, are underlined. Mr Murray says of Knox that ‘he did not believe that what was later to be called the “regulative principle of Scripture” has so determined everything in the Church that we have one permanent blueprint that covers everything’. We are not aware that Knox’s view differed from that of Calvin or of the Scottish Presbyterian Church throughout its history. He too held that the Church’s doctrine, worship, government, discipline and practice should have biblical warrant and that matters not determined by Scripture should be done ‘decently and in order’ in accordance with scriptural principles. This principle made for a more thorough sixteenth-century Reformation in Scotland than in England.

Bruce is an example of a man enabled to stand fast in dark and difficult days, living in the presence of God and knowing much joy in Christ. Mr Murray suggests that from Thomas Chalmers, regarded as ‘at the centre of a recovery which brought the churches in Scotland from mediocrity, indifference and unbelief to new conditions of spiritual vitality’, abiding lessons may be learned relating to the subject of revival. A significant lesson learned from the awakening in the Highlands associated with John MacDonald ‘was the one underlined at an earlier date by Jonathan Edwards: a work of God is not to be judged by the amount of excitement or by the height of the emotion, but by the long-term moral and spiritual results’.

The chapter entitled ‘Horatius Bonar and the Love of God in Evangelism’ also stimulates thought on important matters. Attention is drawn to the controversy between Dr Bonar (1808-1889) and Dr John Kennedy over the participation of Free Church ministers in the Moody and Sankey movement. Bonar was a man of God whose Christ-centred, humble and holy life shames us. His ministry was blessed to many. He stood firmly against critical movements in the Free Church which undermined the Scriptures and against the earlier union movements. He did, however, advocate pre-millennial views, favour the singing of hymns in the public worship of God and countenance the evangelistic methods of the Moody and Sankey mission of 1873-74.

His support for Moody occasioned a pamphlet debate with Kennedy. Mr Murray regards ‘the central doctrinal point’ in this debate as the view which Moody preached, Bonar endorsed and Kennedy denied, that the gospel invitation is to be preached ‘as an expression of the love of God to all who hear it’. We cannot here analyse the controversy between Bonar and Kennedy, which our author says ‘has complex aspects to it’. Mr Murray acknowledges that ‘it would be a monstrous injustice to imply that Dr Kennedy did not preach the love of God. He did, yet with a care not to individualize it’ (p. 193). But he goes on to suggest that, to the extent to which he was consistent with his principles, the warrant for the pleading note found in 2 Corinthians 5:20 was necessarily overshadowed in Kennedy’s preaching. Kennedy did not find the warrant for the pleading note where Mr Murray finds it, but that he found warrant enough for it in the Word of God is evident from reports we have of his preaching.

From recollections recorded in Auld’s Life of John Kennedy, DD, we note two. One man heard him preach from Isaiah 55:1: ‘He began by opening up the free and wide invitation of the gospel to all classes of sinners’. Another recalls the impression made on her when young in Aberdeen:

I remember vividly his powerful dealing with conscience, his solemn urgency and tones full of emotion, and his benignant smile as he would sometimes bend over the pulpit and say, ‘My dear fellow sinner’, when unfolding to us the love and glory of Christ, and pressing us all to an immediate closing with Him.

Mr Murray himself, in The Invitation System,2 described Dr Kennedy as ‘one of the greatest evangelists of Scotland’. Those who have themselves tasted ‘the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Rom. 8:39) and have been commissioned to preach Christ to their fellow sinners will feel not only free but constrained to plead with them to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good: blessed is the man that trusteth in Him’ (Psa. 34:8).

The second section of the book demonstrates that the missionary spirit will correspond to the spiritual stature of individuals and flow from love to Christ, and that it is inspired by biblical truth.

The driving impulse was faith in Scripture as the Word of God, and in the teaching it contains … When faith was undermined in so many of the Scottish churches towards the end of the nineteenth century a great era of Scottish missionary endeavour slowly came to a close (pages 223, 224).

Robert Moffat was ‘convinced that evangelisation must precede civilisation … Nothing less than the power of Divine grace can reform the hearts of savages, after which the mind is susceptible of those instructions which teach them to adorn the gospel they profess’ (p. 270). In evangelizing he acted on the principle that

preaching the character and commandments of God prepared the way for the preaching of redemption … The most alarming and solemn parts of the whole counsel of God were all necessary, and Moffat spoke of death, judgement and eternity, themes not appreciated by his hearers … But conscience had to be awakened and sometimes it was the truth about last things that did it (p. 255).

Mr Murray comments that ‘this lesson needs to be remembered wherever the moral decay of society tempts Christians to suppose the plain preaching of the gospel cannot meet the situation’ (p. 270).

In the chapter on ‘The Churches and Christian Unity in Scottish Church History’ Mr Murray complains that while Scottish churchmen have given full treatment to ‘the headship of Christ … the collateral truth that Christ’s will, as revealed in His Word, is the sole rule for service in His Church … [and] the question of church government’, less attention appears to have been given to ‘the relation between the churches, considered as denominations, and the unity of the Church universal’ (p. 279). This subject Mr Murray properly regards as ‘both relevant and important’. He alleges that a distinction between the Church visible and invisible was used by seventeenth-century theologians to justify the existence of unbelievers in the Church, and considers that Scottish insistence on a national Church rendered this inevitable. He regards their view that the unity of the Church requires oneness of organisation throughout the nation as encouraging ‘an exclusiveness which was contrary to the spirit of the gospel’ (p. 294) and as having ‘skewed subsequent discussion on the question of denominations’ (p. 302).

