Friday, August 15, 2008

Teaching Theology for 140 Years - XII.

Dr. John Dick taught theology to the United Secession Students as sole professor for five years, but with the number of students increasing, and Dr. Dick over sixty years of age, it was felt that it would be best for him to be joined by another man. Dr. Dick was far from being unsatisfactory. His lectures were and remain classic statements of Calvinist theology, and his brethren in the Synod had total confidence in him. Nevertheless it was becoming plain that one man could not teach everything that a future minister needs to be taught. Of course, as the course only took two months of each of the five years that a student had to study for, much was done in private study, guided by the Presbyteries of the Church. One thing that is difficult to learn alone, however, is another language. Since at this time Greek (albeit the Classical Attic Greek of the philosophers and poets, not the Koine Greek of the New Testament) was commonly taught in schools, the Divinity Hall's main responsibility in terms of language study would be Hebrew.

We have noted that by this time it was expected that students at the Hall would have taken a University degree. Readers should not suppose that this would be a modern specialised degree. The Scottish Universities of the period were truly universities, and the arts course was designed to give students a rounded knowledge of history, philosophy and literature. What was more, students were much younger than they are today. Commonly modern university students in Britain are eighteen or nineteen. In the period with which we are dealing the average age of a freshman student was about fifteen years old. The undergraduate course was, in terms of age at least, much more like a modern English A-level course. It was not uncommon for boys of fourteen to be sent to university - something to remember when we read of great men of the past entering university at such an age.

The Synod resolved to establish a second Professorship, for the express purpose of "expounding the history, evidences, and interpretation of the sacred Jewish and Christian books, and for examining the students in Greek and Hebrew." Thus this was a Chair of Biblical Languages and Literature, leaving to Dr. Dick the fields of Systematic Theology, Pastoral Theology, Church History and Apologetics. Quite enough for any one man. Since Dr. Dick had been of the Burgher Party before the Union, it was felt best to appoint his colleague from the ranks of the former Anti-Burgher party.

The man chosen by the Synod was Rev. Dr. John Mitchell of Glasgow. As well as possessing the scholarship needful for the task, he was an exemplary Christian, regarded by some as like 'a second Saint John'. A tall, powerfully-built man, he dressed impeccably, not wanting to give offence by slovenly attire. In an age when neat clothing was more appreciated than today, a scruffy minister would have increased the offence of the Gospel. He combined in himself love and learning, godliness and amiable simplicity. Indeed, he was such an amiable man that his intellectual brilliance was noticed by few. His students, however, soon came to appreciate it as he expounded the Sacred Oracles.

Mitchell was appointed on 15th September 1825. To make things easier for the students and the professors, the class was now for the first time divided, the Junior Class, consisting of students in the first two years of their course, would be under Dr. Mitchell, while the Seniors, the remaining three years, would be under Dr. Dick. As the average yearly intake of students was 26, this meant that Mitchell's class would be about fifty-two in number, while Dr. Dick would be teaching some 78 students at a time.

In terms of languages, as has been said, Dr. Mitchell's main responsibility was the teaching of Hebrew. Mitchell knew his Hebrew well, and he loved it. HIs enthusiasm for the language helped him to teach it. He assumed that, as the men before him were future ministers, they would not employ any methods of 'cheating' to appear to know more Hebrew than they did. This is not so. We know of a seminary where students took advantage of the fact that the lecturer's desk was in an alcove to surreptitiously post a 'crib' to Hebrew grammar above the alcove. Thus a student would look upwards as if in though, and read the crib. So it was in Dr. Mitchell's day. Some men had the Psalms by heart in English, and thus 'translated' by repeating the English from memory. Others read from the English Bible that was open on the desk before them. One enterprising man, who had been a Glasgow Police surgeon before his call to the ministry, hit on a splendidly bizarre method. One of his class-mates was afflicted with epilepsy, and of course was glad of the doctor's medical assistance when seized with a fit. Thus, when the former surgeon foresaw that he would be 'stumped' in Hebrew, he would pretend to observe some sign of a forthcoming fit in his friend, and drag the man from the room, to sit quietly with him for the rest of the morning.

The two professors worked well in their respective spheres until 1833. It was on 25th of January of that year that Dr. Dick, by now very nearly seventy, died after a short illness. With his death the synod began to consider that more professors should be added to the faculty. Theological scholarship was beginning its nineteenth century growth, and literature was beginning to increase. If one man was no longer sufficient to teach the full curriculum, it was now felt that two were still not enough.

What changes this brought we shall see, God willing, next time.



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