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The Intellectual Development of Scotland
Chapter I - The Starting-Point: The Reformation


In dealing with a nation's Intellectual Development the historian has two courses open to him. As the present writer has elsewhere remarked, an historical student may content himself with splitting his subject into sections and dealing with each section in the spirit of a narrator pure and simple. On the other hand, he may essay the more difficult task of seizing the dynamic principle of intellectual development and tracing its working through the various sections of thought and life. The value of the latter method, if successfully applied, is that history, instead of being a chaos of unrelated facts, is seen to be an intelligible and luminous evolution. We discover the relations which exist between the various factors in a nation's history: theology, philosophy, science, literature, by means of the dynamic principle, are seen to be bound together in organic unity.

What, then, is the dynamic principle of historical evolution? In the opening chapter of the present writer's Century of Intellectual Development an answer was given to this important question—an answer which as being applicable to the subject under consideration may fitly be reproduced: "Taking a large view of history it will be found that man's intellect is mainly occupied upon three great problems—God, the universe, and man as an individual and a social being. The controlling factor in the process is man's conception of the Unseen Power upon which all things rest, and of which nature and man are manifestations. If we conceive of the Unseen Power as a supernatural Being, who by revelations has made known his will to man, then philosophy, science and literature will be moulded by, and permeated with, that conception. Even the social order will feel its powerful influence. Society will be framed on theocratic lines on the principle of authority." There comes a time when the principle of authority—valuable at a certain stage in civilization—weighs heavily on the social order, and by stereotyping ideas and institutions results in intellectual and social stagnation. In the sixteenth century, under the sway of Romanism, the intellectual and social life of Europe suffered what may be termed arrested development. In the interest of humanity it was necessary that the barriers to progress should be thrown down. The great liberating movement which changed the current of European thought and activity is known in history as the Reformation. From it we date the beginning of Scotland's intellectual evolution.

There are those who contend that in Scotland the Reformation was detrimental to the intellectual movement. It may be well, therefore, to deal with the oft-repeated charge that the Reformation killed the germs of Humanism which under James IV gave promise of brilliant development. That reign has been described as "the golden age of Scottish poetry." Why was the golden age so short-lived? The answer of the anti-Reformation school is that the golden age disappeared in the epidemic of gloomy and intolerant fanaticism of the religion of Knox and his successors. The explanation is altogether wide of the mark. The outburst of literary genius at the time of James IV was not the herald of a new day, the early rays of the rising sun. Rather was it the declining splendour of approaching night, the fitful gleams of the setting sun. The literature of the "golden age" had no future, simply because in a time when society was passing out of the feudal stage it gave expression to sentiments and ideals which beyond court circles had no hold upon men's hearts. Before there is a national literature there must first be a nation, and to the making of a nation there go three things—unity of belief, unity of sentiment, and unity of feeling. During the pre-Reformation period Scotland was not a nation; it was a collection of warring atoms. Unity of belief was absent, because there was a revolt of the thinking section of the people against the doctrines and practices of the Romish Church. Unity of sentiment and feeling there could not be in the absence of unity of belief. Any literary movement under these conditions was bound to be evanescent. It lacked the fundamental element of durability.

In his volume, The Transition Period, in the European Literature series, Mr. Gregory Smith has the following corroborative remarks—

"With the reign of James IV we enter on the classic period of Scots poetry. In some respects it illustrates a mere access of high spirits in companionship with sudden violence and social exuberance—a kind of carnival before the Lenten fastings of the sixteenth century. .. It does not even inspire any patriotic verse, such as we find in the days of Queen Bess. In Scotland, on the other hand, poetry was the expression of the narrower life of the court, and the influences which it felt were specific and personal. Literature," adds Mr. Smith, "was confined, almost to the exclusion of everything else, in the directly allegorical mood of a dying tradition."

