It was possibly some time in 1844 that John J Bonar was preaching in Greenock on Isaiah’s Vision of Christ’s Glory (chapter 6). As he drew to a close he called on sinners to come to Christ. He quoted the words, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved”.
Then he turned to warn his congregation in a final, solemn exhortation: “Unrestricted, however, as this offer is, let me in faithfulness say that by most, I am persuaded, it will be set at nought, and ‘the report’ of Jesus become more and more despised until judgement burst upon us. Because the gospel is much preached in these days, you deem your peril less, your chance better. Mistaken men! If there be a dark omen over Scotland at this moment, it is a preached gospel. Received, it would have exalted us to heaven! Rejected, it will sink us in Capernaum’s doom! Look to our text (vv 11,12), and be convinced that a despised Christ must hasten an avenging Christ. Yes, and He hastens. Even as the life of a tree which has retired to the root, when every branch is broken off, His elect (v 13) shall be safe. But inasmuch as men will not give heed in this the merciful day of their visitation, when ‘our God shall come . . . it shall be very tempestuous round about Him’.
“We dream of human affairs as a tide, always swelling to a higher mark of prosperity; we see the world rolling forward on the wheels of time to unparalleled greatness and stable happiness. Of all this, however, we have no hint in Scripture, not one sign over all of providence. But everything points to a crisis, when God must say, ‘Ah, I will ease me of mine adversaries, and avenge me of mine enemies’. Unconverted man, where wilt thou then be found? Softened, thinkest thou, and healed, and at the feet of Jesus at last? No; all the history of Israel, in terms of Isaiah’s prophecy (v 10), assures us that where the gospel has been set at nought, judgements only ensnare and harden and overthrow.
“Ah, thou who hatest Jesus now, when His wrath pours out its vials, thou wilt hate Him all the more; thou wilt hate Him with all thy heart; thou wilt hate Him with a supreme and perfect hatred. And as a hater of Jesus thou shalt live and die. And as a hater of Jesus thou shalt stand at the Judgement-bar. And as a hater of Jesus thou shalt spend eternity – O crucifying thought – an eternal hater of Him who died for sinners, an eternal hater of Him whom all the host of heaven worship, an eternal hater of Him whom the Father infinitely loves. O consummation of wickedness and shame and misery – an eternal hater of Jesus!” (1)
A solemn warning indeed! And, without a doubt, those who went on in rebellion against the great God of eternity, rejecting the free offer of salvation in Christ, perished in their unbelief; they are now experiencing the judgement of God against sin in a lost eternity. But there seems to be a note of warning directed against Scotland as a whole. Was Bonar thinking of famine, war or some other such calamity? Who can tell now, over 150 years later? Certainly parts of the Highlands were struck by famine not long afterwards, and the nation was involved in sporadic wars in far-off parts of the Empire throughout the rest of the nineteenth century. But no major national tragedy struck the country for 70 years. And by the time the First World War devastated Europe, almost all of Bonar’s hearers must already have been swept into eternity.
Yet judgement did strike Scotland with ever-heavier blows as the nineteenth century wore on. And it was all the more devastating because scarcely anyone recognised it as judgement. Yet the judgement was all the more remarkable because of how close it was to the unbelief which Bonar warned against. What greater judgement could come against a nation – a nation rejecting the gospel – than to have such large sections of the Churches within its borders lose their grasp of the reliability of Scripture? An unbelieving people was being abandoned to the ministrations of churches which, as the years went by, were becoming increasingly unbelieving.
The Free Church began its separate course in 1843 with its ministers, and certainly its professors, to all appearances united in wholehearted acceptance of the inspiration, authority and total reliability of the Bible, and in sincere acceptance of the Westminster Confession of Faith as the confession of their own faith. But by 1862 it was clear that all was not well. In that year Professor A B Davidson, who held the Hebrew chair in the Free Church’s New College in Edinburgh, issued the first volume of a commentary on Job (the second volume never appeared) in which he declared that the Bible, “so far as interpretation and general formal criticism are concerned, must be handled very much as other books are handled”. (2) But the Bible is a revelation from God and without error from beginning to end. No one who ignores these facts will be a trustworthy interpreter of the Scriptures.
