Ian Hamilton’s sobering study of denominational drift is an enlightening read. He shows with painful clarity that revisions of confessions, and alterations to the terms of subscription to them, have been disastrous for essential Christian truth in various denominations.
He charts the progress of Scottish Presbyterian churches in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Chapter 3 on the atonement controversies is fascinating, though some will find the debates over Amyraldianism or hypothetical universalism to be somewhat hair-splitting, and it has been shown elsewhere that even some of those who wrote the Westminster Confession itself held to a form of hypothetical universalism.
Chapter 5 is alarming, as Hamilton shows how a man who was teaching much more clearly against the theology of the confession was nonetheless tolerated as a minister. “Ambiguity,” he writes, “not definition, was the rule of the day.”
The details of Scottish ecclesiastical schisms will not delight everyone, but this is a very useful case study of the downgrading of creedal and confessional orthodoxy which Anglicans would do well to note. As I tried to make clear in Christianity and the Tolerance of Liberalism: J Gresham Machen and the Presbyterian Controversy of 1922-1937, there are some big lessons for Anglicans to learn from Presbyterian history.
This review was first published in Churchman 128/2 (2014).