Recently I read Iain Murray's A Scottish Christian Heritage (2006, Banner of Truth). It covers the history of the Reformation in Scotland, from John Knox to about 1900. Much of it concerns the Free Church of Scotland, from 1843 (when it was formed by a large withdrawal from the Church of Scotland) to 1900 (when, for the most part, it joined with the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland to form the United Free Church of Scotland, which re-united with the Church of Scotland in 1929). The small minority of the Free Church of Scotland that did not join continues today as the Free Church of Scotland.
Of particular interest is the last chapter, entitled The tragedy of the Free Church. It chronicles the demise of the Free Church as an orthodox church. The troubles started in the 1850's, when Scottish theology professors first became influenced by the "higher criticism" of German scholars. Until then, according to Murray, the traditional views as to the history, authorship and verbal inerrancy of the Bible had remained unchallenged in the Scottish Church since the Reformation.
The Free Church was vulnerable in that it highly valued both scholarship and evangelism. Theologians, who thought science and philosophy was making faith in the Bible impossible, sincerely thought to defend Christianity by reducing the "essentials" that Christians needed to defend. This resulted in the rejection of inerrancy and a steady shrinking of the area of Biblical authority.
Although Murray blames the troubles on German higher criticism, the Free Church was compromised from the start. Two prominent Free Church members--Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) and Hugh Miller (1802-1856)--were much concerned with harmonizing Genesis with the science of the time. Thomas Chalmers was a great theologian and preacher; he was instrumental in the revival that led to the founding of the Free Church. Nevertheless, he conceded too much to the science of his day, with detrimental consequences.
This is overlooked by Murray. But it is discussed in The Free Church in Victorian Canada, 1844-1861 (pp.60-62) by Richard W Vaudry (1989). Thomas Chalmers, already in 1814, promoted the "gap theory" (i.e., there is an indeterminate gap between the original creation of Gen.1:1 and a subsequent 6-day re-creation); Hugh Miller adhered to the "day-age theory" and a local Flood. These theories soon became popular in Presbyterian circles, also in North America. In particular, Miller's day-age theory was adopted by the theologians James Orr, Charles Hodge and, later, B.B. Warfield.
A willingness to accommodate Genesis to science opened the way to modify Scripture also elsewhere.
Murray comes to the following conclusions:
1. The church theologians were too pre-occupied with accommodating the faith to the intellectual climate of the times. Their strategy backfired. Their conciliatory policy toward science and philosophy did not contain unbelief but, rather, gave it a reputation. The consequent loss of authority in the pulpit led to a spiritual famine across the nation (p.387).
2. The plain New Testament duty of contending for the faith and refuting error was put aside. Instead, hesitancy on matters of belief came to be regarded as more Christian than "dogmatism" (p.388). Respect was fostered for "honest intellectual difficulty." Murray aptly comments:
"The Bible calls, not for discussion and conciliation with error, but opposition. In the words of Horatius Bonar: 'Fellowship between faith and unbelief must, sooner or later, be fatal to the former...We may tamper with doubt, we may trifle with certainty, and we may succumb to public opinion, but what will the end be?...We are apt to forget that error is sin; that truth does not reverse itself; that inspiration and non-inspiration are two opposite poles, admitting no medium; that infidelity ought not to cloak itself under the name of candid inquiry; and that candid inquiry should beware of being landed in unbelief.'" (p.388)
3. The basic error was pride in human science and scholarship, rather than simply trusting God's word.
4. The church failed to properly discern the underlying work of Satan. Murray notes:
"Men who thought it no longer necessary to 'take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God' (Eph.6:17) were being led by another spirit. The pride which leads anyone to put his reason above Scripture has its origin in the sin that began with the question, 'Has God said?' (Gen.3:1)" (p.390).
Murray's analysis should serve as clear warning to us today of the necessity of boldly proclaiming the full word of God, without compromise.