The recent unpleasantness regarding Rob Bell’s rejection of orthodox thinking and teaching is sparking a concerted effort among my fellow Reformed bloggers and other online ministries to raise awareness that evangelicalism has been in decline for many years, and it is only accelerating. Bible believing Christians need to get back to the basics of what it means to believe the Bible.
To that end, I will begin a new series of excerpts from my antiquarian Self-Interpreting Bible, by the Rev. John Brown of Haddington, Scotland. One of his numerous helps in highlighting the Bible’s self-attestation to it’s inspiration as well as its self-interpretation, is an essay entitled, “An Introduction to the Right Understanding of the Oracles of God.” Chapter one of this lengthy introduction is called, “Of the Divine Authority of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament.”
In this chapter, Rev. Brown begins by demonstrating that there are some things which natural reason is unable to accomplish on its own. Such things are impossible to it without the aid of divine revelation. This fact is often something that even the most devout believer of the Bible forgets, and in such cases, the faith and practice of the church are undermined. Such is undoubtedly the case in the present controversy that has been sparked by natural reason in the form of Rob Bell’s postmodern liberalism.
No man, who is an unbiased free-thinker, can soberly hearken to the dictates of his natural reason, and seriously ponder the absurd and contradictory principles and practices which have been or are prevalent among mankind, without perceiving that the light, or even the law of nature, is altogether insufficient to direct us to true holiness, or lasting happiness, in our present lapsed condition.
It can give us no plain, distinct, convincing, pleasant, powerful, and lasting ideas of God. It cannot direct us in the right manner of worshipping him with due love, resignation, humility, self-denial, zeal, wisdom, sincerity, and fervent desire of the eternal enjoyment of him. It cannot show us our true happiness, which is suited to our highest powers, which may always be enjoyed without shame, suspicion, fear, or dread of loss or danger, and which will in every situation support and comfort us.
It can discover no true system of morality, perfect in its rules, means, and motives. It can discover no effectual incitements to virtue, drawn from the excellency and presence of God the law-giver, from the authority of his law, or from his discovering a proper regard to it in rewarding virtue and punishing vice. It cannot manifest in a striking manner the certainty, excellence, pleasure, and allurement of virtue in our heart, which will ripen us to that proper pitch of religion and virtue in our heart, which will ripen us for the full and immediate enjoyment of God. It cannot show us one perfect example of virtue, either among learned or unlearned heathens; nor give us any promise of God’s assisting us in the study of it.
It can discover no certainty that God will pardon our sins;
no proper atonement;
no actually pardoned sinner;
no happy soul, praising God for his pardoning mercy;
no spiritual worship, appointed by God for rebellious sinners;
no purpose, promise, perfection, or name of God, that his honour, or is intended in his patient bearing with sinners on earth;
nor does it afford any divine proclamation of pardon, nor even any incitement to us to forgive our injurers;
and, in fine, it cannot effectually sanctify our heart, nor produce that bent of will and affection, that inward peace with God, that sufficiency of light and strength from God, or that solid hope of eternal happiness, which is necessary to produce true holiness and virtue.
It cannot support us under heavy and bitter afflictions, by showing us God’s fatherly care of us, his promises to us, or his making all things to work together for our good; nor can it comfort us against death by certain views of his love to us, and providing everlasting life and happiness for us.
