Wednesday, 24 September 2008

James Morison (1)

I am reading the biography of Principal James Morison, who was a celebrated character in nineteenth century Scottish theology. Brought up within a Calvinistic denomination, he rejected several of its doctrines. Later he was charged with heresy and founded a new denomination as a consequence. Below are some thoughts that come to mind as I make my way through his book.

James Morison is not a well-known figure in Scottish theology today, but for most of the nineteenth century he was a very influential figure because of his theological ideas and his denominational initiatives. If he is known today, it is because several of his commentaries have been reprinted, although it is likely that most who purchase them have little idea as to who he was.

Morison was born in Bathgate in where his father was the minister of the United Secession Church, the body that traced its origins to the secession from the Church of Scotland led by Ebenezer Erskine. When he finished his schooling, he went to Edinburgh University where he proved himself to be a fine student, although as was common in those days he engaged in far too much studying and brought ill health upon himself.

There is no doubt that Morison possessed great intellectual ability, a fact acknowledged both by his University and his theological teachers. The United Secession Church’s faculty included men like George Lawson (author of The History of Joseph), Robert Balmer and John Brown (author of commentaries on Romans, Galatians, Hebrews and Peter, as well as books on Isaiah 53 and much else); the latter two were later to be accused in church courts of believing in an universal atonement, an issue for which Morison himself came into trouble.

During his theological college days, Morison wrote a paper in which he denied the eternal sonship of Christ (while maintaining his deity), and the author of this biography gives evidence that George Lawson approved of this idea. It is surprising how a theological student was licensed in a Scottish Presbyterian denomination after defending such a notion, yet Morison was. But perhaps it is not surprising if Lawson and others were willing to defend him.

Morison was sent to Morayshire, on the verge of the Highlands, to act as a missionary for the summer. During his few weeks in this locality he became convinced of the universal nature of the atonement and stressed it in his preaching, even although he knew it was not in line with the Westminster Confession. He preached a universal atonement and great crowds flocked to hear him, although he was still only a novice in preaching.

It may be that Morison’s preaching in this part of the world prepared for the ultimate disappearance of evangelical Presbyterianism in that area because a couple of decades later several Free Church leaders left the denomination, embraced universal atonement, and formed Plymouth Brethren assemblies.

Morison was driven to clarify the extent of the atonement because he noted that his listeners were troubled by lack of assurance, and his preaching a universal atonement seemed to sort out this pastoral matter. Of course, the issue of assurance cannot really be sorted out by convincing a person that Jesus has died for him because he died for everyone. The only ‘assurance’ that deals with is the concern of someone who is troubled as to whether or not Christ died for him. It does not deal with lack of assurance that is based on whether a sinner has true faith in Christ, or whether he possesses a merely temporary faith.

At that time in the late 1830s, revival fires were stirring in various parts of Scotland and Morison wondered if the growth he experienced in those listening to his preaching was part of this revival. The book that he chose to help him was Charles Finney’s Lectures on Revivals, and he heartily approved of Finney’s methods, recommending them to his father, the minister in Bathgate.

So before he has become a pastor, Morison has adopted several theological views that were at variance with Scottish Presbyterian doctrine and practice up till that time: (a) he denied the eternal sonship of Jesus, (b) he stressed that the atonement of Christ was not for specific individuals but was for all people, and (c) he advocated evangelistic methods that had caused spiritual confusion in America in the Second Great Awakening through the methods of Charles Finney.

The Courts, The Church and the Constitution

The Courts, The Church and the Constitution (Aspects of the Disruption of 1843),
Lord Rodger of Earlsferry, Edinburgh University Press, 2008.

The author of this interesting work is a former Lord President of the Court of Session and a Law Lord in the House of Lords. He was asked to give the inaugural series in 2007 of the Jean Clark Lectures, connected to the Foundation which she set up for the development of Scots Law.

Most people in the Free Church of Scotland are aware that several law cases preceded the Disruption of 1843 as the Evangelical party in the then Church of Scotland made several attempts to change the practices of the church. There are many books written from the Free Church point of view, such as Thomas Brown's Annals of the Disruption, Robert Buchanan's The Ten Years Conflict, and Peter Bayne's The Free Church of Scotland. Books critical of the Free Church's position were published at the time, although they have been largely forgotten.

Usually the information possessed by Free Church people as regarding what took place in the decadeprior to the Disruption has been received from writers of the Evangelical party who were involved in the disputes or from subsequent writers concerned to justify that outlook.Yet we recognise that there is often more than one way of looking at an event of crucial importance, and the author in this volume considers these legal cases from the viewpoint of the legal system, in particular the judges involved.

The book contains three lengthy chapters, each with a considerable number of helpful endnotes. Chapter one focuses on how the crisis in the Church of Scotland developed in the years prior to the Disruption, and considers why the Evangelical party concluded that the judges were failing in their duty to apply the various protections guaranteeing the independence of the Presbyterian Church from the state that were included in the Treaty of Union in 1707. Chapter two details the involvement of lawyers and judges in both sides of the church dispute, and assesses the response of the judges to what they perceived as the Church’s determination to resist their legal authority. Chapter three then examines subsequent legal disputes connected to the issue of church and state since then, including the 1900 Free Church case and the 2005 Percy case when a female minister in the Church of Scotland challenged the authority of the denomination to dismiss her.

