1893 and all that

Not so long ago, out of the blue, and to my horror, someone asked about what kind of things act as markers of Free Presbyterian cultural identity.

I don’t know if I can explain why I find that such an incredibly difficult thing to talk about.

It’s not like there are none, but I don’t have a good feeling of which ones FPs would (a) readily recognise as such or (b) submit to having pointed out in public. There are things that FPs do, in common with other conservative churches, because of believing they’re required in scripture, but if they’re scriptural, then they don’t really count as cultural. (Primary example: the Lord’s day. Primary example 2: exclusive psalmody.)

On the other hand, there are FP-ish things which aren’t unique to FPs but are generally characteristic of a traditional Highland way of life. Primary example: scones, porridge, tea, not in that order. Brose. Ew. Non-teuchie FPs can think of their own.

So, what then? Part of the problem is that FPs only exist as a distinct grouping because of 1893. So they share with the other post-Reformation presbyterian denominations a certain something that I can’t very well define but which basically means being as indistinguishable from the rest of society as possible except in the areas where a Christian as such can’t be involved. (Like the quaint local custom of drinking yourself stupid every weekend.) The repudiation of monasticism at the Reformation (they weren’t really into refudiation in those days) continues to mean for the Scottish descendants of the Reformation that the most spiritual and holy lives are lived in just normal surroundings. Scottish presbyterians persistently fail to be enthusiastic about homeschooling their children, for one thing, and have largely succeeded in avoiding creating a mini “Christian” sub-culture – it’s not just FPs who find it a bit embarrassing to try and express your Christian identity through evangelistic t-shirts.

The other problem though is that FPs are rarely rewarded for existing as a distinct group within the Scottish church scene, and nothing puts an FP on the defensive like mentioning the fact of their distinctness. For this to make sense, we need to talk about 1893. But 1893 is horribly confusing as it relies on a fair amount of prior knowledge of the relationships between such terms as Church, State, Free Church, Disruption, Establishment, Free Presbyterian, and Confession, and one thing that FPs can’t do is dumb down matters of such tremendously serious moment. They just can’t. (But see here, if  you insist.)

Still, it perhaps wasn’t so much the principles under dispute in the 1893 controversy that cause the problem, as the emotional or attitudinal context. To their surprise and undying disappointment, the FP founding fathers did not in fact find themselves supported by people who had virtually guaranteed to join them, and some unkind comments injudiciously published about them by the leading lights of the liberalising Free Church evidently cut very, very deep. Ever since, there has been among FPs the perception of a need to continually justify themselves, in the full expectation that a lot of flak will need to be taken in the process, even from their closest denominational cousins. FP contra mundi, they might have said, except they didn’t think of themselves as particularly heroic, just deeply conscientious. So asking FPs to name their unique characteristics is a bit like asking turkeys to vote for, erm, that pagan festival we don’t celebrate.

Cautiously then I could suggest things that most FPs would recognise even if they’re not unique markers of FPism, like hospitality on a large scale, involving lots of home baking, often but not exclusively around communion seasons, not usually being teetotal but having a great deal of reservation about drinking, with special worry reserved for drinking in pubs, failure to watch pretty much anything on tv other than the news and the weather, being deeply mortified by all that is superficial or ostentatious, especially in religious matters, pessimism in most things church-related except when talking about the millennium, calling ministers Mr not Rev but expecting them not to appear without wearing a dog collar, saying DV or one of its homely equivalents after every reference to future time, grace sitting down before and after meals, family worship morning and evening, and a grapevine of such efficiency that everyone knows everything that’s happening in your life practically before you know it yourself.

In all of which, it is important to add, the main thing is the commitment to the historic confessions, whether Westminster or the comparable creeds of the continental churches – something that is shared, thankfully, with many other denominations now and in the past. The rest is all more or less peripheral.


it suits you

Spurgeon took as his text once Romans 4 and the 5th verse and noted that in his grace, the name that the Lord took to himself there was, ‘him that justifieth the ungodly.’

Spurgeon sketched the sorry portraits of various types of sinner. Some live lives of open rebellion, others more circumspectly, but all at a distance from God. ‘If you were labelled ungodly, it would describe you as well as if the sea were to be labelled salt water,’ he says, and the charge is hard to deny. But then:

“Well, you are just the kind of man to whom this gospel is sent – this gospel which says that God justifieth the ungodly. It is very wonderful, but it is happily available for you. It just suits you. Does it not? How I wish that you would … see the remarkable grace of God in providing for such as you are, and you will say to yourself, ‘Justify the ungodly! Why, then, should not I be justified, and justified at once?’