In his employment as a shepherd–a calling so much ennobled in the patriarchal age, and so universally celebrated both in the ancient and modern pastoral–he enjoyed more leisure, and better opportunities, for prosecuting his favourite studies, than could have fallen to his share in almost any other business; nor did he neglect to improve such promising circumstances. In a very short time he left far behind him many who had the advantage of every thing calculated to quicken their progress,–proper books, leisure to study them, and the best masters for their instructors. Left to his own resources, however, he acquired the knowledge of the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew languages, with a rapidity that attraced the attention of the neighbourhood, and became the general topic of conversation. But while this procured him many friends, it at the same time hurt the pride, and excited the malice, of some of his outstripped rivals in the race of literary fame. It was, accordingly, whispered, that the progress he was making in his studies, in the absence of all instruction, bearing no proportion to the powers of the human mind, could only be accounted for by supposing that his unaccountable progress was effected by the agency of the devil; who, with a similar temptation, had seduced the mother of mankind, and has, in all ages, taken the advantage of the studious and scholastic habits of individuals to entangle them in his snares.–“Report ye, and we will report: come, let us smite him with the tongue.” Notwithstanding that this malevolent slander had absurdity deeply imprinted on its forehead, it was eagerly laid hold of by the ignorant and credulous, and so widely circulated, that the innocent victim felt it extremely distressing, and more especially since even Mr. Moncrieff appeared, for a season, to be influenced by it, and withdrew his countenance from him–a thing which, he afterwards admitted, was very cruel and unkind. For although the charge of diabolical intercourse was no longer admissible in the criminal courts of the country, yet the superstitious notions and prejudices handed down from the dark ages of popery were, at that period, so far from being eradicated from the minds of the people, especially in sequestered corners of the country, that such surmises were still capable of ruining a man’s peace, and inflicting a serious wound on a mind of even the most ordinary feeling. To one so ardent in the prosecution of knowledge, and so anxious to attain the qualifications necessary for a minister of the gospel, it must have been no common affliction to have all his pleasing anticipations thus cruelly blighted in a moment; for, as he apprehended, the immediate tendency of this foul reproach was to blast his religious character, and counteract his whole purpose, by shutting against him the door of the divinity hall. On those who were best acquainted with him (the members of a praying society with which he was connected,) the slander had no impression; they continued his steady friends, and their attachment seemed to strengthen in proportion to the anguish he suffered from such an unmerited calumny. In the narrative already quoted we find him speaking thus: “The reproach was exceedingly distressing to me; however, God was gracious, for I enjoyed remarkable mixture of mercy and affliction. At the beginning of the trial these words, ‘The Lord will command his loving-kindness in the day-time, and in the night his song shall be with me, and my prayer unto the God of my life,’ were peculiarly sweet to my soul.”
We resume our biography of the Reverend John Brown of Haddington (1722-1787), as he joins the Scottish Secession Church and teaches himself Latin and Greek while a humble, rural shepherd, preparing himself to one day become a shepherd of souls. We are also treated to a providential encounter that wins the young Brown the gift of a Greek New Testament.
To this party (the Secession Church) our shepherd considered it his duty to join himself; and, anxious to become a shepherd of souls in their communion, he prosecuted his studies with incredible ardour and perseverance, and soon acquired a considerable acquaintance with the Latin and Greek languages. In these difficult studies he had no instructor, excepting that, on some occasions of rare occurrence, he could find an hour to call on one or other of two neighbouring clergymen, namely, Mr. Moncrieff of Abernethy, and Mr. Johnston of Arngask, father of the late Dr. Johnston of North Leith, who kindly assisted him in surmounting any formidable difficulty that threatened to arrest the progress of literary pursuits. Having now obtained such an acquaintance with the Greek language as enlivened his hopes that he should ultimately succeed in his darling object of acquiring the necessary qualifications for preaching the blessed gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, he pressed forward with renovated vigour and growing confidence. But amongst the many things wanting to accelerate his motion, he was, at this time, anxious to obtain a Greek Testament, that he might have the satisfaction of reading, in the original language, the character and work, the holy life and vicarious death, of Him who feedeth his flock like a shepherd, and laid down his life for his sheep. Buoyed up with these hopes, and excited by this anxiety, after folding his flock one summer evening, and procuring the consent of his fellow-shepherd to watch it next day, he made a nocturnal trip to St. Andrews, distant about twenty-four miles, where he arrived in the morning. He called at the first bookseller’s shop that came in his way, and having inquired for the article in question, the shopman, on observing his apparent rusticity and mountain habiliments (dress characteristic of his occupation), told him that he had Greek Testaments and Hebrew Bibles in abundance, but suspected an English Testament would answer his purpose much better. In the mean time some gentlemen, said to have been professors in the university, happened to enter the shop, and learning what was going on, seemed much of the shopman’s opinion. One of these, however, ordered the volume to be produced, and, taking it in his hand, said, “Young man, here is the Greek Testament, and you shall have it at the easy charge of reading the first passage that turns up.” It was too good an offer to be rejected: the shepherd accepted the challenge, and performed the conditions to the satisfaction and astonishment of the party; and Mr. Brown very modestly retired with his prize.
