Archive for the ‘Scripture’ Category

Plundering the Egyptians at Westminster Theological Seminary…

April 24, 2010

Old Princeton and its successor Westminster Theological Seminary hold a place in the hearts of those who love the doctrines of the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture. Recently a fascinating study charting the changing face of Old Testament studies at Westminster Seminary was published.  It’s full title is:

Plundering the Egyptians: The Old Testament and Historical Criticism at Westminster Theological Seminary (1929-1998)

The book is split into three main sections covering the figures that the author, John Yeo, sees as the defining characters in the shaping of Old Testament studies at Westminster.  These are in chronological order Robert Dick Wilson, Edward J. Young and Raymond B. Dillard & Tremper Longman III (who are considered together).

The chapter on Wilson is entitled Old Princeton Redivivus – which in itself summarises Wilson’s intention for Old Testament studies at Westminster.  Wilson had been teaching at Princeton Seminary for 29 years prior to the reorganisation of the Seminary to allow for more “enlightened” views to be tolerated.  He, along with J. Gresham Machen and others, left Princeton to found Westminster Theological Seminary – where the flame of Old Princeton could be kept burning.  Wilson was in his early seventies when Westminster was founded but such was his committment to the Word of God that even at this stage of his life he was willing to start over and support the cause of Westminster.  O.T. Allis reflected on this:

“He was already past the age for retirement.  He might have continued teaching for a year or so and then have retired to spend his old age in literary work, with a pension sufficient for his needs and one of the greatest theological libraries in America ready to hand … But he believed that to remain would be to countenance and tacitly approve a reorganisation which he held to be destructive of the Princeton which he loved and where he had laboured for nearly thirty years.”

Wilson died after only one year of service at Westminster Seminary but left a vision for Westminster seminary as an institution of “defenders of the faith”.  Wilson therefore saw himself, and Westminster OT studies in general, continuing in the line of J.A. Alexander, and W.H. Green as upholders of the accuracy and historicity of God’s Word.  Wilson himself personified Old Princeton combining prodigious learning (he was “at home” in 45 languages/dialects) and tenacious committment to defending the inerrancy of Scripture against the assumptions and conclusions of the “higher critics”.  Two particular examples of this defence are highlighted by Yeo:  1) A defence of the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch 2) A defense of an early dating of Daniel & therefore the unity of the book.  Wilson did not defend these positions out of ignorance and Yeo outlines at length Wilson’s reasoned arguments for his views.

The chapter on Young is entitled Toeing the Line.  Young is presented as a preserved of the Old Princeton/Westminster tradition he inherited.  Although Young commenced his studies at Westminster he was taught by two faithful students and then colleagues of Wilson, O.T. Allis and Allan MacRae.  Whether through their influence or directly through knowledge of Wilson and his writing’s Young developed a profound respect for Wilson.  Young stated:

“…the Old Testament is capable of scholarly defense and … Robert Dick Wilson was one of its most scholarly defenders … it is on men such as Wilson, men who have not feared hard work, who have not shirked the difficult problems, and who have been willing to join the battle with the enemy that God has built His Church.  May the triune God be praised for having given to His people so great a Warrior as Robert Dick Wilson.”

Young again exemplified the ideal of Old Princeton.  Like Wilson he was a profoundly gifted linguist and a staunch defender of Scripture.  (Young was however, according to Yeo, less harsh in the tone of his polemics than Wilson.)  Young’s views of two critical areas are discussed by Yeo, namely, 1) Young’s defence fo the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch 2)  Young’s defence of the unity of Isaiah.  On these points “Young intentionally laboured to carry on the Old Princeton tradition … He consciously identified himself with the procession of scholars that represented this conservative trajectory … in every subject that his predecessors wrote on, Young, in the main held similar stances.”

There are interesting side-trails on Young’s covenant theology & his relationship with Meredith Kline but there is no space to discuss these sections here.

The chapter on Dillard and Longman is entitled A Changing of the Guards and is perhaps the most interesting of the chapters as it documents a “significant shift within the Old Princeton-Westminster trajectory.”  On the authorship of the Pentateuch Longman affirms “essential Mosaic authorship” but allows for significant post-Mosaic insertions and editing such that in the words of T. Desmond Alexander “Moses probably did not compose the Pentateuch as we presently know it.”  Thus Yeo comments “Longman … mediates between the traditional view of Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch and the historical-critical view which dates each source document … beyond the time of Moses.”  On the authorship of Isaiah Dillard’s acceptance of a least two “authors” of the book (i.e. a denial of the books authorial unity) is documented.  In the words of Yeo “Dillard’s acceptance of the multiple authorship view of Isaiah stands as a substantive modification to the Old Princeton-Westminster trajectory.”  On Daniel, it is noted that Longman was content with an early date but did not rule out a later date and authorship by a “school of disciples” as, for Longman, “the dating of Daniel was no longer a ‘litmus test’ of orthodoxy.”  Yeo notes the fundamental change in posture was that while for earlier Westminster/Old Princeton scholars inspiration lay in the individual prophet/author  for Dillard/Longman inspiration lay in “the entire historical process of inscripturation, composition, and subsequent redactional activity.”  This enabled them to be much more open to acceptance of critical positions while maintaining a doctrine of “inspiration.”  Yeo’s discussion at this point is helpful.  He notes in his conclusion that:

 “They [Dillard/Longman] are no longer in a defensive, apologetic stance as were their forbears who were oriented towards the church, but because of their orientation toward the academy, they considered themselves freed from the constraints of their inherited traditional views and began to look at the biblical evidence in new ways by employing modern critical tools in order to open up the text for investigation.  In analyzing the writings of Dillard and Longman, it is evident that the authority of tradition and Scripture had been, in their minds, trumped by the empirical evidence of the text itself and perhaps by the weight of years of Old Testament scholarship.”

In summary Yeo believes that he has demonstrated that “a paradigmatic shift took place over the course of seventy years of Old Testament scholarship at Westminster Seminary with regard to the use of the method and conclusions of historical criticism.”  Yeo interprets this change to mean that “by the end of the twentieth century, Old Testament studies at Westminster had been altered.  By a gradual yet deliberate process, its scholars ultimately embraced the very form of the methodology that the seminary has been founded to reject … they were no longer opponents, but players in the guild.”  It is important to note in summarising Yeo that anti-supernatural pre-suppositions would not have received any support  at Westminster and that Longman/Dillard would have denied undermining Scripture and would have professed to hold “a high view of Scripture.”

Yeo concludes with the provocative question regarding the current trajectory of evangelical OT studies; “will there be anything truly distinctive about evangelical biblical scholarship in the future?”

For all who are concerned about the doctrine of Scripture in Reformed churches, this book will make an interesting, if somewhat sobering read.  The book is well written, easy to follow and should be of general interest to Evangelicals as the changes at Westminster paralleled similar changes in the Evangelical landscape as a whole.  It is worth braring in mind that the book is history, not polemics, so there is little by way of evaluation of whether the changes were for better or for worse.


PS The only major fault of the book is the placing of footnotes at the end of chapters rather than where they should be, namely, at the foot of the page!  Given the substantive nature of many of the footnotes this makes for an immensely frustrating reading experience at times!  Why, why, why do publishers do that?

PPS The book does not cover recent events in the OT department at Westminster and what that means for the trajectory of OT studies in the Seminary.

Politics, Religion and the British Revolutions: The Mind of Samuel Rutherford

September 6, 2008

Politics, Religion and the British RevolutionsOver the past 2 years I’ve read many PhD’s which, quite frankly, could have been cobbled together in a couple of months such was the lack of quality in content and style.  It is therefore refreshing to read a work of genuine depth and quality – a work that is substantial, insightful and yet readable.  Such a work is John Coffey’s Politics, Religion and the British Revolutions: The Mind of Samuel Rutherford (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).  Now, there are elements of the book I would respectfully differ from (some of which below) but taken as a whole this is a marvelous intellectual biography of Rutherford.  Here are some of the points which struck me:

1) Coffey argues that the allegation Rutherford had “relations” with his wife prior to marriage (which was the cause of his dismissal from Edinburgh University) was true (p38).  I was not convinced that this is the most plausible reading of events e.g. the reference to Baillie’s letters (2:96) as providing another incidence of a man taken in fornication ordained a year later did not seem support this as the Synod were reproved for allowing the man to resume his ministry.

2) Coffey states “Along with Robert Bruce … [John] Welsh was a pioneer of the intense style of extemporary conversionist preaching which was to be imitated by younger Presbyterians like Livingstone, Rutherford and Dickson.”  (p39) It is heartening to see someone else pick on the aim of so much of 17th C Scottish preaching – to convert sinners.

3) Coffey makes the following comments about Rutherford and the inspiration of scripture which demonstrate the sheer ignorance of the claim, still made in “progressive” evangelical circles that belief in the inerrancy of scripture is a new development in church history which only works given certain post-enlightenment paradigms and was only really developed by Princeton e.g. Warfield and Hodge.  Here is Coffey on Rutherford:

Rutherford adhered to a very strict view of biblical inspiration. In the Divine Right he seemed to have offered something very close to a dictation theory: ‘In writing every jot, tittle, or word of Scripture, [the authors] were immediately inspired, as touching the matter, words, phrases, expression, order, method, majesty, stile and all. So I think they were but organs, the mouth, pen and Amanuenses … God borrowed the mouth of the prophet.’ This belief led to the position that it was necessary to accept the statement that ‘Paul left his cloak at Troas’ as of no less authority than the statement that ‘Christ came into the world to save sinners’, ‘in regard of Canonical authority stamped upon both’. [Rutherford, Divine Right, pp64-6] … Early-modern theologians went to great lengths to reconcile Scripture and scientific discoveries and to harmonise apparent discrepancies in the biblical text. The option of treating Scripture as fallible in matters of history and science was simply not open…
p77-8 [Spelling as per Rutherford!]

 4) The book is also helpful in considering Rutherford’s position relative to theonomy:

…there was more controversy concerning the judicial laws of Moses … Calvin had contemptuously dismissed the idea that these laws might still be binding and argued that magistrates were free to set penalties that they saw appropriate [Institutes, IX.xx.14-16] … Rutherford … illustrates there were other options besides either affirming or denying the present validity of the entire judicial law. Rutherford argued that with the coming of Christ ‘the whole bulk of the judicial law, as judicial, and as it concerned the Republic of the Jews only, is abolished’, but he added that ‘the moral equity of all those be not abolished’. [Divine Right, 493-4]. The judicial laws could not be dismissed as irrelevant by Christian magistrates; they contained elements of moral equity that were still binding … [For Rutherford] the type of punishment the law prescribed for a particular crime – for example, the death penalty for fornication – was not a moral absolute, but a ‘mysterious’ type of God’s anger towards certain sins which was no longer binding on magistrates in the New Testament age [Divine Right, 493-4]…

My basic take from reading Rutherford and Coffey is that Rutherford was no theonomist!

5) Coffey also notes how in many way the popular Rutherford is only half the man.  The piety of his letters and sermons is what is remembered while his polemic works and his views on toleration are buried in obscurity.  It is certainly true that my own home denomination has parted ways with Rutherford Supremacy Of God In The Theology Of Samuel Rutherfordon toleration as the Free Chruch of Scotland in 1846 stated, “…the Church firmly maintains the same Scriptural principles as to the duties of nations and their rulers in reference to true religion and the Church of Christ, for which she has hitherto contended, she disclaims intolerant or persecuting principles, and does not regard her Confession of Faith, or any portion thereof, when fairly interpreted, as favouring intolerance or persecution, or consider that her officebearers, by subscribing it, profess any principles inconsistent with liberty of conscience and the right of private judgment.”  There are other aspects of his theology which I am also not unhappy have faded in influence i.e. his supralapsarianism and his denial of the necessity of the atonement.  Nevertheless Rutherford the theologian and Rutherford the polemecist do not deserve to be forgotten and hopefully Guy Richard’s work The Supremacy Of God In The Theology Of Samuel Rutherford will rectify that neglect.

What Happens when we get our Doctrine of Scripture Wrong?

May 26, 2008

Echoes from Scotland\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 [1843] 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:

  1. As has been observed elsewhere, if “the price of peace is eternal vigilance” then the price of doctrinal soundness is the same.
  2. 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.
  3. 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: