Friday, June 10, 2005

A secular Bible for a Secular Church – Bible versions in post-war Britain

It was shocking but not altogether surprising in 2004, when Archbishop Rowan Williams placed his seal on the new 'Bible version', ‘Good as New'. He welcomed what was a clear perversion of the truth and morality of the Scriptures, as a book of 'extraordinary power' which didn't use 'exclusive words'. He went on: 'Instead of being taken into a specialised religious frame of reference - as happens even with the most conscientious of formal modern translations - and being given a gospel addressed to specialised concerns … we have here a vehicle for thinking and worshiping that is fully earthed, recognizably about our humanity.' In other words the Scriptures have been rewritten by 'Good as New' to adapt to secular concerns and to become wholly secular themselves. It is significant that a church leader who has failed to approach and deal with the issue of homosexuality in a biblical way should be supporting a rewritten of the Scriptures which excludes any condemnation of homosexuality.

'Good as New' rewrites 'demon possession' as 'mental illness’, ‘Son of Man,' as 'the Complete Person', and salvation to become 'healing' or 'completeness'. Individuals in Scripture are renamed with modern nicknames: Peter becomes 'Rocky,' Mary Magdalene becomes 'Maggie,' Aaron becomes 'Ron,' etc. The secularism of this book is blasphemous in places, such as Mark 1:10-11 which is rendered: 'As he was climbing up the bank again, the sun shone through a gap in the clouds. At the same time a pigeon flew down and perched on him. Jesus took this as a sign that God's spirit was with him. A voice from overhead was heard saying, 'That's my boy! You're doing fine!' It is a 'version' of the Bible which even changes the canon to include Gnostic pseudo-gospels in the attempt to appeal to contemporary fascination with the exotic. It is a secular 'Bible' with secular morality and ideas written not simply for a secular society but for a secular Church, thus Williams hoped that 'Good as New' will spread 'in epidemic profusion through religious and irreligious alike'.

Inevitable Secularisation?
To some onlookers, these developments reflect the inevitable decline of religion through secularisation. In the process of secularisation, religion is said to become increasingly less important in the society and its institutions, while the social standing of religious roles and institutions themselves decline. Above all it is thought to be a steady decline in the numbers of people engaging in religious practices and displayng religious beliefs. Traditionally, secularisation has been seen as the inevitable result of enlightenment thinking together with the fact of modern nations becoming industrialised and more concentrated in cities.

The Sixties
Historians have generally assumed that Britain became gradually secular during the twentieth century rather than overnight. Recently, historian Prof Callum Brown (The Death of Christian Britain: understanding secularisation 1800-2000, Callum G Brown, Routledge, 2001) has argued that there were three main periods of religious decline: the First World War, the Second World War and the period after 1963. In between the latter two periods of decline, however, the 1950s however represented a period of resurgence in religious adherence. Brown identifies the sixties as a period which introduced decline of a more permanent and more radical character. 'Britain in the 1960s experienced more secularisation than all the preceding four centuries put together. Never before had all of the numerical indicators of popular religiosity fallen simultaneously, and never before had their declension been so steep...What was different about the 1960s in the history of religion was not just the scale and suddenness of religious decline. The uniqueness of the sixties was that, firstly, for the first time, Christian religiosity underwent a common and virtually simultaneous change within nearly all countries in western Europe.' The period immediately before the sixties, i.e. between 1945 and 1958 reveals an upsurge of British church membership and Sunday school enrolment. The situation in the USA, Australia and the UK showed faster growth during this time than at any time since 1890. The Billy Graham crusades in the UK were highly attended, London 1954 was attended by 2 million (21.2 % of resident population) while 100, 000 packed Hampden Park in Glasgow 1955 (73.7% of the resident population).

Brown pinpoints the revolution in Britain's religious adherence. He believes that 'really quite suddenly in 1963, something very profound ruptured the character of the nation and its people, sending organised Christianity on a downward spiral to the margins of social significance.' It was something more fundamental that just falling church attendances. What happened in 1963? It was the year in which the book 'Honest to God' was published by the Bishop of Woolwich, JAT Robinson. This book amounted to a manifesto for the adoption of a secular theology and a secular morality within the Church and heralded a revolution in the moral identity of the nation. It was a significant moment, for while many resisted such an extreme position, the initiative to secularise had been grasped from within the Church .

Secular Theology
The book was promoted in advance by an article in The Observer headed ‘Our image of God must go’. Within three years the book had sold over 1 million copies and was to be translated into seventeen languages. Robinson's conviction was that the biblical imagery of God made him unreal to the modern secular scientific world and that the supernaturalism of Scripture was entirely mythological. The book opened up a Secular Theology which derived from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's idea of a 'religionless Christianity', the idea that the supernatural 'God is dead' and that God must instead be found in the here and now of secular societies. Later in the sixties, Harvey Cox published 'The Secular City' and in a similar vein Paul Van Buren also published 'The Secular Meaning of the Gospels'. Atheistic philosophers welcomed Robinson's ideas as identical to their own: Alasdair Maclntyre regarded Robinson as an atheist with a thin coating of religious verbiage and A. J. Ayer observed that Robinson 'is coming round to a position a number of us have held for some time.'

