What Are We For?
As we gather tonight, two things weigh on my mind.
First, a sense of history. This building, the Free Church College, is not a monument. But it is a memorial: a living memorial. Classes first met here in January, 1907, and since then a long succession of students and teachers have passed through these corridors. In a powerful sense they are with us still, and to walk into the building is to draw inspiration from their memory: former colleagues and fellow students; our own teachers; the men who laid the foundations of theological education next door at New College after 1843; the men who rebuilt it here after 1900. Chalmers is here, and Cunningham and Rabbi Duncan; John Macleod and W. J. Cameron; Douglas MacMillan and Murdo Alex Macleod. Portraits challenge us. Every nook and cranny is tinged with association. Here outstanding servants of God, alive and dead, laid the foundation of future usefulness.
Secondly, a sense of responsibility. Let me put it in the bluntest terms. It costs in excess of £200,000 a year to maintain this College. That represents an investment of £20,000 in each student; £50,000 in each department and each professor. The liberality which makes that possible is a tribute to the Church. At times of unprecedented inflation and through times of denominational uncertainty and upheaval funds have continued to be available. That places a huge weight on the shoulders of those of us who study and teach here.
Why does the Church have a College? Because it has to train its ministers! The cost of professional training is always high. Here the cost is borne privately. Our training depends on the self-denial and self-sacrifice of our people. They have a right, then, to know what this College stands for. To what are we committed?
We are committed, first of all, to Reformed theology. That phrase is widely misunderstood. Sometimes it is conceived narrowly, as if it meant only the Five Points of Calvinism or the so-called Doctrines of Grace. At other times it is seen in sectarian terms, as if Reformed theology were a recent upstart: the faith of a mere party or sect.
But it is none of these. Reformed theology is the theology of the Reformation and that was no new theology. It was simply Christian theology rediscovered. It was the theology of St Paul and St John and of the church fathers. It was the whole counsel of God.
That means at once that our theology is ecclesiastical. We are not theological individualists. We work in communion with the holy catholic church. This was clearly the position of the Reformers. We see it, for example, in the great Reformation creeds, including our own Scots Confession and the Westminster Confession. These were innovative, but they were not iconoclastic. They did not reject the past or turn their backs on the collective theological wisdom of the church. Instead they built upon it, incorporating into their own formularies the great creeds of the Greek and Roman churches: the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Creed of Chalcedon. Of course, they did not simply repeat them. The Reformation creeds represent an advance. They set forth the doctrine of justification with a clarity that no ancient creed could match. But that very doctrine itself rests on something even more fundamental. It rests on the atonement; and beneath that on the incarnation. Luther rests on Nicea.
This same quality appears in Calvin's Institutes. This, too, is profoundly innovative, not so much in its individual blocks as in the way the blocks are put together. Yet Calvin was no theological individualist. He was, par excellence, an ecclesiastical theologian. For this very reason his theology was no affirmation of the distinctive tenets of a party. It was a reaffirmation of "the Christian religion" and it drew copiously on the fathers of the ancient church and on Calvin's great contemporary, Luther.
Today, we, too, are ecclesiastical theologians. Our theology is neither individualist nor isolationist. We work within the framework of Christian dogmatics: the settled convictions of the universal church. Our primary commitment is not to any school or party but to a cause. Our loyalty is to the faith believed always, everywhere and by all. We work in grateful communion with the whole of the Christian past and with the whole Christian church.
There is no Free Church theology. There is no Free Church College theology. Indeed, to the extent that our theology is peculiar it is probably wrong. If we are at all distinctive it is not in what we hold but in the tenacity with which we hold it. We draw on the common theological stock of Christendom. Our fundamentals are the great Christological truths of the Apostles Creed and of Nicea and Chalcedon. Our mentors have been Athanasius, Augustine and Anselm, no less than Luther and Calvin. Our heroes include Richard Baxter and John Wesley as well as John Knox and John Owen. And we act under no pretence. We teach only what we believe and we believe what we teach.
But it is not only to the past that we are debtors. We are part of a living community of theologians. Everything that happens anywhere in the theological world has an impact on us, whether it be in America, Germany, Holland, England, Korea or South Africa. If a butterfly flaps its wings in Harvard or Marburg, in Oxford or Potchefstroom, the effect will be felt here tomorrow; or at least next year.
That does not mean that we meekly follow theological trends. Nor does it mean that we confess ourselves equally indebted to all. To some far from these walls we acknowledge ourselves grateful debtors. They have been our masters. With others, we engage in debate and controversy. But there is none we would wish to ignore.
The Training of Ministers
Secondly, we are committed to the training of ministers. Note that carefully. Lay-training is not our business. Not but that the laity are welcome. They may enroll for individual courses or for the whole programme of studies. Many have passed through our classes who never intended to be ministers. While they were here they brought enrichment. After they left they gave sterling service to the church. But lay-training is not our business. That is the responsibility of our churches and our pulpits. They it is who are charged with equipping the saints for the work of ministry. Our business is to train the trainers; those who would be pastors and teachers; those who would be heralds of God. Our responsibility is to produce men who know the gospel and know how to preach it.
