The Story Of Ramabai


Rowland S. Ward, 2001 updated 2016


Rowland Ward has been on the Australian Mukti Council since 1999, and Chairman since 2002. If you would like to sponsor a child or otherwise support the work Ramabai began, contact Mukti Australia Inc, 5 Court Street, Box Hill, Victoria 3124 [email:]


A bit of Hindu background

Hinduism, the religion of India, includes a family of religious beliefs dating back 5000 years to a time of simple animal sacrifice. At first the emphasis was on God ‘the heavenly one’ or supreme ruler. However, over time the religion of the people became polytheistic. In fact, the idea was that the one Spirit was manifested in all the varieties of life. Belief in reincarnation prevailed so that a long series of many millions of earthy existences was a person’s lot until he should at last be freed from the consequences of his actions by being absorbed in the Great Spirit. Society was divided into four castes depending on each person’s ability – the priestly/ruling or Brahmin class , the warrior class, the trading class and the rest. Intermarriage between these castes was originally lawful.

In the course of time the system became much more involved and traditional practices became enshrined as law even though contradicted in the sacred Sanskrit texts. Within the four principal castes, now a matter of birth not ability, are clans, each with their own rules. In addition there are mixed castes and other castes for each type of task in society. The social organisation by caste is basic and all prevailing. Transgression of caste rules brings punishment and excommunication, but even outcasts have their caste rules.

In the caste system as it has thus developed, the importance of purity in the line of descent is obvious, since otherwise one’s caste position is at risk. For unless one is a Brahmin he is not fit to be reabsorbed into the Spirit, so the rules to ensure he does not lose his position, and have to resume a long series of earthly existences to regain it, are powerful. The high castes in particular enforced a tight system of regulation of sexuality not unrelated to personal position and advantage for the men. To ensure legitimacy pre-puberty marriages were arranged, the typical age of marriage being ten. If a child bride was widowed while young, as frequently happened, she had no property rights but was dependent on her relatives and controlled by a close system of caste rules and kin ties.

A child widow or one without children was neither wife nor mother and had no status but the lowest. Her widowhood was regarded as the consequence of sin in previous lives. Her sexual existence ended with the death of her husband: remarriage was not allowed, particularly in the higher castes. She had to suffer the cutting off of her hair and a variety of social practices including drab clothing and no ornaments, that defeminised her reducing her to nothing more than a drudge. It is not surprising that young widows did voluntarily immolate themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre. Life as a young widow in India was grim indeed, a fate worse than death, but sati, as it was called, was not always voluntary. The practice was banned by the British in 1829 although it still occurs to some extent even today.

Ramabai’s background

The story of one of the great Christian women of India begins with her father, Anant Shastri Donge, a Brahmin. He was trained as a Sanskrit scholar and was deeply impressed by the act of one of his teachers in instructing the wife of the last ruler of Poona before the British takeover. At the age of 44, and a widower, Anant Shastri married a 9 year old called Lakshmibai, and succeeded in teaching her Sanskrit, the sacred language of Hindu learning. This was quite out of the ordinary but he escaped excommunication by showing that the ancient texts in no way forbade the education of women. He spent the rest of his life in teaching, worship and living off gifts, existing on the edge of society and constantly travelling. This was traditional practice but by then was unusual given the more compact social organisation that had developed among Brahmins.

Pandita Ramabai

Anant Shastri’s wife taught her daughter Ramabai, who was born in 1858. At 16 Ramabai lost both her parents to famine and her sister to cholera, and she and her brother alone remained. So apt a student had Ramabai proved that at the age of 20 she was examined by the pandits (scholars) of Calcutta and they gave her the honour of pandita, the only woman to have received such a title. She was then, as earlier, an orthodox Hindu, and was feted by some reformers among the Hindu elite as an illustration of what they perceived was the ideal of a woman in ancient India. They had no thought that she would move from the general outline of Hinduism in her concern for the uplift of Indian women.


She was invited to lecture on the emancipation of women and in order to do so made a careful study of the ancient Hindu texts, the Dharma-shastras. She was disillusioned. The texts were contradictory on many things but it was clear that women of whatever caste were as a class able to obtain redemption only through complete worship of and subservience to their husbands. Her brother died of cholera in 1880 and she then, despite Brahmin suitors, married a non-Brahmin lawyer in a civil ceremony, as both had given up on traditional Hinduism. They lived in Assam, but her husband also died of cholera two years later leaving her with a baby girl Manorama.

Her life to this point had been hard but her high caste and attainments in Hindu thought made her a potentially important figure. She now was a widow but she refused to stay hidden. Her personal search for salvation had not over, and her concern for the women of India remained. She returned to Poona where some moderate Hindu reformers were prepared to support her. However, her lectures often had hostile audiences and her desire to provide a home for high-caste widows received minimal practical support. Nor did she fit in with the close-knit Hindu orthodoxy. She needed personal religious satisfaction for herself, and a solution which would allow her social concerns to be expressed and implemented.


Learning English, she resolved to go to England to gain a medical education. In the year of her husband’s death (1882) she issued a guide to the morality and conduct of women called Stri Dharma Niti [The Duties of Women] using examples drawn from Hindu mythology and written in a scholarly style using many Sanskrit words. In this book, which was much discussed, she criticises Indian women for being lazy and stupid, but at the same time urges relatively late marriage based on mutual choice rather than arrangement. She also attacked the anti-woman stance and double standards of Indian men. Through this means she raised money to go to England. She also had the support of an Anglican Order of Sisters who worked in Poona, the Community of St Mary the Virgin, and at first she stayed at their centre at Wantage, Berkshire after her arrival in June 1883.

Although she had had no intention of converting to Christianity she found in the teaching of a personal, loving God and in the dedication of the Anglican sisters in their work with the marginalised, that which moved her to this step. The suicide of a young Indian woman friend must also have had its impact. Ramabai and her daughter were baptised on 29th September 1883. Yet it is very evident that this was not quite a normal conversion. The High Anglican sisters found Ramabai very independent, refusing to accept anything on the authority of the Church with its male authority structures. She would accept the authority of the Bible, but at this stage she scrupled various miracles, and the trinitarian creeds, believed Christ was raised from the dead but doubted its physicality. Clearly there was a lot of baggage to be sorted out. She was a humanist who came to Christianity in reaction to a system which brutalised and crushed women. There was much for her to learn.


It was not possible for Ramabai to secure the medical training she wanted because of increasing deafness. She resolved to go to America to seek support for her projected work in India. She was in the USA 1886-88, speaking at hundreds of meetings and receiving an enthusiastic welcome. In 1886 she wrote The High Caste Indian Woman in which she outlined the problems of women in India. This was very well received in the West. From the proceeds she repaid the Wantage sisters, and set up a fund for a widows’ home which she called Sharada Sadan, the House of Learning.

