Sometimes I’ve looked at the Pilgrim’s Progress, trying to read it through the eyes of someone who wasn’t familiar with the terminology and metaphors which Bunyan was using. I can only imagine that you would at best get the general idea that it was a story about someone making a journey from A to B through various quaintly described perils. Your reading would be pitifully superficial if you weren’t able to identify the allusions, the figures, the intricate weaving of human nature and Christian experience with the deftly assembled scriptural motifs.
But the same experience must belong to people who look at the history of the Scottish Church, or, what is largely indistinguishable, the Scottish people, without grasping at least something of the religious principles which motivated their actions and attitudes.
Yet who among us has not suffered from reading something about Scottish (church) history written by someone who was manifestly lacking in both sympathy and understanding when they put pen to paper.*
In the first volume of the Scottish Reformation Society’s unpretentiously titled Historical Journal, the editor, Douglas Somerset, makes this point in a crystal clear preface which you should be able to read as a preview here. The aim of this new journal is therefore to publish scholarly articles on Scottish church history from a perspective which understands the beliefs and practices and environment characteristic of ‘ordinary, mainstream Presbyterianism.’
The contents of this volume come from knowledgeable contributors who all seem to be attached to Scottish denominations. (The descriptor used in the preface is ‘evangelical,’ but the term is used presumably in its narrower sense, as in the Reformation-era evangelicals, or the C19th Moderate vs Evangelical parties).
The highlights for me were, firstly Matthew Vogan‘s article, ‘Samuel Rutherford and the theology and practice of preaching.’ This includes a helpful section on the development of Reformed homiletics, making reference to several papers in the useful volume Protestant Scholasticism (ed. Trueman & Clark, 1999). He then addresses the role of the affections, or emotions, in preaching, and gives a judicious selection of heart-warming quotations from Rutherford’s published sermons. The pitfalls associated with the indiscriminate use of printed ‘sermons’ as a guide to how preachers preached in the flesh are also noted. (The release of Vogan’s treatment of the piety of Samuel Rutherford is eagerly awaited.)
The other article I found particularly interesting was on a Free Church theological professor by the name of James MacGregor, who I confess I’d never before heard of. John Keddie (already famous on this blog as the author of the best biography of George Smeaton available) gives us ‘Professor James MacGregor: Theological and practical writings.’ MacGregor held the chair of Systematic Theology (he followed James Buchanan, who I’ve quoted here several times previously) before emigrating to New Zealand. The article covers his theological writings during his professorship in New College, 1868-1881, showing how he responded to the challenges of rationalistic and unorthodox trends in relation to the major controversies of the day – the atonement, the inspiration of Scripture, and creedal subscription. The article highlights the controversies and provides generous excerpts in MacGregor’s own words, giving useful quantities of airtime to his clear, orthodox position on issues such as the free offer of the gospel and the value of lengthy detailed creeds.
Well, articles on experiential preaching and nineteenth century theology I would pretty much automatically find fairly gripping, but let me just quickly also mention Norman Campbell’s ‘Giving out the line: A cross-Atlantic comparison of two presbyterian cultures,’ which succeeded in interesting me in something I haven’t previously paid much attention to. ‘Giving out the line’ is what a precentor does when he chants a line or two of the psalm for the congregation to sing after him, a practice apparently imported into Scotland from England in the 1600s. It now survives in Scotland by the skin of its teeth, almost exclusively in congregations where the psalms are sung in Gaelic, but Campbell describes how it also continues in Canada (PEI) and among Primitive Baptists in the southern American states. (Listen to the Gaelic variety here, for example; Campbell’s previous output on the topic can be found here.)
The only possible quibble I would have is that a couple of the articles would have benefited from some contextualisation. Reading perhaps particularly the first one, and possibly one of the longer ones, felt almost like an exercise in suppressing the question ‘so what’ at every turn. Some explanatory comment on the main purpose of these articles and an indication of their intended ‘contribution to knowledge’ would have made a big difference.
All in all though, this volume is an excellent start, and the next issue is definitely something to look forward to.
* Some day, maybe, I’ll force myself to finish reading a rather dire example of this very thing, and share the misery of it with you here.