PURITAN NEWS WEEKLY

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4/30/07

 

 

A BRIEF SUMMARY OF FREE CHURCH HISTORY

 

By Parnell McCarter

 

 

A British friend named Simon Padbury posted the excellent summary below of Free Church history on a yahoo group list:

 

 

 

I've been researching the Free Church of Scotland and her beliefs in the 19th Century for some years. I am very interested in that part of history in Scotland, for a number of reasons.

There were a number of errors that affected the FCoS, and drew her away from the good start that she made in her origination in 1843. One of these she carried with her from the start. I shall mention
this and at least two other errors.

The first of these errors was: not holding firmly to the historic stance of the Reformers, Puritans, WCF etc. in their interpretation of the Creation narrative in Genesis 1. As early as 1814 a young
Thomas Chalmers was saying that we can accept both the long ages that the deistic and atheistic geologists are talking about, and also hold to the Mosaic six-day creation account. The that which he invented (his contemporaries say it was invented by him) is what we now know as the Gap Theory. In 1840 Chalmers published literature on his Gap Theory, which popularised it. The long ages talked about in those days were tend of thousands or years, not millions and billions that would become popular later.

Chalmers was very strong on other matters, and was a main mover in the Disruption of 1843 which I mentioned, in which the better, more conservative part of the Church of Scotland came out and formed the FCoS. There were some ardent Young Earth Creationists among the Scottish theologians and geologists in those days, but they stayed woth the CoS. I can't find any that came into the FCoS.

Later, another leader in the FCoS, a theologian and geologist called Hugh Miller promoted what we call the Day-Age Theory, in which he said that the days of creation were not 24-hour, but each were great
epochs.

Other than the points mentioed above, both Miller and Chalmers were strong creationists, and opposed the early (pre-Dawrin) forms of evolution theory. For example, Chalmers and others wrote strong anti-evolution essays, and thought very highly of William Paley's arguments for the existence of God deduced from Natural Theology. There was a Natural Theology movement that was somewhat like the
Intelligent Design movement of today, only it was broader that the ID movement in what it claimed to be able to deduce from a study of the natural world. Natural Theology-ists sought to empirically
demonstrate other attributes of God besides His intelligence, such as His power and goodness and mercy and righteousness. Christian Natural Theology-ists always opposed the Deistic philosophers. The Christians understood that natural revelation was insufficient to teach us saving knowledge, and therefore God had also given us special revelation (Holy Scripture). The Deists rejected the all special
revelation as inventions of men. They claimed that the Bible, like other ancient texts was untrustworthy and an invention of primitive, pre-scientific minds. They claimed that human reason could deduce all
we can ever know about God.

After the deaths of Chalmers and Miller, some FCoS ministers adopted German Higher Criticism. (There were other things which I believe to be errors too, that bought into the FCoS at that time, such as the use of uninspired hymns and organs in church, and American "revivalist" techniques such as "altar calls" and "enquiry rooms"). There were some remaining old ministers in the south of Scotland who strongly opposed these things (e.g., James Begg); and in the north of Scotland the old paths were more closely followed by the Gaelic speaking part of the FCoS, and some of their minsters wrote
and spoke strongly against all these things (e.g., John Kennedy of Dingwall). Kennedy's stance against all these things, plus the power of his preaching, was highly appreciated in the Scottish Highlands
and Islands. Kennedy, so I have discovered, was a strong advocate of Young Earth Creationism. (So far I haven't discovered what Begg's full position was, though he was certainly a creationist. Perhaps
because he was a close friend and supporter of Chalmers, and so didn't actively oppose him on this matter.)

After the deaths of Begg and Kennedy, and others of the 'old guard' in the 1880s, the liberals I mentioned above found very few who opposed them. Enlightenment Deistic Bible rejection inspired Higher
Criticm in the Church, and Deistic evolutionism seeded Theistic Evolutionism in the Church. One such Higher Critic and Theistic Evolutionist in the FCoS was Marcus Dods (he wrote an influential
Commentary on Genesis), and there were many others who embraced either all or part of Dods' position.

