School in Theology Report

Date: Friday, 05 October 2018
Author: Rev James S Haram

The 66th Free Church School in Theology, which receives support from the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing), met in Carronvale House, Larbert, from 3rd to 6th September 2018.  It was encouraging this year, that numbers were slightly up on the previous year.  Though this conference is not as large as other Reformed conferences, what it lacks in quantity it makes up in quality.  As usual, there was plenty of warm and joyful fellowship, that included brethren from various churches throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland.

The School followed the usual format as in previous years.  Though this year there was a new event: an unscheduled pyjama party that met on the open field next to Carronvale House at 12:30 am Wednesday morning.  No expense was spared, as for our entertainment, while we waited in the cold and damp, two fire engines, blue lights flashing appeared on the scene.  It was then suggested by some of the brethren that we might retake the school photo.  Being a majority of Presbyterians a vote was taken, and it was decided that the photo taken earlier that day on the steps in front of Carronvale House would be quite sufficient.  Once the firemen had checked the building we were free once again to return to our warm beds.  We were thankful to the Lord's mercies that it had only been a false alarm.

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The days would begin with a prayer meeting and end with worship, led in turn by different men.  As on previous occasions, one of the sessions was allocated to Missions, where Mr. Philip Hopkins from the Trinitarian Bible Society, spoke on the current translation work on the new TBS Spanish Bible and their mission work in Latin America.  Another session was again given to a number of very helpful book reviews by the Rev Kenneth Macdonald, Rev. Mark Fitzpatrick, and the Rev. Alasdair Macleod.  Mr. Colin Campbell, the manager of Evangelical Bookshop, Belfast, was again in attendance with an excellent book table consisting of various theological books and commentaries for the attendees to browse and buy.

This year's papers included:

(1) Synod of Dort Causes and Consequences, by the Rev Trevor Kirkland, (Ballyclare & Doagh FCC).  Rev Kirkland began his paper by noting how ironic it was, that in the same year that the hated 5 Articles of Perth were being imposed upon the Church of Scotland, an Assembly of Divines gathered in Dort to hammer out a Biblical response to Arminianism. That delegates from Britain and across Europe assembled and almost forgotten was the role played by Britain’s King James.  Central to the controversy was James Arminius who repudiated the Belgic Confession of Faith regarding predestination, the Fall, depravity, election, and perseverance.  Though Arminius died in 1609, his followers proceeded (1610) to draw up a Remonstrance formulated in 5 Articles.  The Calvinists initially replied with a contra-Remonstrance.  As the controversy raged, a Synod was finally called to debate the issue.

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Ironically, the first item on the agenda wasn’t Arminianism but the need for a new Dutch edition of the Bible.  When the Arminians did arrive they created so much obstruction they were eventually thrown out.  The work of the Synod was remarkable.  The 5 Articles of the Remonstrants was answered point by point with 5 Canons henceforth known as the Canons of Dort.

The outcome of the Synod had lasting implications for the Netherlands and for the Reformed Church generally.  First, in doctrine.  The canons crystallized what it meant to be a Calvinist.  Second, Bible translation.  The fruit of the decision was seen in the Staten bible of 1637.  Third, Preaching. Synod set forth what true reformed preaching and thus judged Arminianism as unbiblical and therefore illegitimate in any Reformed pulpit. Fourth, enshrining the 4th Commandment.  In six paragraphs the abiding validity of the 4th commandment was clearly articulated stating that, it was a day set apart for worship; that the whole day was to be so kept by Christians.  Scottish theologian William Cunningham stated that the Synod represented theologians of the highest talent, learning, and character and thus entitled to a larger measure of respect and deference than any other council recorded in history.  Dort preserved the Reformation, which is something truly to celebrate.

2) The Work of Christ in Colossians 1:12-20, by the Rev. William Macleod (Knightswood FCC).  Rev Macleod spoke of Christ exegeting Colossians 1:12-20.  He explained deliverance from the kingdom of darkness and the meaning of redemption through the blood.  He spoke of the person of the Redeemer as the image or icon of God, the firstborn of every creature and the Creator of all, the firstborn from the dead and the One in whom all the fullness of the Godhead dwells, who reconciled all things in heaven and earth to Himself.