“Now, observe further, that it must be so – that the salvation of God is for those who do not deserve it, and have no preparation for it. It is reasonable that this statement should be put in the bible, for, dear friend, no others need justifying but those who have no justification of their own. If any of my readers are perfectly righteous, they want no justifying. … Pardon, therefore, cannot be for you who have no sin. Pardon must be for the guilty. Forgiveness must be for the sinful. …

“Do you think that you must be lost because you are a sinner? This is the reason why you can be saved. … Jesus seeks and saves that which is lost. He died and made a real atonement for real sinners. When men are not playing with words, or calling themselves ‘miserable sinners’ out of mere compliment, I feel overjoyed to meet with them. I would be glad to talk all night to bona fide sinners. … Our Lord Jesus did not die for imaginary sins, but his heart’s blood was spilt to wash out deep crimson stains which nothing else can remove. …

“The sinner is the gospel’s reason for existence. You, my friend, to whom this word now comes, if you are un-deserving, ill-deserving, hell-deserving, you are the sort of man for whom the gospel is ordained, and arranged, and proclaimed. God justifieth the ungodly. … It does at first seem most amazing to an awakened man that salvation should really be for him as a lost and guilty one. He thinks that it must be for him as a penitent man, forgetting that his penitence is a part of his salvation. ‘Oh,’ says he, ‘but I must be this and that,’ – all of which is true, for he shall be this and that as the result of salvation, but salvation comes to him before he has any of the results of salvation. It comes to him, in fact, while he deserves only this bare, beggarly, base, abominable description, ‘ungodly‘. That is all he is when God’s gospel comes to justify him. …

“The gospel will take you into its halls if you come as a sinner, not otherwise. Wait not for reformation, but come at once for salvation. God justifieth the ungodly, and that takes you up where you now are: it meets you in your worst estate.

“Come in your deshabille. I mean, come to your heavenly Father in all your sin and sinfulness. Come to Jesus just as you are, leprous, filthy, naked, neither fit to live nor fit to die. … Come, though you hardly dare to hope for anything but death. … Come and ask the Lord to justify another ungodly one. Why should he not? Come, for this great mercy of God is meant for such as you are.”

the bigger problem

I think that, lurking under the surface of the massive discussion here, there was a deeper controversy which remained unstated but determined the positions the two sides took.

It became clearer towards the end of that discussion that the different views on how to relate the actions of Christ and the actions of believers were irreconcileable (not just because of a failure on at least one side to acknowledge what the other was saying). Specifically I think there is a fundamental difference of opinion on the question of how God can be pleased with a sinner, or what God will accept from a sinner.

God is pleased with the graces that his Holy Spirit plants in the souls of believers – he is pleased with the righteousness that the Holy Spirit infuses in the soul of each one of his people. He is pleased to accept their works done in faith, their labours of love, their worship of him, their consecration of themselves to him – these are all the outcome of the work of the Holy Spirit in their souls.

But they are all subsequent to, and dependent on, a relationship of reconciliation between God and that sinner who is a believer. The basis of that reconciliation is not, however, the work of the Holy Spirit in them, but the work of Christ for them. This was the point of the original post: that Christ himself alone undertakes on their behalf every thing that is necessary in order for the sinner to be accepted by God.

That includes both making the one-off atonement which reconciles God and sinners in the first place, and also making the ongoing intercession which ensures that that reconciled relationship continues. There is nothing that a sinner can contribute to either of these. Atonement and intercession are made entirely for us and on our behalf by Christ and not on the basis of any thing whatsoever in us or about us. God does not accept a sinner’s works or prayers or self-denials along with Christ’s atonement and intercession. They have entirely different purposes: Christ’s activities are in order to secure the sinner’s pardon and acceptance with God; the sinner’s activities (by the enabling of the Holy Spirit) are their means of honouring a reconciled God.

The scriptures never, ever, mingle the works of the believer with the works of Christ, and neither can we. Rather, according to the scriptures, the immediate and only ground of the sinner’s acceptance with God is the righteousness of Christ imputed to them.