We are a finishing school. We cannot provide the minister with all he needs. We cannot be his only school. He must have been to other schools before he comes here. It is not our task to convert men or to bring them to spiritual rebirth. Before a man comes here he must have been in the school of the Spirit. There he was convicted of "sin, righteousness and judgement". You have also been in the school of life, sharing with your fellowmen and women the disciplines of experience. You have been in the school of conscience, where you became your own most rigorous critics. And you have been in the school of the church. I've said already that conversion is not our business. Neither is the cultivation of the spiritual life. That is the business of your churches and it will continue there throughout your years of training.
In these schools, you have learned all the really important lessons. We, by contrast, are a mere finishing school. If you have not already been to these schools we can make nothing of you.
What do we want to make of you? We want to turn you into experts, as knowledgeable and competent in your our own field as doctors, lawyers and teachers are in theirs; men who in their own sphere know exactly what to do.
But experts in what? That depends on your view of the ministry. If you see the minister as a social worker or as a counsellor or as an administrator or organiser or entertainer you will train him to be an expert in these fields. But that is not how we see him. We see him as first and foremost a preacher and teacher. That is what Jesus was. Never forget it: "God had only one Son and he made him a preacher." That is what you are; and to be that you need to be experts. You need to be specialists.
Specialists in what? Specialists in the Bible! The average knowledge of the layman will not be enough. Not even the knowledge of the gifted layman will be enough. Certainly the church has had many amateur theologians and part-time preachers and these have made invaluable contributions. But you are not to be amateurs, but experts; not part-timers, but professionals. You must know the whole counsel of God. You must be apt to teach. You must know the languages of the Bible as a surgeon knows his anatomy. You must be master theologians: competent in all its branches. You must be proficient in exegesis, biblical theology, systematic theology, historical theology and practical theology. You must be able to proclaim and apply Christian truth in a wide variety of social and cultural situations. Otherwise, you cannot be ministers.
Scholarship: that is the part of your equipment that this College seeks to provide. You will need much else. You will need good health. You will need spiritual-mindedness, the mentality of a servant and the heart of a shepherd. You will need people-skills, administrative skills and leadership skills.
Only to a very limited extent can we provide these. What we seek to provide is intellectual training. That is not a mere acquisition that can be weighed or numerically graded. It is a habit of mind, at once reverential and rigorous. It means knowing where to go for information, how to marshal an argument and how to distinguish the fundamental from the non-fundamental. It means knowing how to deal with those with whom you disagree: in a Christian temper, with scrupulous fairness, quoting them at first-hand and facing their best and most authoritative representatives.
If we succeed, you will leave this College in love with your subject. You will love the Bible. You will love theology in all its branches: so much so that for the rest of your lives the biggest temptation you will face will be the temptation to be at your books when you ought to be attending to the rest of your Father's business.
Thirdly, we are committed to Scotland. It is easy to turn this building into a cocoon, sheltering us from the city and from the world. But you have not come here to be taken out of the world or even to forget it. What was the Reformation but a protest against precisely that kind of monasticism? The city in which we stand is one of the world's great financial, political and cultural centres. Out there, there is a great intellectual and artistic ferment. Out there, there is exhilarating political and technological change. Out there, there is pain beyond belief, grief beyond imagining and depths of sin murkier than even those of Trainspotting.
And out there is heroism that would put the best of us to shame.
We cannot stand here, four floors above it, and ignore it, reminded of the real world only by the occasional bells of a fire-engine or the blue lights of an ambulance. We cannot have nothing to say: not if we are the heirs of Knox and Chalmers. Is there a word from the Lord? It must be that! We cannot give forth what is merely the word of the psychologist or the economist or the politician spoken by a clergyman. We must speak the wisdom of the Bible, to our own time and place, with courage, understanding and compassion. We need a public theology. But it must not only be public. It must be a theology. It must be God's word for our time. That is not merely our task. It is the Church's task. But we, with our leisure and our facilities, must be at the cutting-edge of it. We must do the research; and we must focus it on the public issues of our time. We must help the church to speak on GM foods and land reform. We must facilitate its cultural and social criticism. We must help it speak for the powerless and the speechless. We must guide it through the shoals of civic pluralism. We must avoid bigotry, and yet defend manfully the Protestant culture we love.
The Christian Good of Scotland: that, said Thomas Chalmers, is our aim. Not merely the good of a denomination, but the good of a nation; not merely its economic and social good, but its Christian good. We seek to be salt and light, promoting purity and hope. We aim to civilise, even where we cannot save.
But our greatest gift to Scotland is what Dr Alexander Stewart in his moderatorial address of 1926 called "A Positive Evangel". What is that? In a single word: it is what brings hope. Sometimes, of course, there will be a place for damning words of criticism (provided we remember that Jesus reserved these for the arrogant and the powerful and for his own stupid disciples). For the multitudes (the poor, the weary, the marginalised, the demonised and the guilt-ridden) his word was hope. He was a Comforter and an Encourager. He pointed the world's prodigals to a God who ran to welcome the penitent. He pointed sinners to a God who justifies the ungodly. He pointed the bereaved to the hope of resurrection. He told the dying of the hope of glory.
You are messengers of hope: preachers of a positive evangel. May the sound of that gospel go to every corner of this land. May its leaven do its work in every stratum of society.