Rightly understood, there can be no durable literature apart from a healthy national life; and in the evolution of the Protestant religion in Scotland the first clearly-marked stage was the creation of a healthy national life. In these days we have come to think of religion as a thing solely between man and his Maker. This is entirely a modern idea. At the time of the Reformation, and till long after, religion was a matter of State concern as well as an individual affair. When the Reformers denied the right of Rome to close the approach of man to his Maker except through priestly mediation, they brought to the front the modern idea that man as man has certain fundamental religious rights, with which no Church on earth had the right to tamper. But the Roman Catholic Church claimed that right, and, what was more, claimed to have the power of coercion, which it did not scruple to exercise over nations as well as individuals.

The question which confronted the Reformers was this : If the people as such have the right to worship God apart from priestly mediation and Romanist practices generally, what should be their attitude to Romanism, which claimed the right to put down liberty of conscience by despotic exercise of civil and political power? The answer of Knox was decisive—the attitude of a Protestant people to the claim of Rome must be one of resistance. Loyalty to God meant disloyalty to the existing State, and in the struggle which ensued it followed that the success of the new religion was impossible except by making the State Protestant instead of Romanist. This is the key to the policy of Knox, whose remark that he feared the celebration of Mass by Mary at Holyrood more than ten thousand armed men has been cited by drawing-room critics of the kid-gloved type as a specimen of the Reformer's ferocious intolerance. What Knox saw, and saw clearly, was that the public recognition of Romanist practices was calculated to increase the influence of the Romanist Church to the detriment of Protestantism.

How was Rome to be fought? Not by isolated individuals, but by the co-operation of those who believed that not only religion, but civil and political liberty were at stake. The three great nation-making forces—unity of belief, of feeling, and of sentiment, came into play, and thus in the course of the evolution of the Protestant religion there also evolved the Protestant State. It is a favourite contention of a certain class of writers that in substituting Protestantism for Romanism Scotland simply substituted one form of despotism for another—the despotism of the theocratic regime of Geneva for that of Rome. Where is the difference, it is asked, between an infallible Pope and an infallible book? The answer is plain. The one crushes intellectual vitality in the germ by insisting upon abject acceptance of ecclesiastical and theological decrees, while the other, by making a book the standard, sends the individual in an interpretative mood to the standard, by which he tests the dogmas of the Church and the conduct of her leaders. Once the right of private judgment is recognized it extends to all departments, thereby greatly stimulating the intellectual life of a people.

In Scotland the Reformation did its work with great thoroughness. In this respect Scotland contrasts favourably with England and Germany. In England the work of the Reformers was arrested long before the controversy with Rome was logically finished; while in Germany Lutheranism retained something of the spirit and tendencies of Romanism. Political conditions had much to do with the different forms which the Reformed religion assumed in the three countries; but the success of Scotland is mainly to be attributed to the fact that it confronted Romanism with a life-system as comprehensive as its own. It is sometimes claimed for Protestantism in Scotland that the principal weapon with which it fought and overthrew Romanism was what is called the right of private judgment. In the religious sphere that of course meant that man as man had the right to approach God apart from the mediatorship of the Church of Rome, which not only arrogated to itself infallibility in the sphere of doctrine, but also claimed a monopoly of the conditions by which Divine blessings could descend to man. True, the Reformers in Scotland took their stand upon the principle that religion was a personal matter between man and his Maker; but had they not gone beyond this contention, they would never have shaken the entire fabric of Romanism to its foundations. Lutheranism and Anglicanism both failed in thoroughness. In Scotland alone was the victory over Romanism complete. What is the explanation? Simply this, that Scotland confronted Romanism with Calvinism.

Hasty students of theology are apt to identify Calvinism with certain doctrines—election, reprobation, etc.—which are highly distasteful to the modern mind. We never can come to a real understanding of Calvinism till we recognize that it stands for something much wider than a theory of the Atonement with special reference to the future condition of the non-elect. Had Calvinism been purely a theological theory, it would never have conquered Romanism. Calvinism conquered because it was presented in the form of an all-embracing life-system, by means of which it was able to combat the equally comprehensive life-system of Romanism.

Then, as now, Romanism aspired to be more than a religion. It aspired to take all phases of thought and life into its embrace; it presented itself as the interpreter of the great facts of existence—God, man, and the world. Romanism took under its care not only theology, but philosophy, science, and politics. It professed to meet not only the needs of man, but also of society. Manifestly such a compact system could be effectively dealt with only by another system equally compact, and more fitted to deal with the religious, theological, ecclesiastical, and political needs of the new time. It is a trite remark that in the sphere of Church government and politics Calvinism carried with it the germs of democracy; but its fundamental work at the Reformation lay in the sphere of theology. By their theory of God all religions stand or fall. The object of a man's worship, as Carlyle somewhere says, determines the character of that man. Now, the grave errors of Romanism took their rise in a conception of God essentially pagan— a conception which carried with it materialism in the shape of image-worship, superstition in the shape of belief in magical rites, and a mechanical idea of morality which easily degenerated into immorality as the result of a grossly anthropomorphic conception of God and the method of approach to Him.

If Romanism was to receive a mortal wound, the first essential was to strike at its conception of God. Calvinism did this by placing in the forefront of its creed the doctrine of the sovereignty of God. Calvin and Knox did for their day what the prophets did in the days of Israel—they protested against idolatry, against the dragging down of the Holy One to the level of the pagan deities, with the result of making religion a round of senseless ceremonies, and salvation not a matter of ethical purification, but of propitiation based on commercial principles. In the eyes of Calvinism image-worship and all idolatrous practices were an insult and abomination to God, who was viewed as the High and Lofty One, the Sovereign over all, the Creator of the world and of man, the stern opponent of sin, the disposer of events. In a word, what Calvinism as the first step in the Reformation did was to overthrow the pagan conceptions of God which Romanism had fostered, and to bring the mind of Scotland back to the pure and elevated notions of Deity which are to be found in the Bible. And just as we find the Jewish prophets insisting on the uprooting of idolatry by the destruction of images, so we find Knox laying special emphasis on the removal from Scotland of all outward emblems of what may be called Romanist paganism.

He saw, and saw rightly, that it was hopeless to get into the minds of the people Biblical conceptions of God so long as pagan emblems and pagan influences were tolerated. At the Reformation, then, the theological evolution of Scotland had its root in an august conception which stands in the forefront of Protestantism—the sovereignty of God, as against the pagan ideas which the Roman Catholic Church tolerated, if not encouraged.

A very important question arises here— How does the Calvinistic conception of God fare in these days of philosophy and science? Can the advanced thinkers of to-day afford to look upon the Calvinistic conception of God as good enough in past times as against the corrupt views of Rome, but altogether discredited by modern thought?

It is a striking fact that the revolt against Calvinism began not from the side of philosophy and science, but from the side of the Church. In the Scottish Church loud complaints were made of the harshness of Calvinism, in the extreme emphasis it lays upon justice to the exclusion of the tenderer attributes. The Fatherhood of God was substituted for the Sovereignty of God. It is an equally striking fact that while a large section of the clergy were repudiating Calvinism, philosophers and scientists were paying to it unconscious tributes. The strange fact has to be recorded that the Calvinist conception of the universe is more in harmony with 'modern philosophic and scientific conceptions than is the Broad Church view. It is now seen that the old theologians of the Reforming and Covenanting days grappled with marked ability with the problems which occupy the minds of the Hegels and the Spencers of our own time. As I have said in my Century of Intellectual Development

