Book Review: A Scottish Christian Heritage, by Iain Murray
Iain Murray, A Scottish Christian Heritage. Banner of Truth, 2006. 403 pages.
History is where you go to learn about everything. Iain Murray understands this point. Murray is a historian that retells narratives in a way that is theologically instructive, pastorally wise, and spiritually encouraging. A Scottish Christian Heritage is yet another example of Murray’s thoughtful and edifying engagement with history. This book spurred me to faithfulness in ministry, comforted me, and convicted me by reminding me of the Lord’s faithfulness to generations of ministers in Scotland.
A RICH THEOLOGICAL HERITAGE
A Scottish Christian Heritage surveys church life in Scotland from the Reformation to the late 1800s. Part one contains brief biographical sketches of five Scottish preachers: John Knox, Robert Bruce, Thomas Chalmers, John MacDonald, and Horatius Bonar. After briefly highlighting some of the significant events or contributions of each man, Murray concludes each chapter with some practical lessons from their life.
Part two surveys two mission efforts spearheaded by Scottish Christians: the mission to the New Hebrides islands (made famous by John Paton’s autobiography) and the work of Robert Moffatt (father-in-law of the famous David Livingstone) inland from the Cape Colony in South Africa.
Murray does not offer any critiques of these figures or deal with some of their more controversial positions. For example, he pays little attention to the political trouble Knox stirred up in England. But A Scottish Christian Heritage is not a piece of critical history. Murray’s purpose is to reflect on God’s extraordinary faithfulness to humble, ordinary servants whom he used for his glory.
While the first two sections provide primarily positive historical reflections, part three examines four theological issues in the history of Scottish Protestantism. The overall purpose, however, is the same as the previous two sections: to underline the significant relationship between confidence in God’s Word and effective ministry. Murray demonstrates that what one thinks both about the Bible’s authority actually matters for the life of a church. The Bible will shape your practice either by its powerful presence or by its absence. Murray’s discussions of true Christian unity, expository preaching, teaching and ruling elders, and higher critical scholarship make that abundantly clear.
Reflecting on these lives, and through them God’s faithfulness to Scotland over the past four centuries, I found Murray’s book encouraging and enlivening in at least three ways.
First, God is impressive, not his servants. This fact is particularly clear in the way Murray describes Knox. The power of Knox’s preaching did not flow from a naturally powerful orator, but a man driven by the Spirit and a passion for God’s Word (29). Even in describing men of undoubted intellectual prowess—men like Chalmers or Bonar—Murray ably demonstrates that it was not their intellect that made them mighty for the Lord. It was their conviction that God’s Word was what God’s church needed.
Second, I was particularly encouraged by the example of men laboring faithfully in worldly obscurity. Horatius Bonar published many of his hymns anonymously, or only with the initials ‘HB’ (175, 181)—something of a cardinal sin for authors today. He even requested that no one write a biography of his life, even though he himself had profited from other biographies (206). Men like John MacDonald or Samuel Rutherford had influential ministries outside their congregations, but they lived in regions with sparse populations, with small flocks under their care. In other words, they labored in the places that we are often tempted to dismiss as unimportant. It is easy to ask the question whether a small church is a good stewardship of a gifted preacher. These examples answer that question with a resounding ‘yes!’ God’s economy is not like ours. We pastors of small churches need to inoculate ourselves against the devil’s lie that we are somehow squandering our stewardship if we spend our gifts on only these few sheep.
Third, faithfulness as a minister depends on your confidence in God’s Word. Murray describes the tepid view of evangelism that followed the introduction of higher criticism into the Free Church (chapter 11). But he also points out men who so loved God’s Word, they were willing to pay a tremendous cost to proclaim it. During the division of the Church of Scotland, many ministers left that denomination because they loved the gospel and seeing sinners saved more than they did their own comforts. Murray tells the story of one man who recalled his seasick five-year-old son crying, ‘home, home, home,’ as they left the parish manse for good. He describes the series of men who were willing to leave their homes to take the gospel to literal man-eaters. He also describes how Robert Moffatt negotiated with African warlords in order to preach the gospel and establish churches in their lands. From one angle these men appear bold and courageous. But from Murray’s recounting, we gain what I think is a clearer image. The steel in their spines was not their own. It came from a conviction that what God had said in his Word is trustworthy, and thus worth our life’s devotion. Their lives look strange to us only so far as we measure them by the wisdom of the world. But they are truly ordinary Christian lives.
AN EDIFYING BOOK FOR DISCOURAGED PASTORS
This book is a wonderful devotional tool for the pastor tempted to feel discouraged at the small size of his flock or the seeming lack of fruit in his preaching. If you feel as though your scriptural convictions are burdensome and inconvenient in polite company, read this book to be strengthened by the example of faithful brothers who have gone before us. Be challenged by their conviction, but be comforted by the fact that their strength did not come from within. It came from the fact that they served a God who was wiser, mightier, and more powerful than the world around them, and they knew they could trust him to keep his promises.