Category: Historical

'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.

Read more about ''Semper Reformanda' or 'Semper Mutanda'?'...

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.

Read more about 'John Knox'...

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.

Read more about 'The Highland Churches and the First World War'...

The Kirk Joins the Mockery

I should really be in a complete fankle about writing this column.  After all, I am a Calvinist, which means I believe in predestination: a subject on which Free Press readers are clearly fully briefed.  From what they say, I cannot write this column unless it was predestined; and equally, I cannot decide what to write about, because that, too, must be predestined.  The wisest course, then, would be to sit and wait for predestination either to force me to write something or prevent me from writing something.

Read more about 'The Kirk Joins the Mockery'...

Conversion: Must there be a Preparatory Law-work?

 A review of Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley, Prepared by Grace, for Grace: The Puritans on God’s Ordinary Way of Leading Sinners to Christ (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2013.  297 pp. Pbck.  $25.00).

The key thesis of this book is that conversion is normally preceded by a preparatory law-work; or, in the language of Jonathan Edwards, that ‘God makes men sensible of their misery before he reveals his mercy and love.’

Most of it is devoted, however, not to expounding this doctrine, but to a historical survey designed to prove that this has been the prevailing view in Reformed theology from the beginning (including Luther and Calvin), but particularly among English Puritans such as William Perkins, John Preston, William Ames and Richard Sibbes; and among New England Puritans such as Thomas Hooker, Thomas Shepard and John Cotton.  Modern attempts by Perry Miller and others to show that significant figures diverged from this consensus are reviewed and (as a rule) refuted.

At the same time Doctors Beeke and Smalley lose no opportunity to point out that this Reformed preparationism was completely different from the Roman Catholic doctrine of congruent merit, according to which grace is infused as a reward for doing the best we can with our own natural abilities; and they are no less insistent that Reformed  preparationism has to be distinguished from the Arminian idea that once sinners are motivated by a sense of spiritual need, grace merely assists them to Christ, without any invincible input on God’s part.

Read more about 'Conversion: Must there be a Preparatory Law-work?'...

Calvin: the Great Re-Former

John Calvin probably never heard of the Western Isles, and many in the Western Isles certainly wish they had never heard of him.

There’s no point in re-traversing the old familiar allegations of his baneful influence on the arts; nor is there any point in defending him from the charge that it was his fault that in the 1970s a man from Barvas had to trudge the seven miles to Galson if he wanted a ‘Christian drink’.  What really bugs me is that scarcely a day passes but the phrase ‘a narrow Calvinism’ walks across my computer-screen.

Read more about 'Calvin: the Great Re-Former'...

Covenant Theology

Covenant (or federal) theologyis so called because it uses the covenant concept as an architectonic principle for the systemizing of Christian truth.  The seeds of this approach were sown by John Calvin (Institutes 2: 9-11) and there are already hints of it in Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), Henrich Bullinger (1504-1575) and Zacharias Ursinus (1534-1583).  But it took some time to develop fully, though by the early seventeenth century virtually all orthodox Reformed theologians came to accept it and work out their theology within its framework.    Such theologians as Johannes Cocceius in his Summa Doctrinae de Foedere et Testamento Dei Explicata (Amsterdam, 1648) and Herman Witsius in his De Oeconomia Foederum Dei cum Hominibus (Leeuwarden, 1677; ET 3 vols, London, 1763; 1822, 2 vols) represent covenant theology in fully developed form.  English divines also generally adopted the covenant theology.  John Preston, The New Covenant (London, 1629), John Ball, A Treatise of the Covenant of Grace (London, 1645), Francis Roberts, Mysterium & Medulla Bibliorum.  The Mysterie and Marrow of the Bible: viz. God’s Covenants with Man (London, 1657), and William Strong, A Discourse of the Two Covenants (London, 1678) are but four examples.  In keeping with this, the Westminster Assembly used a covenant framework in drawing up its Confession of Faith and catechisms, as did The Marrow of Modern Divinity (London, 1645).

Read more about 'Covenant Theology'...

The Spiritual Life of Thomas Chalmers - Part 2

Effects of the change

What Chalmers himself called “the very great transition in sentiment” was accompanied by an inward peace and joy which he never lost.  Reflecting on the experience years later, he wrote: “The righteousness which we try to work out for ourselves eludes our impotent grasp, and never can a soul arrive at true or permanent rest in the pursuit of this object.  The righteousness which, by faith, we put on, secures our acceptance with God and secures out interest in His promises.  We look to God in a new light – we see Him as a reconciled Father; that love to Him which terror scares away re-enters the heart.”

Read more about 'The Spiritual Life of Thomas Chalmers - Part 2'...

The Spiritual Life of Thomas Chalmers - Part 1

Thomas Chalmers gained renown as an orator, preacher, political economist, philanthropist, educationalist, ecclesiastical statesman and – above all – as an incomparable motivator of his fellow Christians. Men of high birth and scholars of world-renown sought his friendship. The University of Oxford conferred on him the degree of Doctor of Laws; the French Institute enrolled him as a corresponding member. Neither of these honours had ever before been conferred on a Scottish clergyman. When he died, he was buried “amid the tears of a nation, and with more than kingly honours”.

Read more about 'The Spiritual Life of Thomas Chalmers - Part 1'...

Ministry in the 21st Century

Of this year’s six new entrants to our BTh programme only two are candidates for the ministry.  The remaining four, including three women students, have other careers in view.  Though the numbers are disappointingly small, the trend is welcome, and should help dispel the idea that the Free Church College is only for ministers and only for men (though the main illusion at the moment seems to be that the College is only for international students, not for home-grown ones.  Our own young people seem to suffer from Free Church College phobia.)

Read more about 'Ministry in the 21st Century'...

1 2