Secular Morality
Robinson had opened up the sixties with his advocation of the removal of censorship from the explicit novel by DH Lawrence 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' . He appeared in court in 1960 to defend the publication of the unexpurgated edition of the novel claiming that Lawrence ‘tried to portray this relationship as … an act of holy communion’. By the end of the decade censorship of the theatre had been opened up entirely. In 'Honest to God', Robinson championed the idea of permissive morality believing that 'the fact that the old landmarks are disappearing is not something simply to be deplored. If we have the courage it is something to be welcomed - as a challenge to Christian ethics to shake itself loose from the supports of supernatural legalism' (Honest to God, p.117). One of the book's chapters was entitled 'the new morality' while another was significantly headed 'worldly holiness'.

Secular Bible
A significant moment witnessed the outselling of the New English Bible (NEB) New Testament by Honest to God. Robinson had been on the New Testament panel of translators for the NEB, which had been published in 1961. It advanced a sea change in Bible translation by abandoning a conservative word-for-word approach to translation for a more loose thought-for-thought approach. The NEB was not simply a re-translation but a re-writing of the Scriptures through its free use of conjecture in reconstructing and rearranging the text. It trumpeted itself as a translation into 'the idiom of contemporary English', and liberally used crude colloquialisms and clichés such as 'money-grubbing', 'sponging', 'left in the lurch' 'feel the pinch' 'lazy rascal' - 'catch me out' 'gibberish' 'perfect pest'. JG Vos once spoke of ‘Secularism is like a chlorine bleach. It takes the real colour out of everything’ - this is clearly seen in the secularising of sacred Scripture.

In the NEB words such as sinners were frequently translated as simply 'bad characters'. The irony was that the translators mixed up together with the slang idiom many archaic and unfamiliar words such as 'bedizened', 'scion','inculcate', 'obdurate' and 'parricides'. This was intended to represent 'modern English' but whose modern English?

For the translators, the secularising impulse dovetailed perfectly with a bias towards liberal theology in seeking out new 'translations' of the Scriptures. Familiar renderings became almost unrecognisable such as Genesis 1:1 ' In the beginning of creation, when God made heaven and earth, the earth was without form and void, with darkness over the face of the abyss, and a mighty wind that swept over the surface of the waters.' Isaiah 9:6 'For a boy has been born for us, a son given to us to bear the symbol of dominion on his shoulder; and he shall be called in purpose wonderful, in battle God-like, Father for all time [margin, 'of a wide realm'], Prince of peace'. The rendering of Exodus 34:6, 7 referred to the LORD as 'a god'.

The NEB pioneered the idea that the Bible was intelligible to the man on the street. If Robinson spoke of the 'death of God' in terms of what the traditional notion meant to the modern man, the NEB took as its leading principle the idea that 'the Bible was dead', in terms of its meaning to modern man. The Bible had to become relevant, part of modern vocabulary and the categories of thought of modern man - in short, secular. It was not that the Bible had become obsolete through changes in the English language (after all it had been accessible enough to Billy Graham's crowded crusades) but rather that society, attitudes and ideas had changed in the revolutionary ferment and discontent of the 1960s.

The translation philosophy behind the NEB was essentially secularising. Robinson's agenda in 'Honest to God' was primarily linguistic in promoting an instrumentalist view of religious language. The fundamental assumption was that traditional religious language is misleading rather than meaningful. Robinson believed that this could be addressed by changing the vocabulary of traditional religious language in order to describe more accessibly the spiritual realities that these terms pointed to. The idea here is that the labels for these spiritual realities can be changed without any loss of meaning. It should be obvious, however, that to “translate meaning while ignoring the way that meaning has been articulated is no translation at all but merely replacement” (Gerald Hammond). Access to the reality of the Lord Jesus Christ or to anything else of which Scripture speaks is mediated by the Scriptures themselves.

Evangelical Change
While evangelicals resisted the secular theology and secular morality championed by liberal theologians, they were increasingly attracted, as the sixties wore into the seventies, by the idea of relevance. They took the initiative to secularise. The Jesus People mimicked the hippy culture, adopting it with a Christian veneer, experimenting with folk-style choruses. The momentum was towards a 'relevant' message with a relevant Bible and relevant worship in order to evangelise effectively. Addressing God as 'Thee' and 'Thou' was replaced by reference to God as 'You', which was more accessible for the modern man (though not biblically accurate). The Bible had to be re translated and made relevant by means of the thought for thought approach adopted in the NEB. Robert P Martin has commented appropriately on such secularised translations: 'Unlike the modern newspaper, the Bible was never meant to yield the fullness of its message to those who are only willing to expend the absolute minimum of effort necessary'.

One of the principal translators of the 'New English Bible', Prof. Kenneth Grayston eptomised this attitude when he said: ‘Modern English, it seems to me, is slack instead of taut, verbose and not concise, infested with this month’s cliché…it seems to me a repository for the bad habits of foreigners speaking English. This is how we must speak if people are to listen and grasp what we say’. Some evangelical authors, in similarly stressing the need to be more contemporary in the style and language of their worship, seem to want to appeal to the decline of religion and diminishing importance of the church. The church must move the Scriptures along with the times, even if that is a downward spiral. At the same time the influence of modern idiom is thought to be a Midas touch that will transform the Church entirely. The great variety of modern idiom versions in existence, however, tells us that even this idea is not that uncomplicated but rather that there is significant difference of opinion over what modern English idiom actually constitutes.