"The conception of the universe reached by those old Calvinists was in substance not far removed from that reached by modern German and British philosophers. The last word of philosophy, German and British, is determinism. Hegel, in the hands of Mr. Bradley, a brilliant Oxford thinker, makes short work of what is understood as free-will; and thinkers of the scientific school of Huxley are favourable to the view that man is an automaton. Now what is philosophical and scientific determinism but Calvinistic fore-ordination in a new dress? The only difference is, that modern philosophers and scientists attribute to Nature a universal necessity which has deprived man of freedom, while the Calvinists interpreted the necessity of Nature as an ordination of God. In regard to the ultimate nature of things those old Calvinists reached a view which is being endorsed by the latest philosophic and scientific interpreters. Science brings us down to atoms. Philosophy cannot rest in the atomic conception of the Cosmos. It reduces the atoms to centres of force and energy. Thus we come to the view that matter is but the phenomenal appearance of an Infinite Energy which, though unseen, is the real basis of matter, the source of life, the inspirer of law and order. Spencer's Infinite Energy, what is it but the Calvinistic essence of God, which is everywhere, directly and immediately energetic? Hegel and Spencer can go no farther in their researches and definitions than the words of the Shorter Catechism: ' God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable.' "

If the Church of to-day is to regain its influence, it will need to infuse into its teaching something of the spirit of Calvinism. Without losing its hold on the tender side of religion, the Church will require to impart to its theology something of the awe which filled the hearts of the old Hebrews and the Calvinists, and which fills the minds also of reverent philosophers and scientists in presence of the Infinite, the Eternal, the All-Embracing. In the words of the author of Natural Religion: "If men can add once more the Christian confidence to the Hebraic (and I might add the Calvinistic) awe, the Christianity that will result will be of a higher kind than that which passes too often for Christianity now, which, so far from being love added to fear, and casting out fear, is a presumptuous and effeminate love that never knew fear."

From the anthropological point of view it is quite correct to speak of the Reformation as destroying the whole system of sacerdotal mediatorship, and bringing man as man face to face with God. From the theological standpoint it is also correct to say that in Scotland, under the influence of Calvinism, the Reformation also elevated and purified the idea of God, which under Romanism had been lowered and degraded. Just as Luther brought religion back to the Biblical idea by reviving the doctrine of Justification by Faith, so Calvin brought religion back to the Biblical idea by reviving in men's minds the idea of the glory, the majesty, and the holiness of the Creator.

Not that this idea was absent from the writings of Luther and other Reformers. What is meant is that with Calvinism the doctrine of God stands in the forefront: it is made, so to speak, the starting-point of the religious life, and of a comprehensive system of thought. Luther's primary concern was with the salvation of man; Calvin's primary concern was with the glory of God. In this Calvin was strictly following in the track of the Biblical writers. What is the dominating conception of God in the Bible? Is it not that of a Being in presence of whose infinite and awful majesty the human mind instinctively bends in adoration—a Being whose favour is better than life, and in awe-stricken communion with whom is the highest bliss of which the soul of man is capable? How are we to think of this Being? We know what Romanism thought. In our day thinkers have been busy with speculations, but none of them have succeeded in presenting the modern mind with such a full view as that of Calvinism. The problem is to find room in a satisfying conception of God for personality. Personality, we are told, is a human attribute, and cannot be predicated of the infinite and eternal ground of the Universe. From Spinoza and Hegel to Spencer philosophy has been baffled in the attempt to frame a conception which, while doing justice to the ideas of infinity and eternity, yet finds a place for the element of personality, without which we get no farther than a dead Universe, pursuing its purposeless way to a purposeless end.

The value of Calvinism is that, while purifying the idea of God from the errors of Romanism, it also saves it from the blank despair of an agnostic materialism, and an equally agnostic idealism. The God of Calvinism is a God whose greatness no mind can measure, but whose personality is manifested in His all-embracing purpose in nature and in history. All thinkers agree that there is Unity at the heart of things, and the latest thinkers of eminence, like Lotze, are coming round to the Calvinistic view, that to this Unity must

be attributed personality and purpose, and that in the great world-drama there is traceable a providential ordering of events. In the theological evolution of Scotland, Calvinism not only played an important part at the time of the Reformation, but it may safely be said that it embraced in its idea of God conceptions which will hold a permanent place in the theology of the immediate future. Along with the permanent elements, Calvinism contained notions which must be discarded. It aspired to a familiar reading of the Divine will, an intimacy with the Divine purpose in regard to the future of the race, which has done much to bring it into discredit, and undoubtedly did much to provoke a reaction.


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