Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Teaching Theology for 140 Years - XI.

While Dr. Lawson had been the obvious and only successor to John Brown of Haddington, there was no such obvious succession at Dr. Lawson's death. The Synod ordered a committee to 'nominate a leet' of candidates for the Synod to choose from. Four were nominated, Dr. Dick, Dr. Peddie, Mr. John Brown of Biggar, and Mr. Marshall. By two successive votes the number of candidates was reduced to two, Dr. John Dick of Glasgow, and Mr. John Brown. The choice was between two of the best theological minds in the Church, but the Synod recognised that brilliance ought to be joined with experience, and Dr. Dick was elected by a large majority. What was more, John Brown's brilliance lay in the area of Biblical and exegetical studies, not systematic theology, and that was the field in which Dr. Dick was unquestionably more gifted.

Though the Church thereby declared that it wanted Dr. Dick, it found itself in a rather awkward situation when it emerged that Dr. Dick did not desire to take up the Chair. Urged by a committee, he at last consented to take charge of the students for the session of 1820, before the union of the two main branches of the Secession. The Hall met for the first time in Glasgow a few days before the Union. Dr. Dick regarded his post as for one year only. Perhaps he hoped that Mr. Paxton would enter the United Church, and thus relieve him of the post.

But it was not to be. Indeed, though the union of the two Halls resulted in a United Hall with more than one hundred students, there was a real prospect that there would be no-one to teach them! It had been hoped that the United Hall would have two professors, now it seemed it would have none!

The two branches of the Secession had been separated for seventy-three years, and the two Divinity Halls had developed on slightly different lines. We have seen how the Anti-Burgher Synod finally decided that the Professor ought to be relieved from the burden of caring for a congregation and teaching theology, while the Burgher Synod retained the old system of the Professor being a serving pastor. The Anti-Burgher Synod, conversely, had retained the old system of examining students on a text-book, while the Burgher Synod Professors had developed their own systems in lectures.

The United Secession Church's newly-formed Synod was faced with a crisis. They recognised that, as things stood, there was only one man with the ability to teach the United Hall, and that was Dr. John Dick, who showed extreme reluctance to take up the post. It took iron determination and a great deal of persuasion, but at last Dr. Dick relented, and he was confirmed as the Synod's Professor. It was decided that he should retain his pastoral charge as well as taking up the Professorship. No doubt the challenge was immense, but Dr. Dick rose to it. A former member of the Burgher Synod, he adopted the Burgher practice of giving his own lectures in Systematic Theology. The result was a work that Archibald Alexander of Princeton regarded as one of the finest English works on Systematic Theology. Today Dr. Dick's Lectures are published by Tentmaker Publications. It was the opinion of Peter Landreth, the historian of the United Presbyterian Hall, that Dr. Dick's work was only displaced by the Systematic Theology of Charles Hodge. He would not, however, admit that Dr. Dick's Lectures on Systematic Theology were in any way inferior to Hodge.

The arrangement of time was that adopted by Dr. Lawson, two meetings an hour-and-a-half in length, morning and afternoon. He examined students not only in his own lectures, but in the best Reformed works available, no doubt availing himself of, among others, the publications of Mr. Thomas Nelson, of whom we have written.

Dr. Dick thus began the United Hall on a good footing. Though aged fifty-six when he began his work, he was in excellent health. But good health or not, the Synod decided that a Hall of a hundred or more students required more than one man to teach them.

Of which more, God willing, next time.



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