After the sixties, Evangelicals bought into the idea of a secular Bible and the secularising of religion - but they did not buy (wholesale at least) secular theology or morality. Arguably, evangelicals on each side of the Atlantic have adapted even more than liberals to techniques with which to expand the church and to improve self-esteem that borrow mainly from business management and psychology. Recent developments, however, have witnessed a 'megashift' in evangelical theology which uses emotive arguments in seeking to change such things as the traditional doctrine of God, the atonement, and eternal punishment. Professing 'evangelicals' are now no longer entirely united in opposition to homosexuality. In relation to Bible translation, evangelicals are divided on the issue of 'gender neutral' translations. The latter is a clear instance of rewriting Scripture to make it align with changing social values (namely the success of the women's rights movement of the sixties) rather than changing language, despite arguments for the latter.

Secularisation is not only a trend in society but also a conscious decision taken within the Church to respond to perceived trends in society by seeking to keep up with changing cultural values. The British experience since the sixties demonstrates something of this. This is not to argue against change because it is change but on the contrary, to argue against change for change's sake. There is no obligation upon the Church to secularise. Secularisation is not absolutely a force outside of our control, the church has chosen to secularise itself. This is exemplified in the area of Bible translation: why was change required during the mid-late twentieth century? Why did translation start afresh rather than seek conservative revision? The answer is that the movement was prompted by cultural change and popular prejudices rather than genuine linguistic requirements. The very real danger is that a secular Bible speaks more loudly about a secular Church than it does into the secular society to whom it has conceded so much.

saving knowledge

The best summary of saving knowledge is found in a document called The Sum of Saving Knowledge.

The content of The Sum of Saving Knowledge

The full title is A brief sum of Christian doctrine contained in Holy Scriptures and holden forth in the Confession of faith & catechism agreed upon by the Assembly of Divines at Westminster and received by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland Together with The Practical Use Thereof. The title page carried the text John 6:37 'All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out'. The Sum is a very clear, useful and faithful summary or exposition of what the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Larger Catechism and Confession of Faith teach in relation to the way of salvation. The doctrine is federal or covenantal, working through the covenant of works and the covenant of grace as reflecting God's dealings with men.
The marrow of the doctrine of the Shorter Catechism is represented in the Sum in such a way that appears to reflect even its very language. restated almost in its own language. Almost every line of it includes the substance of a question of the Catechism. The first paragraph, for instance, summarises questions 4-8 of the Catechism.

The benefit of The Sum of Saving Knowledge
Anyone may benefit from The Sum of Saving Knowledge. Here the seeker finds the truths and way of salvation solidly, yet winsomely expressed. The child or young person finds the substance of saving truth in which, we trust, they have been catechised and learns how to apply it. The parent or instructor discovers a way of imparting this crucial knowledge. Any professing Christian possessing or lacking assurance and any minister should know the summary of saving knowledge and they should know where to turn for such instruction. The Sum is especially helpful in self-examination for evidences of grace prior to partaking of the Lord's Supper whether or not it is contemplated for the first time. Noone can be without material for sermons or formal instruction when have the faithful teaching of the Sum to hand. Indeed it would be useful for ministerial students to study it as a model for the content of sermons.
The experience of Robert Murray McCheyne shows the value of the treatise - heacknowledged it as the work which first brought him to a clear understanding of the way of acceptance with God. Andrew Bonar writes:
'He thought himself much profited, at this period, by investigating the subject of Election and the Free Grace of God. But it was the reading of "The Sum of Saving Knowledge," generally appended to our Confession of Faith, that brought him to a clear understanding of the way of acceptance with God. Those who are acquainted with its admirable statements of truth will see how well fitted it was to direct an inquiring soul. I find him some years afterwards recording:-
"March 11, 1834: Read in the Sum of Saving Knowledge, the work which I think first of all wrought a saving change in me. How gladly would I renew the reading of it, if that change might be carried on to perfection."'

