Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Teaching Theology for 140 Years - III.

The Secession Theological Hall, then, began in Perth, with only one Professor and six students. There was no ceremony when the Hall opened, just a teacher and his students getting down to the serious business of preparing for the ministry .

The shortness of the session meant that Wilson decided to teach from a textbook, the Medulla of Markius, a Dutch Reformed theological professor from Leyden, was the textbook, and it was, of course, in Latin. The students were expected to master this systematic theology, and they were examined on its teaching. Wilson supplemented this with lectures upon the cardinal points of doctrine contained in the system. Since the Professor was also a full-time pastor, this was a thoroughly efficient way of teaching, and had the advantage that students could study the system while they were not at Perth. Wilson, for his part, did not have to prepare in essence a whole new systematic theology in his lectures. Having to build on another's foundation, Wilson chose to do so openly. He took great care that his students mastered Markius, examining every part of the system and understanding and remembering it. The desired end was that the Secession Church would possess a throughly educated ministery, and ministers who knew the system of Calvinistic doctrine. Today we have swung away from systematic theology to Biblical theology, and whilst the older Calvinists may have given too little place to Biblical theology, we have tended to err in the opposite extreme.

What influenced Wilson to take up a method of teaching that was quite different from that found in the Scottish universities and under which he had himself been trained? We shall never know for sure, but certainly one factor was that Dr. Philip Doddridge, head of the Dissenting Academy at Northampton, England, used the same method. Bishop Burnet, one-time Professor of Divinity in Glasgow University, who adopted this system of examining students on a text-book and giving supplementary lectures.

As we have noted, all instruction was in Latin, as was the text-book. The native language spoken by the students was not English, but Scots, a rather different, though similar, language, in which no systematic theologies existed. What was more, Latin theological works were far better known then, and so Latin was the key to the best of European Reformed and Lutheran Theology.

Students lodged with members of the congregation, ensuring that there was no way for them to be aloof from the local Church. Students were bound together by the closest of ties, living and learning together.

The average class size during the Hall's time at Perth was six students, quickly giving Wilson a class as large as any of the Scottish university Divinity classes.

But the relative peace of the Secession Hall was soon to be disturbed, of which more, God willing, next time.



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