Thomas Chalmers Theology of Mission

By John Roxborogh

(from "The Practical and the Pious" )

Chalmers as a Theologian

Despite his almost 20 years as a professor of theology, his undoubted popularity as a teacher and the written legacy of his Institutes of Theology, Chalmers is little remembered as a theologian. Moreover, although he was deeply involved in the issues which changed the face of the Church in his lifetime, his extensive lectures on theology never dealt explicitly with the nature of the Church or the theological basis of its mission. Nevertheless Chalmers does have significance as a theologian, and one has little difficulty in determining what his underlying theological convictions were and what he considered the purpose of the Church to be.
For Chalmers, the essential tasks of the Church were to propagate its message concerning the saving significance of the death of Jesus Christ and to seek to influence society in all its aspects by the inculcating of Christian values and morals. His understanding of and involvement in this mission was a product of his own pilgrimage in faith and his interaction with the social and religious issues of the day. His basic commitment arose out of his evangelical conversion early in 1811, and is reflected in his doctrine of man, his attitude to the distinctive tenets of Calvinism and his understanding of the role of the Church in the world.

It has been rather misleadingly suggested that if Chalmers Institutes had been less orthodox in content or more orthodox in system they might have better survived the passage of time. In structure Chalmers theology was modelled on that of George Hill, who taught him as a student; and although he never thought of himself as anything other than orthodox, that did not mean agreeing with every detail of the Westminster Confession. Contrary to what is often assumed, Chalmers was no friend of the tradition of scholastic Calvinism which was to be exemplified by the first generation of Free Church professors at New College in the 1840s and subsequently. Following Hill, the order of Chalmers Institutes is anthropocentric, beginning with Natural Theology, and moving through the need for which the gospel remedy is provided to the nature and extent of that remedy. Such matters as the Trinity, the Person of Christ and the doctrine of the Holy Spirit are left to a few supplementary lectures. It was a congenial pattern, following as it did a chronology of spiritual development which he himself exemplified.
Although Chalmers' approach might conceivably have led to purely individualistic concerns, he was at pains to relate his theology to every aspect of life. Were it to occupy its rightful place, he contended, it ‘would be found to touch at almost every point on the nature of man, and to bear with decisive effect on the whole frame and economy of civil society.' This task required flexibility and was essentially creative.

Although the subject matter of theology is unalterably fixed . . . is there not a constant necessity for accommodating both the vindication . . . and the illustration of this subject matter to the ever-varying spirit and philosophy of the times?. . .
In theology, as well as in the other sciences, there is indefinite room for novelties both of thought and expression.

Chalmers theological reading can be closely monitored from the borrowing records of St Andrews University Library as well as from his journals and correspondence. Apart from his student days the most formative period was from 1811 to 1815 (after conversion and prior to moving from Kilmany to Glasgow). At Kilmany Chalmers was determined to forge his own synthesis of Moderate and Evangelical ideals, and without an appreciation of this fact it is impossible to understand the extraordinary breadth of his appeal. The English Puritans were of considerable influence, and the names of Doddridge, Baxter (above all), Alleine, Matthew Henry and John Owen recur frequently in Chalmers papers. Wilberforce and Richard Cecil were also influential, however, and from the Scottish Moderate tradition his old friend and mentor, Samuel Charters of Wilton. Jonathan Edwards was much read, but with reservations, perhaps because neat theological systems (including Calvin's) were always suspect in Chalmers view.

In later years he grappled with Turretin and Ernesti and specific topics such as Hume on miracles, the problem of evil and questions of eschatology. He knew nothing of Schleiermacher and little of developments in biblical criticism, but was concerned that continental theology be studied by others if not himself. In his lecture room the set books were Hill, Paley and Butler and these were undoubtedly the theological and apologetic writers who meant most to him, even if he derived some of his underlying spiritual values from elsewhere.

The Bible he always considered the most important source book for Christian belief. Aware of growing challenges from science he was confident that these would not be insurmountable. Early in his ministry he found room in the first few verses of Genesis for the geologists' estimates of the age of the universe. In his enormously successful Astronomical Discourses he popularised Andrew Fuller's response to the incongruity of claiming cosmic significance for the life of one man in this tiny corner of a vast universe.

