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The Spirit of Christmas

The trouble with Christmas is that it reminds me of all the people who are not going to enjoy it: Alistair Cooke, the sacked England cricket-captain; a friend recently diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease; North Sea oil-workers facing unemployment; Syrian refugees; Christians in Iranian jails; the victims of ancient hatreds in the country of Jesus’ birth.

Yet there is still the magic of it. It’s been a couple of years since I last hanged my stocking, modern Christmas-puddings no longer contain threepenny-bits, I can’t see much hope of going sledging down the moor, trousers frozen hard from knees to boots, and even if I do get an apple, an orange and a bottle of lemonade they won’t taste the same as they did in 1947, when an oxo-cube was a treat.  But there is still the joy of sending letters to Santa telling him I’d like socks; the joy of seeing others glad with what he’s brought them; the luxury of a day when you can do nothing, with the tacit approval of conscience; the turkey which is ‘perfectly cooked’ even when it isn’t, and tastes better than a Bronze even though it’s only a Frozen.

And, above all, the carols: ringing in my head ever since Primary Three, and now ringing out at Classic FM, Free Church carol-services, and school-concerts where Buddhists, Muslims and Edinburgh City councillors join happily with Christians in singing of ‘our heavenly Lord, that with his blood mankind hath bought’

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We Preach Christ Crucified

When Paul wrote his First Epistle to the Corinthians, he clearly felt himself forced on the defensive.  Some parties in the church there were highly critical of his ministry and compared him very unfavourably with the ‘super-apostles’: men distinguished both by the superior wisdom they taught and by the rhetorical skills they deployed in delivering their message.  Paul has no inclination to answer the charges on these terms.  He cannot claim to be either as erudite a philosopher or as mesmeric an orator as these brilliant communicators.  But, then, that wasn’t what he was about.  His call was to a very different kind of ministry:  ‘we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.’ (1 Cor. 1:23-24)  Nor was he merely claiming that this was the best style of ministry for him personally.  His claim was that if we are called to the ministry of the word (whether as apostles, prophets, evangelists or pastors) this is the only legitimate way of performing the duties of our office.

But, more specifically, what is he saying?

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'Semper Reformanda' or 'Semper Mutanda'?

The popularity of the phrase semper reformanda seems to be on the up-and-up.  Yet two serious questions haunt it.

The first, though far the less important, is, Who was the first to use it.  Many have enquired and searched diligently but the answer still seems to elude us.  It doesn’t occur in any of the great Reformed confessions or in the works of the magisterial Reformers, including Calvin.  It’s not even clear what exactly we’re looking for.  The phrase, semper reformanda, can’t stand by itself, yet we don’t seem to know what other bits were originally attached to it.  Presumably, the subject of semper reformanda should be ecclesia reformata, so that whatever semper reformanda  means it is something that should be done either by or to the Reformed church.  But the precise statement, Ecclesia reformata reformanda est, is proving very difficult to find; and if found at all will probably turn up in the writings of one of the more obscure theologians (or their opponents), not in the works of one of the Masters.

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John Knox

Among all the makers of the Scottish Reformed Church one stands pre-eminent: John Knox.  To some, he was the greatest-ever Scotsman.  To others, such as Andrew Lang and Edwin Muir, he was a paranoid bigot responsible for all the ills we have suffered since the Reformation.

Yet, for all the attention he has received, key facts in Knox’s life remain a mystery.  Even his place and date of birth are uncertain.  The general consensus is that he was born at Haddington in East  Lothian. But when?  The traditional date was 1505, but recent scholars prefer 1513-14.  Over against this we have to set the fact that in 1564 a contemporary described Knox as "a decrepit old priest".  If he was born only in 1513-14, he must have been decrepit in his late forties: a claim that the rest of the young elderly will find hard to thole.

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The Highland Churches and the First World War

Few historians of the First World War have deigned to consult the ‘Monthly Record’ of the Free Church of Scotland.  That is their loss.  The ‘Record’ might have had little contact with so-called ‘men of affairs’, but it was in very close contact with ministers, chaplains, soldiers, sailors and, above all, with Highland parishes.  Its editor, Archibald McNeilage, was a brilliant professional journalist; and the annual Reports of the Church’s Highlands and Islands Committee still give a splendid insight into the social problems of the time.

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The New Calvinists

Most of our readers now sleep soundly, secure in the knowledge that Calvinists are extinct.  After all, you never see one on telly, and it’s a good seven years since the last stamping on fiddles or smashing of bagpipes.

But being, as it were, possessed of inside knowledge, I knew there were still some Calvinists around.  I had even seen one or two, though much harder to spot than of yore, since they no longer wore black hats.

Now the really bad news.  Not only are there still a few Calvinists around, but another closely related species has suddenly appeared: New Calvinists, the same but different.

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Independence: Greater Personal Freedom?

Once more into the breach.  I fervently hope it’s for the last time; and I fervently hope I have not been born to write the obituary of my country.

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Life in an Independent Scotland

The question on everyone’s lips is, What would life be like in an independent Scotland?  At least, that’s what the political and chattering classes think is on everyone’s lips.

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Door-stepped by the Referendum

First, a word about the national religion, football.  Former Cardiff City manager, Malky Mackay, found himself in hot water last week when it was alleged that he had sent racist and homophobic texts to a pal.  He’ll shortly be sentenced to be boiled alive; or at least, banned from all football-related activity.

As a Gaidheal I have a vested interest in opposing racism, and I cannot see that a man’s gender orientation has any bearing whatever on his prowess as a footballer.  But have we really reached the point where malice can put private correspondence in the public domain and ruin a man in a day?

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Hiding Under a Myth: Independence and the Declaration of Arbroath

But then on Monday I was ambushed (sorry for being so abrupt).  It’s hard to explain how it happened.  The Referendum campaign is driving me nuts, forcing me to adopt a life-style which minimises the risk of bumping into it.  It’s turned me into a fugitive, compelled to walk in the shadows and send out advance-parties to make sure it’s not there.  These are days when a man’s got to watch what he sees and hears.

And if there’s one place where you’re bound to meet Referendum it’s Reporting Scotland; and on Monday night my guard slipped or, more precisely, I got the timing wrong.  I usually manage to switch on just in time for the weather-forecast (it’s important to know whether there’s going to be sunshine and showers in my study tomorrow), but this time, to my horror, Remote put on Referendum; and, paralytic with shock, I froze, unable to switch off.

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