Reformed Orthodoxy in Scotland

Article by   June 2015
aaron.jpg
Aaron Clay Denlinger (ed.), Reformed Orthodoxy in Scotland: Essays on Scottish Theology 1560-1775. Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015. $130.00/£70.00

The last three decades have witnessed a radical reappraisal of post-Reformation Reformed theology. The work of Richard A. Muller and those who have followed in his wake has demonstrated conclusively that Reformed orthodoxy was not an era of lifeless rationalism, nor a fundamental betrayal of John Calvin, but rather a period of creativity in which the Reformed theological enterprise was elaborated in response to internal and external pressures. This fine collection of fourteen essays directs our attention to Scottish Reformed orthodoxy in the light of this historiographical sea-change. Scotland was a small kingdom on the geographical and, in certain respects, the cultural periphery of Europe, but Scottish theologians made their own valuable contribution to the international movement. In particular, their unique political context proved to be a powerful stimulus to radical ideas about church and state. In addition to this historical role, Scotland has also played an important historiographical role. As Carl Trueman points out in the introduction to this volume, Scotland features prominently in one strand of the Calvin versus the Calvinists narrative, that championed by Thomas F. Torrance and James B. Torrance. The time indeed appears ripe for some critical reassessment. This review can only draw attention to three essays that were of particular interest to the reviewer and give a flavour of the remainder.

Donald John Maclean offers a fresh reading of John Knox in response to those such as M. Charles Bell who regard On Predestination as an anomaly in Knox's output in restricting God's love to the elect. The real Knox according to this view, the Knox of the other works, set forth Christ as saviour of the world who in his death achieved reconciliation for all. This Knox is then pitted against his successors in a Scottish version of Calvin versus the Calvinists, Knox versus the Knoxians, to argue for a rationalist declension from the evangelical Calvinism of the early Reformers. Maclean demonstrates that On Predestination can be harmonized with statements found in Knox's earlier and later writings across a range of genres, and that it is fully consistent with Knox's doctrine of God especially with respect to the attributes of immutability, omniscience, and omnipotence. The relative paucity of citations of Knox on this doctrine by later Scottish writers is more likely due to the international character of Reformed Protestantism and the wealth of resources available to seventeenth-century divines than to any fundamental difference to their esteemed forebear. Maclean arrives at a more holistic account of Knox's thought on predestination and his place within the tradition, showing along the way some of the historiographical muddle through which students of Scottish Reformed orthodoxy must work.

Nicholas Thompson surveys the multifaceted approach of men like Patrick and John Forbes, Robert Baron, and William Guild to combatting tenacious recusancy in the diocese of Aberdeen. They found themselves engaged in a long-running battle with Catholic polemicists who challenged them to specify the year in which the Church of Rome fell from the truth, and to name those who since that time had maintained true religion in all the points on which Protestants insist. This necessitated reflection on issues such as the visible succession of the true church, the fate of the forefathers who died in the faith of Rome, etc. The Aberdonian doctors held a vision of the Kirk which was both 'catholic' in its fidelity to historical tradition and 'orthodox' by the standards of the Reformed confessions. Their interest in controversy with Roman Catholicism and Reformed catholicity was reflected in the output of Edward Raban's press in Aberdeen. These subjects were the focus of a much higher proportion of religious works and published university disputations when compared, for example, with the printers of Edinburgh. Aberdonian theology was considered suspect by many others due to the Erastianism of leading representatives and their refusal to take the Covenant. It had sought to maintain a broad unified front against the Counter-Reformation, but 'found itself thrust to the margins of Scottish church life by the narcissism of small differences' (p. 82).

Aberdonian theology is again the centre of the storm in Aaron Denlinger's essay on Scottish hypothetical universalism. Denlinger examines an unpublished work by Robert Baron which he believes was among the papers seized from Baron's study after his death and declared not sound by the General Assembly of 1640. The specific questions considered are whether there is in God a will which is ineffective or conditional, and whether Christ was delivered to death for everyone. This was a controversy which had been simmering within the Reformed camp for some years and Baron was in self-conscious dialogue with earlier contributors. He made, for example, a direct appeal to the suffrage of the British delegation at the Synod of Dort on the grace given to the non-elect, a grace which they in turn reject, but also moves beyond this position to develop his own highly nuanced statement, all the while maintaining clear distance between his views and those of the Remonstrants. Samuel Rutherford may have felt free to dismiss Baron as an Arminian and a papist but it is clear that his views on these questions were within the boundaries of Reformed orthodoxy. Too much modern scholarly debate has positioned the Reformed participants in this controversy on a line or spectrum, denominating them 'moderate' or 'rigid' (one could add 'mainstream' or 'soft'),  appellations which often tell us more about the views of the scholar than the subject. For Denlinger the idea of boundaries set by national confessions conjures the image of a map rather than a line, a space within which a variety of exegetically defensible positions could be held. This is an excellent piece and Denlinger's judicious conclusions deserve careful consideration.

The volume ranges chronologically from the second-generation Reformer John Knox, through Andrew Melville, Robert Rollock and others, to early eighteenth-century thinkers grappling with the challenges of the Enlightenment. It portrays theologians engaged with a wide range of theological loci, from rarefied discussions about Samuel Rutherford on natural law and the divine origin of possibility and impossibility, to Alexander Henderson on the practicalities of church government. Much more work needs to be done on the history of Reformed biblical interpretation so Guy Richard's essay on the importance of the Song of Songs in the early modern period, indeed as a 'key' to the Reformation in Scotland, is valuable though it deals more with context and the importance of the book than with exegetical practice. The juxtaposition of Paul Helm and Richard Muller's chapters on Thomas Halyburton and Thomas Blackwell presents two contrasting responses to Enlightenment thought. 

Some readers will approach this volume out of an interest in Reformed orthodoxy rather than a specific interest in Scotland and knowledge of Scottish ecclesiastical history, and for them a little more could have been given in explanation of historical contexts, but this is a minor criticism. This is a worthy addition to the literature on post-Reformation Reformed theology. Whilst the focus is on Scotland the authors' interests are not narrowly provincial. They situate these Scottish theologians within a continent-wide theological conversation, with some, such as John Cameron and Alexander Comrie, making a more personal and direct impact in Europe's sunnier climes. The book challenges the simplistic dichotomies and distortions of much recent historiography of the Scottish Reformed tradition and reveals the complexity and diversity of that tradition. It is also a stimulus to return ad fontes where one will discover that Scottish Reformed orthodoxy is to much modern Evangelical thought what Laphroaig is to alcopops. 

Richard Snoddy is  Associate Research Fellow & Visiting Lecturer at London School of Theology, UK. He has also recently written, The Soteriology of James Ussher: The Act and Object of Saving Faith (OUP, 2014)

1709 What Every Christian.jpg
reformation21 is the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting reformation21 and the mission of the Alliance. Please donate here.


Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, Inc. © 2005-2016   |   alliance@alliancenet.org   |   800.956.2644   |   Frequently Asked Questions   |   Login