At the end of his career he was insistent that the New College in Edinburgh should equip its students to deal competently with the questions that contemporary science was raising. When challenged, he would state his belief in the plenary inspiration of the Bible, and reject doubts concerning the historicity of the events it describes. Yet it is revealing that he could resort to allegory to find meaning in an account whose historicity he defended, and that he was careful to say that the inspiration of Scripture was ‘responsible not for the thing recorded, but the truth of it'. He stood very much within the tradition of Scottish Common Sense philosophy, and this had for him its theological counterpart in the doctrine of the imago dei. After reading Genesis 1:26-31, he noted:

Let me make this use of the information that God made man in his own image. Let it cure me of the scepticism which distrusts man's instinctive beliefs or perceptions. Let me recollect that in knowledge or understanding we are like unto God - and that in this light we see light. He would not practise a mockery upon us by giving us constitutional beliefs at variance with the objective reality of thmgs. We were formed in his image intellectually as well as morally.‘

The result of the Fall may have been fatal to man's relationship with God, but it did not totally obliterate the image of God as far as man's human relationships were concerned. While there was much sin and evil in the world, there was also much virtue which the preacher was duty-bound to acknowledge as having value in this life at least, if not in the next. Chalmers was critical of injudicious defenders of orthodoxy for their sweeping condemnations which were ‘not merely obnoxious to the taste, but obnoxious to the understanding'. The character of men in classical antiquity or in the contemporary world of business could be perfectly moral, and if so should be applauded. Depravity lay not in ‘the utter destitution of all that is amiable in feeling , but simply in ungodliness.'
Chalmers was caught between those who objected altogether to such evangelical language, and those who felt he used it in too lenient and heterodox a manner. William Cunningham, who succeeded Chalmers as Principal of New College, took particular exception to his praise of natural virtue, and taught that ‘works done before justification . . . are truly sins and deserve the displeasure and condemnation of God.' Referring to Chalmers' teaching, he disputed the ‘propriety of calling anything in the character of unrenewed men good, absolutely or without explanation' Cunningham was mainly concerned about the danger of compromising orthodox Calvinism; Chalmers about the necessity of communicating the Gospel. He did not believe he could do this if he ignored people's own use of language and their best aspirations. This is another instance of his belief that creeds and confessions were ‘out of their place. . . as magazines of truth since they had generally come into existence as ‘mere landmarks against heresy , and he lamented their change of function into ‘insignia for different denominations.' The imago dei also carried the implication that all men were equal in the sight of God. While Chalmers accepted a stratified society, and was no lover of democracy, this was a principle he constantly reiterated. As he declared at the laying of the New College foundation stone in 1846, this was the one quality of man which was to be ‘strenuously taught in the college'. It was because it included the poor that one worked to convert and educate them. They have:

all the capacities of human spirits . . . they have talents. . . they have imperishable souls . . . they are on a first level of equality with ourselves in all that is essential to man.

Of course, this equality applied to judgment as well as to salvation.
While he usually preferred to strike a more positive note, Chalmers did not shrink from portraying what he regarded as inescapable facts of life:

Even to the most remote and unlettered tribes, men are everywhere the fit subjects for a judgment day. Their belief, scanty though it be, hath a correspondent morality which they may either observe or be deficient in, and so be reckoned with accordingly.

While the central theme of his favourite sermon, ‘Fury not in God ', was God's present beckoning mercy to all who would receive it, the consequences of refusal were not to be ignored:

"It makes one shudder seriously to think that there may be some here present whom this devouring torrent of wrath shall sweep away; some here present who will be drawn into the whirl of destruction, and forced to take their descending way through the mouth of that pit where the worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched."

Yet he was sympathetic to the reasons which led his friend Erskine of Linlathen into universalism, and was accused of holding the same opinions himself. Not all Evangelicals were cold-bloodedly confident about the eternal torments of unbelievers, and Chalmers for one certainly preferred to avoid speculations. He told his students that he did not want to appear as a ‘stern dogmatist' but was mindful of the moral dangers of deferring repentance, since the Bible gave no warrant for believing that ‘our all is not staked, and irrevocably staked, on the faith and obedience of the present life' .
The question of judgment also raised the problem of being held accountable for ignorance. Byron had asserted that man was not responsible for what he believed. Asked for his reaction to this opinion, Chalmers replied:

You are not to blame if you have not found some valuable article that you had lost in an apartment of thickest darkness, but you are to blame if you might have opened the shutters or lighted a candle.

He believed that:

there was a sufficient difference between the future prospects of the heathen and those of Christian believers to justify the utmost extent and ardency of missionary exertions.

Nevertheless, the heathen would be judged less severely. ‘The nations of Christendom who have been plied with the offers of the gospel :

incur a darker doom throughout eternity than the native of China, whose remoteness, while it shelters him from the light of the New Testament in this world, shelters him from the pain of its fulfilled denunciations in the next.