Many left Davidson’s courses in New College with a different attitude to Scripture – decidedly lower – than the one with which they began. W Gray Elmslie described the process: “They come up, these young men, as a rule from religious homes, with a warm-hearted zeal for the salvation of souls and with very definite doctrinal ideas. . . . The Professor begins his lecture; the subject is some Messianic psalm or prophecy, with a fixed and well-known traditional interpretation. With measured movements, the speaker traces the outlines and erects over us the customary habitation of our thought. Presently there is a change of manner. . . . He proceeds to subject the structure to practical use. Suddenly we wake up to find how narrow and contracted are its dimensions, how clumsy, how artificial, how dark, dismal and forbidding its atmosphere. . . . The fabric is assailed with a stream of suggestions, subtle and disintegrating as chemical solvents. . . . . The ancestral mansion of our faith trembles to its foundation, the walls one by one fall in. . . . But presently, when the dust cleared away and our eyes could see truly, we discovered that it was not ruin but emancipation. . . . Looking back, we saw through a halo the man who brought us out of the pit of ignorance and miry clay of prejudice, and set our feet on a rock and established our goings.” (3)
Thus the “very definite doctrinal ideas” of another set of students were destroyed, especially on the point of the inspiration and reliability of Scripture. Poor men, if only they had realised that the dust of unbelief was preventing them from seeing truly, they would never have imagined that their feet were set on a rock! Davidson, without their realising it, had swept them away from a proper attitude to the Word of God. But such unbelief also raises very serious questions about the spiritual state of those who could be so easily swept away into unbelieving attitudes to the Word of God.
It was in the realm of the so-called higher criticism that Free Church academics were at their most dangerous. Ignoring the divine origin of the Scriptures – or, at least, giving that divine origin no more than lip-service – they promoted the theories, so influential in Germany, which claimed to trace the way in which the various books, especially of the Old Testament, were put together – allegedly over hundreds of years in many cases. In a volume on the Minor Prophets, Professor George Adam Smith of Glasgow wrote, “We shall find that hands have been busy with the texts of the books long after the authors of these have passed away”. This remark did indeed indicate the character of the whole book; The Free Presbyterian Magazine (4) commented: “The unwarrantable assumption that the sacred works have been tampered with . . . runs throughout the whole work”.
Smith was not alone. Certainly he was one of the most irresponsible in his handling of the Scriptures, but many others tramped the same unbelieving tracks. There were many also who did not have the scholarship to produce the learned tomes which men like Smith were sending through the printing presses but were thoroughly in sympathy with his views. It was this spirit which led to the situation where the Declaratory Act sped through the Free Church courts with huge majorities until it was finally accepted in 1892. This Act claimed that “diversity of opinion is recognised in this Church on such points in the [Westminster] Confession [of Faith] as do not enter into the substance of the Reformed Faith therein set forth”. While giving the Church “full authority to determine which points fall within this description”, the expression the substance of the Reformed Faith was left completely undefined. It left the door open, no doubt intentionally, to significant departures from the truth in every direction. (5) We may accept that these departures have gone further than the framers of the Declaratory Act intended, but some with clearer insight into the issues at stake were totally dissatisfied with the Act, and with this clause in particular.
Among them was Rev Donald Macfarlane, who protested against the decision of the 1893 General Assembly to uphold the Declaratory Act. The outcome was the formation of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland as a separate body. While conscious of its present weakness in many ways, we may be thankful that its witness for Scripture truth today is the same as it was in 1893. The issues for which the Church must contend may vary somewhat from generation to generation, but the central issues remain unchanged. While holding firmly to the whole counsel of God, we must continue to keep to the forefront of our witness to the world the great central fact of the absolute reliability and authority of the Word of God.
One matter, so often neglected, which the Church must specially emphasise today, is the direction to make our calling and election sure. The inadequate presentation of the difference between the wheat and the tares is putting many who profess conversion in danger of passing out of church membership into a lost eternity. Let every individual therefore take heed to the words with which Bonar closed his sermon: “Kiss, then, the Son before He be angry, and ye perish from the way; for within a little time, His wrath shall blaze forth. Blessed only are they who have taken shelter under him!”
Conscious of God’s judgements upon his people, Isaiah asked, “O Lord, why hast Thou made us to err from Thy ways, and hardened our heart from Thy fear?” (Is 63:17). We today may ask the same question. Yet at least part of the answer seems clear for twenty-first-century Scotland in particular: both Church and people have forsaken the Lord, and the Scriptures in which He has revealed Himself. One degree of unbelief follows another, as a judgement on the sins of the immediate past. We can only cry, as Isaiah went on: “Oh that Thou wouldest rend the heavens, that Thou wouldest come down, that the mountains might flow down at Thy presence” (Is 64:1). Only such an outpouring of God’s Spirit can save us from finally sinking in Capernaum’s doom.
1. The Free Church Pulpit, vol 1, p432.
2. Quoted from Bulloch and Drummond, The Church in Late Victorian Scotland, p 44.
3. Quoted in The Free Presbyterian Magazine, vol 5, p 225.
4. Vol 1, p 65.
5. A series of articles analysing the Declaratory Act appeared in the Free Presbyterian Magazine, vol 1. These are also available in The History of the Free Presbyterian Church, p 385ff. The Act itself is quoted on p 59ff of The History.