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Cheyne, A. C.
Studies in Scottish Church History.
Edinburgh: Clark 1999. IX, 325 S. 8. Lw. £ 24.95. ISBN 0-567-08644-5.
John F. McCaffrey
It has been a pleasure to review this book. Its thirteen essays display all the characteristics we have come to expect from Professor Cheyne who occupied the Chair of Ecclesiastical History, New College, at the University of Edinburgh from 1964 to 1986: elegance of style, clarity of thought, humanity of outlook, breadth and significance of subject matter. Their appearance in this form, in some cases considerably changed and updated, now makes widely available a valuable body of work which hitherto has been restricted mainly to those with ready access to the learned periodicals and books housed in university libraries.
Their subject matter could broadly be defined as the developing history of religious thought in Scotland since the 1560s as successive generations of reformed churchmen have tried to restate the essential message of the gospel each in the language of their particular age. In them C. affirms his belief in the continuing importance of ecclesiastical history and demonstrates, as the following quotation shows, his awareness of how it can be (and has been) manipulated to suit a particular viewpoint and of the constant vigilance needed to avoid this. Among the dangers he notes "... the crude temptation to regard the records of the past simply as a kind of immense haystack whose chief interest lies in the somewhat widely dispersed needles which it may be supposed to contain. But there are other more sophisticated and more deadly, of which two in particular spring to mind. The first is the temptation to let our historical conclusions be shaped by theological or ecclesiastical preconceptions - to brainwash our ancestors, as it were, into corroborating our opinions and sentiments. The second is the temptation to simplify (it may be for the most eirenic of reasons) the story of past time, to suppress its discordant voices and silence its minorities, to iron out its complexities and transpose its hesitancies into a bolder key. Each, if succumbed to, would be fatal to the historians integrity and to truth itself." C.s preference for the positive use of the past and the need for sensitivity and openness in order to throw light on how each age has always sought, amidst much complexity, to restate essential truths in its own way is clearly shown throughout this book. His interests lie in life rather than formulas. Reluctance to indulge in dogmatism, to consider differing viewpoints sympathetically yet not to shirk a conclusion after having reviewed all the evidence characterise his approach in each of these studies of different eras in the Reformed Scottish past. The humane attitude, as much as the style, reflects the man.
They begin with a broad and lucid survey of theological, ecclesial and confessional developments in Scottish Presbyterianism stretching from the age of Knox to the twentieth century which touch on many of the themes which follow. The next two essays examine the diversity and adaptation produced by men forced to make crucial decisions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The first employs an approach much favoured by the author - a biographical analysis of influential figures in Scottish society at that time - in this case three early Principals of Edinburgh University, Robert Rollock, Robert Leighton and William Carstares. The second is a masterly concise consideration of that mixture of events and motives which finally settled the form of the Scottish Church as Presbyterian viz., the Revolution Settlement of 1689-90.
The bulk of these studies concentrate on the controversies produced by an even more revolutionary century, the study of which C. has made particularly his own, the nineteenth. This was the era when the apparent rock-like certainties as to Confessions, of the centrality of the Bible and of the devotional and liturgical practices which could be hewn out in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, began to dissolve under the ever widening discoveries opened up by the natural sciences, by literary criticism and history, and by a growing knowledge of comparative religions. The ensuing tensions and the efforts made to reconcile them, the struggle to incorporate the new insights so as to reinforce and reinterpret, but not relinquish, the essence of the gospel, are traced in the ten remaining studies: on the contribution of churchmen like Thomas Chalmers, an old-fashioned polymath of the eighteenth century enlightenment tradition struggling to come to terms with the challenges of industrialism: on the Ten Years Conflict which led to the formation of the Free Church and raised into question the validity of having any established form of religion at all in Scotland: on the changing place of the Bible in Scottish religious life: on the significance of men like John Tulloch and John Caird in preserving the place of the Kirk in later nineteenth-century Scotland: on the influence of a preacher and pastor like Henry Drummond on a whole generation of future ministers: and, bringing these developments and adaptations up to the period after the Second World War, two particularly searching and incisive essays on the role of the brothers John and Donald Baillie in determining much of the tone of twentieth-century Scottish Presbyterianism as a Christian body appreciative of modern scholarship while remaining true to its own distinctive roots, and equally anxious for its commitment to the good of contemporary Scotland within the wider Catholic and Ecumenical spirit of the age.
The collection ends with two studies of the history of Edinburghs New College on the Mound and of the development of ecclesiastical history within the University of Edinburgh and, thus, its contribution to the wider, secular, academic community of Scotland and beyond.
What runs like a leitmotiv throughout is a concern to examine each of the conflicting parties impartially, to try to understand the motivation behind the participants, to value what was sincere and positive in their achievements and correctly to reject whatever was domineering and narrow or, because it sought to limit the human spirit, sprang from lack of charity. In the essay on the Baillies there seems to be a particularly close link between the author and his subject matter, especially where he commends "... their candour, their genuine if unassertive piety, and their refusal, in the spirit of Isaiahs Servant to break a bruised reed or quench the smoking flax ..."; or when he traces and commends their openness to new scientific thought whilst retaining a balance in their deep belief in their utter dependence on God. What also strikes this reviewer is that, whilst many of the individuals considered in these studies spent much of their lives struggling against the apparent unbelief of their age, the Scottish Church appears to have remained a remarkably confident institution, particularly intellectually assured in its theological colleges and professors, right up until comparatively recent decades. What also strikes one is how precise, though prolific, was the range of its relationships - abundant with Germany and the USA, yes, but remarkably unaware of what was going on inside Catholic Europe except in a negative sense.
But, the lasting impression on reading these studies is of C.s lightness of touch allied with an ability to deal with complex issues with great clarity and sensitivity, always ready with cogent literary allusions. He deals with weighty themes such as the restatements of credal certainties, the contending methods of debate and criticism between the dogmatic and the conciliatory which were involved, the struggles of churchmen to link their piety with the needs of their age. He lets the people involved speak for themselves by the liberal use of quotations from their works and so gives the reader a good insight into their outlooks, habits of thought, beliefs. Yet he wears such learning lightly and he retains the readers interest throughout. It must have been wonderful to have been one of his students.