In this Chalmers was flying in the face of the Westminster Confession ; and when reading of the centurion whose alms and prayers had been accepted by God before he became a Christian, he prayed that ‘a factitious and freezing orthodoxy' would not shut him up against the lesson of the passage.
The duty of the Christian was to prepare for heaven, -‘ but this was not to cultivate an other-worldliness so much as to demonstrate the reality of faith by conduct;' and ‘the business of. . . sanctification needed to be a ‘daily and hourly and ever- doing business . Chalmers was only too well aware of his own shortcomings, but since heaven was ‘no heaven at all but to the holy, it was the more necessary to remember that ‘the great end and object . . . of the Christian doctrine is not that I should believe as a Christian but that I should do as a Christian' . The ‘great object of the economy under which we sit was to be restored to the image of God which had been lost.

Calvinism and the universality of the Gospel offer
That a high doctrine of election, such as that embodied in the Westminster Confession, can be compatible with evangelism, has often been more of a problem for those outside the Westminster tradition than those within. It needs to be remembered that logical possibilities are not always logical necessities, and that the morbid doubts of the poet William Cowper, and the antinomianism of James Hogg, are far from typical outworkings of Calvinistic faith. While during Chalmers lifetime examples of hyper-Calvinism were to be found in Scotland, it was among the Baptists that there was most concern about it being presumptuous and unnecessary to preach the Gospel to the unconverted. Those for whom the Westminster Confession was their creed knew that, whatever else it said, it noted that God in his ordinary providence used means for the achievement of his ends, however foreordained ; and Thomas Boston was among those who taught that ‘calls and exhortations were necessary since they were ‘the means that God is pleased to make use of for converting his elect .

Chalmers himself was not in the least inhibited by his Calvinistic heritage in this matter, and preached salvation as a free gift offered to any who would receive it. He was highly sensitive to the barriers which theological systems placed between God's offer of salvation and the possibility of response. When a tract by Horatius Bonar was treated with suspicion because it was too ‘free' , Chalmers would have none of the criticism.‘ If the Gospel was not freely offered it was no good to a person like himself and he could not imagine it being of help to others'. Almost the last sermon he preached was entitled ‘The fulness and freeness of the gospel offer' , and the evening before his death he complained of those who ‘unnecessarily restricted the word ‘world as applied in Scripture to the sacrifice of Christ:

The common way of explaining it is that it simply includes Gentiles as well as Jews. I do not like that interpretation and I think that there is one text that puts that interpretation entirely aside. . . . ‘God commandeth all men, everywhere to repent.' . . . In the offer of the gospel we must make no limitation whatever.

What concerned him in treating the question of predestination was not the difficulties of the doctrine (which he virtually ignored), but the necessity of not allowing it to inhibit the proclamation of the Gospel which had worked in his own experience. Paul found no difficulty in preaching the Gospel and at the same time believing in election, and Chalmers saw no reason to quibble with apostolic precedent. As far as predestination itself (and the related question of the extent of the atonement) was concerned, he was effectively agnostic and regarded the matter as irrelevant to practical Christian life. In a conversation with the Quaker, J J Gurney, he was reported as saying:

I believe the doctrine to be true, nevertheless, the Christian s course of duty is precisely the same as it would be if the doctrine was not true'

And as one of his students took down in class, the subject should only be ‘cautiously introduced into the pulpit' :

Calvinism is not to influence you.. . you have nothing to do except with what is revealed. Repent else you perish, believe in the Lord Jesus - Seek the Lord while he may be found. Cease to do evil.

Chalmers could eulogise the Westminster Confession when that was called for, but his summary of its teaching is revealing:

"The natural depravity of man; his need both of regeneration and of an atonement; the accomplishment of the one by the efficacy of a divine sacrifice, and of the other by the operation of a sanctifying spirit; the doctrine that a sinner is justified by faith, followed up . . . by the doctrine that he is judged by works; the righteousness of Christ as the alone foundation of his meritorious claim to heaven, but this followed up by his own personal righteousness as the indispensable preparation for heaven's exercises and heaven's joys; the free offer of pardon even to the chief of sinners; but this followed up by the practical calls of repentance, without which no orthodoxy can save him; the amplitude of the gospel invitations, and, in despite of all that has been unintelligently said about our gloomy and relentless Calvinism, the wide and unexplained amnesty that is held forth to every creature under heaven."

