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The Aberdeen Doctors
Chapter VI - Church Union


A question upon which the Aberdeen Doctors were invited to give their opinion was as to the union of the Lutheran and Reformed Churches. The subject was one of more than academic interest. Attempts more or less serious were made to bring about such a union, and although they came to naught, certain principles emerged in the course of discussion which are still vital and which are bound to be considered in the more modern movements that are absorbing the attention of the leaders of religious thought throughout Christendom. The divided state of the Church of Christ in our day is held by many to be a scandal and a cause of offence. To a superficial observer the truth of this will at once be apparent, but a deeper thinker may find in the differences which naturally call for comment only a passing effervescence, or in any case but a signpost directing the mind to the unity of Spirit which underlies them.

In the opinion of some, outward uniformity can be purchased at too great a price. Churches, like persons, have their own individuality, which calls for respect. Any solution of the question will have to keep this in view, and the ideal to be aimed at, after all, ought perhaps to be, not so much uniformity as unity in difference, and it was in this direction that the opinion of the Doctors pointed. They advocated harmony and concord even where absolute consent, on the part of the different Churches with regard to particular doctrines, could not be attained.

The man who first raised this question in a serious form was Arminius. He raised it not directly but indirectly; it emerged from his attitude towards Christian doctrine in general. He revived the spirit of Protestantism, which was in danger of being again enveloped in a cloud of theories or buried under dogmatic systems. A new scholasticism was fast springing up, and the opinions of the Reformers and the Doctors of the Church, coupled with the more formal statements of Christian doctrine embodied in the confessions of the Protestant Churches, were beginning to bind the thoughts of men and to crush the spirit of free inquiry. It would almost seem as if the children of the new religion were about to regard the symbols of their faith in much the same way as the Roman Catholics viewed the decrees of their councils and the dogmas of their Church. A new Doctrine of Infallibility, in short, was springing up in the Protestant Churches, and was threatening to take the place of the old doctrine which it had been the task of the Reformation to destroy.

Too much praise accordingly cannot be bestowed upon Arminius and his followers for drawing the attention of thinking men to this new danger. It is a work, however, which every age would seem to have to accomplish for itself. In the course of time, doctrines, which were vital to the Church of the day, have a tendency to harden; they lose their spring. They receive a reverence which is due to their age and not to their efficacy or living relation to the heart of the time. They in due course have also to be overthrown, otherwise religious thought would stagnate or, at its best, be purely formal. Truth itself cannot change, but it requires to be restated in view of the intellectual and spiritual needs of the day.

The method which Arminius adopted proved at the time to be most effective. His critique of the doctrines of Calvinism went to the root of the question, and when developed was seen to apply, not only to the special case in hand, but to the other Churches of Protestantism and to the Roman Catholic Church as well. He drew a distinction between what was fundamental and not fundamental in Christian doctrine. A searching criticism very soon showed how few in number were the doctrines that ought to be regarded as fundamental in comparison with those that were non-fundamental. The latter were the creation of the different Churches, the former the truths of Scripture and particularly the teaching of Christ and His apostles. It was accordingly pointed out that it was only such truths and teaching that ought to be made the basis of Christian life and communion. It was upon them only that any Church should be founded. Everything else was but the accretions of human thought, and however valuable they might be in themselves ought not to be made the ground of Christian fellowship. They were, in short, non-fundamental, and as such had no inevitable place in the body of Divine truth.

One can see at a glance how searching this distinction can be. It sweeps away at once much for which the Churches have always contended and upon which they have insisted as a ground for communion. It reduces the body of Christian belief to very moderate compass, and would be content to accept the Apostles' Creed, or some such document, as the sum and substance of religious faith. Much of what is found in the symbols of the Protestant Churches and in the decrees and dogmas of the Roman Church would at once go overboard, and what would be left would be the original documents of the early Church and the simple teaching of the Bible.