3) Individual Leading Personal Types of Christ, by the Rev Craig Dennison, (Gardenstown Free Presbyterian Church).  Rev Dennison spoke of how we are commanded to find Christ in all of scripture.  That studying personal types teaches us to recognise Christ in the Old Testament.  Though there has been a wide variety of interpretations throughout Church history, the three main views held today are: 1) Individuals are only types which the New Testament confirms to a type, 2) those who held a mediatorial office, or 3) those who had a clear covenantal or messianic link with the Antitype.  Scripture is to be our guide in our recognition of a genuine and legitimate type.  Personal types would have been identifiable to the Old Testament Church.

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4) Missionary Enquiry to Israel 1839 and Consequences, by Rev John W Keddie.  Rev Keddie, dealt with the historic 'Mission of Enquiry to the Jews' by a delegation appointed by the Church of Scotland in 1839.  He gave an account of the background to the momentous trip undertaken by four intrepid Church of Scotland ministers that year.  Their varied and sometimes hazardous experiences in traveling through Europe to Egypt, through the Holy Land and back through central Europe were described with some detail.  It came over as a gripping story of faith and compassion as the deputation carried out their remit to identify possible locations for Jewish mission work.  This led to the establishment of Jewish Missions in Europe and the Middle East which were greatly blessed of the Lord.

5) Simplicity/Impassibility of God, by the Rev Henry J T Woods, (Kilmorack & Strathglass FCC).  Rev Woods very helpfully began his paper by reminding us that when one undertakes to study the doctrine of God, one must be prepared to conclude that he is as a brute beast and knows nothing.  That it is vital to remember that God is not a 'subject' to be studied but a Being to be adored.  He began by looking at chapter two of the Westminster Confession of Faith, with special attention given to its declaration that God is without body, parts, or passions.  The first part of the statement obviously refers to the fact that God is pure Spirit, the second has to do with the one-ness and simplicity of God and the last, without passions, which was to be the main focus of his paper.

He then went on define what passions are: Passions are therefore essentially that which affects us either from within or from without, but the point is that they move us or provoke us to change, they affect our desires.  Hence the word passion as being something which is done to us or which moves us.  The next question asked was, Does God have Passions in the way defined?  He then provided Scripture proof texts and biblical arguments (which includes the creator/creature distinctions) that laid out the basic case for God's impassibility - the Self-Sufficient and Unchanging God of Classical Theism.

Rev Woods then spoke of the differences between proper and improper predication to God and the challenges to Divine Impassibility: that the Theism outlined in the opening quotation from the Westminster Confession of Faith is a statement of what has been the orthodox Classical Theism for almost two millennia, and there have always been those who denied it but they were considered heretical.  That there are modern challenges to this Classical Theism is not a surprise but what is surprising is that many of the present day challenges come from within the evangelical and reformed camp, even from those who were once considered to be staunch defenders of the Classical Theism of the Reformed Faith.  Furthermore, some of them have subscribed to one or other of the confessions which contain the very same Classical Theism that they seek to undermine.

He then lists some of the reasons for this change: 1) bad church history, 2) bad theology, 3) bad philosophy, 4) bad hermeneutics, and 5) bad logic.  Rev Woods then concludes on how sad it is to see how these influences are weakening the commitment of many to Classical Theism and how readily those who have subscribed to uphold it are so readily playing fast and loose with their vows.  It is true that some who are flirting with its rejection are only doing so in part.  In others, the process has gone on apace until it reaches the abysmal depth of heresy.

6) What is Driving Identity Ethics? by Rev Dr. Kevin Bidwell, (Sheffield Presbyterian Church).  Rev Dr. Bidwell spoke how the notion of identity seems to dominate almost every sphere of British society today and sadly how it is mainly restricted to sexual orientation.  The paper sought to build a biblical basis woven around 1). Man’s identity made in the “image of God" before the fall 2). Man’s Identity after the Fall, 3). Man’s identity through the gospel.

Certain controversial matters were weighed in the balance and found seriously wanting. The paper rejected the notion that there can be any status or identity in the sight of the Covenant LORD, other than being male or female (Genesis 1:26-28).  The movement which promotes same-sex attraction, without labeling this as sin, was rejected also.  The richest theme was to encourage teaching to the church on our biblical identity of being “in Christ” because this is a joyful truth for us to freshly grasp.  Rev Dr. Bidwell spoke on how in his preparation for this paper, as a minister, he freshly grasped that his identity is in Christ, and not in the congregation where he serves, nor his denomination, neither his successes and failures in life. "For us to live is Christ" (Phil 1:21).

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All the above lectures were recorded and can be found here.  Lord willing the 67th School in Theology is due to take place on 2nd to 5th of September 2019 at Carronvale House, Larbert.  Lord willing we look forward to seeing you there.