Interview with the Librarian (1)

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Sandy Finlayson and I have never met. We often correspond; sharing a great love for the Two Ronnies and the winding up Carl Trueman. Sandy is not only the Director of Library Services at Westminster Seminary, he is an OPC elder at Cornerstone, Philadelphia. The MoS team recently did a podcast with Sandy and his wife Linda, who writes church history books for children.
Over the last month I have read Sandy's first work 'Unity and Diversity' looking at 11 of the Free Church of Scotland founders. Lots of familiar names and some not. I found it a fascinating read as Sandy doesn't gloss over the failings of these great men. As the title suggests, the confessional unity of these men, and yet their diversity, is wonderfully encouraging. The early warning signs of decline are also addressed and, in looking at how a denomination develops but also can drift, the book is thought provoking.
Particularly helpful was the chapter on Rabbi John Duncan. Anecdotes of him are legion and his quote, 'First a Christian, next a catholic, then a Calvinist, fourth a paedobaptist, and fifth a Presbyterian' is often trotted out. There is no doubt Rabbi Duncan was a remarkably godly man and an able scholar but Sandy rightly points out that he wasn't actually a great Old Testament Professor and sowed the seeds that eventually led to the Free Church going liberal.
The men written of here are not plastic saints. Enormous strengths are there for all to see and yet also weaknesses which are equally obvious. Sandy doesn't gloss over them and I think, for those of us in reformed denominations, this is a very helpful book indeed. I've asked the man affectionately known as 'the librarian' some questions about this volume and his new book on Thomas Chalmers.

For a renowned man of mystery such as yourself what made you come into the full glare of publicity and write 'Unity and Diversity'?


I wrote the book for a few reasons.  First, knowledge of our Presbyterian roots is not what it should be. We are living in a time when many people think that there's nothing to be learned from the past and I wanted to dispel that notion. Second, I wanted to write a book that would point to the strengths and weaknesses of each of the men in the book. Too often, people are treated to either hagiography or deconstruction and dismantling of reputations. So I hope that what I've written is a fair portrait of each of the men featured in the book. Third, even though the book talks about men long dead, I still think they speak to the modern age. What they achieved in Scotland in the 19th century can still teach us things in the 21st.



The 11 men that you have written on are a remarkable collection of gifted and godly men. Apart from the goodness of God are there historical reasons why such a group of gifted men came together at this time to make such an impact?


Theologically the Church of Scotland was a mixed bag. The men I've written about were all confessional, reformed and animated by evangelical piety. But there were others, for whom the membership in the church was largely about social respectability, living a moral life and doing good works. For a time, these two groups coexisted but this became increasingly impossible to sustain.


The condition of the church in Scotland and changes brought about in Scottish society because of the industrial revolution were some of the external factors that created the environment for these men to impact their church and their country.


It needs to be understood that Scotland had an established church. This meant that the State provided funding for paying pastors, for the building of churches and schools, and for providing funds for the care of the poor. All of the men portrayed in the book believed that this was biblical and that it accurately reflected the teaching of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Where things got complicated was that they also believed that the church should be free to govern her own affairs, call pastors and exercise discipline without interference from the state.


19th century Scotland saw a real struggle develop for spiritual independence of the church. The main point at issue was did the civil magistrate have anyjurisdiction over how ministers were appointed to parish churches?  To 21st century ears this seems an odd question to be haggling over, but it was a pressing problem for all of these men. They all believed that the state and the church should work together to promote the Christian good of Scotland, but they did not want the government interfering in any way in the calling of pastors. 


Another factor that came into play was that rapid population growth, particularly in the cities created massive social and spiritual problems that the established Church of Scotland simply couldn't handle. The evangelicals within the Church petitioned and pleaded for the establishment of more parish churches so that the gospel could go out and needs met and there was a plan put in place to accomplish this. But the government was unprepared to provide adequate funding.


So, these factors contributed to an increasingly tense situation and it was eventually recognized that a break with the Church of Scotland was inevitable.


Posted March 30, 2015 @ 11:51 AM by Paul Levy

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