If the critique of the school of Arminius was thus destructive, it was only so, however, in the first instance. It had a constructive side as well, and it is this aspect of it that chiefly concerns us. If the creeds of Christendom could be thus reduced to one or other of the earliest symbols of the faith, why should the Church of Christ be so divided? It was frankly admitted on all hands that there was little or no divergence of opinion among them upon such symbols or upon the teaching of Christ or His apostles. What divided them were opinions which they themselves had developed into dogmas regarding the truths of Scripture, but such views were clearly non-fundamental so far as Christian communion was concerned, therefore they ought to be dropped or be held in easy tolerance. What ought to be seized hold of and held fast in all the Churches were the essential truths of Christianity; they were fundamental, and upon them the different branches of the Church of Christ were bound to be agreed. It accordingly can be seen at a glance that, whether it be in human nature or no, to act upon such views there can be no real dispute about the sanity of the views themselves. It is one thing, of course, for Churches as for individuals, to apprehend the truth, but it is a very different thing to act upon it and to practise it. A living thought, however, once it finds expression can never really die, and the distinction which Arminius thus pointed out, although it may seem to have been inoperative during the centuries that have elapsed since his day, is once more coming to the front, and is found to be as vital as ever.

The man to whom we are indebted for a formulated statement on the part of the Doctors of their views and position on the question of union, was John Durie, a Scotsman, who was born at Edinburgh in 1596. He bore a well-known name in the Church, and he is not to be identified with another John Duric, who was notorious for his preaching against the Court and inveighing generally against the abuses of the times. This is the John who, on his return to Edinburgh after a brief banishment, was escorted up the High Street by an enthusiastic crowd of Protestants, singing with all their might the 124th Psalm, in four parts, thus showing not only their attachment to their minister but their skill in Psalmody. Our John was the fourth son of Robert Durie, one of those who attended as a member the General Assembly at Aberdeen in 1605 and which was prohibited by the King. He along with certain others repudiated the jurisdiction of His Majesty, and persisted in holding the Assembly. For this, he along with five others was tried by the Privy Council, and, being found guilty, was banished from the kingdom. He proceeded to Holland, and was admitted Minister to the Scotch Church at Leyden, where his son John received his early education, studying afterwards for the ministry at Sedan, where his cousin Andrew Melville was a professor. Durie conceived in his early manhood a scheme for the uniting of the two great branches of the Prestestant Church, the Lutheran and the Reformed, which occupied his whole interests during his long life, for he did not die until 1680, being then in his eighty-fourth year.

Durie was one of those men whose life was governed by a single idea, which in the end became a ruling passion and absorbed all his energies. He travelled through most of the countries of Western Europe, especially those where the Reformation had taken a foothold. In pursuit of his scheme he interviewed kings, leading statesmen, archbishops, and bishops ; approached General Assemblies and various ecclesiastical bodies. He formulated terms of union, secured the adherence of opposing factions and sects, and ever and again seemed to be on the eve of attaining his object, but something untoward always happened and his all but accomplished plan fell like a pack of cards about his ears. Pamphlet after pamphlet in Latin and in English issued from his pen, and speeches were made and sermons preached by him in support of his cause, but all in vain. One cannot help admiring the persistency and indomitable courage of the man ; nothing seemed to cool his ardour ; he was the first apostle of union in modern times, and his efforts, however futile, deserve greater recognition than they have as yet received.

Among those whom he wished to consult, and whose opinions he deemed of importance, were the Aberdeen Doctors. He applied to Archbishop Spottiswood, who approached the Doctors on his behalf, and they, taking the matter in hand, gave it the most serious consideration, and in a long letter to the Archbishop, which is incorporated by Dr. John Forbes in his Instructions Theological they gave a formulated statement of their position, showing how the two great branches of the Protestant Church might be reconciled and a working union accomplished.

The scheme which Durief aided though he was by the Aberdeen Doctors and many other leaders of theological thought, endeavoured to carry out was much more difficult than may appear to us at first sight, for at that time the cleavage between the Lutheran and Reformed Churches was both sharp and deep. The bitter quarrels that raged between these two great ecclesiastical bodies must have been fresh in the minds of many who were still living. The strife began about a hundred years previously at the celebrated Colloquy of Marburg, in 1529, when Luther " proceeded with such unreasonable obstinancy and passion, even refusing to give the right hand of fellowship to Zwingli, who pleaded for it with tears in his eyes, although he could not yield an iota of the principle upon which he stood." The differences between the two Churches would seem to have increased, and long and bitter controversies arose over such topics as Predestination, the extent of the Atonement, the application of Grace, and the Person of Christ. Indeed, so keen became the strife, that one Lutheran theologian asserted it was better to hold communion with Papists than with Calvinists. Another, in language more forcible than laudable, maintained that the damned Calvinistic heretics had 99 points in common with the Arians, and 666 theses in common with the Turks. Even the Elector Augustus exclaimed that if there was a Calvinistic vein in his body he wished that the Devil would pluck it out.