Bombay to Poona to Christ

The House of Learning was opened in Bombay in March 1889, and was set up on the basis there would be no religious teaching. It removed south to Poona for reasons of cost in November 1890, Here, however, there was a more close scrutiny by the orthodox Hindus. She was a professed Christian, keeping women away from the control of their male kin, and giving freedom of religion which meant she also practised her own faith. The orthodox did not like it. Controversy arose over several conversions to Christianity on the part of the inmates. The moderate Hindu reformers drew back.

It was in 1891 that Ramabai realised that she had found the Christian religion but had not found Christ, who is its life. She had accepted teachings like baptismal regeneration which fitted a Hindu mindset. Now, particularly through a book From Death to Life by William Haslam [Marshall, Morgan & Scott 1880] she came to personal faith in Christ, communion with him, and a joy and peace she had never previously known. She continued to grow in appreciation of the truth of the Christian faith.

Kedgaon and Mukti Mission

In 1896 she established Mukti Sadan, the House of Salvation, on 100 acres of land at Kedgaon, about 60 kms east of Poona. Later she acquired more land. By 1900 there were 2,000 women and children at Kedgaon. Many had been rescued from the terrible famine in 1896. They were not just fed and clothed and nursed back to health where that was possible, they were also educated and taught useful trades at the same time as they were taught the Christian gospel.

Ramabai was influenced by the prevailing trends in evangelicalism in the 1890s, including Keswick, although she consciously made Mukti a non-denominational institution. One influential helper was Miss Minnie Abrams from America, and through her and others there was a strain of American revivalism and a pre-millennial emphasis. In April 1902 R. A. Torrey and Charles Alexander conducted a successful month-long mission in Melbourne with 8,600 conversions reported. In India Pandita Ramabai  heard of the encouraging meetings and sent her daughter and Miss Minnie Adams (1859-1912) to Melbourne to assess and report. This was the beginning of the support group in Melbourne in 1903. Ramabai also heard of the Welsh revival which began in late 1904. There was a significant outbreak of spiritual blessing at Mukti in June 1905, which predates the movement that began in April 1906 in Asuza Street, Los Angeles under William J. Seymour. Minnie Adams  went on to be a significant Pentecostal leader. Ramabai however adopted the position that tongues were not the inevitable evidence of Holy Spirit blessing. Ramabai usually came back from her extremes quickly enough and she ended emphasising ‘seek not, forbid not’ in regard to spiritual manifestations, much as did the Christian and Missionary Alliance who had the care of Mukti after her death in 1922 until 1970, when it came under a more inter-denominational Board.

Translation of Scripture

Ramabai was only about 5 feet tall, but she was a woman of remarkable ability and faith. If her increasing deafness meant some restriction then it only helped her concentrate on her great desire to give the word of God to the people. There was a Bible in the Marathi language, as there was a German Bible before Luther, but it was not in the vernacular. She commenced the translation of the Bible into simple Marathi in 1904, learning Hebrew and Greek and publishing grammatical aids as she went. The Gospels were published in 1912, the New Testament in 1913 and the whole Bible, completed in 1920, in 1924. Overall she took about the same time as Luther, although he already had the languages. A revised edition was published in 1965. It stands certainly as the only example of a complete Bible translation by a woman to that time, and maybe even now. She also translated the Psalms for singing and employed an Indian musician to compose tunes for them. She did not Westernise her Christianity with inappropriate importations of cultural practice.

Ramabai is a woman whose like has not appeared in India since her death. God prepared for the work he had for her before she was born. Sadly, her work is still needed. Some 700 women and children are cared for today. The original centre at Kedgaon continues, but new smaller group homes are being established and the work is expanding with a model avoiding the dangers of institutionalisation. Hopefully there will be another in Gujarat, in the area affected by the recent earthquake.

A.B.Shah (ed), The Letters and Correspondence of Pandita Ramabai (Maharastra State Board for Literature & Culture, Bombay, 1977);
Meera Kosambi (ed), Pandita Ramabai, Through Her Own Words (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2000);
Uma Chakravarti, Rewriting History: The Life and Times of Pandita Ramabai (Kali for Women, New Delhi, 1998).

Allan Anderson, Spreading Fires: The Missionary Nature of Early Pentecostalism (Orbis Books, Maryknoll NY, 2007) Chapter 4 “Indian Beginnings”

Will Renshaw, Marvellous Melbourne and Spiritual Power (Moreland, Acorn Press, 2014)

Reproduced from The Presbyterian Banner, the official magazine of the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia, April 2001, with revisions December 2016

A tale of King Arthur

All films change the facts. Cromwell (1970), Chariots of Fire (1981) and Ghandi (1982) all do this in various ways, some worse than others. The problem today is that there is such historical illiteracy that many people presumably think the film is the reality.

King Arthur has more written about him than just about any ruler of Britain and yet we really know next to nothing about him, or even if he ever existed. The current film King Arthur (2004) is introduced by a note that recent archaeological research has shed light on Arthur’s true identity. That is at best misleading. The film in fact adds its own mythology including some surprising historical blunders.

Essentially the film is about the Battle of Badon Hill, which the film dates to AD 467, near Hadrian’s Wall which separates the north of Britain (principally modern Scotland) from England. Arthur’s fellow knights are represented as Samartians (from the area of modern Ukraine – which is presumably why they cry ‘Rus!’ from time to time, if that’s what the shout is). From the film I wasn’t quite sure whether or not Arthur is supposed to be part British or not, but an ancestor is said to be a certain Artorius. Arthur and his friends are nearing the end of 15 years service  in Rome’s military frontier in Britain, but before they receive their freedom they must rescue an important Roman family under threat from the brutal Saxons. The head of this family is an unlikeable adherent of the Pope. He tortures those Britons who don’t convert, including a certain attractive warrior damsel named Guinevere. Arthur rescues the tortured and in the end sides with the Britons against the Saxons. They are defeated and Arthur marries Guinevere.

It’s an entertaining version of the story. However, it is entertainment not history. The inscription ‘Artorius’ found in Tintagel in Cornwall, Arthur’s traditional birthplace, actually reads ‘Artognus’. The Sarmartians were not a Slav/Viking people like the Rus, who founded Russia, but Iranian. An important battle over the Saxons at Badon Hill has good claim to historical reality, although a date between AD 475 and 520 is the best guess, not 467 as in the film. Badon is often thought to have been in the region of Bath – a long way from Hadrian’s Wall – but no one knows for certain. The earliest reference is in Gildas (ca. AD 550) who says it occurred the year he was born (thus ca AD 500). He doesn’t mention Arthur at all; a certain Ambrosius is the leader of the victorious Britons.

Around 250 years later the Celtic monk Nennius, seeking to preserve the traditions of his people, credits Arthur with a succession of six victories over the Saxons with Badon Hill the climax. Geoffrey of Monmouth created the basic framework of the highly popular Arthurian legend while teaching at Oxford 1129-51. In 1191 the Glastonbury monks claimed to have found Arthur and Guinevere’s graves in the monastic grounds after a major fire in 1184. Fund raising for the rebuilding was aided and King Edward III established the Knights of the Garter, based on the legend, in 1384. Sir Thomas Malory (1405-71) further embellished the story in a brilliant work published by William Caxton in 1485.

