Helpless Before An Idea

A serendipitous experience came my way the other day. Hot on the scent of an elusive quotation in the library, I got diverted by an old book that was as relevant to my quest as the flowers that bloom in the spring (I have what some have called “a grasshopper mind”).

The tome in question dealt with the trial of John Macleod Campbell, the Scots divine condemned by the General Assembly in 1831 because of his teaching on the atonement. “Macleod Campbell’s teaching was unsettling,” said the writer, “and ecclesiastics, helpless as usual in the presence of an idea, were well content to be rid of him.” What caught my eye was his description of the proceedings, which included a verbal slip of Principal John Lee, clerk of the assembly. Transposing his nouns, Lee declared that “those doctrines of Mr. Campbell would remain and flourish after the Church of Scotland had perished and was forgotten.” Whereupon Erskine of Linlathen, saint, mystic, and lay theologian, said to those sitting beside him in the hall: “This spake he, not of himself, but being High Priest that year he prophesied.”

I mention this because readers of this journal will have learned from its indefatigable British reporter that the latest Church of Scotland General Assembly was restless about continuing to view the Westminster Confession as a subordinate standard. That the mother church of Presbyterianism should take a softer line on heresy by criticism of what another prophetic (newspaper) slip not long ago called the Westminster Concession will raise some eyebrows. The inevitable question will be asked about orthodoxy, relevance, and the Church’s witness today. “Even an orthodox theologian can be spiritually dead,” Thielicke points out, “while ...

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