It may be true that both Churches arose from the same polemic; they took their rise in a protest against the corruptions of the Church of Rome. But while Luther attacked the Roman doctrine of works which he regarded as a Judaic corruption of primitive Christianity, setting against it the true doctrine of righteousness by faith, Zwingli aimed his polemic against the pagan practice of image worship and other idolatrous customs, which in the course of centuries had perverted the pure worship of the early Church. It can be seen how these two different starting - points would lead the followers of both Luther and Zwingli if not in opposite, yet in divergent directions, and in a short time, when each Church had to formulate its conception of Christian doctrine, differences arose which speedily developed and called for a reconciliation, which for the time being seemed quite impossible. The main controversy arose on the views which the Lutheran and Reformed Churches held as to the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Sacrament of the Supper. While Luther repudiated the medieval dogma of Transubstantiation, he yet held that the body of Christ was present in, with, and under the sensible bread, and was even masticated by the communicant, which theory he expressed in his dogma of Consubstantiation. Zwingli, on the other hand, emphatically rejected every form of the doctrine of a bodily presence as inconceivable and even monstrous, regarding the bread and wine in the supper as always in themselves only bread and wine, yet as symbols, or significant memorials, of the broken body and shed blood. It was to the fundamental distinction between the two Churches on this doctrine that the Aberdeen Doctors directed their attention, and endeavoured to show how with regard to it a union between them might be possible. The other points of disagreement they for the most part let alone or touched upon them slightly.

Following the line of thought laid down by Arminius, they emphasised the distinction that exists between what is fundamental and non-fundamental in Christian doctrine, and, elaborating this distinction as it affected the views of the two Churches regarding the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper, they attempted to show how upon what was fundamental in it they agreed, and suggested at the same time that upon what was non-fundamental in it, and which was not essential, they should agree to differ. A summary of their views is given by Dr. Garden in his life of Dr. John Forbes, and as it briefly and clearly states their position I think it advisable to give it:

"Just as Forbes cultivated a mutual agreement and charity with his colleagues, so each of them, inasmuch as he was peacefully disposed, was anxious to promote peace and concord among them all. He was exceedingly grieved at the quarrels and hatreds between the different sects of Christendom and also of the Reformers' hatreds which had burst out into flame especially between the Lutherans and the Calvinists; and willingly seized the opportunity offered of showing his brotherly feeling towards the Lutherans as well as his vehement desire of peace and concord. John Durie, a Scotsman, as formerly mentioned, striving with great effort to promote this union, and for that object travelling through England, France, Germany, Switzerland and Denmark, as a promoter of peace, and carefully gathering everywhere from each side the wishes and opinions of learned men, concerning the fostering of peace and union, among others, addresses the Aberdeen Doctors concerning this matter, with the approval of the most Reverend Archbishop Spotswood, Primate of the Scottish Church, who wrote to them on the same subject.

"The opportunity having then been given them, the reverend theologians of Aberdeen, in a learned and Christian letter to the Primate Spotswood, inserted by the author in the Instructio histor. Theol.,. book xiv. chap, vii., express their opinions clearly and charitably. They take for granted that there is a difference between consent and concord ; inasmuch as the latter consists in charity, peace and the common use of sacred rights, the former in the agreement of opinions ; which is to be wished for in all things rather than to be hoped for in this life, in which we only know in part and prophesy in part. Nevertheless even with an imperfect ' consent' of opinions, there can be a true ' concord.' Moreover they show from the writings of the Lutherans themselves, what kind of disagreement it is which does not prevent Christian fellowship, inasmuch as one kind of disagreement is fundamental in faith itself, another, less important, in connexion with faith, which latter does not break up the spiritual brotherhood. Fundamental error in religion, according to them, is one which is directly and immediately repugnant to some fundamental and primary article of the Catholic and saving faith, in some head of doctrine which is necessary to be known and believed by everybody, ever since the preaching of the Gospel by the Apostles, in order to obtain everlasting salvation.

"This necessary knowledge of fundamental doctrine they understand as not perfect nor equal in everybody, but of such a kind and so great as to keep the foundation as regards the substance of the doctrine. Nor is the way of salvation more difficult for us than it was for the primitive ages of the Christian Church. For no decrees of the Churches, after the time of the Apostles, can bring about that any fundamental point should come to light for later ages which did not exist before. The yoke imposed by Christ Himself is easy, nor is it right for men to render it difficult by their own harshness. A distinction must be made, they warn us, between the primary heads of Christian doctrine and secondary questions concerning them which are not only ignored without risk of losing one's salvation, but are even denied, provided that the foundation is kept and the sad evil of schism avoided. And since a practical fundamental error is worse than an error which is theoretical or a practical error which is not fundamental, they show how much worse is the state of that Church which is so puffed up with the splendour of its own golden superstructure that, neglecting charity, laying aside even-mindedness, treading under foot the law of Christ, arrogantly despises the neighbour Churches of Christ, orthodox in fundamentals, and willing to foster peace with it, on account of certain growths of false opinions which have been built on to the foundation, charges them with heresy and contemptuously rejects them; than is the state of those Churches which, retaining their foundations, although they be inferior in knowledge and weak in faith, nevertheless are strong in their invincible charity.

"Consent (agreement) in the fundamentals of the Catholic and saving faith, they define, (as do the Lutherans themselves) as agreement indeed in those heads of Christian doctrine which are necessary to be known and believed by all the faithful for obtaining eternal salvation in Christ and without a belief in which no one shall be saved. And it is among those whose agreement is of such a nature as this, although they may differ in secondary matters, that the Lutherans recognise the propriety of fostering among themselves ecclesiastical peace. The Aberdeen Doctors show that the agreement between the Lutherans and the other Evangelical Churches is of such a nature : and that, although they are rather too coarsely instructed, nevertheless to themselves, dwelling far away from the tumult of that fatal strife, that is the thing of which they are most convinced when they consider the doctrine and arguments of both sides, carefully and sincerely, in the sight of God : and that a lawful synod, whether of the Church universal or of all the Reformed Churches, would pronounce no otherwise.

"In the next place, as to the fundamental point to be retained in the doctrine concerning the Lord's Supper, those points are fully sufficient concerning which there is agreement between the Lutherans and the other Evangelical Churches when they examined the thirty-one agreements concerning this matter. And in examining them they say that it is not their meaning that all those points on which they are agreed should be held as fundamental heads of the Christian Doctrine : but that this alone had been their purpose, viz.:—that it should be manifest to all fair judges, that a Christian holding to those points alone concerning this sacrament, with regard to which there is agreement among all the Evangelical Churches, should be enabled to approach the Lord's Table worthily and fruitfully : while he may either be ignorant of or may not believe any of the other questions which are disputed concerning this mystery of the statements which are put forward, concerning the corporal presence and the mastication. They say that all the Evangelical Churches teach that there is shown to the faithful, under sacred symbols, a communion of the body and blood of the Lord, not fictitious or shadowy, but real and substantial : and that it is not in imagination only, or in the understanding, that the believing guests partake of the body and blood of Christ, but that they, indeed, feed on Him for the sustenance of eternal life (Calvin, Book iv.Instit.} chaps. 17 and 19). That spiritual life is poured into us by the incomprehensible virtue of the Spirit out of the substance of the flesh of Christ. That in reality they feed on the flesh and blood of Christ (Calvin, Book concerning the true participation in the body and blood of Christ in the holy supper, § Venio nunc ad Gallicus). And they show from their public confessions that this is the common doctrine of these Churches. So that there is no real controversy among them but only a nominal one concerning the real and true substantial eating and presence.

