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The Aberdeen Doctors
Chapter V - Worship


Attention was drawn at the close of the last lecture to the attempt on the part of the Aberdeen Doctors to lead the mind of the Church away from the doctrinal discussions, which were for the most part inconclusive, to those practical matters upon which Christian conduct and character depend. In other words, they tried to bring into prominence the objective side of religion, and to give it its due place in the thought and life of the Church. It is a similar attitude that we find them taking up on the question of ceremony or ritual, with which we have now to deal. Once more they endeavoured to mediate between the two movements, which came to a head in their day, and their efforts, however fruitless at the time, have not been without their influence. The balance which they tried to form between the views of the two contending parties is being now more evenly adjusted, when the form of religion is seen to be, in a way, as essential as the matter and the outward no less indispensible than the inward, in the worship and service of the Church.

This, of course, was not so well understood at the Reformation. The objective side of religion had, during the supremacy of the Roman Church, grown to such abnormal proportions as to obscure, if not almost to destroy, the subjective. External authority, outward form, ceremonies, ritual, the adornment and embellishment of churches with images and statuary, the burning of incense, clerical vestments, and numerous other accretions, had gradually gathered round the simple services of the Apostolic Church, and encouraged the belief that in them true religion vvas to be found. It was against these, and the superstitious feelings which they engendered, that the Reformers protested. They wished with all their heart to sweep them away, or at all events so to reduce them as to prevent worshippers from believing that by these external forms man's spiritual nature could be satisfied. It was to reform the Church of these and suchlike abuses that they banded themselves together and risked limb and life in the enterprise.

While this is generally true of the motives which animated the Reformers as a whole, it is particularly true of those who founded that branch of the Protestant Church to which we belong. Zwingli,1 in particular, sounded the note of "No idolatry," for he regarded much of the worship of the Roman Church as no better than the Pagan rites of ancient Greece and Rome. Indeed, he knew, as we have all since learned, that many of the practices of the medieval Church had been adopted from heathen idolatry. They were accepted as weak compromises, as a concession to the heathens, who from time to time were admitted into the Christian Church. These practices, in the course of years, became so associated with the religion of Christ, as to be regarded as part and parcel of it; nay more, their value was so exaggerated as to obscure altogether the essence of the Christian religion, which is inward and spiritual. The enlightenment of the mind, the purification of the soul, and the uplifting of the spirit, which come from the direct contact of man's nature with God's, through true and simple worship, was altogether lost sight of, by the magnifying of the objective side of religion, and by the unlimited indulgence in ritual and ceremonial practices, which the Reformers held to be no better than Pagan idolatry. Indeed, they went farther, and directly attributed to this idolatry many of the corruptions which were sapping the life of the Church, and hastening its destruction.

It was natural, of course, that in the strong attitude which the Reformers thus took up, and in their almost violent protests against the abuses which they condemned, they should be tempted to go to the other extreme and to over-emphasise the subjective element in religion.1 And this is really what happened, at least in the case of some of them, and the disputes which have agitated the Scottish Church since their day on the question, originated in the over-exaggeration of the subjective in relation to the objective side of religion, of the matter in opposition to the form, of preaching as distinct from worship, and of instruction apart from ceremony. Ever since there has been a continuous struggle to adjust the two sides. That struggle came to a head at the time of the Aberdeen Doctors, when King Charles attempted to foist an alien liturgy on the Scottish Church. The opposing schools of thought came then into as violent collision as they did at the Reformation, and the attempt of the Doctors to mediate between the two, to hold the balance between them, to prove the necessity of form as well as spirit in religion, though ineffective, was at the time courageous and laudable, and is not without its significance now.

