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A theology full of certainties

June 2012

Dear Friends,

The Church of Scotland was once noted for its moderate liberalism. It was also noted for its concern for social justice. It is now becoming much more right wing and conservative in its theology. It is a theology full of certainties which expresses a literal understanding of scripture.

To those certainties young people are attracted. Unfortunately, for me, the down side is that their subsequent engagement with the world and the many serious issues we are facing are laid aside. I was in one such church recently where many young people were present but where we had no prayers for others; no prayers for the world and its tensions and sufferings.

That is the down side of such a theology. It is true to say that the moderate middle-aged liberal has left the Church of Scotland in its droves. The theological make-up of the Church is changing.


These comments by the Moderator of the General Assembly, the Right Reverend David Arnott, at the Amity Foundation headquarters in Nanjing on Good Friday, 6th April, give, somewhat paradoxically, encouragement to churches like Sandyford in the days to come. We can be grateful to the Moderator for raising the debate with regard to the place of the bible in the history of the Church of Scotland. In his speech, he flags up the considerable theological shift which has taken place over the last years. The return to a ‘theology full of certainties’, which he would seem to perceive as regressive, might, however, be interpreted as a positive sign for the days to come, though we would obviously regret the national decline in membership.

A ‘theology full of certainties’ = an engagement with the world?

We would share the Moderator’s disappointment with regard to the seemingly self-regarding focus in the situation he cited, but would suggest that this is atypical. Furthermore, the equation of theological conservatism with politically right wing convictions does not necessarily follow and would not be applicable in a number of congregations. Yet, we would not wish to be complacent and would recognize the challenge in the Moderator’s address to be engaged with the world. However, many in churches which might be regarded as subscribing to a ‘theology full of certainties’ would take a different view of church history from that suggested by the Moderator. There are countless examples which illustrate that a fuller grasp of the certainties set out in the bible has in fact led to an outgoing interest in others and has been the mainspring of missionary endeavour for which the Church has rightly been recognized world-wide. When folk, of whatever age, have been fully persuaded of their relationship with God through Christ, they have been set free to care for those around them.

It is preferable to cite from history rather than from our current situation from which it is not easy to adopt a critical distance (some historians, I am told, tend not to classify as ‘historical’ any event which is not 30 years old!). In the early years of Sandyford (founded in 1855), a ministry which would have fitted the Moderator’s theological classification, led, in addition to the maintenance of schooling (which was at the time provided by churches), to many benevolent works, including the founding of an orphanage. All this against the challenge from new philosophical approaches, following the Darwinian discoveries, which led to revisionist thinking with regard to biblical truth in many churches elsewhere.

But can we have the same certitudes today?

One of the hallmarks of the postmodern condition in which so many of the young people have been schooled since the 1980s is the absence of certainty. In fact, we have been encouraged to question all the underlying grand narratives which previously had given coherence and meaning to life, in particular, religion, science, and truth. Following the collapse of Marxism in the West in the early 90s after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the (now discredited) pronouncements from Fukiyama with regard to the end of history and the death of political ideologies, a general pessimism has pervaded Western philosophy, literature, art and media culture. Such scepticism has been imported into the Church. Particularly under attack in our pluralist society has been the doctrine concerning assurance of salvation. However, one of the most important questions we can ask is: ‘How can we be sure of our being accepted by God?’ Some have wrongly tortured themselves mentally over guilt which has been dealt with; others have doubted on account of the early age at which they professed Christ; while others still have felt that trials or difficult circumstances have invalidated their belief, whereas, invariably, the opposite has been true.

The subordinate standard of the Church of Scotland, The Westminster Confession of Faith, encourages all believers to have a ‘well-grounded assurance’, while recognizing that doubting assurance is not the same as experiencing unbelief:

…infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith but that a true believer may wait long and conflict with many difficulties before he be partaker of it: yet, being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given him of God, he may, without extraordinary revelation, in the right use of ordinary means, attain thereunto. And therefore it is the duty of everyone to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure; that thereby his heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience, the proper fruits of this assurance.

To this end we will be engaging in a series of studies on Sunday evenings in the first letter of John, which was written, as John says, to reassure the believers with regard to their eternal destiny:

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life (I John 5: 13).

Some of the ministers I have spoken to, while acknowledging that I John is a wonderful letter, have confessed that it is difficult to preach on. It has consequently become almost a lost letter in many churches today. One of the problems is the repetition. However, if John felt the need for emphasis, how much more do we as believers in the twenty-first century!

Confidence/self-delusion

To give a balance to the more propositional approach of John we shall on Sunday mornings be studying 1 Samuel and on Wednesday evenings key Old Testament battles. Here we will see the doubts and fears of so many different people, whose belief in a ‘theology of certainties’ may, like ours, be challenged by circumstances or in Christian service. Some had to learn the folly of trusting in themselves and in self-pleasing; some genuine believers had to wrestle with assurance-denying doubt; some were delivered from the slough of despond into a vibrant faith in God; and others demonstrated what can happen when their confidence is placed in the God who remains faithful to His Word.

With very best wishes

Noel Peacock

Session Clerk

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