At its General Assembly in May, the Church of Scotland will be voting on a proposal to permit those in same-sex civil partnerships to serve as ministers and deacons. If passed, it may even be extended later in the week to include those in same-sex marriages. Those who know something of the history of the Church of Scotland and of the Scottish Reformation must surely be astonished by this development. What happened to bring us to this point? The answer is that when a church abandons orthodox Christian theology, Christian ethics are also soon lost.
The Church of Scotland affirms Scripture to be the Word of God written and holds to the Westminster Confession of Faith as its Principal Subordinate Standard. The reality is that those of us who continue to affirm these things are now in a minority. Many on the liberal side of the Church simply do not accept the authority of Scripture, nor do they accept the doctrines of our Confession.
With the rise of Liberal Theology in the middle of the 19th century, theologians began to question the authority of Scripture and replace it with the authority of human reason. One of the most vigorous opponents of Liberal Theology was J. Gresham Machen of Princeton Seminary, who later founded Westminster Theological Seminary.
Machen wrote a book called Christianity and Liberalism. It remains today one of the most perceptive and trenchant assessments of Liberal Theology. In that book, Machen argued that liberalism is not some deviant form of Christianity but is, in fact, another religion altogether. He put it like this:
It is no wonder, then, that liberalism is totally different from Christianity, for the foundation is different. Christianity is founded upon the Bible. It bases upon the Bible both its thinking and its life. Liberalism on the other hand is founded upon the shifting emotions of sinful men.
Machen was right and the Church of Scotland is reaping the harvest of the Liberal Theology that was sown in our divinity schools for several generations. Liberals and evangelicals stand in marked distinction from one another because of a fundamental difference: we do not agree on the authority of Scripture. When decisions have to be made, evangelicals argue that we must make those decisions on the basis of the teaching of Scripture. Liberals argue that Scripture is an interesting record of what believing people held to be true in the past, from which we can learn a good deal, but they do not regard its teaching as binding upon us today.
If you do not agree on the foundation upon which you are to build, then the subsequent building is doomed. This stark difference between evangelicals and liberals has been disguised by feeble attempts to argue that it is all a matter of ‘interpretation’. In the current debate on same-sex relations and the ministry, the ‘revisionists’ (liberals) claimed that they did accept the authority of Scripture but that they ‘interpreted’ it differently. Since every single reference to homosexual practice in the Bible calls it sin or perversion, we are left bewildered by this so-called ‘interpretation’. Every ordinary Christian can see clearly and precisely what the Bible says.
The prevailing party in the Church of Scotland (for the moment) is liberal in character. The Church has failed in recent General Assemblies to take the Scriptures seriously. This also has an impact on the state of the nation. What happens when the national church ceases to believe in Christian doctrine and in the Christian Bible? The answer is the ethical and moral chaos which we see in Scotland today, where arrogant politicians believe that they can legislate morality and redefine the word ‘marriage’.
The authority of the Bible was once recognized in our country. Indeed, our laws and constitution were based on the Bible. Unfortunately that is changing fast. Much of the legislation we see today has little or no basis in Scripture but is instead based on focus groups and opinion polls. In other words, instead of seeking to build the life of the nation on truth received from God, we are instead building our nation on the sinking sand of changing human opinion.
At the moment, there are many people who, although they may not be Christians, still follow the Christian moral code. The problem is, however, that without Christian doctrine, the Christian ethic gradually disappears. Christian ethics and morality spring from certain beliefs about God and sin and salvation. Take away these core beliefs and ethics and morality soon collapse. In other words, Liberal Theology is the root cause of ethical and moral chaos.
This was underlined for me a number of years ago by an article in The Times by William Rees-Mogg, who was reflecting on the fact that the situation in England had changed dramatically since the days of William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, at the end of the Second World War. He wrote: ‘The central problem has been the problem of faith. If people cease to believe in Christianity, they will not bother to listen to Christian teaching. The culture will swing away from Christianity, taking the people with it.’ He went on to say this:
About the time he went to Canterbury, in 1942, Archbishop Temple wrote to a correspondent: “You would hardly find any theologian now who supposes that Christian ethics can survive for half a century in detachment from Christian doctrine, and this is the very last moment when the Church itself can come forward with outlines of Christian ethics in the absence of the theological foundation which alone makes them really tenable. Our people have all grown up in a generally Christian atmosphere, and take it for granted that all people not actually perverted hold what are essentially Christian notions about human conduct. But that is not true.”
Rees-Mogg was correct. You cannot abandon Christian doctrine while at the same time maintaining a Christian ethic. When you abandon the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith, including the authority of Scripture, moral chaos follows.
The Kirk has lost confidence in the Bible and in the orthodox Christian doctrine represented by its Confession of Faith and has no sound basis for morality. As a result, the morality which is taught is really immorality. Only if we recover confidence in the truth which God has given to us in Scripture and once again take seriously the orthodox doctrines of our Confession, will we have any hope of Church and nation returning to a biblical Christian ethic.