There were two tangible causes which produced that struggle. The one was the extreme attitude of Knox towards the worship of the Roman Church, and the other was the action of King Charles in attempting to force upon the Church a service book that was displeasing to it. Every one, of course, knows of Knox's violent attacks upon the ceremonies of the Roman Church. These attacks were again and again repeated, from the day on which he preached his first sermon in St. Andrews until the close of his life. They were repeated in England, on the Continent, and on his return. to Scotland with almost growing vehemence. His watchword as a Reformer was, "No idolatry," and while far from standing alone in sounding this battle-cry, it is unquestionable that he gave it forth with a louder peal than any of his brother Reformers. He did not go the length, as some of his followers did, of advocating the disuse of a liturgy altogether. The Church of the second Reformation out-Knoxed Knox in this matter, and we, who are now without an authorised service book, can hardly call ourselves his spiritual children. He had to make a compromise with the Roman Church on the question of worship, and on the question of doctrine as well, as indeed had all the Reformers ; for however much they inveighed against both, it cannot be admitted that their Prayer Books, their Books of Discipline, their Canons, Rubrics, and Confessions of Faith are to be found in the shape in which they put them, in the Bible. They could not altogether break away from Catholic antiquity; the dead Church's hand still governed them. It cannot, however, be denied that Knox's hatred and fear of Roman ceremonial, in which he saw Pagan idolatry and the greatest danger to the purity of the Reformed Church, infected the Scottish people, sank deeply into their natures, and has been a main factor in the development of the Church's policy, doctrine, and worship from then till now.

While Knox's Liturgy, or Book of Common Order,1 gives considerable liberty in the conduct of worship, the Reformation was not many years old until the Church, through its General Assembly, put its ban upon certain religious customs practised, not only by the Roman Church, but in the several branches of the Protestant Church as well. There was nothing in Knox's Liturgy about vestments, attitudes, and visible ceremonials in general; these were left to be determined by usage. Nor did it give any regulation with regard to the conduct of services in celebration of the great Christian festivals ; in fact it takes no recognition of them whatsoever. While there was difference of usage among the Churches which cast off the Roman yoke with regard to these festivals, most of them observed them. The Church of Scotland was soon to prove the exception. In 1566 it was asked to give its approval of the second Helvetic Confession, as had been done by other Reformed Churches. This Confession contained the following passage: "If Churches, in right of their Christian liberty, commemorate religiously our Lord's Nativity, Circumcision, Passion, and Resurrection, with his Ascension into Heaven, and the Descending of the Holy Ghost upon the disciples, we highly approve thereof. But Feasts instituted in honour of men or angels we approve not." The answer was: "This Assembly would not allow the days dedicate to Christ—the Circumcision, the Nativity, Passion, Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost days, but took exception against that part of the Confession." This indicates the official mind of the Church. By its decision it put a barrier between itself and the other Churches of the Reformed Faith. Still in different parts of the country these festivals continued to be observed, because they were an inheritance from the ancient Church, and because the other Churches of the Reformation practised them. The Assembly, however, was determined to put them down, from fear of encouraging superstition, and the first step was thus taken in that narrowing and hardening process with relation to the Church's worship, which we observed in our last lecture, occurred with regard to its creed, and both for the same reason, dread of Popery.

Another sign of the times which points in the same direction is to be found in the office of the reader. He came into existence chiefly because of the dearth of ministers, and he read the prayers in Churches where there was no stated pastor. But even after parishes were filled up with incumbents his office still continued. He conducted the first part of the service, which was the devotional, from the Prayer Book. After he was done, the minister entered the church, mounted the pulpit, and preached the sermon. This part of the service immediately began to be regarded as by far the most important. This was encouraged by the teaching of the Liturgy itself, and the subordinate place that was now given to worship caused preaching to be looked upon as the main, if not the sole element in the Sunday service.

It may be impossible for us to appreciate fully the reason which led Knox and his immediate successors to guide the policy of the Church, with regard to its worship, in the direction now indicated. They probably felt that unless they took a very straight and narrow course the evils which had sprung up through excessive ceremonial, and what they called " creature worship," in the Roman Church, might still be perpetuated. Anything, they thought, would be better than that. They were inspired by the same hatred which animated the old Hebrew prophets, of everything that defileth or maketh a lie in the worship of Jehovah, and their every effort was to remove any obstacle that might stand between the soul and God, and to quicken in the soul itself a spirit of devotion that required no external aid. Still, the question may be asked if the Scottish Church has not paid too dearly for its sacrifice, and does it follow that because a thing is abused, that thing is wrong ? Because the Roman Church carried to extremes the objective element in religion, are we to condemn that element altogether and to deny its use? Is everything that is not inward and of the spirit sinful ? Is everything that is outward and external wrong? Is what appeals to the senses wicked ? If an answer in the affirmative be given to these questions, we divide the world and create a dualism which it is the express object of the Christian religion to destroy. If form without spirit is meaningless, so spirit without form is vague and vain.

