Dr John Erskine : A Voice for Today?
The colleague of Dr. Robertson ascended the pulpit. His external appearance was not prepossessing. A remarkably fair complexion, strangely contrasted with a black wig without a grain of powder; a narrow chest and a stooping posture; hands which, placed like props on either side of the pulpit, seemed necessary rather to support the person than to assist the gesticulation of the preacher; no gown, not even that of Geneva, a tumbled band, and a gesture which seemed scarce voluntary — were the circumstances which struck a stranger.
A lecture was delivered, fraught with new, striking and entertaining views of Scripture history; a sermon, in which the Calvinism of the Kirk of Scotland was ably supported, yet made the basis of a sound system of practical morals, which should neither shelter the sinner under the cloak of speculative faith or of peculiarity of opinion, nor leave him loose to the waves of unbelief and schism. Something there was of an antiquated turn of argument and metaphor, but it only served to give zest and peculiarity to the style of elocution. The sermon was not read; a scrap of paper containing the heads of the discourse was occasionally referred to, and the enunciation, which at first seemed imperfect and embarrassed, became, as the preacher warmed in his progress, animated and distinct; and although the discourse could not be quoted as a correct specimen of pulpit eloquence, yet Mannering had seldom heard so much learning, metaphysical acuteness, and energy of argument brought into the service of Christianity.
Such, he said, going out of church, must have been the preachers to whose unfearing minds, and acute, though sometimes rudely exercised, talents we owe the Reformation.
This was the picture painted in his novel Guy Mannering by Sir Walter Scott of Dr. John Erskine of Old Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh between 1767 and 1803.
His Life - In Outline
Between 1744 and 1767 Erskine was successively the minister of Kirkintilloch, Culross and New Greyfriars in Edinburgh before moving to Old Greyfriars. He was one of the leading figures in the Popular party in the 18th century Church of Scotland in its struggle against patronage. From his earliest years as a divinity student he was a fervent supporter of evangelical causes. In 1742 he wrote the most effective defence of George Whitefield and the great Cambuslang Revival of that year against its Moderate detractors and those Secession leaders who claimed it was nothing more than a work of the devil. Throughout his life he was renowned as an able defender of Scripture truth.
Principal John Macleod, in his book Scottish Theology, recounts a story, and there is no reason to doubt its authenticity, which has been used to encapsulate the difference between Moderate and Popular preaching and theology. At the time, Old Greyfriars had two ministers and Erskine's colleague for the first part of his ministry there was Principal William Robertson of Edinburgh University, the leader of the Moderate party in the Church. On a Lord's Day morning Robertson declaimed eloquently on the beauty of Virtue and suggested that if Virtue in all its beauty were to be seen on earth all men would fall down and worship it. Erskine's response in his afternoon sermon (for in those days the second service was held in the afternoon) was to assert that Virtue had come to earth incarnate in the Person of the Son of God, yet men were so far from falling down to worship him that with wicked hands they took and crucified him.
Another well known story comes from the later years of Erskine's life, when, in 1796, the General Assembly was debating whether it should actively support foreign missions. One of the Moderates had just argued that education and civilisation should come first to prepare the way for the Gospel. Erskine then rose, uttered the famous request: "Moderator, rax (reach) me that Bible", and proceeded to read the account of Paul publicizing the gospel on the barbarous island of Malta before waiting for educating and civilizing influences.
These two stories clearly demonstrate the sharpness of mind and effectiveness with which Erskine defended and advanced the evangelical faith.
Erskine's most significant contributions to the extension of Christ's kingdom, however, probably lay in two specific areas.
First, he played a key role in the great mid-18th century revivals that occurred in Scotland and the American colonies, and, to a lesser extent south of the Border.
Secondly, he was instrumental in identifying the nominal faith of the majority of the people of Scotland at the time for what it was. This realisation led to the renewed evangelical onslaught on unbelief which was to culminate in the 19th-century evangelical revival.
Historians have recently established that in the 1740s and 1750s there was a vast letter writing network which existed on both sides of the Atlantic and which had as its purpose the spreading of news about church life and especially about the workings of the Spirit in individual congregations. There is now clear documentary evidence that revivals in congregations and areas on both sides of the Atlantic occurred as news of fresh revivals crossed and recrossed the Atlantic and was read in individual congregations. It has been established, furthermore, that the Lord used a group of about a dozen mainly devotional works in a crucial role in the lives of those preachers under whose ministries the revivals occurred. Foremost in the circulation of many of these works, and a central figure in the letter-writing network, was Erskine. As well as translating and publishing a prodigious number of works by continental divines, Erskine was also the regular correspondent of Jonathan Edwards, the great American theologian, under whose preaching the most notable of all the American awakenings occurred in Massachusetts. He was responsible for the publishing of Edwards' works in this country.