Or hear James Buchanan: “There is, perhaps, no more subtle or plausible error, on the subject of justification, than that which makes it to rest on the indwelling presence, and the gracious work, of the Holy Spirit in the heart. It is a singularly refined form of opposition to the doctrine of justification by the imputed righteousness of Christ, for it merely substitutes the work of one divine person for that of another; and it is plausible, because it seems to do do homage to the doctrine of grace, by ascribing to the presence and operation of the Holy Spirit the production of faith, and all the effects which are ascribed to it, wehther these belong to our justification or to our sanctification. …

“Yet, subtle and plausible as it is, nothing can be more unscriptural in itself, or more pernicious to the souls of men, than the substitution of the gracious work of the Spirit in us, for the vicarious work of Christ for us, as the ground of our pardon and acceptance with God; for if we are justified solely on account of what Christ did and suffered for us while he was yet on the earth, we may rest, with entire confidence, on a work which has been already finished – on a righteousness which has been already wrought out, and already accepted by God on behalf of all who believe on his name – and we may immediately receive, on the sure warrant of his Word, the privilege of justification as a free gift of God’s grace through Christ, and as the present privilege of every believer, so as at once to have joy and peace in believing.

“Whereas, if we are justified on the ground of the Holy Spirit in us, we are called to rest on a work, which, so far from being finished and accepted, is not even begun in the case of any unrenewed sinner; and which, when it is begun in the case of a believer, is incipient only – often interrupted in its progress by declension and backsliding – marred and defiled by remaining sin – obscured and enveloped in doubt by clouds and thick darkness – and never perfected in this life …

“The mediatorial work of Christ is … clearly distinguished from the internal work of the Spirit. By the former, all the blessings of salvation were procured; by the latter, all these blessings are effectually applied. The work of the Spirit is not the cause, but the consequent, of our redemption; and it forms no part of the ground, although it is the evidence, of our justification. That blessing, like every other which is included in salvation, depends entirely on the sacerdotal work of Christ …”

one is enough

With this old post groaning under the weight of its comments, here is a continuation of the latest sub-topic (the Mass and the Priest). Since the original context was the Reformation, it won’t harm to mention that the key sola is Christ alone.

The problem, as we know, is sin. The solution must involve atonement, if sin is going to be dealt with in a way that is consistent with both justice and mercy. For atonement, you need a priest.

The epistle to the Hebrews explains what the real priest was, his qualifications and his work (which were only pre-figured in the Levitical priesthood of the Old Testament), and it hardly needs to be said that Christ Jesus is the real priest, the anti-type who fulfilled the Old Testament type.

Waiving his qualifications for now (since as I started to write, I remembered this old post with its own unfinished discussion), consider more specifically his work. The foundation work is the making atonement: he put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. But the other part of the priest’s work is making intercession. He makes intercession to the Father, on behalf of the people he is representing, on the basis of his success in making atonement.

According to the New Testament and especially the epistle to the Hebrews, both atonement and intercession are most emphatically the work of Christ himself. He is the one who made the once-for-all sacrifice which put away sin. He is the one who is now interceding for his people, an intercession which is ongoing and all-prevailing.

Or as Hebrews says, when he had by himself purged our sins, he sat down on the right hand of the majesty on high. We have a great high priest who is passed into the heavens, and is there now for us. He has an unchangeable priesthood, and he himself is able to save to the uttermost those who come to God by him, seeing he lives for ever to make intercession for them. This is his ongoing work behind the veil, making intercession for his people, on the basis of his own sacrifice of himself. Whereas the blood of shadowy animal sacrifices sufficed to purge ceremonial sins under the ceremonial law, the blood of the real sacrifice avails and prevails to purge the conscience from dead works to serve the living God, when the priest whose sacrifice it is presents it for that purpose.

Explanations like these are what make the epistle to the Hebrews such a beautiful part of the Bible. Who could fail to be amazed at the power and the perfection of the great high priest as displayed there. Sins are remitted and the worshippers are purified by Christ who entered heaven, now to appear in the presence of God for us, on our behalf. Not, indeed, that he offers himself often, for then he would need to suffer often – but afer he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God, and is now active on behalf of his people.

For his sake they are reconciled, for his sake they are forgiven, for his sake their spiritual life is maintained, for his sake they are given growth in grace. He does all the work. They get all the benefit. It is all for his sake, and he does it all.

Which makes the office of a priest redundant in the New Testament church. Even in the Old Testament the Levitical priesthood was a constant testimony to its own inadequacy, an elaborate demonstration in 3D pictures of what they were waiting for the true priest to come and do in reality. The OT priests dealt with ceremonial sins in a ceremonial way. The NT priest, the one and only, the anti-type, deals with real sins, really and truly putting them away – completely at that – and taking care of all the implications which follow for his people.