A reaction was bound to set in, but it came from a quarter that defeated its own object. If the Church had been left to itself, it is not at all unlikely that the objective side of religion might in due course have received the countenance to which it is entitled, and worship have taken its place in the life and services of the Church. Knox's Liturgy was there, and it continued to be used until the Covenanters, in their violent opposition to what is called Laud's Liturgy,1 imposed by Royal fiat upon the Church in 1637, caused it to abjure all liturgies and to pave the way for the Presbyterians from Ireland and the Brownists from England to reduce to the lowest level, and even to discredit, decency and order in the conduct of worship. All that the Revolution Settlement gave us was the Directory of Public Worship, prepared by the Westminster Assembly. It is a guide but nothing more. But the reaction did not come from the Church itself, it came from the King, first from King James and then from his son King Charles. It was not thus a natural development that might have come in time, for we cannot conceive that the Scottish Church would have been so untrue to its origin or would have endangered its communion with the other Churches of the Reformation as to abjure ceremonies which would have made it singular in the eyes of all. But the chance was not given to it. King James, in his eager haste to bring about conformity between the Anglican and Scottish Churches, managed by means of packed Assemblies to have the famous Perth Articles adopted. He had also in hand the preparation of a new liturgy, but this he wisely dropped. His son, King Charles 1., with still greater eagerness, foisted, on his own authority, a Book of Canons and his notorious Liturgy upon the Church, which saw in both the symbols of Popery and made that the ostensible ground for rejecting them. The "auld enemy" of the Scottish Church, hatred to which had been inspired by Knox, and duly fostered by his successors, was still dreaded by the Scottish people, and this dread was encouraged by the clergy and nobility for purposes of their own. They did not wish the interference of the Monarch and kindled the popular opposition by methods which they knew would be most effective. This action on the part of father and son, King James and King Charles, was the second tangible cause of the struggle which agitated the Church, on the question of ritual, and it was during the time of the Aberdeen Doctors that the two parties, the party of Knox and the party of the King, came into violent collision. There is no question, of course, on whose side the majority lay. The result that followed shows this. The popular vote was cast in favour of the Covenanters. The landed gentry whose interests were threatened by the establishment of Episcopacy, sided with the common people, whose prejudices were wounded by the threatened changes in the form of worship, and the coalition thus formed and led by the ministers, who resented the interference of the King in matters which belonged to the Church, finally triumphed. Still it must not be forgotten that the advocates of the proposed changes were influential. They were as keen on the introduction of the new order as those who were afterwards known as Covenanters were in their opposition to it. The strife accordingly was bitter and prolonged, historical perspective was lost sight of, and everything had to give way, both reason and good feeling, in face of the blind fury that prevailed. It was at this point that the Aberdeen Doctors stepped in and endeavoured to throw the light of knowledge, of judgment, and of truth upon the subject in dispute.

In relation to what has now been said, the statement of the views of the Doctors, which I am about to give, may seem unwarrantably brief. All that I can do in the present relation is just to indicate it.

It was the dispeace which followed the adoption, by the Perth Assembly in 1618, of the Five Articles, which King James desired to impose upon the Church, that drew from Dr. John Forbes his views on rites and ceremonies in general, and the relation which the Scottish Church should adopt towards them, in particular. These views were incorporated in his well-known work the Irenictim, written with the express purpose of bringing about peace in the troubled Church. The five Articles are as follows:—

1. That the Communion should be received kneeling.
2. That in cases of necessity the Communion might be administered in private houses.
3. That in cases of necessity Baptism might be administered in private houses.
4. That children on reaching eight years of age should be confirmed by the Bishop.
5. That Christmas, Good Friday, Easter

Monday, Ascension Day, and Whitsunday should be observed as Holy Days.

