By: Nathan M. Frazier, Ph. D.
Our Scottish roots tap into the powerful Reformation emphases on grace, the Puritan attentiveness to the affections of the heart, and evangelical zeal for the revival of Church and nation. This identity of fierce piety and fervent ministry did much to transform the lives of thousands of ordinary Scots, many of whom would establish America. Those old roots bear relevance today for our Synod and nation; they should motivate us to embrace our identity and energize us in our calling to biblical faithfulness and mission in presenting the Gospel!
Living in Charlotte, I regularly observe many automobile bumper stickers; some good, many not so good. What they all have in common is that these bumper stickers say something about “who” owns the vehicle and how they wish to be identified. People yearn for identity and belonging, don’t they?
It is always good to recall why we post our bumper sticker of “grace alone” for all to see. Given our Synod’s roots, we insist that our denomination’s identity is founded in the Gospel of grace: embracing it, living it, and preaching it. The eighteenth-century defined our Synod’s identity and in a time of great change, Scotland’s people experienced anew their belonging to God. How did this happen?
In the decade preceding the formation of the Associate Presbytery, a controversy arose over a book. It communicated weighty doctrines in a readable way, outlining the nature of the Gospel and its application within the Christian life in the form of a dialogue between an evangelical (a biblically informed believer), a legalist (believing himself to be saved by obedience alone), and an antinomian (believing that grace abrogates the Law’s obligations on the Christian). Written by a Puritan layman, “E.F.”, The Marrow of Modern Divinity (1645) was written around the time of our Westminster Confession of Faith (1646). The Marrow was edgy, but biblically balanced. It utilized numerous quotations by well-known theologians from Calvin to the Puritans. Providentially, it would satisfy the eighteenth-century soul as it encouraged a Gospel identity. Yet it also provoked controversy in Scotland’s Church.
To understand the enduring imprint left by the controversial Marrow on our Synod, some context is necessary. With the 1690 legal “settlement” of Presbyterianism as the religion of the land, the Church of Scotland thought of itself as doctrinally pure. The nation assumed a Christian status of a “godly commonweal,” appointed by God to lead other nations. A nominal Christianity stood at the center of social life. Moreover, Scotland was to experience a tidal wave of socio-political change and theological declension. By 1707, the Scottish nation had unwillingly assimilated into the United Kingdom and questions regarding the monarchy’s support of Protestant (evangelical) Christianity loomed large. The ruling class determined pastoral calls, not the congregation. To make matters worse, biblical doctrine began to be dulled by lifeless orthodoxy, and pastoral incompetency.
Scotland’s Church in the first quarter of the eighteenth-century was not struggling with subscription to its confessional standards. While there were the rare few who challenged Trinitarian doctrine, or advocated antinomianism, the Church had become not so much theologically liberal as stale and ingrown! Pastors lacked spiritual vibrancy and preached boring messages that failed to inspire the reverence and awe of God. In turn, coolness emerged in pulpit and pew instead of the warmth of the prayerful, introspective, Spirit-filled life defined by the Bible. Ministers and congregations were careless with the Gospel, stifling its accessibility toward those who didn’t bear the markings of a pre-conceived holiness. Many ministers simply believed that it was their “job” to officiate services, rather than to communicate the most important message that the world will ever hear: the unconditional application of grace in the Gospel to sinners who must only receive it.
It was in this environment that rumblings about the doctrine of grace began as early as 1717 in an insignificant and hard to pronounce place called Auchterarder, during a presbytery meeting of all things! There the precedent had been set that divine grace preceded any action of a person in matters of salvation, and affected how the Christian was to live. It was in this context that perhaps Scotland’s greatest pastor-theologian, Thomas Boston (1676-1732), recommended the Marrow to fellow ministers in order to encourage balanced and passionate Gospel preaching. Then in 1718, the Marrow was republished.
Immediately the edginess of the Marrow ignited controversy. When sound bites from famous theologians are used without context misunderstanding inevitably occurs. Ministers took sides, and without the aid of the Internet, “blogging” in those days was conducted through mass printings of pamphlets. Committees were assigned and charges leveled within the Church’s courts. Soon the denominational theologian James Hadow (1667-1747) presided over a sub-committee for preserving Scotland’s perceived “purity of doctrine.” By the spring of 1720, the General Assembly condemned the book and prohibited ministers from even recommending due to its perceived antinomianism.