Those who knew their Confession might have been puzzled at his emphasis, but his views were indicative of what was to become more widespread.
The attitudes of the Scottish presbyterian churches towards the Calvinism of the Westminster Confession altered considerably during the course of the 19th century; and it is significant that when the United Presbyterians passed a Declaratory Act in 1879 modifying the terms of subscription to the Confession, there was hardly a point covered which did not find support from Chalmers lectures of 50 years earlier. The Free Church followed with a similar act in 1892 and the Church of Scotland in 1910. The close correlation between these historic acts and Chalmers teaching suggests that he is far more representative of the mainstream development of 19th-century Scottish theology than has hitherto been recognised.

The Church in the world
In common with Geneva, the Scottish Reformers took as the ‘notes' of a true church the preaching of the Word of God, the right administration of the sacraments, and a proper exercise of discipline. But for many in the Scotland of the 1830s, a true church was one which had control of its own spiritual affairs and which proved itself by its evangelistic activity. It is not difficult to see the Disruption as a move to preserve both of these as notae ecclesiae. For Chalmers the organisation of the Church, like the organisation of theology, was subservient to the task of proclaiming the Gospel. On reading a sermon which argued that the Church was free in different times and circumstances to alter its government, worship, and discipline, since its ‘institutions stand not on the strength of statute, but in that of their fitness to fulfil the great objects of her mission' , Chalmers felt moved to write to the author agreeing that it was ‘competent on mere human discretion to decide on questions of ecclesiastical regulations and polity'.

Chalmers treated church government as a matter of expediency because the missionary purpose of the Church underlay all his thinking concerning its polity, independence and unity. His interest in pauperism and political economy received justification from his conviction that Christianity ought to be applied to the whole of society:

It would be well if religion was to pervade the corporate as well as the individual body, that the day might arrive when corporate bodies were as much under the influence of religion in all their operations as pious individuals are.

Here is the meeting-point of Chalmers social and evangelistic concerns, but the relationship was not an easy one, and he did not really reconcile the fact that he would ‘count the salvation of a single soul of more value than the deliverance of a whole empire from pauperism' with his spending so much time attempting to achieve the latter. Nevertheless in his heavily worked phrase, ‘the Christian good of Scotland' , he sought to convey the comprehensiveness of the Christian enterprise. He held that ‘every part and every function of a commonwealth should be leavened with Christianity' and prayed that ‘rulers might Christianize their legislation and philosophers their systems' . Both the Church as a body and Christians as individuals were called to apply themselves not only to evangelism, but to pastoral care, the problems of working-class society, the ethics of the business world, famine relief and prevention, issues of science and religion and questions raised by philosophy. He recognised that the environment of the Church must influence the Church as well as the Church its environment. Out of what was the most consistent theme in his fluid beliefs concerning eschatology he wrote:

The kingdoms of the earth may become the kingdom of God and his Christ with the external framework of these present governments. There must therefore be a way in which Christianity can accommodate itself to this framework - a mode by which it can animate all the parts and all the members of it

As frequently with Chalmers, this conviction was illustrated by his life rather than expounded by his theology. If the focus of his vision was indicated by the causes he did not get involved in - beyond the benefits of worshipful and peaceful Sundays, Sabbatarianism held few attractions, and Temperance never interested him for more than a day or two at a time - the breadth of his sympathies was shown by the encouragement he gave to others. When Hew Scott laboured in Anstruther on the seemingly thankless task of compiling his monumental Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae, it was Chalmers who said to him, ‘Go on, Mr Scott, go on; the unborn will bless you, sir. It is the work I would so like to do'. Behind all the diversity of his life and thought there was a single conviction, one that he had first embraced in the Kilmany manse early in 1811.

Jesus Christ died, the just for the unjust, to bring us unto God. This is a truth, which, when all the world shall receive it, all the world will be renovated. . . . It is this doctrine which is the alone instrument of God for the moral transformation of our species.

The interaction of faith with its environment is not likely to produce identical effects in different historical contexts, but the belief that this interaction ought to take place is surely ofthe essence of Christian faith. While aspects of Chalmers organisational theories may still inform the practical mission of the Church, and emphases in his theology may or may not be shared by those who have come after him in the Reformed tradition, the inspiration of his insistence that personal faith cannot be contained as private religion must continue to challenge those who seek to realise the social implications of Christian commitment. And it may be that in speaking of ‘the Christian good of Scotland he provided an understanding of mission which is at once sufficiently vague and sufficiently specific to remain relevant wherever men seek to define both the breadth and the central emphasis of the Church's unending task.

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