One, at this time of day, may find it hard to appreciate the strife which the introduction of these Articles engendered. Three of them have now been practically adopted by the Church, namely, Private Baptism, Private Communion, and the Celebration of Holy Days; the second and third perhaps more sparingly than the first. The Church objected to Private Baptism and to Private Communion, chiefly on the ground that, at their celebration, there would be no preaching. The rite accordingly would tend to be regarded in a superstitious way, as possessing in itself a supernatural efficacy. In opposing the celebration of the Christian Festivals, the Church took up the position of historical continuity. It had never adopted them although the other Churches of the Reformation had. Confirmation was objected to on the ground that the parochial bishop had as much right to administer it as the diocesan, but the real battle took place on the Article which imposed kneeling at the Communion. This was held as gross idolatry, a worshipping of the sacred elements, almost a revival of the Mass. Knox had resolutely set his face against it, and the Church shared his views.

It may accordingly be of interest to hear Dr. John Forbes' opinion on the subject. He opposed those who would force it upon an unwilling Church, but he equally repudiated the contention of those who declared it to be unlawful.

With regard to the charge that kneeling at Communion is idolatrous, since it is a religious adoration in presence of the creature, he replied that this is not true, unless it can be shown that adoration in presence of creature, or object, is a religious adoration of creature or object itself, which is not the case, as can be shown from the worship before the Altar of the Lord, the Ark of the Covenant, and the Temple at Jerusalem; the adoration of God with the raising of the eyes and hands to heaven ; falling on the knee at public penitence; and religious adoration at the ordination of ministers, when the minister to be ordained receives with bended knee the imposition of hands and the sacred volume. He maintained that the bread is not placed so that it may be adored, or that adoration may be made before it so that the bread may be the object of worship, but that the humble kneeling itself may be the token of devotion and reverence towards God, when He confers the most precious gifts on us.

The example of Christ and the Apostles is brought forward. He shows that no mention is made of the posture in which the disciples accepted from the hands of the Lord the sacred elements. No special posture was essential; that neither at its institution nor afterwards in Scripture is it ever appointed. That there were many circumstances in the first celebration which were essential neither to the Sacrament nor its institution, nor laid down by the necessary practice of the Church. Those things only are necessary which arise from the Divine institution of the Sacrament. The necessary circumstances of time, place, mode, are natural necessities, but do not bind to a certain kind of posture.1 He also held that the Commemoration of the Anniversaries of Holy Days, such as Christmas and Easter, are lawful. These, he remarks, have been observed from the earliest times by the whole Church. It is not the day that is commemorated, but the spiritual blessings which are associated with it. These it would be possible to celebrate on any day, but uniformity is advisable in the interests of the people. No superstition is attached to the day, or any sanctity, but the practice tends to the worship of God, to whom we owe the blessing it indicates, and to the discipline of Christian life. He argues much in the same way with regard to the other Articles, and says that they must not be done away with because of the abuse of the Papists any more than Marriage, Confession, or the Holy Communion. Any good custom can be corrupted, but its corruption should not blind us to its goodness.

He then takes up the following general position with regard to worship, ceremonies, and ritual: that everything that makes for peace and edification are moral necessities; also what makes for decency and order; and that everything against peace and edification and every unseemly posture or neglect of order must be excluded ; that rites in themselves are indifferent, and may be omitted or replaced, just as order, decorum, peace, charity, and edification may dictate. And with regard to the particular Articles in dispute, he held that the dignity and freedom of the Scottish Church demanded their introduction : its dignity, so that the objective side of religion might receive its due share of recognition, and the services of the Church be prevented from falling into disrepute through unseemliness and slovenliness; and its freedom, so that it might assert its right and liberty to arrange its order of worship, and to omit or introduce such rites and ceremonies, as it felt justified in doing, for the edification of its members