If there is anything new in the film it is at least in the attempt to demythologise Arthur so that the monkish legends about a Holy Grail and the magical sword Excalibur do not feature. The view that the Saxons were defeated by the Britons led by some Roman soldiers could be true, and some theorists suggest that the stories of the Holy Grail had their origin in the eastern part of the Roman Empire.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the film is the way Arthur is represented as a person of less than clear Christian conviction, but of decency and concern for the freedoms of ordinary people. He has as his closest friend in Rome the British monk Pelagius, whom the film tells us died a year earlier (AD 466). Pelagius was indeed a real figure – a British monk of decent life but poor theology. He stressed man’s abilities rather than divine grace, but met his match in the great Augustine of Hippo (354-430). Pelagius’ views were condemned as heretical, but he himself was not put to death for heresy as the film makes out. As Pelagius’ dates are around 350-425, he does not match the setting given to Arthur a generation later in the film. Still, the choice is interesting, reminding us that every film-maker is seeking an audience. To make Arthur into the kind of hero that appeals to an age distrustful of institutions and addicted to democratic individualism is far more likely to produce the box-office dollars. Does it in a strange way aim to give hope that the Iraq war will be worthwhile in the end?

Whatever, Pelagius is indeed a picture of many moderns, but also of many in the Greek world of the New Testament age. But there’s an emptiness in the end in this philosophy. We need a better hope. And the Gospel of Jesus Christ provides just that – in the past but also in 2005 and beyond.

Initially published in The Presbyterian Banner, December 2004.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 03 November 2010 20:40

God and Natural Disasters

God created a good world free of moral evil but yet with dangers and the possibility things could go wrong, as the entry of sin shows. As God’s representatives and image-bearers in this world humans were to fill the earth and subdue it. Through our first parents’ disobedience humanity is estranged from God, and all kinds of misery follows, including death itself and the ultimate consequence of disobedience in eternal separation from God. Yet God remains good, and judgment is his strange work (Isaiah 28:21). The account of Noah’s Flood does not focus attention on those who perished, as our newspapers do when recording modern disasters, but stresses God’s pain and grief, and his determination to not again bring such an extensive disaster (Genesis 6:6; 8:21).

God continues to send good, such as sunshine and rain, to believers and non-believers alike (Matthew 5:45; Psalm 145:9), and he even has pity on the cattle in unbelieving Ninevah (Jonah 4:11). We cannot exclude God’s involvement in so-called natural disasters. Sometimes specific judgments like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah come because of specific sin, but other times disasters are unrelated to specific sins (Job 1:8,16,18). We need to beware lest we pretend to know God’s purpose in any particular case. Yet we also need to recognize that cause and effect have reality. Many disasters arise from human abuse of the environment, or failure to take reasonable precautions against inherent or likely dangers.

God’s self-revelation in Scripture shows that believers are entitled to pray to him for protection and he will answer according to his perfect will. That does not mean they will always be delivered from the disaster, but faith says, ‘Although he slay me, yet will I trust him’ (Job 13:15).  In reference to both barbaric acts and accidental events Jesus declined to relate them to the personal sins of those who died as if these people were worse than others (Luke 13:1-5). However, such tragedies as well as natural disasters do serve as warnings that without repentance we will all perish. Such events are characteristic of this age. They are not indicators of the imminent end of the world, but point to the perfect age to come (Matthew 24:8; Luke 21:28).

In the end we do not need to defend God’s ways. He has made abundantly clear that he is concerned for humanity, so much so that he has sent his Son into the world of sin and shame to die on the cross to redeem and save all who turn to him in repentance and faith. As Jesus had compassion on the multitudes and also wept over the stubborn unbelief of the people of Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37), so should we have compassion for those suffering in disasters and a deep desire to bring the message of salvation in Jesus to them as to all others.

Presbyterian Identity

Historically the Christian faith as understood by Presbyterians has experienced tension between the three aspects of correct doctrine, personal piety and social engagement. All these aspects are necessary to a well-rounded Christian faith.

They were well represented in James Forbes (1813-51), the first Christian minister settled in that capacity in Melbourne. He served the Scots’ Church and then founded the Free Presbyterian body in 1846. On the one hand he held definitely to the Confession of Faith and thought deviation from strict adherence would come back to haunt the church, but he also maintained a personal devotion and piety that included special gatherings for prayer with other evangelical believers. On top of that he was a foremost educationalist, and principal founder of the Melbourne Academy (later known as Scotch College) as well as involved in many of the early community enterprises such as the hospital, the temperance society and missions to aborigines.

It is not surprising that Australian Presbyterianism has manifested some divergence. In any church of some size different emphases will develop through geographical, social and political factors as well as the influence of significant people.

The impact of the early dominance of the Free Church of Scotland and Irish ministers in Victoria, the much greater Established Church of Scotland influence in New South Wales and the strong Irish Church and Glasgow Bible Training Institute influence in Queensland is seen to this day in the main Presbyterian denomination [PCA] in this country. Differences between rural and city PCEA congregations are another example.

Worship issues

In my youth I used to think that if a church of my own stripe was not available then the Baptists would be best; nowadays I’d say a PCA church would be preferred, but when I go I’m not sure what I’ll find in the worship service.  I may find something similar to my own denomination, or I may find a very traditional PCA style like the 1950s, or increasingly, it seems, I’ll find a rather casual approach with plenty of music and a charismatic feel.

If one attends a charismatic church one tends to find a pretty common style for all that charismatics usually want to stress they are a Spirit-led community and not a structured denomination. So how is it that Presbyterians, who identify as a structured church body without denying being Spirit-led, have such wide divergences in worship?

I want to suggest that in fact these variations in Presbyterian worship, as in anything else, reflect theological commitments. It may be the love of order, beauty, continuity and tradition that controls what we do, or it may be the desire to be with it, and to get people in without being very precise about method. In either case we are missing the Presbyterian point. As Christians who strive to be biblical we are supposed to be committed to the view that the glory of God is the chief purpose for which we are made and that this is the way to enjoy him forever.

So how does the glory of God illuminate our Presbyterian identity?

1. Scripture nourishes the life of the church

We can readily pay lip service to the authority of Scripture while we actually let our own experience and culture interpret it rather than the other way around. The Church can only live by God’s word. Sometimes one has the impression the Code book is more important! The seriously liberal phase in the history of the Presbyterian Church in Australia reflected not just an imbalance in the three aspects mentioned already but an alien intrusion of anti-supernaturalism so that man’s thoughts and not God’s were dominant and directive. And of course the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man proved a very empty response to the human predicament.

Similarly, the emphasis in much of the charismatic movement since the 1970s is on my feelings, my desires, my happiness. The concept of sin, if it’s not blamed on demonic forces, is downplayed as negative and uphelpful.  In this way the path to a God-centred life and true happiness is blocked up. The wonder of the love of God and the significance of the cross of Christ is evacuated of its true meaning. God in his glory and grace is reduced to my good mate, hymns become Christianised love songs to Jesus, and the Holy Spirit is there to give us good feelings about ourselves but not lead us in the disciplined life of true godliness.

