If you want to know then just look at the history of the Free Church of Scotland. In a recent book Echoes From Scotland’s Heritage of Grace (Stoke-on Trent: Tentmaker, 2006) Hugh Ferrier outlines what happened when the Free Church abandoned its high view of Scripture. The scene is set as follows:
“The post disruption  years reveal the glories of the Free Church of Scotland’s past, and what a glorious past it was. Of that period it can be said, ‘Lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land’ (Songs 2:11.) Today the situation is different and in the prophet’s words our lament is, ‘Our holy and beautiful house, where our fathers praised thee, is burned up with fire: and all our pleasant things are laid waste’ (Is. 64:11). We ask, what went wrong? What caused the decline in the Free Church to diminish it in size and influence to what it is today? The following pages will attempt an answer.” (p127).
One of the answers that Mr Ferrier provides, under the overall banner of abandoning Confessionalism, is the Free Church of Scotland’s capitulation to “Higher Criticism”. This Higher Criticism was largely brought into the Free Church by Professor A.B. Davidson. Davidson never held a pastoral charge, going straight from his own studies to teach others. In the words of Ferrier, Davidson was “a talented and erudite man and an outstanding teacher of Hebrew” (p165). No doubt because of his immense talents, “Professor Davidson exercised a unique influence upon the students who came under the spell of his genius” (p166). As an aside it is worth noting that little weight should be placed in students’ assessments of their teachers’ doctrinal and theological abilities. Very few students (I speak as one!) have the time, or to be frank the critical abilities, to truly judge the scholarship of their teachers. By and large we study to learn, not to judge our teachers. When students start accusing their Professors of ignorance and correcting them in their own fields it is time to pause, reflect and, having done this, stop.
A case in point – were these students correct in their assessment of Davidson? Not in the opinion of Ferrier, who notes, “But that was the tragedy: for he passed on to his eager scholars the findings of Higher Criticism which were to have disastrous consequences and reap in the Church a bitter harvest” (p166). One of these eager scholars was William Robertson Smith. He was, in the words of Ferrier, “an outstanding student” who showed himself to be “brilliant in a marked degree” (p167). Soon he himself was a Professor.
But what did Smith make of his Professorship? Well, he outlined the course he would take in his inaugural lecture (1870): “We must let the Bible speak for itself. Our notions of its origin, the purpose, the character of the Scripture books must be drawn, not from vain traditions, but from a historical study of the books themselves. This process can be dangerous to faith only when it is begun without faith – when we forget that the Bible history is no profane history, but the story of God’s saving manifestation” (p167). At first there might not seem much to alarm in this. After all, who would not want to have their doctrine of Scripture shaped by Scripture? But alarm bells ring when “vain traditions” are spoken of – is that confessional document he just pledged his allegiance to the “vain tradition” he is referring to? And what does he mean by historical study? Are the Scriptures not self-authenticating? And are their teachings on inspiration not perspicuous?
Subsequent developments made the answers to these questions clear. We know that Smith embraced all the radical conclusions of “Higher Criticism”, but at this early stage “he tried to reconcile his advanced views with orthodox belief and, to begin with, he genuinely believed that his Higher Critical views were not in conflict with the Westminster Confession” (p167). Ah, Smith believed his views were confessional. I’m stunned, er, or not. How many in church history have volunteered that they were out of accord with the doctrinal standards of the day and resigned from their positions accordingly? I could probably count them on the fingers of one foot (yes, that is intentional).
Robertson Smith made his views clearer in an article on “The Bible” in the Encyclopedia Britannica (9th ed). This article evidenced his “Higher Criticism” as, among other things, he opined that Deuteronomy was a “pious fraud” i.e. in no sense from the time of Moses. Putting these opinions “out in the open” caused a bit of a storm – thankfully! Two of his former Professors wrote to him. One was A.B. Davidson, mentioned above. He essentially urged Smith to pour oil on troubled waters – “I believe that all that is needful to allay the uneasiness that prevails is that you should in some suitable way say so much. It would be a great gain to be able to devote ourselves to quiet study, without fearing the rising of a tempest which might rage for a lifetime” (p168). I respect Smith’s openness more than I do Davidson’s counsel.
The other Professor who wrote was the outstanding Biblical theologian and Professor of New Testament Exegesis – George Smeaton. His counsel was of an altogether different sort. He urged Smith to “pause, to take counsel with your father and your seniors before committing yourself to positions from which you will find it every day more difficult to recede … I wish I could do something to rescue a gifted young mind and save it for the future usefulness which we all fondly anticipated.” Moving on to Smith’s actual views Smeaton labeled them “without any basis of solid historical fact,” “mere conjecture,” “petty internal criticism leaping to arbitrary conclusions,” “castle building in the clouds.” Smeaton concluded by arguing, “We, as professors, are not appointed by the Church to teach what tends to shake the faith of any, or to advocate a criticism which is not legitimate” (p169).
