Friday, January 27, 2006

"An Impossibility" William Robertson Smith IX

William Robertson Smith had done the impossible. The devotee of the Higher Criticism had gone up against the combined might of Principal Rainy and James Begg, and got off with a slap on the wrist and a 'don't do it again.' It seemed that he was home and dry. For twenty-one days he was the hero of the hour. But on 8th of June 1880, the eleventh volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica was published. As it had been the Encyclopaedia that had started the controversy, so the Encyclopaedia would bring an end to it.
For the eleventh volume contained an article by Robertson Smith on Hebrew Language and Literature. As any Buible college student ought to know, the only significant Hebrew Literature before the 2nd century AD is the Old Testament, and so Robertson Smith discussed the origins of the books of the Old Testament in the article.

His views had changed. But, far from becoming more moderate, he had become far more extreme, embracing even more of the German higher critical position! "It may fairly be made a question whether Moses left in writing any other laws than the commandments on the tables of stone," Robertson Smith had written. What was worse, the article had been in the press even as Robertson Smith had been speaking his apparently heartfelt words of repentance before the Assembly. Many who had given him the benefit of the doubt in the Assembly now recoiled in horror at this apparent hypocrisy. Robertson Smith could not be trusted after all. In fact it is probably more likely that Robertson Smith had just not thought about the impact that the article would have. His faith had not been affected by the new views of the Bible, why should that of anyone else?

The appearance of the article proved to Rainy what he had always suspected - Robertson Smith was his own worst enemy, learned though he was. Even if he should weather this storm, he would eventually make a bluder that the Assembly would not forgive, and academic freedom in the Free Church Colleges would be stifled. Robertson Smith had promised to be discreet in his speech to the Assembly, he had souded contrite, and all the while this article had been in the press. What other articles were in the press? What further bluders might the professor commit. Rainy concluded that he had been right to take the stance that he had taken, and he set his face to the task of removing Robertson Smith from the Free Church of Scotland, for the sake of the peace of his beloeved Free Church. The historian of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland says: "Professor Smith's ill-concealed contempt for many of his opponents, simply because they were not so familiar with the niceties of Hebrew scholarship and were not spell-bound by the erratic theorising of the German school, explains to a certain extent his inability to see matters from their standpoint." (History of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland [Glasgow, 1970] P. 39). Robertson Smith had never been a pastor, and had therefore the mind of an academic, not a pastor. Unable to sympathise with the concerns of his elders and betters in the Assembly, he had to pay the price for his thoughtlessness.

The Assembly of 1881 was in no mood to be as lenient to Robertson Smith as that of the previous year, and when Rainy stood up to propose a motion against Robertson Smith, it was once again as the leader of the Church. "Both the tone of the article in itself, and the fact that such an article was prepared and published in the circumstances, and after all the previous proceedings in his case, evidence on the part of Professor Smith a singular insensibility to his responsibilities as a theological professor, and a singular and culpable lack of sympathy with the reasonable anxieties of the Church as to the bearing of critical speculations on the integrity and authority of Scripture," Rainy read out. The motion concluded that, "Professor Smith, whatever his gifts and attainments, which the Assembly have no disposition to undervalue, ought no longer to be entrusted with the training of students for the ministry." (Black and Chrystal, William Robertson Smith P. 425. The motion passed by 423 votes to 245, a clear majority. Robert Rainy had won at last. He had saved the Free Church, so he felt, from obscurantists and from the extremes of critical scholars.

William Robertson Smith was removed from his chair. He went south of the border, to Cambridge, where he lived out the rest of his days in the rarefied atmosphere of the university, dying in 1894. He never forgave Rainy, telling one student of his who declared his intention of going to New College to study, "Don't trust Rainy - he's a Jesuit."

Or maybe Rainy was just a canny politician. For the Higher Criticism, once it had entered the Free Church, was not going to be removed with one man. It spread like a cancer, taught by wiser men that Robertson Smith. And Robertson Smith lived and died a Calvinist, while many Free Churchmen abandoned the Reformed Faith. But that is, as another writer says, another story, but a story which, God willing, Free St. George's may return to.



Blogger mark_5 said...

Thank you for sharing these narratives and your insights. I find them fascinating and educational.


3:59 pm  
Blogger Highland Host said...

Thank you. It's nice to know there's still a reader out there.

6:37 pm  

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