The basic issue under discussion is the relationship of church and state, and in particular the extent to which the state can interfere with the decisions of a court of a Presbyterian church in Scotland. This particular matter is further complicated today by European laws and by a range of other laws that reflect the reality that Scotland is no longer a Presbyterian country (if one goes by church attendance). We can immediately think of the effects of human rights legislation among others.

As one who finds lawyers’ reports to be often incomprehensible and written in language understandable only to the initiated (a feature not confined to legal writings), I began to read this book with reluctance. Yet I was surprised how easy it was for the author to hold my attention as he guided me through the various stages of the several legal cases and explained what was taking place. His material is enhanced, at least for those interested in Free Church history, by several snippets of information connected to our past, both from 1843 and 1900. While the contents of the book will have interest for those involved in the legal profession, it is written in a style that is easy to read. In fact, the only negative comment I would make is the price (£30 for a 142 page large paperback).

Biography of Francis Schaeffer

On our recent holiday (a fortnight in August), which included attending a conference in Aberystwyth in Wales and a week in Ireland, I read Colin Duriez' new biography of Francis Schaeffer called Francis Schaeffer, An Authentic Life and published by IVP.

There is no doubt that Francis Schaeffer was one of the leading Christian thinkers of the twentieth century. Through his several books published between the late 1960s and the early 1980s, he enabled many Christians to assess all of life from a Christian viewpoint. As with many others who read them, his writings helped me in several ways, even if at times I did not agree with all his conclusions, and I am still grateful to God for the way Schaeffer helped me as a young Christian in the 1970s.

Since I was familiar with his books, I was quite surprised, when reading this book, to discover that I knew very little about Schaeffer apart from his work connected to L’Abri in Switzerland. I had assumed that he had always been serving Christ in the manner for which he became well-known, such as helping individuals to think through the reasons for believing in the existence of God, or working out practising faith in Christ in the changing world of ideas that marked the first decades of the second half of the twentieth century, or assessing the drift of Western society further into an anti-Christian morass which he did by analysing art and music as well as philosophy.

This volume is not an assessment of Schaeffer’s ideas. Instead it is a biographical account that surveys the various periods of his life. Inevitably, aspects of his ideas are introduced, but only as they help explain the developments in his thinking as well as other changes in his life. The main incidents in his life are explained clearly, with as much background information as is necessary. Since the author met Schaeffer during his years at L’Abri and is personally indebted to him, there is an obvious sense that the author prefers the intellectual emphases of Schaeffer during those years rather than what he stressed before he began L’Abri. Nevertheless, we are given a well-written biography of a very important Christian thinker.

This biography gives many reasons for becoming familiar with Schaeffer and his work. I will mention five that struck me as Iwas reading it.

First, the life of Schaeffer is another reminder that the Lord often takes his servants from unusual backgrounds and prepares them for future roles. Schaeffer was born into a working class family in Germantown, Pennsylvania, in 1912. His parents at that time were not Christians, indeed they regarded the church with suspicion; furthermore they were not interested in literature of any kind or in the arts. Yet Schaeffer as a teenager became interested in philosophy and literature and also discovered the beauty of classical music. Later in his teenage years, he became a Christian after reading through the Bible and discovered that it answered the questions about life that he was asking. It is obvious that even then God was preparing him for his future ministry among the questioning young people of the 1960s and 70s.

Second, Schaeffer shows us that it is possible to change direction in ministry and yet have an effective influence in unexpected ways. He was a respected leader in a separatist denomination in the United States (the Bible Presbyterian Church which was formed as one response to the theological liberalism of early twentieth-century American Presbyterianism; another was the Orthodox Presbyterian Church). No doubt, his thoughts had been developing even during the years that he was within that denomination, but it was a visit to post-war Europe to investigate the state of the church there that seems to have been the catalyst for his change of direction. At that time, the Protestant church was tottering against liberalism on the one hand and being misdirected on the other by the increasing influence of Karl Barth and other neo-orthodox theologians. Barth may have been asking the right questions, but he was providing the wrong answers (Schaeffer had previously studied Barth and other such theologians during his time at Westminster Theological Seminary). Schaeffer determined to provide biblical answers to the many questions arising in the minds of many people as they saw a new world appearing, especially as a consequence of the 1960s.

Third, I found this book to give a moving insight into the quality of family life that surrounded Francis Schaeffer. The involvement of his wife Edith in his work is described well, and at times it is easy to see how much she contributed to his ministry. Her missionary background in OMF, where her parents had served the Lord in China withoutadvertising for financial support and by adapting themselves to Chinese culture and language, helped the Schaeffers for the years in which they lived by faith, especially after their move to Europe.

Fourth, the volume reveals the surprising breadth of Schaeffer’s abilities. Although he is best-known for his intellectual analysis of the thought world of his time, he was also an accomplished children’s evangelist (he instigated an organisation called Children for Christ, which developed helpful practices for communicating the gospel to children). Of course, there may be an obvious lesson in this -- if we cannot explain the faith to children, will we be able to explain it to adults.

Lastly, I would suggest that Schaeffer’s life exemplifies two important principles of Christian leadership. The first is that he discovered the basic outlook of a true leader is to implement an answer to a simple question, ‘Where would God have me serve him best at this stage in my life?’ The answer for Schaeffer was demanding and required courage, but he discovered that the God who called also opened the doors and provided the means. Connected to this discovery is the emphasis Schaeffer placed on prayer, and some marvellous examples of answered prayer are given in this book. But I am not going to specify them, so if you want to know what they are, you will have to read the book.