In the end, Robertson Smith followed neither course of advice and continued to air his views publicly, without any noticeable change except advancement. Smith was examined by his University which believed there was not sufficient evidence for a heresy trial although “the article does not adequately indicate that the Professor holds the doctrine of Divine Inspiration of the book whose history he investigates and describes.” I’m sure this was the old defense – you know the article (or book) I wrote was presenting one side of the coin (humanity) and you know that the other was presupposed (divinity) although not explicitly affirmed, etc.
The position of Smith was not left to lie there and a charge against him eventually reached the General Assembly. Amongst the specific charges were: “The Sacred writers took freedoms and committed errors like other authors. They gave explanations that were unnecessary and incorrect, they put fictitious speeches into the mouths of their historical characters … they wrote under the influence of party spirit and for party purposes,” “Certain books of Scripture are of the nature of fiction [myth?],” “The New Testament citations of Old Testament books by the titles then current cannot be regarded as conclusive testimony as to their actual authorship” (p171). These charges were refined and eventually Smith was cleared by a majority of seven votes – an indication of how the spiritual state of the Free Church had declined between 1845 and 1880 rather than an indication of Smith’s soundness.
No doubt part of the reason Smith was acquitted was his willingness to admit “he was greatly to blame for statements which had proved so incomplete that, at the end of three years, the opinion of the house had been so divided upon them” (p172). So, you know, he could have been clearer at points and that led to misunderstanding, since once he was understood there would be no trouble … but actually he was about to be clearer and that was going to lead to trouble! No sooner was the 1880 Assembly over but there was another article by Smith in the Encyclopedia Britannica on “Hebrew Language and Literature”. This was more forthright than his original article and got him before the 1881 Assembly where he was dismissed from his Professorial chair but remained a minister in good standing – an unsatisfactory state of affairs. Life was not hard for the newly redundant Smith as he was soon filling the Chair of Arabic at Cambridge University.
Had this act of the Assembly rescued the Free Church of Scotland from low views of Scripture? No. It was too little too late. Ferrier notes, “Robertson Smith’s views affected deeply the position of the Scottish Church in regard to Reformed Evangelical orthodoxy … ‘The man was got out of the way, but the opinions of which he was the advocate remained. The leaven of Higher Criticism had not been purged out. It was allowed to work, and it did work, till it leavened well nigh the whole lump'” (p173). Ferrier observes: “Robertson Smith’s case was only a symptom of the rot that had begun in the Free Church. If the Church was to be unified and purified then others should have been disciplined too, such as his teacher Professor Davidson, and with him many of the younger men … the Free Church was now like a ‘place invaded by architects and builders who were partly demolishing it, wholly rearranging it and making it seem new and strange in every room'” (p174).
One of these architects was Marcus Dods. He described the doctrine of verbal inspiration as a “theory of inspiration which has made the Bible an offence to many honest men, which is dishonouring to God, and which has turned inquirers into sceptics by the thousand” (p176). Surprise, surprise, Dods still thought himself in line with the Westminster Confession: “I hold with the Confession, that all the writings of the Old and New Testaments are given by inspiration of God to be the rule of faith and life … But I do not hold that inspiration guarantees Scripture from inaccuracy in all its particular statements: neither do I find that the Confession either expresses or implies any such idea of inspiration” (p176). So he agrees with the Confession – as long as he gets to define its meaning. This kind of profession of agreement with the Confession is meaningless. As an aside, his comments on what the WCoF’s doctrine of Scripture is can safely be classified as nonsense.
The Free Church in 1900 merged with another denomination apart from a small minority who opposed Higher Criticism and other departures from the Westminster Confession. This meant the Free Church had in just over 50 years gone from being a third of the Church of Scotland to a handful of ministers. Meanwhile, a few years down the line, the United Free Church merged again and the congregations which embraced Robertson Smith’s views are now largely empty and lifeless.
Once again in evangelical churches it appears the doctrine of Scripture is being debated. Let us learn from how things worked out in the 19th century:
- As has been observed elsewhere, if “the price of peace is eternal vigilance” then the price of doctrinal soundness is the same.
- Procrastination over church discipline can be disastrous. Robertson Smith had been teaching students for the ministry his views on Scripture for 11 years by the time he was removed from his post. Is it any wonder the rising generation of Free Church ministers had defective views of Scripture? Any action taken after that length of time was bound to be too little too late.
- Disciplining one man is rarely, if ever, enough. If that one man is worthy of discipline, then those who share similar views cannot be exempt from a similar process. There is little point pulling out the weed if the roots are left to grow another plant.
The final word goes to Mr Ferrier:
“What we learn from this sad episode in Free Church history is that any undermining of the authority and veracity of God’s Word can only lead to spiritual barrenness and sinful unbelief” (p179).
As an aside, Mr Ferrier’s book is well worth purchasing. It is not a scholarly volume – more of personal reminiscences of a life spent reading Scottish church history – but well worth a read. It can be purchased here: