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The Intellectual Development of Scotland
Chapter III - The Crisis in Theology


With the dying down of ecclesiastical strife the Free Church settled to the work of consolidation and organization. In addition to its championship of Spiritual Independence it prided itself on being the defender of orthodoxy as against the heretical tendencies of the new Moderate party which had grown up within the Establishment. In the training of the ministry it certainly did not neglect the intellectual life. Germany attracted many of the abler students, who, overleaping provincial limitations, returned with their minds broadened by European culture. At this period in the Free Church were to be found distinguished students who combined the fervour of the Evangelicals with the intellectualism of the Moderates. In their contest with the Establishment the leaders of the Free Church, in the role of defenders of the Reformed theology, took their stand upon the Confession of Faith. In this they were supported by the Churches of the Secession. Sooner or later there was bound to be collision between the old dogmatic statement of the Reformation Church and the newer views made in Germany.

The orthodox party were assailed from two opposite directions. Inside the two Evangelical Churches—-the United Presbyterian and the Free—were men who did not breathe freely in the theological atmosphere. In the United Secession Church the doctrine of the Atonement, in so far as its benefits were limited to the elect, was assailed by a young minister, the Rev. James Morison, who, on being expelled from the Church, started a new sect known as the Evangelical Union. Expulsion was no remedy. The new spirit could not be exorcized by ecclesiastical measures. At a later period the spirit of revolt in the United Presbyterian Church found a representative in the Rev. David Macrae, who, for his emphatic dissent against the severe Calvinism of the Confession of Faith, was also expelled. The outcome of the agitation was the framing of a Declaratory Act, the object of which was to give prominence to aspects of the gospel message which had not been sufficiently, if at all, emphasized in the Confession of Faith.

Meanwhile the Church of the Disruption stood firm in the paths of orthodoxy. In the Established Church were present the elements of reaction against the Evangelicalism of the Disruption period. At first the elements were not very pronounced. How reluctant that Church was to move away from the old landmarks was seen in the prosecution and expulsion of M'Leod Campbell for heretical views on the Atonement. The tendency of the Establishment, however, was towards a kind of theology which was more in sympathy with the Broad Church party in England than with Calvinism. This doctrinal movement found able exponents in men like Tulloch and Story, and, above all, in the late Dr. Caird, who, by introducing the spirit of the Hegelian philosophy into Scottish theology, managed to give a new setting to the doctrines of the Confession. The distinctive note of the Broad Church party was opposition to the somewhat narrow Free and United Presbyterian creed of the Churches, whose leaders had, like the old Evangelicals, drawn too sharp a distinction between the sacred and the secular, thereby making religion more a method of escape from the City of Destruction than a means of mental, moral, and spiritual equipment, with the natural outcome — a regenerated society.

So far the changes which took place in the theological evolution of Scotland were due to changes of emphasis on particular doctrines. While strongly dissenting from the ultra-Calvinism of the Disruption Church and the Secession Church, and while pleading for a wider conception of the religious life, the leaders in the Establishment did not question the fundamental belief upon which Scottish theology rested—namely, the absolute authority of the Bible as a Divine revelation. Here and there advanced preachers might talk of the human side of the Bible, and throw out hints about new views of inspiration which left room for mistakes; but when, as in the case of the once famous Scotch Sermons, such views were put forward in dogmatic shape, they were repudiated by the Church. In the Establishment the Broad Church spirit was a permeating influence; but it was not strong enough to overthrow the traditional view of the Bible, the authority of which, as both the conservative and the progressive party saw, was fundamental, if the theology of the Reformation in any intelligible sense was to remain secure against attack. With an inspired and infallible Bible, differences of theological interpretation were possible; but it was felt that a blow at the authority of the Bible was a blow at the whole system of Protestantism. With all their differences, the Churches of Scotland were practically agreed in the high position which they assigned to the Bible. Individual ministers, no doubt, were familiar with certain views which were current in Germany, but they kept them pretty much to themselves. Absorbed with defining their relations to the State and in building up their Church, the men of the Disruption paid little heed to the grave problem of Biblical criticism. Occupied with controversies over the Atonement, the United Presbyterians had enough on hand without discussing questions which would still further unsettle the minds of the people; and the leaders of the Established Church had practical and speculative problems which left no time for the consideration of questions which were sure to provoke the spirit of heresy-hunting. Such was the theological situation in Scotland when, like a bolt from the blue, came Robertson Smith's famous utterances on the Higher Criticism.