"When they had shown at sufficient length that there was lawful and necessary harmony, notwithstanding disagreement in certain particulars concerning the Eucharist, they add only a few words concerning the remaining controversies. And concerning Predestination and Grace and Free Will and the other questions relating to that controversy, if after the Holy Scriptures, in the judgment of the African and Gallican Councils, in which the Pelagian heresy and its offshoots were rejected; and in that of Augustine, Prosper and Fulgentius and of those Roman Pontiffs who agree with them and who lived in the time of Augustine and his disciples, and in that of the blessed Luther who followed Augustine ; if in the judgment and agreement of all these it is firmly established, the Church, they say, will be free from taint of fundamental error. They say that they themselves know that certain heads of the Augustinian Doctrine concerning this argument are rejected by some of the Lutheran Doctors, and that Luther himself even seems to have spoken somewhat harshly : let them enjoy, they say, through us their own opinion, provided that they allow Augustine and Luther and the other Christians who agree with them, to be free from fundamental error ; and let them quietly and peacefully restrain their sentiments.

"After his return to Holmia in Sweden, Durie, writing to Forbes, shows how pleased he was with this letter and how opportunely presented, whilst a Convention of Clergy was being held in that place and for the sake of procuring that agreement it had been resolved, by the command of the supreme magistrate, that it should be publicly discussed ; where, after a friendly discussion, it seemed that nothing was wanting, except a fundamental confession of faith, by means of which there might shine forth a saving harmony of sects on points hitherto regarded as controversial, and that he himself had presented the letter in name of the Rev. Archbishop of St. Andrews and of the Faculty of Theology, to be carefully considered by them. He says that it is scarcely ever possible to do away with the misfortune of disagreements in matters of faith or of theological knowledge, unless a clear distinction be made, and if not with exactness at least somehow, between fundamentals and non-fundamentals. Protestants in their disputes with the Roman Church are always in the habit of speaking of the distinction between fundamentals and non-fundamentals, although they do not sufficiently provide for a legitimate distinction between these. The Roman Church, building a superstructure of Catholic faith on its own infallibility, wishes everything to be considered as fundamental and necessary to be believed which she herself has placed among the articles of faith. Protestants also extending the Confessions of their faith into very many articles beyond the primitive symbols, and demanding explicit belief in them, slam the door on Christian unity and concord. Future ages will perceive the madness of this."

The position of the Doctors, as thus stated, is sufficiently clear, and requires no special elucidation ; it is quite in keeping with the principles laid down by the school of Arminius, and accepted, as the Doctors themselves state, by the theologians of the Lutheran Church. It may be interesting to note the distinction which they draw between consent and concord, or, in other words, between agreement of opinion and charity with regard to those points upon which agreement is unattainable. They advocate tolerance on what is non-fundamental. On this basis they would brush aside as of secondary importance the vain superstructure which the different Churches have reared on primitive Christian truth. They would allow them to hold by it, but would not insist on it being imposed upon those who did not regard it as vital. Their definition of the fundamental truths of the Catholic Church is interesting. Consent in the fundamentals of the Catholic and saving faith they define as "agreement indeed in those heads of Christian doctrine which are necessary to be known and believed by all the faithful for obtaining eternal salvation in Christ, and without a belief in which no one shall be saved." It is of importance to notice that they do not specially name what those heads of doctrine are, and the question may be asked if there might not be a possibility of the different Churches disputing as to what these may be. If the matter were pushed to extremes, the irreducible minimum on which every one would agree might be very small indeed.

It requires only a glance, however, at the elaborate discussion, on the part of the Doctors, on the points of agreement that might be possible between the Lutheran and Reformed Churches on the Lord's Supper, to understand the failure of John Durie in bringing about the union, which he had so much at heart, and for the accomplishment of which he toiled so incessantly. One is somewhat startled to find that there are thirty-one points, according to the Doctors, on which agreement is possible, and it is left to one's imagination to conceive the number on which difference of opinion is to be allowed. If, on this subject alone, although it must be admitted to have been the most important, there were so many points of possible disagreement, what hope could there be of union when other doctrines had to be considered on which differences of opinion were notorious ? But, passing away from the vague outlook which is thus suggested, it is of interest to note the views of the Doctors on the doctrine of the Lord's Supper. It must be admitted that they are of a higher nature than those which have generally prevailed in the Scottish Church. They say that " all the Evangelical Churches teach that there is shown to the faithful, under sacred symbols, a communion of the body and blood of the Lord, not fictitious or shadowy, but real and substantial, and that it is not in imagination only, or in the understanding, that the believing guests partake of the body and blood of Christ, but that they indeed feed on Him for the sustenance of eternal life." And they quote Calvin in support of their view. They also hold that "spiritual life is poured into us by the incomprehensible virtue of the Spirit, out of the substance of the flesh of Christ, that in reality they feed on the flesh and blood of Christ."

May it not here be asked if the Doctors, for the sake of union, are not yielding too much? Granted that the Scottish Church may have fallen somewhat from the teaching of the first Reformers on the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper, it may be safely questioned if any of our theologians or symbols ever went so far in a Lutheran direction as the Aberdeen theologians were prepared to go, in the hope of bringing about an ecclesiastical peace. In this respect, however, they fell far short of one of their own contemporaries, Dr. William Forbes, the first Bishop of Edinburgh. He was for a time, while Principal of Marischal College and minister in Aberdeen, one of their own colleagues, although he was not one of the "Doctors." He left Aberdeen before Dr. John Forbes and his friends banded themselves together for theological and ecclesiastical defence. Nor was he quite of their school; he was at one with them in their desire for promoting peace and union, but he went farther than they were prepared to go, for he would embrace in the united Church, which he wished to see reconstructed, not only the several branches of the Protestant Church, but the Roman Church as well. Like the Doctors, he would eliminate the articles of belief on which men differed, and was prepared to recommend as a common symbol the Confessions of Faith found in the New Testament and the Apostles' Creed in its earliest form. Like many in our day, he recommended cooperation among the different Churches, and their members, in good works. "Life rather than doctrine was to be the basis of union. A saying often uttered by him was, ' Pauca credenda, multa agenda '—Few are the articles of the Christian faith; many are the duties of the Christian life."

Dr. Milroy thus summarises his position: "1st. In those cases in which there are elements of truth common to all, let those common elements be recognised. 2nd. In those cases in which articles have been added to those common elements, let those articles be tolerated in the Church as private opinion, but let them not be inserted in the common creed. 3rd. In those cases in which practices —probably of apostolic, certainly of early Christian origin—have been surrendered by modern Protestants, let such practices be freely allowed, though not made compulsory." 

The points on which he differed, in his scheme for union, from the Aberdeen Doctors, who followed more closely the lines laid down by the school of Arminius are of some importance. Dr. John Forbes and his colleagues were prepared to go back to primitive Christianity, and so it may be said was Dr. William Forbes, but it only requires a glance at his Considerationes Modesta et PacificcB, a work published after his death, to see how far he was prepared to go in making concessions, not only to Lutherans, but to Roman Catholics as well. A hint of such a process is given by the Doctors themselves in their treatment of the doctrine of the Lord's Supper. But Dr. William Forbes went much farther, with regard not only to that doctrine but to some others also which could not possibly be viewed as fundamental. One, it must be admitted, cannot help admiring the skill with which he states his case. He was the worthy precursor of those who in our day have tried to reconcile, among other subjects of supposed conflict, Science and Religion. The manner in which he takes up the doctrine of Justification, for instance, already referred to, and shows the way in which the views of the Roman Church and Protestantism can be reconciled, is both plausible and suggestive. But, not content with attempting a reconciliation on this doctrine and that of the Lord's Supper, which are vital and fundamental to all the Churches, he takes up other doctrines which the Reformed Churches had practically repudiated, such as Purgatory, Praying for the Dead, the Intercession and Invocation of Angels and Saints, and attempts to prove that these doctrines when rightly looked into are found to be Scriptural and true, not in the Romanist, but in a much deeper sense.

But as an ounce of practice is worth a ton of theory, it may be interesting to note the way in which the Aberdeen Doctors carried out what they preached. We have ample testimony on this point with regard to one of them at least, for the biographer of Dr. John Forbes informs us of his practice after he was expelled from his chair and deposed from the ministry of the Church. On finding the Presbyterian form of Church government adopted and set up by the nation, Forbes did not cut himself off from the communion of the Church, but as a private individual remained in close connection with it. His conduct in this respect was quite in keeping with his views, for while he held the Episcopal form to be better in the circumstances than the Presbyterian, he did not connect it with any divine right theory, but considered that either should be adopted according to expediency. He bowed to the will of the nation for the time being, and kept up a friendly relation with ministers and members of the Church. As his biographer remarks, he bore his dismissal with a calm and gentle mind, he never returned his enemies evil for evil, but with kindliness and true Christian character he always commended them to God in his prayers, as may be seen from his Diary. He handed over his own house for the use of his successors in that Chair of Theology so as to be residence for them in the future. He made no schism or separation from them, but joined with them in public worship, listened to the Presbyterian sermon, observed all the public fasts instituted by the Synod, always when the occasion arose took part in the Holy Communion when they administered it, and everywhere by his shining example showed what was the duty of a good man in such a distracted state of the Church, and from his Spiritual Exercises it is clear how anxiously he used every opportunity to promote in his own heart a consciousness of devotion and love to God.

