Speaking of Special Pleading (in Scotland no less)

David Robertson is not happy with one of the letters — the secularist one — to one of his many columns about Christianity in Scotland. According to the correspondent, “Scotland was a theocracy for 1,000 years, which left nothing but bloodshed and heartache in its wake.” To which Robertson responds:

In a post-modern age this 
Alice-in-Wonderland view of history, where history is just what you want it to be, may ring true for the more fundamentalist secularists whose faith tells them that any public expression of religion is bad, but anyone who actually reads history would know that this is a grotesque and laughable caricature.

The Romans did not bring their law beyond Hadrian’s 
Wall, although Christians writers did adapt some aspects of Roman law (Christianity does, after all, teach about God’s common 
grace reaching to all human 
beings who are made in the image of God).

Theocracy is the rule of the state by the Church, and that clearly did not happen in the supposed “1,000-year reign”, although, as my letter pointed out, there have been those who have used Christianity for political ends and vice versa).

Robertson is certainly correct to react against secular fundamentalism, though he might do a better job of explaining the modern era’s debt to the medieval world — constitutionalism, universities, cities. But shouldn’t he also say something about a complicated relationship between church and state in Scotland that concedes that the head of the church — the British monarch — is also head of the state. Might not he also understand the complaints that secularists do have legitimately about the sometimes less than progressive mixing of religion and politics in the United Kingdom? It may not be theocracy, but the king’s headship within the church is some variety of Caesaropapism. Not to mention that the king’s and queen’s sovereignty within the church sent Presbyterians into a rightful tizzy to protect the crown rights of Christ as head of the church.

16 thoughts on “Speaking of Special Pleading (in Scotland no less)

  1. It’s a common mistake for an American to make, but actually the Queen is not the head of the Church of Scotland, as she is for the Church of England. The relationship between church and state is different in Scotland from in England: there are no Church of Scotland representatives in the House of Lords, as there are bishops of the Church of England, and the government has no say in Church of Scotland appointments as it does in the appointment of bishops. Complicating matters further, David Robertson belongs to the Free Church of Scotland, which holds the unusual position of asserting passionately that there ought to be an established church, even though they are currently not part of it.

    That’s not to say that there are no issues to discuss here. Much as it pains me as a Scot, I subscribe to the American version of the WCF, not the British version. When I ministered in England, the establishment of the church gave me the remarkable privilege of preaching the gospel in a local state elementary school each month (I was invited because the local vicar showed up drunk, and the imam couldn’t communicate in words the kids could understand); on the other hand, it also meant that our children were supposed to listen to a vicar talk about praying for dead people and how the patron saint guarded the vicarage. We ended up having our kids to go to the library instead with the Jewish and Muslim kids, which they much preferred.


  2. But it’s us against them, which is why the Reformation is over and we must unite with the Roman Catholics against the deists (non-sacramentalists) and secularists. Now that we have found out that Roman Catholics also believe in grace and faith and “union with Christ”….You are letting down our side by talking about Caesaropapism.

    In the current battle against liberalism, you need to keep quiet in this situation about your own narrow Presbyterian ideology. Surely, if you could have established Presbyterianism as the national religion, that would have been a grand witness of God’s sovereignty over kings, but things have changed and we need to be relevant, relative to what the other side is now saying….

    Machen—-“Far more serious still is the division between the Church of Rome and evangelical Protestantism in all its forms. Yet how great is the common heritage which unites the Roman Catholic Church, with its maintenance of the authority of Holy Scripture and with its acceptance of the great early creeds, to devout Protestants today! We would not indeed obscure the difference which divides us from Rome. The gulf is indeed profound. But profound as it is, it seems almost trifling compared to the abyss which stands between us and many ministers of our own Church. The Church of Rome may represent a perversion of the Christian religion; but naturalistic liberalism is not Christianity at all.”