Amid all their controversies the clergy and laity of Scotland up till the time of Robertson Smith had rested comfortably on the famous saying of Chillingworth: "The Bible, and the Bible only, is the religion of Protestants." To the Bible all sects appealed as the ultimate authority. With the Bible in his hand Knox overthrew Romanism. In the long conflict with Episcopacy, from the days of Andrew Melville till Renwick, the last of the martyrs who perished on the scaffold, the Covenanters drew the inspiration for their heroic fight from the pages of the Bible. In their contest with the Moderates the Evangelicals always made their appeal to the Bible; and at the Disruption both parties drew arguments from the Bible in support of their respective theories of Church and State. And now came Robertson Smith with a startling theory which seemed to strike at the very foundations of Protestantism.

So long as the Bible was viewed as the infallible record of a supernatural revelation from God, the duty of the Scottish theologian was plain. His attitude to the Bible was that of the scientist to Nature—namely, to gather into a system and present in logical order the scattered truths which were disclosed to the humble inquirer. This was the method followed by Calvin in his day, and by Hodge in our day. To those who had been trained in the old school the views to which Robertson Smith gave utterance seemed to give the death-blow to Protestant theology as a science. To tell the theologian that the Bible was not trustworthy was like telling the scientist that the laws of Nature were not reliable. In both cases, in the absence of certainty, a science of divine things and of Nature is impossible. Is it to be wondered at that the views of Robertson Smith came upon the Free Church like an earthquake shock? Not since the Reformation had theological Scotland been confronted with such grave issues.

What, then, was the precise nature of the Higher Criticism which Robertson Smith imported from Germany? In the hands of its extreme exponents, like Wellhausen and Kuenen, the Higher Criticism was an attempt to account for the Bible not by revelation, but by evolution. In their view the Bible is not an infallible record of supernatural occurrences: it is not even an authoritative record of the history of the Hebrews. The Bible, it was said, has grown up like other literature. The various portions do not necessarily belong to the time in which they are said to have been written. Further, like other primitive peoples, the Hebrews had no conception of history in the modern sense. In the most confusing way they mixed up legend, myth, and history. The story of the Creation need not be taken as scientifically correct; the Fall is classed as legendary; the personality of Abraham is doubtful; the details of the Exodus and the narrative of the wilderness journey must be taken with considerable pinches of salt. As to the Pentateuch, the Germans held that

Moses was not the author. It was really a compilation by ecclesiastics of the Exile period who traded upon the name and reputation of Moses in order to give historic prestige to their large schemes of reform. Robertson Smith did not go so far as Wellhausen and Kuenen. His view was that, though the Bible failed as history when tested by modern canons, it still was a revelation from God to man. Intensely religious by nature and evangelical by training, Robertson Smith thought he had found a middle way whereby he could do justice at one and the same time to the old evangelical and the new critical view. The main charges brought against him were that he denied that the Aaronic priesthood was instituted in the wilderness; that he alleged that the legislative parts of Deuteronomy were a prophetic recasting of the Mosaic law, not older than the seventh century B.C.; and that he denied the verbal infallibility of the Books of Chronicles.

Robertson Smith's friends—even those who did not share his views—pleaded earnestly on his behalf, but in vain. I need not dwell on the details of the prosecution. In the Assembly of 1881 he was deprived of his professoriate on the ground that his views were a disturbing element in the Church. The late Principal Rainy incurred no little unpopularity in depriving the Church of the services of the professor, not because he had been found guilty of heresy, but because he was a disturber of the ecclesiastical peace. What else could Principal Rainy have done? The Church had dealt very leniently with Robertson Smith, who had only himself to blame if the case was re-opened. The reopening of the case changed the whole situation. It was no longer a question of the professor's views, but of the peace of the Church, which is not a debating society. The leaders of the Church had to consider the effect of the new views on the people at large.

Upon the people the effects of the new views were far-reaching. They could not appreciate the subtle distinction made by Robertson Smith of a revelation through literature largely unhistorical. Plain men and women, whose spiritual lives were bound up with the old views, found themselves like sailors who were suddenly shipwrecked and were left clinging to a raft. Their views of the Bible and the plan of salvation were thrown into confusion. In their simple fashion they felt that if the narrative of the Fall is treated as unhistorical the key-stone of Protestant theology is removed. Take away the first Adam and the Fall, and in the view of the laity the reasoning of Paul about the second Adam becomes meaningless. Moreover, if the supernatural details of the wilderness journey and the Divine injunctions about sacrifices in the Pentateuch are traceable to the imaginative editing of ecclesiastics of the Exile, what becomes of the parallel in the Epistle to the Hebrews between the Mosaic sacrifices and the sacrifice on Calvary? For large numbers of the clergy the situation was also serious. If the new views were correct they would have to dismiss to the moles and the bats the most of what they learned in the theological hall. There, for instance, was the learned and exhaustive work by a man once held in great esteem in the Free Church, Professor Fairbairn, on the Typology of Scripture. Clearly that work would need to be relegated to the Museum of Theological Antiquities if the new views of the Bible were to rule the future.