Dr. Garden also points out a fact worth noting, that what was true of Dr. John Forbes in particular was more or less true of the nation as a whole. It would seem that churchmen generally accepted the rule of the victorious party much in the same way as the country submits at the present time to the Government of the day irrespective of its political opinions. For he remarks that men's minds had not been mutually exasperated to that degree of hatred and spite against each other on account of difference of opinion concerning ecclesiastical rule to which they afterwards reached. For formerly, when Episcopacy was established in Scotland, the Presbyterian joined the Episcopalian in holy matters and did not build a separate church and altar, so in like manner when the Presbyterian rule was established in Scotland the Episcopalians did not depart from communion with them. And again, on the restoration of Charles II., when Episcopacy was reintroduced, Presbyterian ministers and laity continued in the same communion with them, nor did they found a separate sect until the year 1666, about which time the Presbyterian ministers throughout the whole kingdom suddenly made a disruption from the churches, and taught the people to do the same.

Forbes, as mentioned in the previous lecture, was compelled to leave the quiet retreat which he had secured for himself in Aberdeen, having chosen his old University town for the access which it gave him to the public libraries. He was busy at the time putting the finishing touches to his great work on the History of Christian Doctrine, and was naturally desirous of having at hand the material that would enable him to prosecute and complete his task. But the appearance of the Solemn League and Covenant disturbed his peace, for he had to sign it or to undergo ecclesiastical censure and leave the country. He preferred exile, and on the 5th of April 1644 he left his native land and made sail for Belgium. It is again of interest to observe the way in which he regarded the different Communions of the Protestant Church which he found on the Continent and his relations towards them.1 There as at home he made no difference. He was received by them into full communion and took full advantage of the liberty granted. Let us again quote his biographer.

He wandered through the whole Belgian Confederacy, and frequently preached at the request of the pastors in the churches of Englishmen and Scotsmen, to the very great consolation and edification of the people, who wondered what kind of a church the Scottish Church was, if it ejected from the college of its pastors so reverend a man. While in Holland he stayed in Amsterdam and occupied himself there in editing his great work, which he declined to publish unless with the approval of the most famous theologians of the academies in the Belgian Confederacy, and they willingly gave their approval to the edition of this work.

It is generally held that the life of a good man is of more value than his writings, however distinguished. There can be no dispute about the position accorded to the works of Dr. John Forbes. They rank with the very best of their day and still form an outstanding landmark in the progress of theology. But his practice in relation to the particular subject under consideration ought to receive its full meaning, and its lesson to the different churches of Protestant Europe at the present day is surely not without deep significance. He failed in bringing about peace between the contending parties in his own Church in Scotland. Nor did he succeed in uniting the Reformed and Lutheran Churches in one outward organisation. But he did something that was perhaps far better, he in his own person bridged these external distinctions ; to him they were of no real significance. He found himself in communion with every true Church of Christ wherever his lot was cast, and every true Church of Christ was glad to welcome into its membership so great and good and learned a man. Indeed, the lesson which he taught can also be learned from the Churches themselves, for they put no barriers in the way of those who happened to be of another communion.

The mere form of Church government did not count for much in their lives, why should it count so much now? Is it not folly on the part of the Churches to talk of union so long as any of them erect such barriers, or so long as ministers and members of certain Churches refuse to hold Christian fellowship with or even to enter the churches of those who happen to' belong to ecclesiastical bodies that have a different polity. The first thing to be done surely is to revive the spirit and practice of the age of John Forbes, or even of an earlier time, when free communion between the different Churches of the Reformed Faith was the common practice. When that is done, the outward union, which after all may not be of prime importance, may follow.


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