The Context of The Sum of Saving Knowledge
The Sum of Saving Knowledge, and the Practical Use of Saving Knowledge is a kind of manual for catechising. It emerged from a period of reformation in the Church where various documents were formulated which were essential both to its wellbeing and to the propagation of truth. Catechising was central to the Second Reformation ideal of the Church and its ministry. The Church of Scotland's General Assembly of 1639 (Act anent Ministers Catechising, and Family Exercises, August 30) gave instructions concerning catechising. The Assembly believed 'that the long waited-for fruits of the Gospel, so mercifully planted and preserved in this Land, and Reformation of our selves, and Families, so solemnly vowed to God of late in our Covenant, [National Covenant, 1638] cannot take effect, except the knowledge and worship of God be caried from the Pulpit to every family within each Parish'.
They instructed therefore that, in addition to his sermons on the Lord's Day, every minister was to have weekly catechising in some part of his parish, rather than leave catechising to the time immediately prior to the dispensing of the Lord's Supper. Heads of households should ensure that family worship was conducted in the morning and the evening and that children and servants were catechised. This work was to be monitored by the parish minister and elders through visitation of every family. The latter work was, in turn, to be monitored by the presbytery. (The Acts of the General Assemblies of the Church of Scotland, from the year 1638 to the year 1649 inclusive, 1682, pp.88-89). The Westminister Assembly's Directory of Publick Worship reinforced the vision of the 1639 Act by recommending that heads of households should occupy some of the time during the Lord's Day not set aside for public worship for repeating sermons and catechising. This was also echoed by the Directory for Family Worship which was approved by the Church of Scotland in August 1647 (David Dickson co-author of Sum of Saving Knowledge had helped to prepare the Directory for Family Worship).
John Kennedy spoke of a similar practice in his own day in the Highlands of Scotland. 'On Tuesdays and Wednesdays during winter and spring, the minister holds ‘Diets of Catechising’. The residents in a certain district are gathered into one place - the church, or school or a barn - and after praise. prayer and an exposition of one of the questions of the Shorter Catechism in course, each person from the district for the day, is minutely and searchingly examined. All attend and all are catechised. Each individual conscience is thus reached by the truth, the exact amount of knowledge of each of his hearers, as well as his state of feeling. is ascertained by the minister: a clear knowledge of the fundamental doctrines of the gospel communi­cated and valuable materials gathered for the work of the pulpit. On four evenings of the week the Cate­chist is employed in his peculiar work . . . his diets of catechising are almost conducted quite like those of the minister. Such was the ordinary weekly work in one of the Ross-shire congregations in the good days of the fathers'.
By 1647 the Church of Scotland had approved the Westminster Confession of Faith together with One Hundred and Eleven Propositions written by George Gillespie to expound the Church's position on Church government in conjunction with the Westminster Assembly's Form of Presbyterial Church Government. In July 1648 the General Assembly approved the both the Shorter Catechism and the Larger Catechism, calling it 'a rich treasure for increasing knowledge amongst the People of God' (p.372). The General Assembly of 1649 followed up on this action in bemoaning 'the great darknesse, and Ignorance wherein a great a part of this Kingdom lyeth', and renewed the act of 1639 with the recognition that 'these dyets of weekly Catechising are much slighted and neglected by many Ministers throughout this Kingdome'. (p.466) The Assembly viewed this with such concern that they ordained that any minister found negligent by his presbytery in this matter would be first admonished, the second time rebuked sharply and 'if after such rebuke they doe not yet amend, they shall be suspended'. Ministers were instructed to make the weekly catechising an occasion to present 'the chief heads of Saving Knowledge, in short view', since not everyone would attend every meeting for catechising.
The authors of The Sum of Saving Knowledge
It is a measure of the degree to which they believed in the necessity of catechising and the need for instruction in the principal parts of saving knowledge that David Dickson (1589-1662) and James Durham (1622-1658) both professors of divinity and highly esteemed authors and preachers, composed, about 1650, The Sum of Saving Knowledge.This document sets out the chief points of saving knowledge and the practical use of saving knowledge which was to be made of them. In some ways this document compensated for an intended portion of the Directory of Publick Worship, ultimately not included, which would have dealt with catechising. This was discussed in Session 342 of the Westminster Assembly.
Dickson and Durham were great friends ever since Dickson had encouraged Durham to the ministry.While he was serving as a captain in the covenanting army during the civil war Dickson overheard Durham exhorting his soldiers concerning their souls. Recognising his ministerial gifts Dickson told him, ‘Go home, Sir, for you seem to be called to another work than this!’ (Robert Wodrow, Analecta, or, Materials for a history of remarkable providences, mostly relating to Scotch ministers and Christians, ed. [M. Leishman], 4 vols., Maitland Club, 60 (1842-3), 3.109). Durham entered the University of Glasgow about 1645 and studied divinity under Dickson himself who was professor. Durham displayed such outstanding proficiency that his course of study was shorter than the norm and he was ordained to Blackfriars in Glasgow in 1647.
In 1650 Dickson was translated to the chair of divinity at Edinburgh and appointed to the second charge of St Giles. Durham was called to replace Dickson in the chair of divinity at the University of Glasgow, but was prevented from taking up this charge when he was appointed one of the king's chaplains. Robert Wodrow informs us that The Sum of Saving Knowledge came together after several conversations, and thinking upon the subject and manner of handling it, in order to make it most useful to capacities of the weakest. It is said to have been dictated by both men to another minister, during the year 1650. John Macleod comments in his Scottish Theology: 'This solid and valuable piece is an expansion of some sermons preached by Dickson at Inveraray when he was the Duke of Argyll's guest there'. Presumably this refers to the Practical Use of Saving Knowledge, Warrants to Believe and The Evidences of True Faith which make up the bulk of The Sum of Saving Knowledge and are in effect brief expositions of portions of Scripture, resembling the headings of sermons. These headings would have been doctrines extracted from the text and the uses or applications of the doctrines.
The style of The Sum is markedly similar to that of Dickson's other writings, as seen in the communion sermons published in Select Practical Writings (Free Church of Scotland, 1845). Dickson was adept in expounding a text by means of a number of doctrinal inferences. Robert Wodrow tells us that these sermons are 'full of solid substantial matter, very Scriptural, and in a very familiar style, not low but exceedingly strong, plain and affecting. It is somewhat akin to Mr Rutherford's in his admirable letters. I have been told by some old ministers that scarce any body of that time came so near Mr Dickson's style and method as the Rev. Mr William Guthrie, minister of Fenwick, who equalled, if not exceeded him there' (p.xii).
The comparison with William Guthrie is interesting in view of Guthrie's valuable little book The Christian's Great Interest whose theme is so similar to that of the Sum of Saving Knowledge. Though Dickson was well learned and able to teach theology in the university, it is remarkable that he retained the pastoral concern which bred the simple Sum of Saving Knowledge. Wodrow records that he previously wrote Precepts for a daily Direction of a Christian's Conversation - The Grounds of the true Christian Religion, a catechism for his congregation of Irvine (Wodrow in ed. WK Tweedie, 'Select Biographies' Wodrow Society, 1847). The emphasis upon the covenants in the Sum is similar to that of David Dickson's Therapeutica Sacra [Sacred Healing]: Shewing briefly the method of healing the diseases of the Conscience, concerning Regeneration (Edinburgh, 1664). In this treatise Dickson attempts to briefly show 'the method of healing the diseases of the conscience concerning regeneration'. A large section of the book is devoted to an explanation of the covenants 'because the healing of the sickness of the conscience cometh by a right application of the covenants about our salvation'.
Dickson's preaching was said to have an 'apostolic brevity and simplicity in preaching'. In his preaching he sought 'to lead people to throw all their trust and dependence upon Christ's imputed righteousness, and not to rest upon anything of their own' (quoted Anthology p.14). This was Dickson's only refuge for himself. On his deathbed in December 1662 he said, 'I have taken all my good deeds, and all my bad deeds, and cast them through each other in a heap before the Lord, and fled from both, and betaken myself to the Lord Jesus Christ, and in him I have sweet peace'. Wodrow wrote of Dickson that 'if ever a Scots Biography and the lives of our eminent ministers and Christians be published, he will shine there as a star of the first magnitude'.
James Durham was known as 'a very candid and searching preacher who in an instant was in the utmost corners of your bosoms, though with the utmost caution and meekness, without giving any of his hearers the smallest ground to fret and repine at his freedom in dealing with them' p.iii. In September 1651 he moved to Glasgow High Church, St Mungo's west quarter. This congregation numbered around 1500. He regularly preached three times a week, lectured before his sermons, visited the sick, catechised from house to house, met with his session weekly. In addition he gave daily public lectures every fifth week, undertook daily catechising before communion seasons, and spent a considerable part of every day in private devotion, prayer, and study. He was known for his moderation during the protester-resolutioner controversy which split the Church of Scotland in the 1650s, and made constant attempts to mediate personally. His Treatise on Scandal represented his continuing attempts during his dying days to achieve a reconciliation, and when published in 1659 it was entitled A Dying Man's Testament to the Church of Scotland. He died at the age of thirty-six.

