Monday, 30 June 2014

William Cunningham

First week of holiday and down to some serious reading – my wife hardly believes that I find this relaxing but it is so good to have time to indulge exploring theological literature of a bygone age.  Also, the marvel of the Kindle means I can take it with me anywhere, relaxing at the caravan park, on the beach, in the bath, or sitting contentedly while my wife does some serious clothes shopping – no longer the impatient and frustrated husband but the new “Take as long as you need, dear” model husband.

I have started with some theological biography.  William Cunningham will be known to the initiated as one of the Free Church of Scotland “fathers”

To quote Theopedia:

“William Cunningham (1805-1861) was an eminent Scottish theologian in the Reformed tradition and one of the founders of the Free Church of Scotland. Cunningham is remembered primarily as a defender of Calvinism and the doctrine of the Trinity. He is one of the great resources on the history of the Reformation. Selected Titles include: Historical Theology; The Principal Doctrinal Discussions in the Christian Church Since the Apostolic Age; and The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation.”

I had known Cunningham the theologian through his Historical Theology and also The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation. Now I had the opportunity to get to know Cunningham the man, the Christian, and the pastor.

Start with the fine introduction to his sermons, written by John Bonar, ( ). 

We see that despite his massive learning Cunningham was a cross centred preacher whose sermons were filled with evangelistic zeal.  He preached simply, so that the ordinary hearers could benefit. 

He was an expository preacher, “Conversant with the Word as a student, and knowing the power of it himself, he resolved, at the outset of his course, to bring the mind of his people as much as possible into contact with the mind of God, by continuous exposition of the whole Bible.”

Cunningham entered his theological training as an unregenerate Moderate, who contemptuously dismissed the “ravings” of evangelicals such as Chalmers.  But God was to change him:

During his undergraduate period, influences to which he hitherto had been a stranger came to bear upon him, and, ere his literary curriculum was quite finished, Light, which no darkness can withstand, was shed into his soul, and in Christ he became a new creation. The Divine finger had touched his soul, and, after a calm, but searching inquiry into the wants he felt, as also into the way by which the Scriptures showed these wants could alone be met, he reached a wide place of freedom, by casting himself, with the meekness of a little child, on the propitiation of Jesus Christ.”

Cunningham was not only a Confessional theologian, he was a Confessional preacher:

“In the Standards of his Church he recognised the exact sense and full amount of Scripture, and by the Confession and Catechisms he persistently held, lie had studied them, and so he understood them ; he understood them, and therefore he believed them ; but believing them, in not one article did he attempt either to evacuate or evade them. With him credendada were credita ; and earnestly did he maintain, that as the Bible is the meaning of God, so the Confession is the meaning of the Bible.”

He was a practical preacher, setting forth the duties and responsibilities of Christian living based on Calvinistic doctrine:

“One great objection to the Calvinistic scheme Dr. Cunningham advocated, is, that it gives such prominence to Grace as to weaken the basis of morals and endanger the claims of holiness. But, on the other hand, his conviction was, that all authoritative motive was bound up in the Gospel, and that Grace was the surest bulwark of Law — the only fountain of Duty. He early saw that Calvinism was resented as much as dogma which demanded implicit submission, as doctrine which set forth mysterious truth ; but his watchword was, ' no dogma, no duty,' ' no doctrine, no obedience'; and he was the most practical of preachers, because of all preachers he was the most evangelical. Holding that the greatest amount of ethical power is concentrated in the truth of the Gospel, he would on no occasion deliver a practical Discourse, without exhibiting the doctrine on which it rested ; and neither did he at any time deliver a doctrinal Sermon, without pointing out how it should determine and govern practice.”

Enough, I hope, to whet the appetite and to lead you on to the fuller “Life of William Cunningham” by Robert Rainy, ( )

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