You know, there’s a term, ‘linguistic self-hatred’, which was widely used at one time to describe the attitude of Scots towards the way they spoke. When Prof Angus McIntosh was investigating language attitudes back in the day (or was it David Abercrombie?), he rarely came across a Scot who would admit to speaking anything other than “slang,” pejoratively understood, and whoever spoke the “best” Scottish, it was certainly somebody else.
Things are bound to be different now, decades after the era of McIntosh/Abercrombie/Aitken, and there is bound to be less self-consciousness and self-denigration about how you speak.
But consider a somewhat similar attitude, in the realm of Scottish religion. Several conversations over the past week or so have made me ponder attitudes towards the church and Scottish religion, as held within the church in Scotland. This is, of course, the 450th anniversary of the Reformation in Scotland, meaning that for 450 years, we have been freed to a greater or lesser extent from superstition and blatant corruption in the clergy, superstition and bible-illiteracy in the pulpit, superstition and lukewarm moralism in the pew – and in society we have felt the benefits of descending from an intelligent and upright populace, individuals who lived and acted in a context steeped in biblical, Christian morality even when they were not always themselves professedly Christian.
Contemporary Christians who follow in the line of the Reformation generally develop a fairly thick skin to handle the constant equation of Reformation-style theology and practice with all that is dour, joyless, calvinistic, puritannical, sabbatarian, oppressive, repressive, hypocritical, and legalistic. We know it’s not actually like that, but nobody wants to know, so what can you do.
More worrying, though, is the way that contemporary Christians in the Reformation tradition are liable to let their confidence in the theological underpinnings of their practice leach away. There is, for example, a clearly articulated theology of preaching and the sacraments. ‘The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.’ And, ‘The sacraments become effectual means of salvation … by the blessing of Christ, and the working of his Spirit in them that by faith receive them.’ So why do we have such low expectations from the plain, ordinary, preaching of the Word week in and week out? Why do we attach so much importance to (perfectly good in themselves) things like bible studies and conferences? Why do we expect so much in the way of conversions and edification from conferences and youth camps, when we don’t greatly trouble ourselves to look for these things in the communion of the saints around Word and sacrament? We are, surely, too fearful of the criticism that the regular plain preaching of the word is boring and ineffective, or that our deliberate and theologically motivated simplicity of worship is inadequate for contemporary congregations.
It’s exactly the same with the principle that when the Holy Spirit converts a sinner he also sanctifies them. Is there not too much of a tendency to secretly agree with kneejerk criticisms from people outside the church who persistently refuse to believe that Christian living is anything more than hypocrisy and self-righteous moralism. For sure, there are enough people putting themselves forward as Christians who don’t live up to the name particularly well, but Reformed Christians in Reformed Christian circles know enough of the real thing to be able to refute this quite thoroughly. Yet Reformed Christians themselves sometimes retain the suspicion that the godliness and piety of the past was a bit of a show and really quite unnecessarily strict. And sometimes they themselves perpetuate the myth that old-time religion consisted mainly in the rabid tithing of mint and cumin, and narrow-minded fuss about whether you wore red or black. No doubt sanctification is never total, and how sanctification manifests itself must vary slightly depending on the wider social or cultural context, but there is a danger of slackening in our conviction that it is nevertheless real. It is also more valuable and you could almost say glorious, even when attended by many quirks and foibles, than our spiritual short-sightedness often allows us to recognise.
Scottish Presbyterians of the old school: we need to get over our religious self-hatred. There’s nothing to be proud of, but we don’t need to be ashamed of it either. There is nothing to be embarrassed about, when we attach so much importance to the preaching of the word, the singing of psalms, the simplicity of the sacraments, and the life of godliness. That theory should work itself out in practice as a hearty conviction that the plain preaching of the Word itself will be effective in converting sinners and edifying saints – that worship is real and at its best when most stringently conformed to the scriptural pattern – that the ordinances in the hand of the Spirit are effectual means of grace – that genuine godliness is possible, ought to be normal in Christian circles, and not to be denigrated in the lives of previous generations of Christians. ‘Whereas thou hast been forsaken and hated, so that no man went through thee, I will make thee an eternal excellency, a joy of many generations.’