The status of The Sum of Saving Knowledge
The Sum was never formally approved by the Church courts but has been held in the greatest esteem and eventually published with the Westminster documents. James Renwick at his execution (February 17, 1688) bound the Sum of Saving Knowledge together with the Westminster documents: 'I own the Word of God as the rule of Faith and manners; I own the Confession of Faith, Larger and Shorter Catechisms, Sum of Saving Knowledge, Directory for Worship, etc.; Covenants, National and Solemn League; Acts of General Assemblies,- and all the faithful contendings that have been for the work of reformation'.
In 1851 the Free Church of Scotland passed an Act identifying its subordinate standards and other authoritative documents, it referred to the documents of the Second Reformation as 'regulations, rather than...tests, - to be enforced by the Church like her ofther laws, but not to be imposed by subscription upn her ministers and elders'. The Sum of Saving Knowledge is referred to as a 'valuable treatise' belonging to these 'authorized and authoritative symbolic books of the Church of Scotland' as a 'practical application of the doctrine of the Confession'.

assurance of salvation

William Guthrie is most famous for the valuable little book that he wrote called The Christian's Great Interest. This book has gone through numerous editions (currently available from the Banner of Truth Trust) and been translated into various languages. It was first published in 1658, shortly before the restoration of Charles II. The subject of the book is assurance of salvation and it seeks to give various tests by which someone may know that he is a Christian and in doing so also sets out very clearly the way of salvation. It has been greatly valued by many. On one occasion the great puritan theologian John Owen was speaking with a minister of the Church of Scotland. Having been asked if he knew of William Guthrie, Owen drew a little gilded copy of Guthrie's treatise from his pocket saying, "That author I take to have been one of the greatest divines that ever wrote; it is my Vade-mecum, and I carry it and the Sedan New Testament, still about with me. I have written several folios, but there is more divinity in it than in them all." (A Vade-mecum is a handbook or some other aid carried about so that it can be of immediate use).

"The best book I ever read"

Thomas Chalmers, the leader of the Free Church of Scotland at the time of the Disruption once wrote concerning it, “I am on the eve of finishing Guthrie which I think is the best book I ever read." He went on to speak of its character and popularity: "it has long been the favourite work of our peasantry in Scotland. One admirable property of this work is that, while it guides, it purifies". Chalmers also wrote at some length on the book and it is worthwhile to hear something more of what he has to say concerning it in order to gain a true flavour of its contents and worth"...we think it impossible to peruse this valuable treatise, with the candour and sincerity of an honest mind, without arriving at a solid conclusion as to our spiritual condition. His experimental acquaintance with the operations and genuine fruits of the Spirit, and his intimate knowledge of the workings of the human heart, fitted him for applying the tests of infallible truth to aid us in ascertaining what spirit we are of - for exposing and dissipating the false hopes of the hypocrite - for leading the careless Christian to investigate the causes of his declension in godliness, and to examine anew whether he be in the faith - and for detecting and laying open the fallacies and delusions which men practice on themselves, in regard to the state of their souls. He faithfully exposes the insidious nature of that deceitfulness of the human heart, which lulls men into a false security, while their Christianity is nothing more than a heartless and hollow profession, and they are standing exposed to the fearful condemnation denounced against those who have 'a name to live, but are dead'.

The intimate acquaintance which he manifests with the spiritual life, and his clear, affectionate, and earnest expositions of the peculiar doctrines of the gospel, render this treatise a precious companion to the sincere Christian; while his powerful and urgent appeals to the conscience are peculiarly fitted to awaken men to a concern about those matters to which the Scriptures attach such an infinite importance; to lead them in earnest to avoid the possibility of continuing in deception; and to constrain them to seek after a full assurance on that subject on which, above all others, it becomes men to be well assured".

The best author for such a book

It seems that William Guthrie was eminently suited to writing such a book. He was by nature introspective or as James Stirling put it, "William Guthrie was a great melancholian". He had, however, overcome the extremes and potential dangers of this aspect of his character over the years. Samuel Rutherford once said that, "If a man's melancholy temperament is sanctified, it becomes to him a seat of sound mortification and of humble walking". This was Guthrie's experience and he was the better able to be a faithful minister for it. Guthrie was able to overcome that melancholy temperament by a vigorous sense of humour. No doubt he could feel that this was a dangerous tendency too: 'My merriment!' he confessed to one who had rebuked him for it, 'I know all you would say, and my merriment costs me many a salt tear in secret.'

Yet he was not unfitted for spiritual things by it. Once instance that demonstrates this was a time when Guthrie and fellow minister James Durham were at dinner in a gentleman's house and Guthrie was keeping the company entertained. Durham, characteristically solemn, laughed and laughed. Family worship was taken immediately after dinner and William Guthrie was called upon to lead in prayer. The prayer was so heavenly and full of earnest spirituality that all gathered were affected by it. "O Will!", exclaimed Durham afterwards, "you are a happy man. If I had been so daft, I could not have been in any frame for eight-and-forty hours". As Robert Wodrow notes, "It was often observed, that, let Mr. Guthrie be never so merry, he was presently in a frame for the most spiritual duty, and the only account I can give of it, 'is, that he acted from spiritual principles in all he did, and even in his relaxations".

Guthrie enjoyed fishing as a way of lawful relaxation and physical exercise in order to help his poor health. No doubt it also gave him food for spiritual meditation. The story is told of a visit that Guthrie paid to an older man in Haddington (a considerable distance) whose spiritual life had been marked by certain extraordinary experiences. This was at the time that he was composing his Saving Interest and the visit was helpful to him for this purpose and Guthrie listened with careful interest. It was all that night and all the next day, however, and Guthrie could not tear himself away from the conversation of the man and his wife. Then suddenly his face suddenly brightened upon remembering a delightful trout stream he had passed on his way to town. He asked the man if he had a fishing rod he might borrow. The man was pleased to think that such a minister as Guthrie might use his old fishing rod, but his wife expressed her shock at this indulgence in things earthly. And so the visit ended, but the very fact that Guthrie could go all the way from Fenwick to Haddington, just to have a case of real soul-exercise described to him by the man in his own words, speaks much more to us of Guthrie's character than the trout stream.

The purpose of the book

The word "interest" in the title of Guthrie's book doesn't just mean that the book deals with the matter of greatest importance to a Christian and his chief concern. It also has a legal sense in which to have an interest means to have a valid stake or share in something to our benefit. Guthrie's book deals with how the Christian may know that he has a legal claim within the Will and Testament or Covenant that the Lord Jesus Christ graciously makes with His people. Guthrie helps us to put ourselves in a courtroom trial where we are under Scripture as a judge to determine whether or not our claim is a true one.

Guthrie opens the book with a concern that there are many "pretending, without ground, to a special interest in Christ". On the other hand many others "who have good ground of a claim to Christ are not established in the confidence of His favour, but remain in the dark without comfort, hesitating concerning the reality of godliness in themselves". This state of affairs prompts two questions - 1. How can someone know if they are in Christ and whether or not he may lay genuine claim to God's favour and salvation? 2. What should we do if we cannot find in ourselves the marks of a saving interest?