The ejection of Robertson Smith from his chair could not, of course, stop the career of the Higher Criticism, which some years later found an able advocate in Professor George Adam Smith, who also came under the notice of the Assembly. He was found not guilty, but was told not to do it again. That the Church was not disposed to capitulate to the Higher Criticism was shown in its attitude towards some utterances of the late Principal Marcus Dods and the late Professor Bruce. Dr. Dods was thought to be unsound on the Atonement and on the inspiration of Scripture, and Bruce was taken to task for his free handling of the gospel records. In both cases, after satisfactory explanations, the heresy prosecutions were abandoned. It is a singular fact that the Established Church, which used to be very tolerant of theological laxity, has of late years taken up a conservative attitude. This was seen in what was known as the Kilmun heresy case, where the offending minister had to leave his charge for holding views which in earlier days would scarcely have attracted attention.

At the same time the fact has to be faced that in both the Established and United Free Churches there is, especially among the younger clergy, great intellectual unrest, very largely owing to the Higher Criticism. The Bible does not hold the authoritative place it once did. The seriousness of this is strongly in evidence in connection with the movement for Creed revision. There is widespread dissatisfaction with the Confession of Faith. The modern mind has moved away from the theological standpoint of the men who framed the Confession. A new Confession, in harmony with the ideas of to-day, is felt to be an urgent necessity. Why not make a new one? Why the timid attempt to get out of the difficulty by vague formulas, such as "the substance of the faith," etc.? The answer is to be found in the serious fact that in consequence of the lessened authority of the Bible there is now no ultimate court of appeal on theological questions. The Westminster divines who drew up the Confession were on solid ground. They could appeal to the Bible as an infallible depository of revealed truth. Take away, as the Higher Criticism has done, the element of infallibility, and nothing is left as a court of appeal but the voice of the Church. But that is a step backward to Romanism, which subordinates the Bible to the Church. With the head of the Church infallible, Romanists profess to find a place in their system for the principle of authority; but with Protestantism the case is entirely different. With it the voice of the Church can only mean the voice of the majority. Now, if theological disputes are to be settled by the majority, that means that the authoritative basis of the Church is democratic instead of theocratic, as in the old days when the Bible was accepted as the ultimate and infallible standard.

The fact has to be faced that Scottish theology at present is in a transition state, and will remain so till the leaders in the Churches courageously face the question which is troubling clergy and laity alike—namely, the question of the position of the Bible in the sphere of theology. In the Bible, apart from all theories, the religious nature of man will always find sustenance. The religious instinct is independent of theories. It is as indestructible as human nature. To that fact philosophies the most opposite, like Spencerianism and Hegelianism, bear testimony; but religion will never exercise its proper influence so long as it remains at the vague stage of sentiment. Protestantism at the time of the Reformation would not have conquered had it not been able to confront its great rival with a comprehensive theory of life, embracing in its sweep the great realities—God, man, and society.

There is much talk in these days of ecclesiastical unity. That is good, and much to be desired. But of infinitely greater urgency and importance is theological certainty. A religion of sentiment may do for isolated individuals, but a Church with a mission must aim at something more than sentiment. Its unity must be rooted in knowledge. The unity of a Church without a definite creed, and resting on sentiment only, is a delusive unity—the unity of a landscape in a fog. Just now the fog in theological Scotland is somewhat dense, but there are signs that it is gradually lifting. There are signs that unity of religious sentiment is being supplemented by unity of belief. There are signs that in a roundabout way Scotland is coming back to the fundamental elements in the old creed. In the words with which I conclude my book, A Century of Intellectual Development

"Is not science pressing to the front the fundamental idea of Calvinism, the sovereignty of God and the sacredness of law? In regard to God is not the science of to-day proclaiming in unmistakable tones the Hegelian doctrine of the Absolute as the inner life of all reality? And what is the modern passion for democracy, with its demand for equality, but a political form of the idea of brotherhood upon which the Broad Church placed so much stress? What, too, is the modern passion of philanthropy, showing itself in earnest efforts to rescue the fallen, to bind up the broken hearts, and to relieve human suffering, but an unconscious attempt to reproduce the spirit of Jesus Christ and to proclaim Him, in the style of Ritschlianism, the founder and inspirer of the Kingdom of God? In brief, amid all the diversity of religious and theological opinion, may we not detect practical unanimity on these points—the Sovereignty and Fatherhood of God, the Headship and Leadership of Christ, the brotherhood of man, the dignity of service, salvation through sacrifice, and the kingdom of righteousness as the end of all aspiring endeavour—the goal of humanity?"


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