Thursday, August 07, 2008

Teaching Theology for 140 Years - VII.

We have seen how the Anti-Burgher Hall was effectively broken up by the departure of its professor, Archibald Bruce, with the Original Seceders. For three years the Chair was vacant and there was effectively no Hall, but at last it was decided to appoint a successor. The choice of the Synod fell on Rev. George Paxton of the Kilmaurs Anti-Burgher congregation. Aged forty-four at the time, Paxton was very able minister of deep learning and superior Biblical scholarship.

But whereas previous Professors had taught in their parishes, and the Hall had been without premises, a peripatetic school that followed the Professor wherever he happened to be, it was decided that Paxton should be separated from his pastorate and be a full-time professor, residing in what was to be henceforth the permanent seat of the Hall, Edinburgh. The Anti-Burgher Seceders were in essence declaring that they were no whit behind the Church of Scotland. Their Divinity Hall was now to be an embryo theological college, not an additional labour given to a pastor to combine with the duties of his work.

It is of course essential that any theological professor should have been a pastor, but the Anti-Burgers now considered that it was not needful that the man retain his pastorate whilst teaching. Let us recall that this one man was to teach Systematic Theology, Church History, Exegesis and Homiletics at a minimum. Modern theological institutions usually have one professor for each of these subjects. Paxton, moreover, was a man of delicate health. He was already suffering under the strain of a rural pastorate, to insist that he be professor at the same time would probably have killed him.

In the first year of the new arrangement, there were nine first-year students studying under the one professor. Soon it rose to an average of fourteen, and in 1819, the year of the reunion of the Burgher and Anti-Burgher synods, there would be twenty-eight.

Paxton would be granted the degree of D.D. by St. Andrews University in 1834, an unusual honour for a Seceder, as the universities were still institutions connected to the Church of Scotland, and university Divinity faculties Church of Scotland theological Halls. His scholarship was thus recognised by even the Church of Scotland.

He had two meetings each day with his students during sessions, except for Saturday, when they met once for devotional services and essay-reading and conversation on some practical question of religion. Each morning was taken up with a lecture on the textbook, still Markius' Medulla, save for Monday, when the morning lecture would be on the exegesis of a difficult passage of Scripture, combined with reading and examination in the Greek New Testament. The afternoon meetings were longer and consisted in two main things, the hearing of discourses and exercises by the students and their examination in the morning lecture. This was followed by a lecture on some other topic. Most popular were Paxton's lectures on the Holy Land. The homiletics classes were further enriched by exercises in which Professor Paxton gave his students a text from which they had to give, extempore, a 'skeleton' discourse.

The fact that the Professor was now a full-time teacher and living and working in Edinburgh meant that he was able to introduce a winter course on Hebrew, which had hitherto been neglected owing to the constraints of time. Unfortunately students living far from Edinburgh were usually unable to attend these classes, but they were a start.

Paxton was, of course, expected to devote himself full-time to the students, and he did so. He even did what he could to help those future Secession ministers who were still at the University. He soon won the admiration and love of his pupils, and the admiration of many outside the Anti-Burgher denomination.

In 1819 the majority of the Anti-Burgher and Burgher Synods united. Yet Paxton remained outside the united church. He felt that the union involved a compromise that he could not make, and so ended the Anti-Burgher Hall. At a future date, God willing, we shall deal with the Hall of what was called the United Secession Church, but to this point we have been following the Anti-Burghers alone. We must now double back and survey the history of the Burgher Hall, which we shall do, God willing, next time.



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