Such, in brief outline, were the views of Dr. John Forbes, which were shared, more or less fully, by the rest of the Aberdeen Doctors, and it seems to me that in them may be found a line of policy for the guidance of the Church on this question ; for, as every one knows, guidance is sorely needed. Some forty years ago the question of what was popularly known as improved Church services, or, as I would prefer to call it, a renewed recognition of the objective side of religion, began to interest the Church. The movement was headed by Dr. Robert Lee, who fell a victim to the cause. The war of parties in Presbytery and Assembly is still fresh in the minds of many, and the movement which he so bravely and ably championed has made undoubted progress. Still, fresh cases of dispute continually crop up, and what painfully strikes one, in the attempted settlement of them, is the lack of a guiding principle. If I am not misinformed, the Assembly of the Church, not many years ago, gave a decision on a case of this kind mainly on the representation of a wealthy member, who happened to be standing for the constituency where the dispute occurred. He declared that unless the so-called innovations were put down, popular feeling would be so roused against the Church and himself, that he would be in danger of being defeated. The Church decided against the so-called innovations, and the candidate was defeated all the same. Well, it is nothing short of a scandal that the Church of Scotland should determine important questions of this kind in such a loose and haphazard way. In order to receive right guidance one has to go back to the period between the Reformation and the Aberdeen Doctors; for, after the abolition of Episcopacy in 1638 until our own time, the worship of the Church presents an arid waste ; in any case it is separated so radically from the Church's own teaching and practice, as laid down during the time when it was uninfluenced by outside agents or movements, that no authoritative guidance can therein be found. The Assembly may have passed certain Acts, and the Church may or may not have respected them, but it seems to me that it is to the earlier period we must look for light to guide us.

Now, in the views of the Aberdeen Doctors, which were moulded, partly by the regulations and forms laid down by the Church itself, and partly by the practice of the early Church and of the other Churches of the Reformation, we find certain principles which the Church of our time ought seriously to consider in handling the controversies that may arise on religious worship. The fact that such controversies do keep recurring must be accepted as a sign that the Church is not satisfied with the meagre means hitherto afforded for the satisfaction of one side of Christian thought and feeling. Indeed, these means are far poorer that the Church of Knox supplied, and, knowing as we do the reasons which actuated him in cutting down all formal worship to the very lowest, we ought to hesitate in withholding from the people their just heritage and rights.

Knox, as we have seen, was actuated by fear of Popery ; that we can understand. But the Reformed Church of Scotland is now some three and a half centuries old, and that fear surely ought to be nonexistent. He had good reason for acting as he did, but that reason has passed away, therefore any revival of forms of worship which even he allowed, and of others which are freely used by other Reformed Churches that can lay claim to as great a purity as our own, ought not to be denied to our people. The Aberdeen Doctors rightly pointed out that the New Testament is not a Book of Common Order. It does not lay down forms of service ; it refrains from stating regulations for every detail of worship. It inculcates principles, and leaves it to the wisdom of the Church, acting under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to determine special questions for itself. In this, as in everything else, there may be a development. Fresh needs, special circumstances, new conditions, may call for revision, omission, or addition, in the ceremonies and worship of the Church ; but all such departures ought to be made on the understanding that no absolute authority should be claimed for human appointments, however expedient and seemly, and that the Church should never make anything imperative which has not the authority of Scripture.

The Aberdeen Doctors accordingly would not divide the Church on such questions ; schism did not take place in their day. This happy practice was left to later times. The unity and authority of the Church were not scouted as they have since been. Such matters ought to be considered and debated in a calm and reasonable manner, and when opinion became fully ripe would be the time to decide them. No body of men respected the peace of the Church so profoundly as the Aberdeen Doctors, and Dr. John Forbes in particular deplored the strife that, what was meant to make for the edification of the Church, engendered.

And it was just this very edification of the Church that he and they who thought with him had so much at heart. They naturally regretted that much which tended towards the development of worship and towards the building up of the Christian thought and life of the people was being lost sight of, and that what remained was in imminent danger of vanishing through the troubles that had arisen. They could not approve of the method by which the King endeavoured to force upon the Church a Service Book, though they might not disapprove of the Service Book itself. For their part, if the Church refused to accept the proposed innovation, they would have been content to bow to its decision and remain within it as loyal members. They brought their knowledge and their ability to bear upon the questions at issue, and endeavoured to prove the lawfulness and the utility of what was proposed and introduced. But they would be no schismatics, nor would they disturb the peace of the Church by intellectual brawling. Unfortunately the King and those who sided with him roused the worst features of the Scottish character, and the strife and contention which then began, and have since continued, have blinded the Church to the real question at issue, and by centring its mind on the arid centuries that have intervened since the Glasgow Assembly of 1638, in place of the preceding period, have filled it with misknowledge and prejudice, and made it all the more difficult for those who are desirous of doing full justice to the objective side of religion, to carry out the necessary reforms, chiefly by way of reviving the past.

