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Thomas Erskine

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Thomas Erskine of Linlathen (October 13, 1788 – March 20, 1870) was an outstanding revisionary and constructive lay theologian in the early part of the 19th century. He was the fourth son of David Erskine, who died while Thomas was quite young. As a result he was raised by his maternal grandmother, Mrs. Graham. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh, he was admitted to the bar in 1810. He was however, not to practice law for long.

Erskine, was, with his good friend the Reverend John Mcleod Campbell, one of Scotland's most important nineteenth century constructive theologians. His attempt at revising the reigning Calvinism's stranglehold on theology while remarkable and brilliant, if not without criticism. He did so in a stultifying religious environment that argued against theological innovation, and was, in the words of one interpreter "The prevailing Calvinism had somewhat altered John Calvin's system through an interpretation of lesser minds, the intrusion of federal theology, and violent controversies involving sectarian, nationalistic, and social elements."[1] While Campbell was a Presbyterian minister, although one deposed by the Scottish Presbyterian Church in 1831 for preaching views at odds with the reigning Westminster Orthodoxy, Erskine was a lawyer by education, although denominationally, unlike Campbell, he was an Episcopalian. Self-read and taught with regard to theology, he was able to author several fascinating theological works in the early 19th century. His works attempt to do constructive theology while offering a critique and revision of the then current Calvinism. In some respects, Erskine succeeded, and in some regards must be judged as inadequate to the task he set himself.

While he was well known in his day, today Erskine is an unknown. Perhaps the least well known, but greatest theological treatise Erskine wrote is The Doctrine of Election, whose purpose and theme may be summed up as follows:

The current form of Calvinistic doctrine goes against human experience and the real message of Scripture. The powers of good and evil, of God and the self, strive within every person's soul. A person's 'elective will' in one's own personality determines with which of the other two wills one chooses to side. This last will only chooses which of the two shall be dominant. Thus, God inwardly encourages us to choose the good, the true and the beautiful--we are not agents of our own good decision making, but rather we choose that which God has already chosen for us.

Following the publication of this lengthy treatise on the theological doctrine of predestination and interaction with Paul's Letter to the Romans in 1837, Erskine suddenly ceased writing. Perhaps he felt his work complete. Or he may have realized he was ahead of his time, and felt no more need to publish. Perhaps he became jaded with trying to alter theological paradigms prior to his era's readiness. Prior to that literary retirement he had written steadily and was known as the author of: Remarks on the Internal Evidence for the Truth of Revealed Religion (1820), an Essay on Faith (1822), and the Unconditional Freeness of the Gospel (1828). Although little known today, these books all passed through several editions. Erskine also authored The Brazen Serpent (1831), and a posthumously published work entitled The Spiritual Order and Other Papers (1871). Two volumes of his letters, edited by William Hanna appeared in 1877. For those interested in correspondence, these letters make fascinating reading. Erskine was by all accounts a sincere Christian whose character was beyond reproach. Two of his favorite Biblical texts were "For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ--for it is the power of God unto salvation" (Romans 1:16) and "This is eternal life, that they might know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent" (John 17:3).

Erskine had a great estate and was a financially independent due to several deaths in his family. When his elder brother died in 1816, Thomas was placed in charge of the large family estate. This necessitated his giving up the practice of law. Given his reflection upon both the Biblical text and his experience with family and friends dying, Erskine tried to emphasize the loving side of God's nature. He supported the universal atonement of Christ and was critical of the Scottish Federal Calvinism of his time. Indeed, as Erskine studied the Biblical text he became convinced that it "presented a history of wondrous love in order to excite gratitude, of a high and holy worth, to attract veneration and esteem. It presented a view of danger, to produce alarm; of refuge to confer peace and joy; and of eternal glory, to animate hope." (Cf. Remarks on the Internal Evidence for the Truth of Revealed Religion, p. 40) Erskine was possibly the most theologically astute layperson to write theology in the 19th century. A quote here may reveal some of his thinking:

Christ, the gift of God's present forgiving love to every man and woman, is the door through which alone we can enter into our provision of hope. Until we know the love of our Father's heart to us, as manifested in Christ, the future must always be to us at best a dark and doubtful wilderness. But when we know that all that we have conceived of our Father's love, is as nothing to the reality--that he is indeed love itself--a love passing knowledge--a shoreless, boundless, bottomless ocean-fountain of love, of holy, sin-hating, sin-destroying love, which longs over us that we should be filled with itself--and be by it delivered from the power of evil--then, indeed, we are saved by hope, for we know that love must triumph and fulfill all its counsel. (Cf. The Brazen Serpent, p. 122)

Though little known now, in his day and time he was influential on theologically forward thinking pastors and theologians. One German church historian, Otto Pfleiderer, "regard[ed] [Erskine's] ideas as the best contribution to dogmatics which British theology has produced in the present century." (cf. The Development of Theology in Germany since Kant, and its Progress in Great Britain since 1825, p. 382) He influenced especially Frederick Denison Maurice, A. J. Scott and George MacDonald. When Erskine died at home in 1870, his last words were fittingly enough: "Lord Jesus!" (cf. Henderson, p. 136)

Further reading

  • Henry F. Henderson, Erskine of Linlathen: Selections and Biography, Oliphant Anderson and Ferrier, London, 1899;
  • Trevor Hart, The Teaching Father: An Introduction to the Theology of Thomas Erskine of Linlathen, St. Andrew Press, Edinburgh, 1993;
  • Nicholas R. Needham, Thomas Erskine of Linlathen: his life and theology, Rutherford House Books, Edinburgh, 1990;
  • Donald F. Winslow, Thomas Erskine: Advocate for the Character of God, University Press of America, New York, 1993;
  • Philip E. Devenish, Christianity and Conscience: The Revisionary Calvinism of Thomas Erskine of Linlathen, Unpublished Manuscript, 1997;
  • Don Horrocks, Laws of the Spiritual Order: Innovation and Reconstruction in the Soteriology of Thomas Erskine of Linlathen, Paternoster Press, (Studies in Evangelical History and Thought), Waynesboro, Georgia, 2004.
  • Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology from John Knox to John McLeod Campbell, T. and T. Clark, Edinburgh, 1996.

References

  1. John Logan, "Thomas Erskine of Linlathen: Lay Theologian of the Inner Light", Scottish Journal of Theology, Volume #37. p. 23.

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