2. The church is the gathering of God’s people by means of his word and Spirit

Paul was clearly well aware of the culture and intellectual influences in Athens when he spoke in the Areopagus (Acts 17). He employed that knowledge so that he might speak more effectively to them of Jesus and the resurrection. We need to be abreast of the intellectual influences in our culture also, but we must not descend to social and management theory as if they are to control how we see the work of the church. Ministers are not managers per se but preachers and proclaimers, shepherds of the flock. Statistics have a place but the great means for the extension of God’s kingdom is the word of God blessed by the Spirit. After all, the church is not a human institution although there is that face. Ultimately it is Christ who said, ‘I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.’ Clever psychology and slick marketing is no substitute.

3. Understanding of Scripture occurs in the community of faith in the context of our Confession of Faith

The New Testament emphasizes that the Gospel is to be traditioned, that is, passed on faithfully. Thus Paul writes 2 Thessalonians 3:6: “Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition (Gk: paradosis) that you received from us.” He uses accounting terms when elsewhere he writes: “what I received I also passed on to you” The Gospel was passed on without addition or subtraction. The gospel is not to be understood individualisticly as if I can adjust it to my preferences, but it to be understood communally. Hence we have a consensus creed in the Confession of Faith.

Now clearly various procedures and aspects of how we worship need not be everywhere the same so long as they follow the general principles of Scripture.  The Confession says that. And the Confession is not the rule of faith but a help to faith. The Confession also says that. However, Presbyterians are committed to the position that Scripture rules doctrine and life, and that in matters of worship the express direction of Scripture or the good and necessary consequence of its teaching is required.

Ministers have both form and freedom, but it’s to be an ordered freedom. Too often we can act like independents as if we can ignore the wisdom of our fathers and the consensus that binds us together. In the Presbyterian system holy moderation ought to be furthered. “Here”, said Alexander Henderson, the great Scottish Churchman of the 17th century, “Here is superiority without tyranny, . . . here is parity without confusion and disorder . . . and lastly, here is subjection without slavery.”


4. Worship on the Lord’s Day is at the heart of the church’s life

Public worship on the Lord’s Day is the meeting of God’s people with their Lord. The older continental Reformed orders of worship bring this out. They began with a votum or promise, a response to God’s call to worship him, such as “Our help is in the Lord who made the heavens and the earth.” Then followed a salutation or greeting such as “Grace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” The Benediction at the close is not so much a prayer but a blessing from the Lord as we leave his special presence.

Neglect of public worship is dishonouring to God and destructive of piety. But when that worship is centred on us as a kind of pick-me-up, glossy show, we are moving on dangerous ground indeed.  James S. B. Monsell was right: “O Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness/Bow down before him, his glory proclaim.”  Some trends in the PCA as regards worship and the Lord’s Day are very disappointing. We in the PCEA need to let our light shine.

A New Year resolution?

A brief article like this can only hint at issues. The recovery of family worship and the use of the catechism are also important. Princeton Professor B.B.Warfield somewhere tells the story of two men of calm and purposeful bearing, whose very demeanor inspired confidence, walking towards each other in a street of a city then in the midst of commotion and violence. They passed, then turned around and one asked, “What is the chief end of man?” The other answered, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever’ ”—“Ah!” said the first man, “I knew you were a Shorter Catechism boy by your looks!” “Why, that was just what I was thinking of you,” was the rejoinder. It is worth while to be a Shorter Catechism boy, adds Warfield. They grow to be men. And better than that, they are exceedingly apt to grow to be men of God. So apt, that we cannot afford to have them miss the chance of it. “Train up a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old he will not depart from it.”

In 2012 let us resolve that God and his glory, supremely seen in Christ, may be our chief joy. Then we will find our identity as Presbyterian Christians!

The One and Triune God and the life of his people

Dr Rowland Ward is minister of Knox Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia, Melbourne 
This is his address as Moderator of Synod 1996.


I suppose there might be the thought in the minds of some that the subject of the Trinity is hardly the one that is suitable to our present need. It might be regarded as of absolutely no practical value.1 Or another might say, “This is ‘high’ doctrine, difficult for even the best minds. Is not a rousing call to faithfulness and service the need of the hour?” But faithfulness to whom? and service for what end? As ministers and elders we are all aware of how easy it is for professionalism to characterise our activities, to be so immersed in the work that has to be done that we forget why we are doing it or for whom we are labouring.

Many of you will know of a little book by Tom Wells entitled A Vision for Missions.2 At first you think the book will be about mission strategy with lots of graphs and analysis, but in fact it advances the thesis that “God is worthy to be known and proclaimed for who he is…” and spends most of its space in speaking about the character of God and what God has done for us in Christ. There lies the true foundation and impelling motive to missionary endeavour. Similarly, I wish to relate the nature of God as Triune to the life of the church since this is the most basic means of addressing the problems of the church as we near the beginning of the 21st century.

To conceive of God other than as the Trinity is to imagine a god who has no existence. John Calvin (1509-64) writes:

But God also designates himself by another special mark [in addition to his infinity and spiritual nature] to distinguish himself more precisely from idols. For he so proclaims himself the sole God as to offer himself to be contemplated clearly in three persons. Unless we grasp these, only the bare and empty name of God flits around in our brains, to the exclusion of the true God.3

This witness is true. I am convinced that while the church can use graphs and statistics, as I did myself in addressing the 1995 Synod, our basic need is to recover and deepen our knowledge of God. Our consideration of this subject will embrace biblical, theological and historical aspects, but I trust you will also come to see the very important and practical nature of the subject as well.

Trinity as a word
The use of the term Trinity immediately reminds us we are not using a word found in Scripture. However, it is an uninformed, sectarian or latitudinarian spirit which mouths the cry, “The Bible, I say, the Bible only is the religion of Protestants.”4 In no case is this a true claim, for every group (Protestant or otherwise) claiming “the Bible only” has its own interpretation. We do not wish to quibble over words but we do wish to adhere to the true meaning of Scripture. Hence the necessity and honesty of declaring our understanding of controverted teachings of Scripture in a public Confession of Faith.5 As Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) put it: “For the Holy Scripture was not given to the church by God to be thoughtlessly repeated but to be understood in all its fulness and richness….”6

Tertullian (AD c160-c220), the Roman advocate who became a Christian about AD 197, contributed the term ‘trinitas’ to the doctrine of God as it was formulated in the 4th century. He used this term in his writings against Praxeas (AD c215), who had taught that it was the Father who suffered on the cross. But neither Tertullian nor the Councils of the 4th century supposed that they were doing other than setting out and clearing of misrepresentations the teaching about God found in the pages of Holy Scripture. That they used the language of their time was inescapable; that there were many unholy political skirmishes and worse in the conflict which raged on the subject is acknowledged; that they advanced speculations to account for the facts of Scripture is also true; but that they did correctly discern the leading points of Scripture is also our belief, and this has been succinctly incorporated in our Confession of Faith.
The essential doctrine
Well then, how do we state the doctrine? Our Shorter Catechism reminds us: “There are three persons in the Godhead, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory.”7 Such a statement is seeking to do full justice to the data of Scripture and may be otherwise expressed in three propositions:8
(i) there is only one God;
(ii) the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is each God;
(iii) the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is each a distinct person.
Now our language about God is of necessity accommodated to our capacity, and its inadequacy has always been recognised. We speak of three persons not because this language is adequate but because the Bible describes the relations of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in ways analogous to relations among human persons.9

God is one in being or essence but within the singleness of his being there are three personal distinctions. Put plainly, we may say that God’s life is not a solitary, lonely one, but has a richness and fulness reflecting the fact that God is a fellowship. Now to say God is a fellowship is not to say he is a committee, for a committee implies various individuals each with their distinctive origin, and might easily lead us to tritheism, belief in three Gods. To say God is a fellowship is to say that there is an intimacy of loving relationship, and reciprocity in the nature of God.