In the year 1733 a serious rupture took place in the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, in consequence of an act of Assembly passed in 1730, by which it was enacted, that reasons of dissent against the decisions of the judicatories of the Church should not be entered on the record; an enactment which prevented all who dissented in any case from exonerating their consciences by recording their dissent. This gave rise to much righteous indignation on the part of the godly ministers in the Church—an indignation which was augmented when, in 1732, the most solemn remonstrances against intrusive settlements were not so much as listened to. Along with these harsh dealings it was made a cause of censure for any minister to animadvert on the proceedings of the Church courts. Several ministers—inasmuch as they were bound by solemn engagement to the truth as expressed in the subordinate standards—found that they could not, as faithful servants of Jesus Christ, submit to censure for what appeared to them their obvious duty. Accordingly, Mr. Ebenezer Erskine, having freely animadverted on the growing defections of the Church, in a sermon delivered before the Synod of Perth and Stirling, in 1732, was called to account before said Synod, where he was found liable to censure in terms of the enactment aforesaid. To this decision, however, from a sense of duty, he peremptorily refused to submit, both before the Synod and General Assembly. Mr. Erskine was at this time joined by Messrs William Wilson, James Fisher, and Alexander Moncrieff: who, after due deliberation, finding that they could not, with a good conscience, continue in the communion of the church under these circumstances, seceded from her ecclesiastical jurisdiction, on the following grounds:–1st. The sufferance of error without adequate censure. 2d. The infringement of the people’s rights in electing their ministers, under the law of patronage. 3d. The neglect or relaxation of discipline. 4th. The restraint on ministerial freedom in opposing error and maladministration. 5th. The refusal of the prevailing party to be reclaimed. On these, and other solemn considerations, stated at large in their Testimony, they constituted themselves into a distinct presbytery, fully persuaded of the lawfulness of their separation.
About the eleventh year of his age his father was removed by death; and in some short time after, his loss was doubled in the death of his mother, and he left a poor orphan, without friends who could render him any essential service in his forlorn situation. But another ingredient was still wanting to fill up the bitter cup of adversity. About four months after the death of his mother, he was seized with a fever, four attacks of which rapidly succeeding each other, rendered his recovery almost hopeless: but his Master had employment assigned for him in his church; and having, by a series of afflicting circumstances, impressed his mind with the ineffable importance of eternal things, and rescued him from the jaws of the grave, provided the homeless orphan with a friend and protector. An elder in the parish of Abernethy—an aged shepherd and an eminent Christian, respectable also for his intelligence, though so destitute of education that he could not so much as read—cheerfully embraced the opportunity of supplying the deficiency under which he laboured, by engaging the homeless orphan, to assist him in tending his flock, and in reading for him as opportunity allowed. It will appear strange to many, that men, of considerable talents and religious intelligence, should have been so utterly neglected in their education, particularly in a country so famed for her public seminaries as Scotland has long been. To account for this, we have only to consult the history of the reigns of Charles II and his brother James, where we find that, during that persecuting period, the laws and social regulations of the country were greatly deranged; and that, under the then prelatic ascendancy, the parochial schools, established by our forefathers, were utterly neglected—a fact which shows how nearly allied the prelacy of the times was to popery—nor were they restored by law till eight years after the Revolution of 1688. The young generations, rising during that long period, must, therefore, have been either partially or totally deficient in point of instruction, with the exception merely of those who could afford a very uncommon expense. John Ogilvie, the elder, whose kindness to young Brown we have just mentioned, had felt the privation of parochial instruction. But the connexion with the orphan boy was peculiarly advantageous to both parties, who, well pleased with one another, set to work and constructed a small hut amongst the hills, to protect them from the rain and the storm, where they read and conversed with one another, and sent up their joint supplications to him who fills the hungry with good things, while the rich are sent empty away. During this reciprocity of kind offices and congenial feelings, by a strict attention to the dispensations of Providence, by pondering over the books he read, and the sermons he heard, the young man was brought under very impressive apprehensions of the majesty of God, the hatefulness of sin, the love of Christ, and the utter insignificance of all earthly enjoyments, when contrasted with the glories of heaven; so that the pleasure of his secret devotions was greatly augmented, while he felt his conscience daily becoming more tender, and his walk and conversation more assimilated to that of his Lord and Master. His mountain was now strong, and his state prosperous; but sun and shade are not more vacillating, in the natural world, than hope and fear, joy and sorrow, are in that of the spiritual. His pastoral friend and companion relinquished his mountain occupation, and settling in Abernethy, Mr. Brown was again out of employment; and wishing to provide for himself things honest in the sight of all men, he found it necessary to enter into the service of a neighbouring farmer, whose premises were much more extensive, and his domestics more numerous, and, as it would appear, whose lives were less exemplary than that of his former friend. Here he soon began to feel a sensible decline in his spiritual attainments, and a general lukewarmness and indifference in the exercise of religious duties, though his external deportment was still distinguished by manifold virtues, and particularly by the ornamental grace of meekness, patience, and Christian forbearance, under the most irritating provocations, with a spirit of Christian charity, ever ready to forgive.—A fellow shepherd, who, in his youthful gaiety, had taken a malicious pleasure in ridiculing and otherwise annoying the young man in his devotions, after observing for some time the unalterable serenity and interminable patience with which he endured the unprovoked insult, blushed himself into repentance; nor could he find rest in his own mind till he had acknowledged his fault, expressed the shame and sorrow he felt for what he had done, and had received an assurance of a frank forgiveness. This led to an intimate and cordial friendship, which lasted during life; and the same individual, when on his death-bed, declared that the admonitions and religious instructions he received from Mr. Brown, during their intercourse as fellow-servants, had laid him under obligations which no language could express.
