A Scottish Christian Heritage

By Iain H. Murray
Carlisle, Pa : Banner of Truth (2006). xi + 403 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Dennis Swanson
21.1 (Spring 2010) : 124-125

In one of his later works the Scottish nationalist and poet Hugh MacDiarmid (the penname of Christopher Murray Grieve, 1892-1978) wrote, “Scotland Small?” Our multiform, our infinite Scotland small? Though small in terms of geography, Scotland has exerted an influence within Christianity and Christian theology remarkably out of proportion to its size. So significant has the Scottish contribution to Christian theology been, an entire reference work, the Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology (IVP, 1993) with nearly 1,000 pages, was produced to catalogue the contribution of this nation.

In this current work, Iain Murray has prepared a singular volume of “people and movements” in Scotland that made a lasting impact on Christianity, not only in that country but around the English-speaking world. Murray has divided his work into three sections: Biographical where he examines the lives of John Knox, Robert Bruce, Thomas Chalmers, James MacDonald, and Horatius Bonar; Missionary where he examines the work in the New Hebrides as “an illustration of the missionary spirit” and also the work of Robert Moffat in Africa; and Church Issues where he examines preaching, the problem of elders, church unity in Scotland, and what he calls the “tragedy of Free Church in Scotland.”

As is the norm in Murray’s works, this volume represents thorough research and is well written. The biographical entries are excellent and Murray has avoided having his narrative sidetracked by minor or insignificant details of the lives (a tendency that has occasionally hindered the author in the past). The accounts of Bruce, Chalmers, and Bonar are particularly well done and will help reintroduce some exceptionally important men of church history to a new audience.

The section on Scottish preaching (313–37) is perhaps worth the price of the book itself. He deals with the real observations that Scottish preaching was often viewed as “wearisome” (313). Murray admits that some of the criticism was legitimate, but it also is largely overstated since the traditional Scottish preaching was much more multifaceted than it is normally given credit for. He quotes the American J. W. Alexander, who though also critical of the preaching style as occasionally tedious, also remarked that Scottish preaching was “at once expository, doctrinal, methodical, and impassioned” (316).

In the last section Murray takes up the story of the “downgrade” of the Free Church, mainly in the selection of new faculty, such as Robertson Smith, James Denney, and A. B. Bruce, who opened the door to a decline of evangelical theology in favor of higher criticism and the “New Theology” at Aberdeen and other denominational schools. The period of these changes in Scotland corresponded to what was happening in the Baptist Union in Great Britain in the Downgrade Controversy and in the United States as the Modernist controversies were beginning to consume the mainline denominations, particularly the Presbyterians.

Murray’s section here is another reminder that past fidelity to orthodox and evangelical theology does not ensure a continuation down that path. The path, as Murray notes, was the same regardless of what locale in which it occurred: a new and popular set of professors in the seminaries who had the desired academic credentials but were clearly abandoning orthodoxy; an administration or denominational structure that was slow or unwilling to confront error; the marginalization of those who spoke out against the error; and then a new generation of pastors and church leaders who were trained in a deficient theology.

In his introduction Murray states, “[T]he best Christian books never leave us as mere spectators” (ix). This recommended book is one that will read quickly, facilitated by the author’s crisp prose, but if read well, it will leave an impression that by examining the past, one can be freed from being a mere spectator of the future.