For it should not be forgotten that the members of the Church have certain rights in this connection. The minister may preach as he pleases, and the hearers may accept or reject at their will. It is different with the service. That is as much their part as his, indeed it is their part chiefly, for the prayers are supposed to be the prayers of the congregation, and the various acts of worship are the expressions of their feelings and aspirations. If the clergyman conducts the service after a fashion which may be approved of by himself only, introducing or omitting what may please himself, how can the service be called that of the congregation, and how can they participate in the worship which may not be theirs ? Without some stated order—in short, without a liturgy which has been the growth of the devout feeling and is the expression of the mind of the Church—there can be no guarantee of a congregational service in the true sense of the word. Knox, like the other Reformers, was wise enough to see this.

The Aberdeen Doctors strongly shared his opinion, and would have liked the Church to develop its worship so as to bring it into line with other Reformed Churches, and to give as full expression as possible to the spirit of devotion, and to balance the subjective by a recognition of the objective element in religion.

It may of course be said that worship, thus practised, is apt to become formal. So is any kind of worship. Unless there be a worshipful spirit in the minister and people, it matters not very much whether the service be conducted on the lines and in the words laid down by the Church, or according to the liturgist's own sweet will, the service will be cold and barren. But if there be devout feelings in the hearts both of minister and congregation, the service, in whatever form it may be rendered, will express them. For my part, while adhering to Knox's arrangement that sufficient scope be given for free prayer, and that the rubrics should, in cases where no absolute authority can be claimed, give permission for independent action, I believe that a Book of Common Order, which contains the pious aspirations of past ages and has been the vehicle for the expression of the devotions of the Church for generations, ought of itself to inspire both minister and people with the spirit of true worship.

It may be interesting to note the views of representative men on the questions which have been discussed in this lecture. Let me select two recent pronouncements, one by an Anglican and the other by a Presbyterian. Professor Masterman, in his Hulsean Lecture on the " Rights and Responsibilities of National Churches/' referring to the question of ceremonies in a National Church says: "I would plead for the widest possible scope for experiment in the ceremonial of the National Church, for the frank abandonment of any attempt at a cast iron system of legally enforced uniformity. With it must go, too, the arbitrary power of the clergy to modify and expand local uses in accordance with the supposed ceremonial of the Catholic Church. The experience of the Colonial Churches has shown conclusively that the Christian laity, when entrusted with real power, are a strong safeguard against rash or ill-considered changes in the customs and ceremonial of the Church. But experiment and adaptation are only possible to a body that has an organic character. And it is this organic character that a National Church is best fitted to secure and retain. For the life of the Church is grafted on the foundation of the organic life of the nation."

Principal Pollok, in his singularly able book on Practical Theology/ speaking on behalf of the Presbyterian Church on the subject of free, as compared to liturgical, prayer, says: "The real question is, which method best promotes spirituality in the worshippers? Whenever it can be proved that either promotes religion more than the other, then the question is for us settled. The advocates of free prayer often claim for their system a superior spirituality. .But it must be admitted that some of Paley's objections cannot be easily answered. What is generally the mental attitude of a congregation during a prayer which they have never heard before? Are they for the most part a praying Assembly? We may suppose them to be in a prepared and devout frame, but does their mental attitude ever rise above a meditation? Is it not often curiosity mingled with criticism? The prescribed prayer obviates all this, for the voice is the voice of the Church, and when the worshipper really tries to worship, the exercise is not intellectual but devotional. The worshipper is neither a hearer merely, nor a critic, nor can he complain of surprises. The channel for his thoughts has been provided, and he is a devout worshipper just to that degree in which he allows his thoughts and feelings to flow into it. "There is much," he adds, "to be said in favour of having some manual of devotion that would unite the hearts of God's people in worship and so bind all parts of the Church together in a unity expressed as well as professed. Churches are united in love and in brotherhood, not by confessions which are seldom read, but by devotions which are often repeated, wherein the feelings are drawn out and the souls of the whole people are directed to eternal things." It is very significant that the Anglican pleads for freedom in ceremonial and the Presbyterian for uniformity in worship, and their views, seeing they are those of representative men, must be accepted as hopeful signs of the times.


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