All of this motivated, in 1721, a small group of ministers (known as the “Marrowmen”) to appeal the Church’s decision. They sought to rectify the perceived confusions about the book and God’s sovereign grace as a motivation for obedience instead of a result of obedience. The debate concerned the nature of Reformed (covenant) theology’s application in preaching and the Christian life. The Marrowmen ably defended the book’s doctrinal emphases: that there were no conditions to God’s extending of His covenant of grace; that the atonement particularly applied to the elect and; that saving faith, repentance, and holiness are not prerequisites for God to save sinners. Therefore, they reasoned, the gospel was to be offered unconditionally to all people, but by sovereign grace it would be the elect alone who receive it. This assurance of God’s handling of salvation, they urged, should motivate preaching to the lost as well as stirring believers to greater, joyous, obedience.
While failing to sway the opinion of the ecclesiastical court, historians have shown that the Marrow’s defenders were in fact in harmony with the Westminster Confession. While their appeal rendered little immediate impact on Scotland’s Church, the divisive effects of the controversy garnered national attention—as did the book and the men who defended it!
Three of the Marrowmen—Thomas Boston, along with Ebenezer and Ralph Erskine—were marginalized through denominational politics but never acquiesced in preaching the majesty of the Gospel, that it was anything but unconditional grace to sinners! Although isolated to pulpits of little prestige, these men did what God had called them to do. The Erskines outlived Boston, and remained committed themselves to the faithful proclamation of Gospel and its application in the Christian life. They exposed their congregations to sovereign grace, believing “all Scripture to be God breathed out and profitable for teaching, rebuking, correction, and training in righteousness, that the child of God would be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16).
Sadly the national Church grew theologically colder, its profession but a posturing of a national identity as “Scotland’s Kirk,” failing to identify with or influence a booming and urbanizing population. Ebenezer and several others wearied of working within an institution that continued to abandon its evangelical identity of preaching unconditional grace, and thus formed the Associate Presbytery in 1733.
This new presbytery, devoid of buildings and finances, envisioned the Lord’s Church in Scotland as it ought to be: fierce in her piety and fervent in her ministry of the Word, Sacraments, and Prayer. In order for ministry to be effective it had to be authentic, filled with the Holy Spirit, and passionate about God pouring out his grace on actual sinners from his Word. Soon Ralph would join his brother Ebenezer along with many other men in calling Scotland back to the doctrines of grace, never veering from Reformed theology’s identity of evangelical zeal conveyed from pulpit to pew, and from pew into society.
Yes, the Associate Presbytery was defined by faithful biblical preaching and Westminster Confession Calvinism, things that summarize biblical, evangelical doctrine. But the presbytery, amidst incredible societal instability, demonstrated its theological identity as more than just that. In its love for people, they called upon God publicly for national revival and to such ends they made their identity known by an Act Concerning the Doctrine of Grace and a national covenant in 1744. The Erskines traveled throughout Scotland gathering those disenchanted with mere religiosity. And gather they did! They preached to any who would listen. They called down the heavens in prayer for people to embrace the Gospel, for the nation to receive Christ. Soon, Scotland was ablaze with revival.
In time the Associate Presbytery transformed into hundreds of congregations, multiple presbyteries, eventually dividing into synods, and sending pastors to evangelize the new world. Ralph and Ebenezer did not simply affiliate themselves with the Marrow; they deeply understood the Gospel’s emphasis on sovereign grace, imparting it from pulpit to pew, from pew to society. Their legacy of a Gospel identity is admirable. It is also one that we must aspire to possess and to impart to our churches and nation!
Rev. Nathan M. Frazier has been the pastor of a growing congregation in Charlotte for the past five years, King’s Cross Church. He is married to Sara and has three boys, Ethan (7), Titus (4), Josiah (2). A graduate of Toccoa Falls College (1998), Erskine Theological Seminary (2000, 2001), Nathan was awarded a Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh (UK) in Ecclesiastical and Modern History in 2009. Always wishing to be a farmer, he maintains an urban farm with crops, chickens, and ducks in Charlotte.