All that’s left for the NT Church to do is, not to carry on acting out the picture, but to publish and declare that the high priest has come, and has made atonement, and is now in heaven making continual intercession. Central to the NT Church is, not the sacrament, but the preaching of the gospel. Sinners who need their sins dealt with can have every confidence in the great high priest, so powerful and so prevailing in his atonement and his intercession. Good news: Christ has come, and he is able to save to the uttermost those that come to God by him, seeing he lives for ever to make intercession for them. Because of the high priest, who he is, what he has done, and what he is doing, sinners can come boldly to the throne of grace and obtain mercy.

the linguistics of inspiration*

When people ask my opinion as a linguist, I usually quail. Most often that is because the question is to do with some area of linguistics that I’m under-equipped to deal with, which in truth means most areas. But other times it’s because the topic isn’t capable of being handled by the discipline of linguistics, at least as far as any respectable linguist would understand it in today’s academic environment.

One such topic is the question of the inspiration of scripture. A gentleman who recently commented on this post on the properties of the AV flagged up a moderated debate on the relative merits of two other translations of the bible, the ESV and the NIV, both of which are hugely popular in the Reformed Christian world. (It was further discussed here.)

To be up-front about it, the Versions Wars have more or less passed me by. I have no problem with the AV as something I can quite happily use almost exclusively in personal, family, and corporate reading. Equally though, I see no virtue in pretending that it is flawless, and if it hadn’t happened that I was brought up with it and belong to a context that is steeped in it, I can well imagine myself using alternative versions simply in a bid to achieve comprehension of the text.**

Which is partly a reason why I can’t contribute anything to the question of which is better, ESV or NIV, since I’m simply not acquainted enough with either to be able to comment.

But it is also an excuse to move the question a step back. The major difference between the ESV and the NIV (correct me if I’m wrong) seems to be the translation philosophy which underlies them. In the case of the ESV, the translators aimed to provide as literal a translation as possible. In the case of the NIV, the translators aimed to provide as rhetorically effective a translation as possible. The outcome of these decisions is that the ESV can be critiqued for phrasing things in ways that sound awkward to the less biblically literate reader (“it’s just not how we’d say it”) (although if they’d kept up a nodding familiarity with the AV along the way, it often really would be how we said it). On the other hand, the NIV can be critiqued for giving too much interpretative power to the translators, allowing the final translation to convey what the translators think it should say/mean to the reader, rather than leaving the decision about interpretation up to the reader. So in both cases the focus of the discussion is over the practicalities of the final product, and the effect that it has on or for the reader.

But the choice of a translation philosophy must itself, surely, depend on a prior understanding of the nature of the documents being translated. That is to say, the real question (surely) is about our doctrine of inspiration.

A doctrine of inspiration which allows for, just say, a long slow process of canonisation and lots of redaction, and is non-specific about the form that the revelation took when the prophets received it from God (assuming they did receive a revelation from God and didn’t just write things that were subsequently increasingly appreciated by other people), or whatever, is not going to give rise to a translation philosophy that will take particular care over conveying to the reader the details of what was in the document itself. On the other hand, a doctrine of inspiration which adopts the view that God gave words to his prophets to write, and they wrote them, will more naturally encourage a translation philosophy which provides the reader with just what the text says, as far as that is possible, and at least attempts to let the text speak for itself.

Anyone with any sense (thus by definition excluding KJVO-ists) knows that translations themselves are not inspired. Inspiration is the process that ensured that the divine revelation that was breathed out in human words has all the properties of the words of God – when it is God who is speaking, the word is authoritative, timelessly true, internally consistent, complete in itself, comprehensible, holy (all necessarily so), and also (in his sovereignty) full of grace towards sinners. Verbal plenary inspiration, which we deduce from the scriptures, carries with it the implication that the words themselves matter, and a translation philosophy which is maximally consistent with this doctrine will prioritise the rendering of the words themselves – not so much their presumed rhetorical equivalent for speakers of the vulgar tongue – translating as literally as possible, as dynamically as necessary.

Obviously, this view of inspiration can’t be handled from an academic perspective when that academic perspective excludes the possibility of the supernatural. But it seems to me that your doctrine of inspiration, your understanding of the nature of the sacred texts themselves, is the essential starting point when you come to evaluate how successful one translation of the text might be in relation to another.

Old semi-related discussions –
On revelation

In the Confession

On canonicity

* But not the inspiration of linguistics, much as I covet the Chiasmus of the Month award.
** By far the weakest point of the pro-AV case (referring here to honest British conservatives who are emphatically not KJV-Onlyists) is the twin insistence (i) that the longevity of the AV rules out the need for any successor and (ii) that it is quite unproblematically readable and accessible to anyone who cares enough to make the effort. The AV is no longer the ploughman’s bible, and arguments in its favour need to acknowledge this.