Thursday, October 23, 2008

Teaching Theology for 140 Years - XVII.

After the death of Dr. Thomson the Relief Church elected two professors to replace him, Rev. William Lindsay of Glasgow and Rev. Neil M'Michael of Dunfermline. It was decided that the hall would remain at Glasgow, which had been the main centre for education for the Relief since its origin. Thus the Relief Church was quicker to come to the conclusion that a single Professor simply cannot be expected to know everything that must be taught to theological students. It must be remembered, however, that the men who came to the Halls had been trained up from youth on the Westminster Confession and Catechism, and had sat under solid doctrinal and expository preaching. They came to the Hall with a grounding in the Scriptures that was far deeper than that of today's students who may have been fed a diet of popular Christian paperbacks! It must also be recalled that this was the period when ministers of the Church of England received no specialist theological training at all!

Lindsay and M'Michael began their work as Relief Professors on 16th August 1842, teaching forty-six students. They were the two foremost ministers of their denomination. M'Michael would have been the foremost of the two if he had not been possessed of a rather unclear utterance, and other bad habits of speaking. One of these was the tendency to sprinkle what he said with the word 'p'raps', even when there was no real uncertainty as to what he was saying, such as the occasion that he said "Ye ken there's but one God, p'raps," implying no doubt on his part as to the truth of monothesism. M'Michael was a good old Scotsman, and that common tough won him what his bad vocal mannerisms could not. Lindsay was a deep scholar of the Scriptures, and, like his colleague, a defender of the old Calvinistic faith. They were two affable, genial and accessible men, who modeled for their students what ministers ought to be. This is another aspect of the theological professor's role, to show the students that a theologian is not some impractical old scholar who spends his time with dusty old books, but that he is a pastor whose theology is practical. Not pragmatic, please note, accepting 'what works, but practical, that is, a theology that has, to use Luther's expression, hands and feet, that sets Christians free to work.

The separation of the Secession and Relief Churches was more of an historical accident than a theological matter. Both Churches held to the Westminster Standards, and they taught that theology. The idea that is still to be found in some older works that the Relief Church was less strict on subscription is a fallacy, based on an idea dreamed up from who-knows-where that Gillespie subscribed the Confession with scruples. No evidence exists for this. As time went on, the two bodies began to communicate with one another, and slowly the path to union was worked out. It took many years, and finally it was the Disruption of the Church of Scotland in 1843 that galvanised the two bodies to action. The two synods entered into serious talks, and in 1847 the two bodies united. With the union of the churches came the union of their seminaries. In prospect of this the United Secession Synod had not filled up the vacancy caused by the death of Professor Balmer, expecting it to be filled, and more than filled, by the Relief Professors.

So what had been the Secession Church became, by union with the Relief Church, the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland. United because it had been formed by the union of Churches that had been separated, and Presbyterian in government. From henceforth its seminary would be the United Presbyterian Divinity Hall.

Of which more, God willing, next time.



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