  3. Iain, I think I knew this, but during the 17th century, when Scottish Presbyterians were insisting on the Covenant with the Stuarts, it was hardly clear which way the religious policy of the crown would go. And because of that uncertainty, Presbyterians adopted arguments that would likely not meet Robertson’s or his secular adversary’s approval.


  4. I don’t think Presbyterians were ever that fond of the Stuart monarchy, and indeed the covenanting movement began in response to Stuart meddling in church affairs.

    It’s certainly true that the Presbyterian church in Scotland has had complicated relations with the stage over the years. But if you look back over our history, most of the conflicts and schisms tended to have something to do with just this issue: whether it be the imposition of episcopacy, civil oaths, jurisdiction over church affairs, the headship of Christ &c. However, Presbyterians in Scotland have always asserted the headship of Christ over the church, rather than the monarch whilst also asserting the Establishment principle (which, as articulated by the Scottish church is not one of theonomy).

    The link between church and state in Scotland has also resulted in much good.


  5. the Free Church of Scotland, which holds the unusual position of asserting passionately that there ought to be an established church, even though they are currently not part of it.

    That’s crazy! What does “Free” mean in Free CoS if not “not established”?


  6. Romans 6: 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin…

    Romans 6: 20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. 22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God….


    free from what?, always the question

    The Wee Frees…. matter ended in the Scottish courts. The litigation was initially decided in favor of the Free Church by the House of Lords in 1904, on the basis that in the absence of a power to change fundamental doctrines in the trust deed a dissenting minority retains the property. As it was not possible for the Free Church to use all the property, Parliamentary intervention occurred which, in general, secured for the church the congregational property she could effectively use plus a significant share of central assets.


  7. RR – What does “Free” mean in…

    WDO – When my family moved some 20-odd years we started attending an Evangelical Free church. My friends where we had moved from initially thought that I was now attending an evangelical-free church.


  8. Free from state interference in church courts.

    The crucial point is that this freedom had been enjoyed within the establishment until the 1830s. It was only once several legal battles had shown that the terms of establishment had changed to infringe on this freedom that the Disruption happened.

    The 1904 House of Lords ruling is largely irrelevant.


  9. I’m not sure I’m as clear as Alexander that “Presbyterians in Scotland have always asserted the headship of Christ over the church, rather than the [headship of the] monarch.” The relationship between the “two kingdoms” was only settled with the Church of Scotland Act (1921), in which the Kirk was understood to be established, but with complete independence from civil govt.

    Scottish church history is fascinating and confusing. Everyone on this blog should read James Lachlan Macleod, “The Second Disruption: The Free Church in Victorian Scotland and the Origins of the Free Presbyterian Church” (2000), which is so insightful as to the ways in which Free Church orthodoxy disintegrated within 2 generations of 1843 – despite confession, catechisms, presbyterial govt and a deeply pious laity.


  10. Alexander, well how you have establishment without the House of Lords deciding your affairs or having the queen send a representative to your assembly is a mystery. Come ye out from among them.


  11. Cath, that freedom is not how the Covenanters and the Seceders saw it. Patronage was always a huge issue and it sure looks to me like the Free Church finally woke up to the problem about one hundred years after the Seceders did. Why so long?


  12. Well having the monarch send a representative to one’s assembly and having the monarch as head of the church are two quite different things. Patronage was indeed a big issue. When I say Presbyterians I mean the evangelical wing of the C of S. Of course the C of S was always to some degree a mixed bag. This is why confessions are so important. What did the C of S confess? It confessed a robust Reformed theology and practice. There was those within the communion were less enthusiastic about that, hence a lot of the divisions.

    What’s important though is to ask: what does Scripture teach? Scripture teaches, and our confessions confess, the Establishment principle. Therefore however that principle was abused, or violated, over the history of the C of S does not void the principle. It is the duty of the church to assert and maintain the headship of Christ- hence the Disruption; it is also the duty of the church to assert and maintain the Establishment principle- hence the repudiation of voluntarism by the Disruption fathers.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.