Brown’s Self-Interpreting Bible (1859) contains an extensive biography of the editor. It’s a great story, but it’s going to take quite a while to get the entire thing transcribed and posted. In the meantime, I’ll be mixing it up a little with other features from my new favorite study Bible. The author of this biography is not credited. But you can download Robert Mackenzie’s 1918 biography, John Brown of Haddington, in a 178 page PDF file from Still Waters Revival Books for 99 cents at this link.
The REV. JOHN BROWN was born in the year 1722, at Carpow, a small village in the parish of Abernethy, and county of Perth. His parents ranked in that class of society who earn their bread by the sweat of their brow. His father could boast of no rent-rolls, nor had he any title of honour, save that of an honest man and an industrious mechanic, who, during the greater part of his life, laboured in the profession of an operative weaver. Though destitute of all the advantages arising from a regular education, he was nevertheless a man of considerable intelligence, moral worth, and Christian sincerity. He made conscience of keeping up the worship of God in his family, and set a Christian example before them, though living in a neighbourhood remarkably careless of these things. His external circumstances were so narrow, that it was little he could afford to promote the intellectual improvement of his son; so that the subject of this momoir found his situation in this respect but little superior to that of his father. He was sent to school; but the time allowed him to acquire the elements of reading, writing, and arithmetic, was so very short, that nothing but an excellent genius, and the most intense application, could have enabled him to attain the ordinary education of the lowest orders in the country. This, however, with one solitary month which he bestowed on the Latin, and that without the consent of his parents, appears to have been all the regular education he ever received, till we find him studying philosophy and divinity under the superintendence of the Rev. Ebenezer Erskine and James Fisher. It does not appear that his father ever intended him for the church, or even contemplated the possibility of his accomplishing such a design; though the strong propensity of his mind to learning, and particularly to that species of learning the nearest allied to divinity, seems to have suggested to his mother the possibility, that the day might come when his literary predilection might find room for its gratification in the service of the church; and often and again has she pictured to herself that happy day, when her darling child should emerge from his obscurity, clothed in the emblems of the most honourable employment—an ambassador of the Prince of Peace. In the mean time, his personal piety, the most important of all the prerequisite qualifications for an office so sacred, afforded her the lively hope that his labours, should her ardent wishes be ever realized would not be in vain in the Lord. In a short narrative of his experiences written by himself, Brown acknowledges the delight which he had while at school, in committing to memory the Catechisms of Vincent, Flaw, and the Westminster Assembly; and the profit he afterwards derived while yet a boy, from the perusal of the Bible, Rutherford’s Letters, and Gouge’s Directions how to Walk with God, His God was preparing him inconsciously for the service of Christ. He had separated him from the womb, and was even now calling him by his grace, (Gal. i. 15.) that he might reveal his Son in him, and send him to preach. In the same memoir he records the solemn impressions made on his young mind, by witnessing the dispensation of the Sacrament, and listening to the addresses delivered during the service; and, from his experience of profit argues against the impropriety of excluding children from witnessing a service so calculated to engage the affections. This exclusion appears to have been practiced in the Church of Scotland at the commencement of last century; and was perhaps a remnant of Episcopal feeling, remaining after the restoration of Presbytery. “About the eighth year of my age,” says he, “I happened, in a crowd, to push into the church at Abernethy, on a sacrament Sabbath. Then it was common for all but intended communicants to be excluded. Before I was excluded I heard one or two tables served by the minister, who spake much to the commendation of Christ, which in a sweet and delightful manner so captivated my young affections, as has since made me think that children should never be kept out of the church on such occasions.”