Book Review

“The History of Scottish Theology,” edited by David Fergusson and Mark W. Elliott

Sam Bostock
David Fergusson
Thursday, July 1st 2021
Jul/Aug 2021

The History of Scottish Theology
Edited by David Fergusson and Mark W. Elliott
Oxford University Press, 2019
1,280 pages (hardcover), $125 per volume (3 vols.)

What comes to mind when we read the title of these volumes? Maybe the “Great Scots” worthies like John Knox, Samuel Rutherford, or Ebenezer Erskine, or perhaps the dramatic events that punctuate Scottish church history, such as the Covenanter rebellion of 1638 or the Disruption of the Kirk in 1843. Even the reader for whom these names mean little will probably still be aware that Scotland is the soil in which the branch of Christ’s church we call “Presbyterian” first took root and flourished. It is both the strength and the weakness of this valuable publication from Oxford University Press that, although these familiar themes are given their place, introduces us to a significantly broader, and arguably richer, overview of the theologians, theologies, and theological cultures that have developed in Scotland’s fertile ground from the Middle Ages to the present day.

These three reasonably substantial volumes have been edited by David Fergusson (incoming Regius Professor of Theology at Cambridge and previously at Edinburgh) and Mark Elliott (of St Andrews and latterly Glasgow). Most of the essays were delivered at a series of three specially organized conferences, with public funding from the United Kingdom Arts and Humanities Research Council. The contributors include many luminaries, such as Richard Cross (on Duns Scotus), David Bebbington (on dissenting theology), Andrew Holmes (on Scottish influences on Irish Presbyterianism), Donald Macleod (on the ongoing significance of the Westminster Confession), and Bruce McCormack (on Scottish kenoticism), as well as earlier career scholars, of whom Whitney Gamble and Stephen Myers might be familiar.

It will be apparent from the foregoing that this work is very much a product of the modern academy. Noting the practical, spiritual bent of much Scottish theology, the editors comment wryly that they wonder how some of their subjects would have fared in a contemporary research assessment exercise. One obvious result of this provenance is that slightly cacophonous diversity is the order of the day. Here, an essay on seventeenth-century federal theology rubs shoulders with an introduction to the Carmina Gadelica, a collection of apparently ancient Gaelic prayers published at the start of the twentieth century and the fountainhead of the Celtic Christianity movement. The Marrow Controversy is brilliantly analyzed by Myers, as is the late twentieth-century feud between the theological faculties in Barthian Edinburgh and Bultmannian Glasgow. To be sure, the three volumes cover a lengthy period (the Middle Ages and Reformed orthodoxy, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and a “long” twentieth century), but there is a conscious effort here to reflect as much as possible the breadth of what Scottish theology has been.

In the context of Scottish theology today, this decision to aim at breadth is itself something of a theological statement. Fergusson and Elliott acknowledge that they are building on the work of Thomas F. Torrance, one of the most influential of recent Scottish theologians and himself an important figure in the final volume. His 1996 Scottish Theology began with John Knox, but ended tellingly with John McLeod Campbell, a controversial figure who significantly recast the Westminster Confession’s doctrine of Christ’s satisfaction. Torrance was quite explicit about his desire to relativize the totemic status of the confession in Scottish theology, which he repeatedly described as “rigidly logicalized”[1] and ultimately legalistic. For Torrance, Westminster’s federal theology pressed Calvin’s more biblical understanding of the covenant into a sharp bifurcation between an unremittingly legal (as Torrance saw it) Covenant of Works, made with Adam before the fall, and the Covenant of Grace, which although proceeding from the infinite love of God could never quite escape the contractualism implied by its connection to the Covenant of Works.

As the editors hint, Torrance’s historical claims have been seriously undermined in the past two decades by a wave of historians working in the wake of Richard Muller’s less dogmatically driven studies of the Europe-wide Reformed scholastic movement that shaped the authors of the Westminster Confession. But while they place a question mark beside Torrance’s reading of history, in practice these volumes further extend Torrance’s theological effort to decentralize the High Calvinist tradition, which has historically dominated Scottish theology, by widening the scope to include Episcopal, Roman Catholic, and dissenting traditions, and by stretching the timeframe both earlier and later than Torrance did. Although hardly absent, the Westminster tradition is here just one among many strands in Scottish theology.[2]

There certainly are gains from this more pluralistic approach to Scottish theology, with valuable examinations of figures as diverse in time as the late medieval scholastic John Mair (Major), whose lectures Calvin may have heard in Paris, and the analytically inclined twentieth-century academic John Baillie. But there is also a significant loss. The question has to be confronted: Understood this broadly, is there such a thing as Scottish theology? At least, anything more than the historical accident of a connection to the northern third of Britain?

