Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Teaching Theology for 140 Years - XIX.

Apologetics, or the Defence of the Faith, is a vital subject in any theological curriculum today. Every responsible Christian has a shelf of apologetics works. Unfortunately all too often this vital task is left to mavericks outside the oversight of the Church, and to men with little theological training. No field is more open to abuse by the semi-educated, or by those who substitute philosophy for the Bible.

Today we are blessed with a number of excellent Reformed apologists. In the second half of the nineteenth century, things were rather different. For one thing, apologetics in the English-speaking world was entirely dominated by the study of 'evidences' for the Christian faith, for another, the attacks came from German Rationalism in particular, and were dominated by a reductionist version of Christianity, shorn of its miracles, not by radical atheism. The Synod of the United Presbyterian Church faced this situation as they considered the appointment of a Professor of Apologetical Theology. There was only one man in their sights, the Rev. Dr. John Cairns of Berwick-Upon-Tweed (pictured). A brilliant man, Cairns had himself been through the German University System, but was too thoughtful and too grounded in the faith to be led astray by the novelties of German speculation. In May 1867 Dr. Cairns was elected to the post. He was to fill it admirably, the best monument of his labours being his 1880 Cunningham Lectures on the subject of Unbelief in the Eighteenth Century, published by Adam and Charles Black in 1881. In this work he considered unbelief in England and Scotland, France and Germany, analysing the thought of such men as Toland, Hume, Voltaire, Rousseau, Reimarus and Lessing, closing with an overview of nineteenth century unbelief and how it had built on the eighteenth century writers. He closed with a pointed appeal to the students and ministers who heard and read his lectures to maintain the supernatural character of Christianity.

Dr. Cairns strove manfully to vindicate the old Scottish theology, and to show that Christianity is based on a divine revelation, not on human wisdom. The fact that he was the first Cunningham Lecturer not to belong to the Free Church of Scotland shows the regard with which he was viewed beyond the boundaries of his own church.

The United presbyterian Hall functioned well. Its curriculum was equal to that of the schools of the other Scottish Presbyterian Churches, and it had among its faculty some of the best minds in the Scottish Churches. But the United Presbyterian Church Synod, as it considered its position as the third Presbyterian Church in the country, and the only one without a staff of full-time professors, began to think of change once again.



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