The seventeenth-century Scottish theologians thus criticised did not believe that Church unity was secured by gathering all the various churches or congregations in a region or nation under one government. They believed that the Church is originally one and that this unity finds expression outwardly in common government – the essential elements of which can be deduced from Scripture. The Church is not a voluntary association of individual congregations but an organic body, with Christ as its Head, which has branched out all over the world. It was not divisiveness but concern for the unity of the body of Christ which caused the seventeenth-century men to resist the emergence of separate denominations and to insist on the existence of one Church united in doctrine, worship, discipline and government. The visible Church does not consist formally of those who are believers but of those who profess belief. It would contradict the facts to suggest that this view encouraged a lax approach to the spiritual and ethical demands made on members of the Church.

Recognising that ‘it is impossible to classify Scottish preaching under any one type’, the chapter on ‘Scottish Preaching’ is not merely historical but challengingly enunciates principles relevant to the pulpit everywhere, always – with regard to the form, content and aim of preaching and the essential Christ-centredness of the preacher’s life and ministry.

We have to part with Mr Murray again in much of what he writes on ‘The Problem of the “Elders”‘. The use of ‘problem’ and of inverted commas around ‘elders’ in the title indicates the thrust of the chapter. Mr Murray questions the view that the eldership as defined in Scripture includes those who rule and do not preach as well as those who rule and preach – a view which appeals not only to eldership in Israel and passages such as Romans 12:8 and 1 Corinthians 12:28, but principally to 1 Timothy 5:17: ‘Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine’.

Undoubtedly there have been differences of opinion and practice and inconsistencies in conclusions drawn by those who hold the view which Mr Murray questions. However, the history of Scottish Presbyterianism certainly does not justify the fear that the distinctiveness of the ministry, and the necessity for a divine call to its exercise, are lost where those engaged in the government of the Church, but who do not preach, are regarded as elders. By none has the distinction between clergy and laity been repudiated more than by those whose Presbyterianism was highest; yet they have most strongly maintained, in principle and practice, the distinctiveness of the minister or preacher from those who rule but do not preach. The position held in mainstream Scottish Presbyterianism since the Reformation has avoided the extremes of Hodge on the one hand and Thornwell on the other.

The debate over one or two offices has sometimes contributed to confusion but it has not obscured the fact that 1 Timothy 5:17 has been understood, with Patrick Fairbairn, to teach that all elders are expected at least to

be able to discern between carnal and spiritual in the characters of men, be capable of testing their knowledge in divine things, and by private fellowship and friendly admonition, if not otherwise, subserve the interests of truth and righteousness among them … But the gift of teaching in the more distinctive sense, or, in modern phrase, of preaching the gospel with intelligence to the edification of others is not represented as indispensable.3

Those who engage statedly in that work require divine calling and equipment. This subject requires much fuller treatment than can be given in this review.

The final chapter, ‘The Tragedy of the Free Church of Scotland’, illustrates its opening sentence:

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century a change of belief over the Bible took place in the Free Church of Scotland, with more far-reaching consequences than anything that had happened since the Reformation.

The conclusion of the book is: ‘Scotland was a witness to what the Bible can do, and she has since shown how, without that light, a people once godly, serious and upright, can become as earth-bound and frivolous as any other nation’.

The whole volume is interesting. Much of it is profitable. Areas requiring more critical assessment have been indicated above.

Notes

    • Book Cover for 'A Scottish Christian Heritage'
      price $30.00 $27.00
      Avg. Rating

      Description

      Just over half of A Scottish Christian Heritage1 by Iain Murray consists of biographical accounts of five Scottish ministers, a form of writing at which Mr Murray excels. Each chapter is slanted towards highlighting specific lessons which the author considers its subject exemplifies. The second part has two chapters dealing with missionary themes. One focuses […]


    • price $3.00 $2.40
      Avg. Rating

      Description

      Just over half of A Scottish Christian Heritage1 by Iain Murray consists of biographical accounts of five Scottish ministers, a form of writing at which Mr Murray excels. Each chapter is slanted towards highlighting specific lessons which the author considers its subject exemplifies. The second part has two chapters dealing with missionary themes. One focuses […]

  1. The Pastoral Epistles, pages 214-215. Originally published under this title in 1874, Fairbairn’s work has been reprinted in the Trust’s Geneva Series of Commentaries:
      • Book Cover for '1 & 2 Timothy and Titus'
        price $28.00 $22.40

        Description

        Just over half of A Scottish Christian Heritage1 by Iain Murray consists of biographical accounts of five Scottish ministers, a form of writing at which Mr Murray excels. Each chapter is slanted towards highlighting specific lessons which the author considers its subject exemplifies. The second part has two chapters dealing with missionary themes. One focuses […]

Hugh Cartwright is a pastor in a Free Presbyterian Church in Edinburgh. He was formerly Professor of Church History in the Free Church College in Edinburgh. This review article is found in the Free Presbyterian Magazine of May 2007 and reproduced here with permission.

www.fpchurch.org.uk

Latest Articles

Music in the Life of Calvin (Part One) December 6, 2019

This address by the most eminent of all Calvin’s biographers was delivered in the ‘Salle de la Reformation’, at Geneva, in April 1902. It was translated and printed in the Princeton Theological Review, October 1909, from which source it is here reprinted with very slight abridgement. The allusions at the opening of the Address are […]

The Life of P. B. Power December 3, 2019

Philip Bennett Power was born in Ireland in 1822. He graduated at Trinity College, Dublin, and entered the Church of England ministry about 1846, his first charge being at Leicester, where he remained for some two years, during which he began a week-night service in the parlour of a local pub! From Leicester he moved […]