How can someone know whether they are in Christ?

It is important to be clear that assurance is possible, and more easily attained than many realise. It is of the utmost importance to be "savingly in covenant with God". Scripture must be the rule to by which we are able to judge whether or not this is so. Only a few, however, seem to reach this assurance. There are many different reasons for this. Far too many are ignorant of the different ways in which God works. Others deal deceitfully with God and their own conscience in holding on to sin. There is also a lazy apathy that resists the effort of examining ourselves, but it is "a work and business which cannot be done sleeping". Assurance must be laboured after it is not something that fall effortlessly into our laps. Many are ignorant concerning what evidence will satisfy the quest for assurance, despite the fact that it is clear in Scripture. Some are looking for entirely the wrong evidences such as attaining sinlessness or continuous rapturous prayer. Many that are struggling to attain assurance can make the following mistakes: (a) they think that all who are in Christ know that they are; (b) they think that all who have assurance have the same degree of certainty; (c) they think that this persuasion should be continuous; (d) they think that a person must be able to answer every objection against their assurance. The sin against the Holy Ghost can be a great stumbling block to those who believe they have put themselves beyond pardon and this is carefully and helpfully defined from the Scriptures. Very importantly, Guthrie is able to tell us what it is not.

Guthrie speaks of the different ways in which people are drawn to Christ. Some indeed may be drawn lovingly or called suddenly in a very direct way. The 'ordinary' way seems to involve being humbled by conviction during which the conscience is awakened till the soul is full of concern about salvation and driven from resting in anything of themselves to casting their all on Christ for salvation. This is carefully distinguished from the temporary convictions of those that fall away.

Faith and the New Birth as Evidence

The first evidence that Guthrie calls for in this trial is faith. Faith is vital in the matter of assurance - indeed all other marks are worthless without it. Yet it can be mistaken. It is not as difficult or mysterious as men sometimes think; the Scriptures speak of it as a simple trusting, resting, and looking. It can be found in various marks of submissive obedience and devotion to Christ. "If men but have an appetite, they have it; for they are blessed that hunger after righteousness". Thus Guthrie identifies the marks of true faith but also distinguishes it from false faith. The second set of evidence called upon relates to regeneration. There is a total renewal when a man comes to saving faith in Christ. In mind, heart and will he is changed from being self-oriented and self-serving to serving and glorifying God. Attitudes to all aspects of life are renewed whether it is work or worship, relationships, recreation or eating and drinking. There is a respect to all of God's commandments, submission to and valuing of Christ alone that hypocrites never have despite the outward similarities with believers that they may seem to possess.

Getting Assurance

The great question in the minds of many, however, is why some believers doubt. Guthrie opens this up in considerable depth dealing with God's sovereignty and our own responsibility in these matters. He speaks of twelve areas where different levels of experience may be enjoyed but where assurance may be obtained. Part Two of the book also proceeds to deal with the second question raised: What should we do if we cannot find in ourselves the marks of a saving interest? Many may believe that they have closed in with Christ in the gospel very few, however, really have. Yet there is a duty that lies on all under the terms of the Covenant of Grace as it is preached to all. There must be a "coming" on our part. "God excludes none if they do not exclude themselves". "It is a coming on our part, and yet a drawing on His part". What is it to close with God's offer of salvation in the preached covenant? It means to recognise the full guilt of sin, our need of salvation and the impossibility of any salvation outwith God's appointment in Christ. We must "quit and renounce all thoughts of help or salvation by our own righteousness". Faith is humble though resolute, hearty rather than mere mental assent though it must depend upon knowledge.

Personal Covenanting

The Covenanters and Puritans found great benefit in personal covenanting with God. Usually this involved explicitly accepting of Christ and confessing sin and expressing satisfaction with the gospel way of salvation. The covenant was often renewed at Communion seasons and times of difficulty or desertion. Guthrie counsels those who lack assurance to make a covenant explicitly with God, writing down and speaking their acceptance in order that they may return to it in times of doubting. The author patiently removes any obstacles or objections that readers may have about covenanting, showing that it has clear scriptural warrant. The covenant was to be no mere decision card that was signed off unthinkingly. It was a solemn holy vow before God dealing with our never-dying souls to be taken with due meditation and consideration. Guthrie compares the covenant to marriage vows between the soul and Christ, as a way of formally confessing with the mouth the same covenant that the believer makes in the heart.

A Precious Book

Fellow minister, John Livingstone gave his opinion of Guthrie, and his book alone reveals the truth of it. "In doctrine he was as full and free as any man in Scotland had ever been", " he was a man of most ready wit, fruitful invention, and apposite comparisons, qualified both to awaken and pacify the conscience, straight and zealous for the cause of Christ". Let us hear Thomas Chalmers once again on the book: "I still think it the best composition I ever read relating to a subject in which we are all deeply interested, and about which it is my earnest prayer, that we may all be found on the right side of the question". Most suggestive of all though, is the sublime crescendo with which Guthrie closes this plain yet deep and short but full little book.