John Erskine was also the most important Scottish theologian of the second half of the 18th century. It was consideration of the nature of faith in Christ that led to the production of the work which is the most significant theological treatise of the period. This was Erskine's Dissertation on the Nature of Christian Faith, which appeared in 1765. Drawing significantly on the ideas of his American correspondent, Jonathan Edwards, though not slavishly so, Erskine's work remained the classic delineation of Scottish theology on the subject until the Evangelical Revival in the 19th century.
Erskine was in the mainstream of 18th century Scottish evangelical thought in regarding faith as signifying persuasion or assent. It is, he maintained, the only notion of faith applicable to every passage of Scripture where any kind of faith is mentioned. Erskine's whole approach to the question was much more "doctrinal" than the "practical" concerns of many of his contemporaries. He realised that the usual perception of faith as involving fundamentally intellectual assent to the truths of the gospel allowed a faith which might not be "saving faith".
Faith and Understanding
The first stage in his thought on faith was to give the understanding an even greater role than had hitherto been the case. He quoted approvingly John Owen, the great English Puritan, as asserting that "faith is in the understanding, in respect of its effectual workings". But in the Scriptures, asserted Erskine, the heart refers to intellectual powers. Faith could not influence temper and conduct if what was believed was not really understood.
Faith was not just a general assent to Christianity, or to what was contained in the Scriptures. Such a consent to divine revelation, without understanding what it contained, would not produce conviction of sin in the convicted, and it would not encourage holiness of heart or life. It was evident, therefore, that
faith is not to be found in the generality of those who call themselves Christians.
The reason for this, said Erskine, was that a distinction must be drawn between faith and "saving faith".
The parallels with present day society are clear. Over 80 percent of the population of Scotland believe that Jesus is the Son of God. Yet there is little or no evidence that their "faith" makes any difference to their lives. Most evangelical Christians would deny that they are entitled to call themselves Christians in any meaningful sense, if at all.
"Saving faith", said Erskine, was a knowing what and in whom the Christian believes. He held that the proposition that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, was the only proposition in which belief was necessary to be a Christian. But to believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of the living God, asserted Erskine, is of no purpose if we understand nothing by it or something different from what the Scriptures reveal. We must therefore believe the proposition "in the fullest sense of the word".
Faith, however, is also concerned with believing in Christ's name, which denotes believing in the doctrine of justification through his merits and in the doctrine of the glory which is his as Mediator in order to apply the purchased redemption. Faith, therefore, means being persuaded that sinners may be pardoned and accepted through Christ's blood and merits, that he rose from the dead, and that God justifies sinners through his blood and righteousness. It is also the case that since men are unable themselves to satisfy divine justice, they are wholly dependent on God's mercy for salvation. It is increasingly obvious, then, that for Erskine faith had a strongly doctrinal emphasis.
Faith: Saving and Otherwise
But he still had to tackle the problem of differentiating clearly between faith and saving faith. The faith of God's elect not only differs from that of others in the thing assented to. The nature and foundation of assent in saving faith is specifically different from the nature and foundation of assent in self-deceivers. Self-deceivers may have "orthodox sentiments of religion". They may even have an extensive knowledge of doctrine and accept the Scriptures as a divine revelation. But that is not saving faith because saving faith does not assent to truth without a real understanding of the reasons why. What distinguishes saving faith, in the first place, is the operation of the Holy Spirit:
the Spirit takes from the Scripture the grand evidence of faith which he has lodged there, and carries it to the hearts of the elect, and then the light and power of divine truth so apprehends and overcomes the soul, that it can no longer resist.
That triumphant evidence is no other than the glory and excellency of the gospel scheme of salvation manifested by the Holy Spirit in such a manner as produces full conviction that a scheme so glorious could have none but God for its author.
Saving faith may therefore be defined as a persuasion that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God, flowing from spiritual views of such a glory in the gospel as satisfies and convinces the mind that a scheme so glorious could have none but God for its author.
Such an assent, founded on discovery of the glory of the gospel, is impossible without the "special saving operations of the Spirit".
Faith and Assurance
This led Erskine to a brief examination of the doctrine of assurance. A further ground of certainty of their faith for redeemed Christians is their experiencing that Jesus is the Christ in his "enlightening their understandings as a prophet, speaking peace to their consciences as a priest, and renewing their wills as a king". This knowledge involves the feeling of the promises accomplished in the believer. But this evidence of faithfulness, however, is not the primary foundation of faith because it comes after belief. It is a certainty from our own feelings rather that "a crediting of the divine testimony". It is "an assurance of sense, not of faith".