Torrance’s Scottish Theology remained anchored in the broadly Reformed tradition and so offered “a continuous stream of Scottish theology over four centuries,” with a sustained description of a running battle for the heart of Scottish theology between the noxious federalism and glorious Christocentrism. But as the editors survey the account of Scottish theology offered in these volumes, they confess that they “see little evidence of a single, distinctive tradition . . . or a single universe of discourse or a social purpose that sets Scottish theologians apart from other traditions.” While being thankful for the diversity of historical theology collected in these volumes, readers cannot help but regret that the opportunity for a large-scale and academically robust appreciation of the distinctive contours of Scottish Reformed theology has been missed.

It would be churlish, however, to overemphasize this structural point. While the collection may be less focused than it might have been, and readers are duly warned about what to expect, it remains obvious that we are treated to a large number of academically rigorous road maps into one of the most important, and complex, theological cultures on the planet.

A publication of collected essays always risks being patchy, and these volumes are no exception. But more often than not, the editors’ assignment of titles and authors has born great fruit. In the first volume, Simon Burton shines a light on the influence of Duns Scotus on his homeland through an examination of the little-known medieval theologian John Ireland. Ian Hazlett manages to provide an excellent orientation to the theology of Reformation Scotland through an examination of the confessional statements that were given various degrees of authority by the Kirk. Similarly, Scott Spurlock’s essay on the boundaries of orthodoxy in late seventeenth-century Scotland not only introduces us to the national concerns of men like Rutherford, but it also prepares us to interpret the changes that the Kirk would experience in a more fragmented society in the following century. Those reflecting on the spirituality of the church in a modern context will find much food for thought here.

The collection’s center of gravity is in the longest middle volume, which moves from the early Enlightenment to the late Victorian period. As Scottish churches moved fully into the modern period, we have useful surveys here of the preaching of the Moderate party that rose to dominate the Church of Scotland and of a succession of Kirk theological professors who felt a tension between affirming a natural knowledge of God that left humanity inexcusable, without undermining the necessity of special revelation. The dialogue between faith and reason surfaces repeatedly in these volumes, and the friendly relationship between the Church of Scotland and the Enlightenment is emphasized. The editors wanted to cover not just individual theologians but also “themes, movements, and challenges”; and so alongside faith and reason, we have essays on the reception of Darwinism, the Scottish Missionary Movement of the early twentieth century, and ecumenism.

As we move, however, into the twentieth century in the final volume, we are given a number of essays of individual theologians: Forsyth, Denney, the Bailies, Gregor Smith, and Torrance. Given that Torrance himself regarded Rutherford as “undoubtedly one of the great and most influential theologians in the Calvinist and Presbyterian tradition of the post-Reformation Kirk,”[3] it does seem surprising that such older figures did not merit similarly focused treatment. However, it is still enormously valuable to have a first pass at an assessment of figures who personally shaped the Scottish theological educators of today, many of whom author these essays. The final volume continues to provide significant thematic essays: on gender and ordination, Scottish national identity, and Scottish literature, among others. There are also essays on the dispersion of Scottish theology around the world, which, given the dilution of the concept to mere geographical connection, feel slightly token. Overall, the editors have been wonderfully astute in selecting essay subjects that cover the necessary ground while also offering stimulating perspectives of their own.

The opening and closing essays in these volumes offer something of a lament for Scottish theology, at least in its contemporary academic setting. The long legacy of university theology in Scotland is under sustained pressure to turn to the study of comparative religion. An increasingly fragmented academy speaks to itself and not to the faith of ordinary people. Scottish pulpits offer too many empty words and not enough substance. There is a sort of prayer here for a return to a full-throated and integrated theology that will enable the gospel to be communicated meaningfully and the church to be enlivened. In a way, the very breadth of this collection feels symptomatic of the problems mainline Scottish theology faces in the twenty-first century. And yet if we listen carefully, we can hear just the hint of a plea within these pages that a country that, since the Reformation has always been close to the vanguard of theological development, might again recover her good confession. In the meantime, this is a valuable resource that should be a first port of call for students looking for a cutting-edge orientation to the rich Scottish theological heritage. It will prove to be a rewarding investment for the interested layperson or pastor.

Sam Bostock is a doctoral student at Union Theological College in Belfast, where he is researching the doctrine of the atonement in British Reformed Orthodoxy. He previously served as assistant minister at Bloomfield Presbyterian Church.

1. Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), x.
2. For a recent history of Scottish theology that centralizes this Westminster tradition without exclusively focusing on it, see Donald Macleod, Therefore the Truth I Speak: Scottish Theology 1500-1700 (Fearn, Ross-shire: Mentor, 2020). Readers interested particularly in the application of Muller's approach to the study of Scottish theology will get more from Reformed Orthodoxy in Scotland: Essays on Scottish Theology 1560-1775, ed. Aaron Clay Denlinger (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2015).
3. Torrance, Scottish Theology, 93.
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