"O blessed bargain of the new covenant, and thrice blessed Mediator of the same! Let him ride prosperously and subdue nations and languages, and gather in all His jewels, that honourable company of the firstborn, that stately troop of kings and priests, whose glory it shall be to have washed their garments in the blood of that spotless Lamb, and whose happiness shall continually flourish in following Him whithersoever He goes, and in being in the immediate company of the Ancient of days, one sight of whose face shall make them in a manner forget that ever they were on the earth. Oh, if I could persuade men to believe that these things are not yea and nay, and to make haste towards Him, who hasteth to judge the world, and to call men to an account, especially concerning their improvement of this gospel. 'Even so, come Lord Jesus.'"

the Christian's Great Interest - in summary

The following is a helpful summary of The Christian's Great Interest prepared by William Guthrie. The language has been slightly updated for the benefit of understanding.

Q. 1. What is the great business a man has to do in this world?

A. To make sure of a saving interest in Christ Jesus, and to live in a way that is consistent with it.

Q. 2. Have not all the members of the visible church a saving interest in Christ?

A. No, in truth only a very few of them have it.

Q. 3. How shall I know if I have a saving interest in Him?

A. Ordinarily the Lord prepares His own way in the soul by a work of humiliation, and shows a man's sin and misery to him, and exercises Him so much with it, that He longs for Christ Jesus, the physician.

Q. 4. How shall I know if I have got a true sight of my sin and misery?

A. A true sight of sin makes a man take salvation to heart above anything in this world. It makes him reject all relief in himself, seen in his best things: it makes Christ who is the Redeemer, very precious to the soul: it makes a man afraid to sin afterwards, and makes him content to be saved upon any terms that God pleases.

Q. 5. By what other ways may I discern a saving interest in him?

A. By the going out of the heart seriously and affectionately towards Him, as He is held out in the gospel; and this is faith or believing.

Q. 6. How shall I know if my heart goes out after Him aright, and that my faith is true saving faith?

A. Where the heart goes out aright after Him in true and saving faith, the soul is pleased with Christ alone above all things, and is satisfied with Him in all Him three offices, to rule and instruct as well as to save; and is content to cleave unto Him, whatever difficulties may follow.

Q. 7. What other mark of a saving interest in Christ can you give me?

A. He that is in Christ savingly, is a new creature. He is graciously changed and renewed in some measure, in the whole man, and in all his ways pointing towards all the known commands of God.

Q. 8. What if I find sin now and then prevailing over me?

A. Although every sin deserves everlasting vengeance, yet, if you are afflicted for your failings and confess them with shame of face unto God, honestly resolving to strive against them from now on, and seek pardon from Christ, you shall obtain mercy and your interest stands sure.

Q. 9. What shall the man do who cannot lay claim to Christ Jesus nor any of those marks spoken of it?

A. Let him not rest until he makes sure of a saving interest in Christ.

Q. 10. What way can a man make sure of an interest in Christ, who never had a saving interest in Him hitherto?

A. He must take his sins to heart, and the great danger into which they have brought him and he must take to heart God's offer of pardon and peace through Christ Jesus, and heartily close with God's offer by retaking himself unto Christ, the blessed refuge.

Q. 11. What if my sins are especially heinous and worse than the ordinary?

A. Whatever your sins may be, if you will close with Christ Jesus by faith, you will never enter into condemnation.

Q. 12. Is faith in Christ only required of men?

A. Faith is the only condition upon which God does offer peace and pardon unto men; but be assured, faith, if it be true and saving, will not be alone in the soul, but will be attended with true repentance, and a thankful pursuit of conformity to God's image.

Q. 13 How shall I be sure that my heart does accept of God's offer, and does close with Christ Jesus?

A. Go and make a covenant explicitly and speak it all by word unto God.

Q. 14 How shall I do that?

A. Set apart some portion of time, and, having considered your own lost condition, and the remedy offered by Christ Jesus, work up your heart to be pleased and close with that offer, and say unto God expressly that you accept of that offer, and of Him to be your God in Christ; and give up yourself to Him to be saved in His way, without reservation or exception in any way; and that from now on you will wait for salvation in the way that He has appointed.

Q. 15 What if I break with God afterwards?

A. You must resolve in His strength not to break, and watch over your own ways, and put your heart in His hand to keep it and if you break, you must confess it unto God, and judge yourself for it, and flee to the Advocate for pardon, and resolve to do so no more: and you must do this as often as you fail.

Q. 16 How shall I come to full assurance of my interest in Christ, so that it may be beyond question?

A. Learn to lay your weight upon the blood of Christ, and study purity and holiness in all kinds of conduct: and pray for the witness of God's Spirit to join with the blood and the water; and His testimony added unto these will establish you in the faith of an interest in Christ.

Q. 17. What is the consequence of such closing with God in Christ by heart and mouth?

A. Union and communion with God, every good here and His blessed fellowship in heaven forever afterwards.

Q. 18. What if I slight all these things, and do not lay them to heart to put them in practice?

A. The Lord comes with His angels, in flaming fire, to render vengeance to them who obey not His gospel; and your judgement shall be greater than that of Sodom and Gomorrah; and so much the greater that you have read this book, for it shall be a witness against you in that day.