Saving faith is further distinguished from counterfeits by its "attendants and genuine fruits". True faith affects the affections and conduct. The truths of divine revelation contribute to the improvement of the believer's spiritual life. God works on men "in a way suited to their rational natures, and to the established connection between the understanding and will". He enlightens the understanding so that the will may be attracted to a right choice. As a result, the believer thinks and judges in some measure as does God, and God's mind and will as revealed in Scripture become his. The doctrines of Christianity relating to the plan of man's redemption are well calculated to promote holiness of heart and life, and are, indeed, the origin of both.
Erskine then formulated his final distinction between saving faith and its counterfeits. No one rightly believes that Christ is a Saviour who does not have "suitable conceptions" of that from which he saves. And no one can have such ideas without perceiving the goodness and excellence of gospel salvation and acting upon it so as to desire it, choose it and rely upon it. The Scriptures often depict faith as a preservative against sinning and this is accurate since, if we know a thing to be greatly desirable and yet do not desire it, or know it to be dreadful and fail to do our utmost to avoid it, we act contrary to human nature. Belief in the Father sending the Son to be the Saviour of the world implies that the world needed such a salvation, and consequently a belief in the infinite evil of sin, and the infinite obligations to duty. This last supposes a knowledge of and belief in the infinite glory and perfection of God from which those obligations arise. Saving faith always produces a personal application of these truths. A true knowledge of God cannot but influence our dispositions and actions. It is this crucial point which led Erskine to reject the profession of "the generality of those who call themselves Christians". "If men really understood and believed the truth they profess," he says, "they could not go on thus forwardly in the ways of their own heart."
His Overall Contribution
Erskine's contribution to 18th century Scottish thought on the nature of faith would seem to be fourfold:
firstly, he emphasised the all-embracing significance of the role of the understanding in faith;
secondly, he delineated the differences between mere intellectual assent or understanding on the one hand and saving faith on the other, the essence of which difference he saw as epitomised in the central role of the Holy Spirit in applying to believers the evidence for faith in the Scriptures as producing the conviction that God is the author of the scheme of salvation;
thirdly, he analysed the doctrine of assurance in terms of assurance of faith which satisfies and convinces the mind of the truth of the gospel doctrines of the offer of salvation through Christ, and of the assurance of the senses which concern personal experience of God's promises being applied to the individual; and
fourthly, he ascribed to the operation of the will, the development of the spiritual life of the believer which leads to the believer's conformity to the mind and will of God. This last he explained in terms of the connection between the understanding and the will.
As we have noted, his analysis led Erskine to conclude that a significant number, if not the majority, of those who professed Christianity, did not in fact profess true faith.
There were two defective doctrinal tendencies which Erskine saw as gaining in influence at the time in Scotland and which he sought to counteract. The first was a dissociation of the work of sanctification from the act of faith, which could lead to the Moderate treatment of sanctification as arising from the contemplation of the example of Christ, and more generally to a reduction in the levels of holiness and spirituality in the community.
The second defective tendency was the likelihood that faith would be reduced to the level of mere intellectual assent to the truths of Christianity. The classic response to this position, Erskine's Dissertation on the Nature of Christian Faith defined much more clearly and precisely the role of the intellect, the senses and the will in faith than had been done hitherto, and differentiated, for the first time in the period, between a faith which required only an intellectual assent and one which was a "saving faith".
This distinction is of crucial significance in the life of the 18th century Scottish Church, for it revealed the essential invalidity of the assumption made by possibly the majority of ministers in the Church of Scotland that they were preaching the gospel in a Christian society in which the most difficult problems they faced were those of infidelity and backsliding. After Erskine, it had to be accepted, and it seems to have been quickly accepted by most evangelical writers and preachers, that the Church was faced with a number of people who believed themselves to be Christians but who in reality were not. This perception was perhaps the essential prerequisite for the development of the fully fledged evangelicalism which was to be the hallmark of the 19th century Evangelical Revival.
His Ongoing Relevance
What, then, is the relevance of Dr. John Erskine and his life and thought to the Free Church and Christians of today?
There would seem to be two main areas worthy of consideration.
First, Erskine was what we would call a "key player" in the Lord's preparation for the great mid-18th century evangelical awakenings which affected the whole English speaking world, and the 19th-century evangelical revival to which in the longer term our own Free Church owes its existence. He was the embodiment of what the Lord used in what were arguably the two greatest revival movements the world has seen. He was pre-eminent in promoting the Reformed, evangelical faith in its doctrine and practice internationally. He was not in any sense only concerned with the Lord's cause in Scotland; his perception was of the Body of Christ worldwide.
Secondly, he saw that a vague general belief in God and Scripture truth was no guarantee of salvation. There had to be a "saving faith" which transformed the lives of those who possessed it. While he did not deny the right of those who had only a vague general belief to call themselves Christians, he proclaimed with clarity and persuasiveness the reason why their "faith" would not save them.
Erskine's perceptions, surely, are strikingly relevant for us today.