Meanwhile, those who followed the old paths (mainly in the Gaelic-speaking Scottish Highlands and Islands) were strong defenders of the Westminster Confession of Faith, and argued therefrom that the
ministers who were bringing in these ideas were violating their ordination vows. There was quite a battle raging! Those Highlanders and Islanders who stood firm on the Confession and the Reformed Faith
were portrayed as less civilized, and as opposing modern "scientific truth" (in biology, geology and archaeology), and as opposing the sciences of textural criticism and comparative religion (i.e., the
liberals, following the Deists before them, claimed that the Creation and Flood stories of Moses were no more to be trusted as "scientific" as the similar stories of ancient Babylon and Egypt, which the Jews had allegedly copied). The doctrines of Fall and original sin were seriously questioned, and opposed by the theistic evolutionists, and Arminianism found a foothold in the FCoS as an inevitable consequence.

However, while the WCF was in place as the foundational document of the church, most of the more faithfully-Reformed types stayed in to fight these errors, besides the others which I have not focussed on here. But they feared for the future of the FCoS because the liberals had control of the theological seminaries, and were teaching the next generation of ministers. But a few ministers and their congregations did seceed during the decades in the mid 19th Century.

In the latter half of the 19th Century, a number of presbyterian and Reformed churches around the world either modified their doctrinal standards, or adopted "Declaratory Acts" that basically allowed
presbyteries to accept ministers who refused to fully subscribe to all parts of the doctrinal standards. One such Declaratory Act was passed in the FCoS in 1892. Its purpose was to allow men to be
ordained in the FCoS who refused to swear to all the WCF, who instead believed in Theistic Evolutionism, Higher Crticism, and less than 5-point Calvinism. At this point in time, a small number of FCoS
ministers (two, I believe) plus some seminary students, and many of the Scottish presbyterians of the Highlands and Islands whom I mentioned earlier, seceeded from the FCoS. They protested that with
the passing of the Declaratory Act, she was no longer the 1843 FCoS that they were brought up in, and loved, and they sought to return to, and to maintain, the "1843 Free Church position."

The secession adopted the name of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, and constituted in 1893.

Not all conservative-types came out of the FCoS in 1892, however. A few stayed in to continue the fight, but their efforts had little effect. The Declaratory Act, and those who supported it, opposed
their efforts. However, within a decade the liberal majority in the FCoS merged with another liberal denomination in Scotland, the United Presbyterian Church, forming the UFCoS (the UFCoS is down to only a few small congregations today). The remnant of conservative-types refused to go in with this merger, and in 1901 they re-constituted the FCoS, and threw out the Declaratory Act. They also threw out Higher Criticism and Theistic Evolutionism. But it was not until the modern "young earth" creationist movement really got going in the 1960s that they actively opposed the Day-Age Theory and the Gap Theory. In fact as late as the 1980s (so I am told but I have yet to verify), one of their theologians was promoting the Gap Theory as being "the historic Free Church position."

Meanwhile the FPoS were more strongly anti-evolutionist from the start. However, I have not been able to find anything written by them against the Gap Theory. They were anti-Day-Age, but this is not the same thing as being anti-Old Earth. But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence; and I also note that the FPoS were strongly appreciative of John Kennedy of Dingwall. In fact they maintained
the "Kennedy position" on every matter that I have looked into. I would not be surprised, and indeed I would be impressed and pleased to find that the FPoS followed Kennedy rather than Chalmers in
Kennedy's rejection of "old earth" uniformitarian geology.

The FPoS [the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland] rightly was that their strong stance on the Christian Sabbath committed them to being strong Six-Day Creationists.

 

 

For more information on the Second Disruption, in which the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland came out of the old Free Church, see http://www.puritans.net/bookreviewseconddisruption.htm .

 

The re-constituted Free Church of Scotland underwent spiritual declension to the end of the twentieth century. Some of its more conservative elements came out and formed the Free Church Continuing in 2000. By 2007 the Free Church of Scotland has so spiritually declined as to have fallen in with a liberal ecumenical movement with the Church of Scotland, as reported at http://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/news/nrga130407.htm .