A Taste of Scotch Theology
By David Schrock
The cost of a book is never indicative of its value. This point was driven home for me a few years ago when I found George Smeaton’s The Doctrine of the Atonement As Taught By Christ Himself (1871) on a dollar shelf at a used bookstore near the University of Chicago. Without knowing who Smeaton was, a quick perusal of the book convinced me that it was worth a dollar.
Reading this book in full has proven that it is worth far more than that. In an exhaustive manner, Smeaton (1814-89) copiously exegetes every statement in the gospels where Jesus described his atoning work. The end result is a masterpiece of exegetical theology that is careful in its exegesis, rich in its intertextuality, and precise in its doctrinal theology. In short, it is a book that anyone interested in a biblical view of the atonement should consult.
Sadly, Smeaton is a figure who is almost unknown in our day and age. And he is not alone. Joining him is an elite group of Scottish divines from the nineteenth century. Some of the names include: Thomas Crawford, Robert Smith Candlish, William Cunningham, Hugh Martin, and George Stevenson. This group of theologians stands out as a bastion of orthodoxy, men who stood up and defended the nature and extent of the atonement in an era when the doctrine of Christ’s work was under attack in Scotland and around the world. The result of their efforts is a large library of works on the cross that again are neither valued nor well known.
Like the used bookstore in Chicago, many evangelicals have relegated these men to the dollar bookshelf, if they have heard of them at all. One example of this is found in an otherwise excellent volume defending penal substitution, Pierced for Our Transgression. With only a passing mention of William Cunningham, PFOT skips over these men entirely. Their well-documented history pays them no heed, even as Smeaton, Martin, Stevenson, and Crawford’s works are strong advocates of penal substitution.
All that is to say, today we would do well to have a taste of Scotch theology on the atoning work of Jesus Christ.
The goal of this post and future ones is simply to introduce some of these eminent theologians and their works on the atonement. One scholar who has regarded these men is Donald Macleod, who supplied the appreciative forward to Hugh Martin’s book on the atonement, and who gives an overview of Scottish atonement theology in the out-of-print Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology (IVP 1993).
In his article, Macleod lays out ten prominent features from the best works of these nineteenth century Scots (pp. 37-38). He states that these works offer,
1. A sustained, reverent reflection on the sufferings of Christ.
2. A perception of the work of Christ in sacerdotal terms.
3. An insistence that the sufferings of Christ were penal.
4. A portrayal of the atonement as a satisfaction to divine justice.
5. The sufferings of Christ were vicarious.
6. The setting of the cross in a covenant framework.
7. The indispensable necessity of the atonement to salvation.
8. The unambiguous portrayal as a fruit and consequence of the love of God [the Father].
9. A prominence for the idea of victory not surpassed in any other Western tradition before Gustaf Aulen.
10. A belief in limited atonement, but stated very carefully.
From this brief list, it is evident that these orthodox Calvinists—to borrow Ian Hamilton’s title—are worthy of our attention. Since, we live in an age when the nature of the atonement, as well as, its effects and extent are debated among evangelicals, this corpus of literature can provide much help in the task of rightly dividing God’s word, for those who give themselves to learning from these men.
Stay tuned for more from these Scottish theologians. And in the meantime, begin looking into some of their works.
David Schrock is a Ph.D. candidate in systematic theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church (Seymour, IN). David also blogs at Via Emmaus. He is married to Wendy and is the father of Titus and Silas.