Thursday, July 24, 2008

Teaching Theology for 140 Years - II.

The four 'Fathers' of the Secession were Ebenezer Erskine, Alexander Moncrieff of Abernethy, William Wilson of Perth and James Fisher of Kinclaven. Others, such as Ralph Erskine, joined them later. At first they sought to remain in the Church of Scotland, but at last they were forced out. One cause of their concern over the Church of Scotland had been Professor Simson, who had been charged with heresy before the Assembly in 1729. He, the man who ought to have been training young men for the ministry of a Church that was based on the Westminster Confession, had been teaching them instead that Christ was just a man, and his death merely martyrdom for the sake of truth.

In seeking a theological professor, these men were moved by a deep concern for the Truth. Nothing, they held, was worse than a heretical professor. A heretical preacher infected one congregation, a heretical theology professor infected dozens, even hundreds, through his students. Heretical preachers often left their congregations relatively untouched, but a heretical theology professor could wreck a denomination. The sad destruction of English Presbyterianism through dissenting academies infected with Unitarian teaching bore witness to this fact. So the first qualification the professor needed was a living faith in Christ, which is the only certain preventative for heresy. The second was sound theological learning. What was demanded of the man was, in fact, evangelical scholarship.

The Church of Scotland Halls possessed three Professors, one of Theology, one of Hebrew and one of Church History (Greek had already been taught at school). These were full-time academics, based in the universities. While they were also usually elders in local congregations, and some preached, they were not parish ministers. The Secession, on the other hand, was faced with a serious shortage of preachers and funds. They were actually unable to have a full-time professor, so their single professor, in addition to having to be a versatile teacher, would have to combine his professorship with a pastorate.
A Committee composed of Moncrieff and Erskine was appointed to consider the question of appointments to the professorship, effectively ensuring that either Fisher or Wilson would be the Professor. In the end their choice fell on Mr. Wilson. He was the sort of evangelical scholar that was needed, in temperament and intellect gifted for the work. As he was pastor in Perth, the Hall was located there for the duration of his professorate. Instruction was in Latin, the international language of scholarship, and the level of learning was equal to that in the University.

The first class consisted of six students, a small number, but equal in number to the entire ministry of the Secession Church at that time! When all six were ordained, they would double the size of the church's ministry. Few institutions can make such a claim.

We have then seen how it began. God willing, next time we shall continue our story.



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