Some Biblical illustrations
John beautifully expresses it: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was face to face with God and the Word was God.”10 Here is distinction and here is identity: distinction of person, identity of being. Or again, referring to the incarnation of the Son, we read: “The only God who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.”11 Commenting on this passage, J.C.Ryle writes,

As one who lies in the bosom of another is fairly supposed to be most intimate with him, to know all his secrets, and possess all his affections, so is it, we are to understand, in the union of the Father and the Son. It is more close than man’s mind can conceive.12

Likewise the Spirit is referred to in terms of this intimacy and fellowship. Jesus says:

If you love me you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor to be with you forever – the Spirit of truth….When the Counsellor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me…He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears…He will bring glory to me by taking what is mine and making it known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.13

So singular and essential is the Spirit’s work in making known Christ that we have a virtual identity affirmed in the striking expression “the Lord is the Spirit” in 2 Corinthians 4:17.

While it is proper to see anticipations of the doctrine of the trinity in the Old Testament,14 it is really only as we see the redemptive action of God disclosed in the New Testament that the distinctions in the very depths of deity itself are appreciated. By the same token, the truth of the Trinity would never have gained hold if it had not been intimately connected with the Christian understanding of salvation. Thus, the strictly monotheistic disciples have no embarrassment in affirming the deity of the Son and the Spirit in such a manner that we might well call the New Testament a distinctively trinitarian volume.

Again, it was the contribution of Athanasius to the debate over the person of Christ in the 4th century that he made people see that our salvation depended on Christ’s deity. “The logic of his argument goes something like this: Only God can save. Jesus saves. Therefore Jesus is God.”15 The subsequent creedal recognition of the deity of the Spirit was inevitable.

Trinitarian vocabulary
Theological discussion of the doctrine has produced a distinct vocabulary. Some distinctions are not helpful and are overly speculative. Still, four points are worth noting here, points which safeguard the co-equality and co-eternity of the persons in the unity of the divine essence and protect from an imbalance which produces subordinationism on the one hand or modalism on the other.

1. Autotheos (God-of-himself): This refers to the self-existence of the Son as to his divine essence as maintained with much emphasis by Calvin16 and the generality of Reformed writers since. The aim is to vindicate the Nicene formulation and free explanations of it from overtones of subordinationism which might suggest, for example, that the divine essence of the Son and the Spirit was derived from the Father.

2. Idiomata: The traditional way of stating that the persons have in common the divine essence but differ from each other by personal properties of Fatherhood, Sonship and Procession is to affirm that the Father is of none neither begotten or proceeding, the Son is eternally generated or begotten of the Father and the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son. This is the kind of language used in our Confession of Faith17 but is very liable to be misunderstood once we seek to explain it,18 particularly because of the Nicene Fathers’ speculation that eternal generation is a constant process rather than an eternal and completed act.

Without entering the labyrinth of discussion, the important point is that the role of each divine person in redemption reflects distinctions which go back to the inner life of God himself. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are each distinguished by a personal property whose nature is such that we are reminded that “God lives from all eternity as self- communicating, self-giving love and communion.”19 God wills himself to be called by these names since they reflect real and eternal relations.20 The Father eternally possesses fatherhood in relation to the Son, the Son is eternally the Son of the Father, and the Spirit is eternally from the Father and the Son.

3. Filioque (and the Son): The famous ‘filioque’ clause in the confession of the Western church ultimately refers to the role of Christ in eternal relation to the Spirit. The Western Church (Roman and Protestant) confesses that the Spirit proceeds ‘from the Father and the Son.’ The Eastern (or Greek) Church, in its interpretation of John 15:26, refuses this ‘double procession’ clause both because of the way it was promulgated and because the more ardent objectors suppose that it implies two sources of deity in the Godhead, the Father and the Son.21

Not all Greeks accept this argument, and perhaps we have some confusion of thought, for even the Father’s deity is not caused nor does he give deity to the Son or to the Spirit. The One and Triune God simply is. His essence is one and underived, but there is an eternal distinction of persons, the Father being first in order.

4. Perichoresis: This term refers to the mutual indwelling in love of the divine persons, perhaps reflected most strikingly in Jesus’ statement “I in the Father and the Father in me,” or again, “All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.”22

One does not expect every believer to be able to articulate the nuances of trinitarian theology, but every healthy part of the church has convictions of trinitarian character since the Christian experience of salvation is never satisfied apart from recognition of the Father as the author of salvation, the Son as the purchaser and the Spirit as the applier. Indeed, we might say that only in the Reformed conception of salvation is justice done to the doctrine of the Trinity. This is as much as to say that where there is not this conception the doctrine of the Trinity is imperilled in practice if not in theory also.

Trinitarian theology today
Liberal theology rejected the Trinity along with other dogmas it believed to have been imposed on the simple religion of Jesus. But classical liberalism is virtually dead now. Beginning in the 1920s with Karl Barth (1886-1968), the Swiss neo-orthodox theologian, there has been a steady increase of interest in trinitarian theology in all sections of Christendom. The first volume of Barth’s Church Dogmatics was published in 1932. In 1944 the Russian Vladimir Lossky (1903-58) wrote an influential volume from the Eastern perspective, while Karl Rahner (1904-84), influenced by Barth, although a Roman Catholic, published in 1967. Since then many other names must be added, including Thomas Torrance, the Scottish theologian.

Characteristic of much recent theological discussion is a reluctance to discuss the person of Christ in terms of his pre-existent life, but a readiness to affirm a purely functional view. In other words, Christ is not regarded as God the Son from eternity but is regarded as functioning on earth as God’s agent or representative in whom God is revealed.23

Insofar as this approach stresses the importance of special revelation to our knowledge of God, and thus reasons from the facts of redemption as disclosed in Scripture, it is welcome, but it is too generally associated with a rejection of any validity in what has commonly been termed natural revelation and, more especially, an unwillingness to accept all the Biblical data as authoritative and normative. The influential Jürgen Moltmann describes his view as “trinitarian panentheism.”24 Apparently, following the process theology, he is not prepared to accept that God’s trinitarian life has any existence in eternity but is to be regarded as constituted solely within history. In this way God is subject to limitation and suffering in a manner which does not agree with Biblical teaching.25 Nevertheless, there are passages of considerable insight in writers such as Rahner, Moltmann and La Cugna.

The Gender of God
Of recent years we have heard much about the gender of God, and of the efforts of the more extreme feminists to legitimise the addressing of God as our Father-Mother God or the like. While the terms ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ are metaphors yet it does not follow that they are without significance. In this connection the words of Bavinck a century ago are relevant:

The name of God in Scripture does not designate him as he is in himself, but in his manifold revelation and relation to the creature. Nevertheless, this name is not arbitrary, but God reveals himself as he is…In Scripture ‘to be’ and ‘to be called’ indicate the same thing from different angles. God is that which he calls himself, and he calls himself that which he is.26

The Son had glory with the Father before the world was (John 17:5). While some feminist theology involves reaction from inadequately expressed teaching about God, its fundamental approach can be characterised as one which does not take proper account of what is revealed in Scripture. The attempt by some to ascribe gender to God is quite misguided.

The Biblical presentation
The Biblical presentation of the Trinity is both specific and pervasive. There are succinct statements of the doctrine (e.g.: 1 Corinthians 12:4-6; 2 Corinthians 13:14; 1 Timothy 1:2-5; 1 Peter 1:2; Jude 20-21), extended passages which presuppose it and interweave it into practical instruction, as well as all those passages which affirm deity of the Son (eg. John 5:18) or of the Spirit (eg. 1 Cor 2:10-11).

1. A specific passage: Matthew 28:19-20 (The Great Commission)
Several points may be made in reference to the Great Commission passage:
(1) In response to the argument that this must be a later addition, since elsewhere baptism is administered only in Jesus’ name (Acts 2:38; 8:16; 10:48; 19:5; 1 Cor 1:13,15), it must be said that the textual witness in Matthew is not in any doubt.

(2) In any event, I would argue that Matthew 28:19 in its original intention does not prescribe a formula so much as succinctly sum up the fact that through the work of redemption the character of God has been declared definitively and he is to be recognised accordingly. Hence the initiatory rite of baptism as well as the teaching conveyed is to occur in just such a trinitarian context. This explanation fully corresponds with the situation in the early church as reflected in Acts and the Epistles. Where the gospel is rightly preached, people believe Jesus is the way to the Father, and rely upon him through the work of the Spirit (1 Cor 12:3).

(3) The passage shows the importance of the truth of the Trinity. Bavinck correctly affirms that

the confession of the trinity is the sum of the Christian religion. Without it neither the creation nor the redemption nor the sanctification can be purely maintained….We can truly proclaim the mighty works of God only when we recognise and confess them as the one great work of Father, Son and Spirit. In the love of the Father, the grace of the Son, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit is contained the whole salvation of men.27

In line with this approach we find very pervasive teaching throughout the New Testament.

2. An extended passage: The Ephesian Letter
Ephesians strikingly employs the truth of the Trinity. Chapter 1 verses 3-14 forms one sentence in the Greek, and was written by a man who had not separated ‘amazing’ and ‘grace’. Verse 3 – “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing [ie. blessings which come from the presence and power of the Spirit] in Christ” – is expanded in verses 4-6 in reference to the Father’s election; in verses 7 to 12 in reference to the redemptive work of the Son, and in verses 13-14 in reference to the sealing work of the Spirit.28

It is important to note the tone of doxology and devotion throughout the passage. There is nothing cold, hard and rationalistic about it. Similarly, although there is very strong emphasis on the sovereignty of God it is the sovereignty of the Triune God and not of some despot or arbitrary deity.

The action of the Triune God for our salvation is regarded as involving a new creation (1:3-2:10), the fruit of the incomparable riches of God’s grace in Christ Jesus (2:8), a bringing from death to life. It results in a new community (2:11-3:21) which transcends barriers of race and background and, as the church, is the Heavenly Father’s family on earth, characterised by new conduct ((4:1-6:20). This new humanity in Christ, this new community, lives a life worthy of its calling (4:1), and imitates God in its life of love (5:2), with Christ as the great exemplar (5:2).

Characteristic, therefore, is unity in the truth (4:1-16 cf. John 17:20-23), a unity which allows for the diversity of gifts implicit in the metaphor of the body (4:16 cf. 1 Cor 12-14) and the pursuit of holiness (4:17ff): the old self put off and the new self put on (4:22-24). This is applied particularly to truth-telling, anger, stealing, purity of speech and behaviour.

In further application (5:15ff), the rejection of the drinking which results in uncontrolled, unwise and ungodly behaviour is contrasted with the Spirit whose constant infilling is seen in controlled, wise and godly conduct. The presence of the Spirit is seen from the four key imperatives which depend on the exhortation “Go on being filled with the Spirit”: speaking, singing (5:19), giving thanks (5:20), submitting (5:21), the last-named being expanded and applied in marriage, family and economic areas (5:22-6:9). In short, we have fellowship, worship, thankfulness and right relationships as a result of the work of the Triune God for and in his people.

The truth of the Trinity helps us understand the nature of personhood. The modern world thinks in terms of self-contained individuality and thus of the separation of one person from another. However, the Biblical presentation would encourage us to understand personhood as individuality realised adequately only in community. God is supremely personal, and his own trinitarian life is characterised by fellowship and communion, an intimacy of loving relationship and reciprocity.

We are made in God’s image and thus made for communion in relationship with God and with others who bear his image. It was not good for the man to be alone (Genesis 2:18) and the communion of marriage and family reflects a fundamental requirement of real human life. Ephesians 3:15 suggests that God is not merely like a human father but “the pattern and archetype of all fatherhood”.29 Over against the individualism which promotes the ego, alienates and separates, we must affirm and demonstrate the life that is self-giving, which reconciles and includes, while at the same time recognising the distinctiveness of each individual.

Already we are implying the fall that progresses to utter isolation in hell, and the redemption that leads to the embrace of God’s people in the fellowship of God’s trinitarian life here and now (cf. 1 John 1:3) with its climax in the world to come, “a world of love”.30 Peter affirms the believer’s participation in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) not as if the Creator/creature distinction is lost, but to affirm that the unbegun and unending circle of the divine life is, as it were, opened to embrace his people.

Despotism and Coercion?
The correct understanding of the truth of the Trinity balances our belief in the sovereign power of God so that we see most clearly that it is not of a high-handed or arbitrary character. The God who predestines is the God who is love, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God and so he readily may represent God as a “standover merchant”.31 However, believers should not contribute to harsh and unloving portraits of God, or even to a tendency to regard Biblical predestination as fatalism, let alone disregard the call to community and self-giving relationship in the body of Christ. We need a focus on God himself, on the God who wills that we are eternally embraced in his fellowship so that we might share in the glory the Son had with the Father before the world was. The Son has given us the pattern (Philippians 2:1-18). Well might we say that lovelessness is the most contradictory aspect of the Christian life.

The belief in God as Triune, and thus in mutual self-giving and reciprocity, is also fundamental in anchoring a proper doctrine of atonement. Any suggestion of coercion on the part of the Father towards his Son is completely ruled out. There is never any conflict of will or purpose but a perfect harmony of love: it not only pleased the Father to put his Son to grief, but it was the delight of the Son to drink the cup the Father had given him (John 18:11), because it was the loving desire of both Father and Son, together with the Spirit, to bring many sons to glory. Sometimes we can give the impression that redemption is a mere legal arrangement of almost impersonal character, when it is the loving purpose of God who himself is the way back to himself.

Abraham was stopped from sacrificing his son, his only son, whom he loved, by the voice of God from heaven (Genesis 22), and the Genesis account is noteworthy in indicating no resistance on the part of Isaac. But God the Father’s love was so great and the Son’s love so great that the Father did not stay the knife from his Son, his only Son, whom he loved, and the Son, because of the joy that was set before him – the joy of fellowship with redeemed sinners! – endured the cross, despising the shame. While the Son knew terrible fear as he anticipated his suffering, and his sweat was like drops of blood (Luke 22:44) he did not resist but willingly and lovingly went to the cross. Instead of a voice from heaven or a legion of angels, there was a loud cry from the earth which still resonates through the ages and expresses the impenetrable mystery of the immeasurable love of God: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

It is that mysterious breach in communion, that utter isolation, that endurance of hell, if you will, in an intensity that cannot be fathomed, which constitutes the ground of our reconciliation, our inclusion, our assurance of eternal life with God. We are called to realise our life in communion, a communion of love through him who loved us. Whatever disagreements we may have, may it be said: “Behold how these Christians love one another!” We love God and we love one another because God first loved us with a love so amazing, so divine that it demands my life, my soul, my all.#

End Notes

* The substance of an address as Moderator to the Synod of the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia, Armidale, New South Wales, on 27 March 1996. This Synod commemmorated the 150th anniversary of the Church’s founding.
1. So Immanuel Kant as cited in J. Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom (Minneapolis 1993) 6.
2. Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh 1985.
3. Institutes, I, xiii, 2 (trans. F.L.Battles).
4. William Chillingworth (1602-44), Anglican latitudinarian scholar, was the populariser of the phrase in his The Religion of Protestants a Sure Way to Salvation (London 1638) pt. i, ch. vi., 56.
5. Cf. J.Calvin, Institutes, I, xiii, 3-5.
6. H.Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith (Grand Rapids 1956) 157.
7. Q & A #6.
8. Cf. B.B.Warfield, Biblical and Theological Studies (Philadelphia 1952) 36.
9. The Latin word persona has a range of meanings from ‘face’ or ‘mask’ to ‘person’ in the modern sense of a self-contained individual. In trinitarian thinking it means much more than a mask such as was worn by an actor in a play – the modalistic explanation – but less than the modern sense of self-contained individuality.
10. John 1:1. The Greek preposition I have rendered ‘face to face with’ is pros, which implies movement towards.
11. John 1:18. The preferred reading, which certainly does not weaken the truth of the essential Deity of Jesus, is ‘only God’ or ‘God the one and only’ rather than ‘only Son’ or ‘only begotten Son’. The translation ‘only begotten’ arises from interpreting the compound word monogenes in terms of its two component elements, and is followed by the older lexicons, but more recent study has shown that the word has the sense of ‘only’ or ‘unique’. [The use of the phrase ‘begotten not made’ in the 4th century is distinct and legitimate in its place.] The expression ‘in the bosom’ is literally ‘into the bosom’ (eis ton kalpon), cf. Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids 1971) 114, n.118.
12. J.C.Ryle, Expository Thoughts on John, Volume 1 (London 1869) 42.
13. John 14:15-17; 15:26; 16:13-15.
14. Cf. B.B.Warfield, ‘The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity’ in Biblical and Theological Studies (Philadelphia 1952) 28-31.
15. Alister McGrath, A Cloud of Witnesses: Ten Great Christian Thinkers (Leicester 1990) 20.
16. Institutes, I, xiii, 25: ‘Therefore we say that deity in an absolute sense exists in itself; whence likewise we confess that the Son since he is God, exists of himself, but not in respect of his Person; indeed, since he is the Son, we say that he exists from the Father. Thus his essence is without beginning; while the beginning of his person is God himself.’ For discussion see B.B.Warfield, ‘Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity’ in Calvin and Augustine (Philadelphia 1956) 189-284.
17. Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) 2:3.
18. Cf. Ambrose (c.339-397) “For here the voice is silent, the mind fails; not only my mind, but even that of angels.’ [Of the Christian Faith, NPNF II: 10.212]. The explanations of the Nicene Fathers concerning the nature of the act which they called ‘eternal generation’ were not subscribed by Calvin (or Charles Hodge) nor are they endorsed by WCF 2:3; cf. B.B.Warfield, Calvin and Augustine, 250.
19. C.M.LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (San Francisco 1993) 354.
20. Note the discussion in John Murray, Collected Writings 4 (Edinburgh 1982) 58-81.
21. A good survey from the Eastern viewpoint is in T. Ware, The Orthodox Church (Harmondsworth 1993) 210-218.
22. John 17:21; 16:11.
23. For a helpful survey see K. Runia, The Present-day Christological Debate (Leicester 1984).
24. Cf. J.Moltmann, God in Creation (San Francisco 1985) 98-103. Biblical theism distinguishes God the Creator from his finite creation, while pantheism identifies God and the universe. Panentheism (or process theology) holds that while there is a sense in which God exists beyond the universe, essentially the cosmic process is God.
25. Cf. J.Moltmann, The Crucified God (San Francisco 1974) 207. Note John Murray’s assessment of Claude Welch’s 1952 volume In This Name: The Doctrine of the Trinity in Contemporary Theology : ‘Our doctrine of the Trinity must be that of which God is, in and of himself, immanently and eternally, irrespective of creation and redemption. If our doctrine of the Trinity is not that, then the God whom we conceive of is not the eternal, self-existent, and self-sufficient God, but a God of whom temporality is an attribute.’ [J. Murray, Collected Writings 4: 281]
26. H. Bavinck, The Doctrine of God (Grand Rapids 1951) 85.
27. H.Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith 161. Notice also B.B.Warfield’s perceptive remarks on Matthew 28:19 in ‘The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity’ Biblical and Theological Studies, 42.
28. The KJV does not render the Greek aorist participle (believing/having believed) correctly at this point and conveys the false idea of a time interval or second blessing, a sealing after believing. The truth is that, if we do not have the Spirit, we do not have God’s seal of ownership, and we are not in Christ at all.
29. John Macpherson, Commentary on St Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians (Edinburgh 1892) 262, cf. also John R.W.Stott, The Message of Ephesians (Leicester 1979) 134. Interestingly, the standard 19th century works on the Fatherhood of God by R.S.Candlish and T.J.Crawford do not appear to discuss Ephesians 3:15.
30. Note the article by A.P.Pauw: ‘Heaven is a World of Love’: Edwards on Heaven and the Trinity, Calvin Theological Journal 30 (1995): 392-401.
31. John Smith, Advance Australia Where? (Sydney 1988) 225.
# The last part of the address was expanded in delivery ex tempore and cannot now be reproduced. Last Updated on Monday, 23 June 2008 23:10

Homosexuality and Same-sex marriage


The full report which also deals with Marriage & Divorce can be found on

3.1.1 “Same sex marriage” Sex researcher Dr Alfred C. Kinsey published research on the sexual behaviour of men and women in the 1940s and 1950s which claimed that 10% of males were more or less exclusively homosexual and around 5% of women. However, this has been extensively challenged in recent years. This is summarised by Peter Saunders and Rachael Pickering thus: “For decades, researchers adopted Kinsey’s reported figure of 10% for the general incidence of homosexuality. Kinsey’s study had been poorly designed, using a nonrandomly selected population, 25% of whom had been prisoners. The figures stood unchallenged until quashed by contemporary research; a figure of 1-2% is now generally quoted.”13 and The Guardian reported on 23 September 2010 “Just one in 100 people in the UK say they are gay or lesbian… A further one in every 200 people is bisexual, according to the data published by the Office for National Statistics.” So that’s around 1.5%. The gay lobby seems to have a disproportionate influence in the media and politics compared to their numbers.

3.1.2 It is not only the incidence of homosexuality that is controversial; the causes of homosexuality are also hugely controversial even among homosexuals themselves. Generally from the 1960s onwards society has moved from a medical understanding of homosexuality as a perversion to an acceptance that this is natural for some people. Lady Gaga’s song ‘Born this way’ is just one example from popular culture of the expression of this view: “No matter gay, straight or bi / Lesbian, transgendered life… / I was born this way”.14 The song also implies that whatever we are, we are just the way God created us. Saunders comments: “Many people are sympathetic to persons with same-sex attraction demand for a ‘right’ to marry because they believe that such persons were ‘born that way’ and can’t change; therefore, allowing them to call their relationships marriages gives such persons their only opportunity for a recognised relationship.”15

3.1.3 What is the scientific evidence? In an extensive study in 1995, editors John DeCecco and David Parker concluded, “Current research into possible biological bases of sexual preference has failed to produce any conclusive evidence.”16 Saunders adds, “And since 1995 no new scientific, replicated studies have even claimed to find abiological cause for same sex attraction.”17

3.1.4 If the evidence is lacking to support the view that there is some genetic or other biological cause ofhomosexuality, is there evidence for environmental factors being a cause – nurture, rather than nature? Again here the evidence is not clear. Saunders comments: “While there will always be those who support one sole model of causation, most concede that many factors are involved. Heredity, environment and personal choice all play a part. This should leave us with a humble and open attitude, willing to learn more from scientific research and the testimony of skilled counsellors and gay people.”18

3.1.5 However, all too often the role of personal choice is ignored. Saunders states: “We are not solely genetic machines anymore than we are blank slates on which experience writes. At some point, every practising homosexual makes a choice to indulge in homosexual fantasy or to have gay sex. However, we must not make the mistake of ignoring the role of nature and nurture in making those of homosexual orientation what they are.”

3.2.1 What is the Bible’s teaching? In the beginning God created a human pair who were equally human, but different and complementary. This is God’s pattern for human sexual love – “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Nothing is clearer in the Bible’s teaching on sexual love than this stress that it is God’s will that human sexuality should be expressed only in the one-man-one-woman lifelong relationship of marriage. God did not create several Eves for Adam, or several Adams for Eve. Nor did he create another Adam for Adam, or another Eve for Eve.

3.2.2 Homosexual orientation As we have seen, many see nothing wrong with homosexuality. They argue that the true homosexual is only acting in accordance with his or her nature. They are just born that way. Or it is just the way they were brought up. They are homosexual not by choice, but as a result of genetic or environmental factors.

3.2.3 So, does this mean that there is nothing wrong with homosexuality? If that was the way a person was created, should we not just accept that this is God’s will for them? But what do we mean when we say “This is the way God has made me”? We have moved a long way from the original perfect creation. We have to reckon with the Fall as well. The world is not now as it was originally created. The human race has rebelled and fallen into a state of sin and misery. We are born into an already fallen imperfect world and we bring an already corrupted human nature with us. Our personalities are complexes of all kinds of sinful desires. No aspect of our humanity escapes unscathed.

Our sexuality is not immune. We may inherit various tendencies to rebel against God’s order of things and we may respond in a sinful way to various evil influences we experience.

3.2.4 Does this mean that we are absolved of all personal responsibility for any departure from the pattern laid down by God in our sexuality? No, no more than it does in the area of any of the other commandments of God – respect for life, property and our neighbour’s reputation. When we have said all that can be said by way of understanding the causes of homosexuality, we have only explained some of the reasons for homosexual temptation, or orientation. We have done no more than what we could do in the case of heterosexual sin. We have not proved that homosexual acts ought to be excluded from the Biblical category of sin.

3.2.5 However, it is important that the distinction be made between homosexual orientation and homosexual activity. We cannot blame a person for being tempted in a particular direction, otherwise we could blame Jesus, because he was tempted in all points as we are. Yet it is made clear that he was without sin. Normally, the individual is not responsible for his temptation. But he is responsible for his response to it, and to avoid situations in which he may expect to be tempted.

3.2.6 Homosexual activity What has the Bible to say specifically about homosexual activity? In both Old Testament and New Testament homosexual acts are described as sins. Michael Vasey, in his influential book Strangers and Friends, looks at various biblical texts in his attempt to show that the Bible does not condemn homosexual activity as such. We will look at the main texts.

3.2.7 Leviticus 18:22, 20:13 “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable” (Leviticus 18:22). “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable” (Leviticus 20:13). There is little dispute as to what these laws mean. Vasey agrees that ‘these verses prohibit sexual intercourse between men.’19 However, there is no indication in the text that this is limited to anal intercourse, as Vasey suggests. It is simply homosexual sexual activity as such that is indicated – one man acting erotically with another. Where there is more serious divergence of views, however, is concerning the question of whether this prohibition still applies. Vasey argues: ‘Firstly, it can be seen simply as part of an arbitrary purity code abrogated with the coming of Christ… Secondly, it can be viewed as a witness to an unchanging creation pattern for human genital acts. Thirdly, it can be regarded as some sort of combination of the two.’20 Vasey opts for the third, but does not make clear how the two can be reconciled. What is clear is that some aspects of the law are abrogated by Christ. Jesus abrogates the death penalty for sexual sin (not only in John 8:11, but also in his replacement of the death penalty for adultery with divorce, Matthew 19:9). In addition, he shows that the regulations concerning a woman’s ‘uncleanness’ (Leviticus 18:19) are no longer valid, as he does not regard himself as contaminated by the touch of the woman with the issue of blood (Mark 5:25-34). But neither the Lord nor his apostles indicate that homosexual acts are to be excluded from the category of sinful behaviour (any more than child-sacrifice and bestiality, Leviticus 18:21,23, are to be excluded.) Instead, there are clear statements in the New Testament to the contrary – homosexual sex is still regarded as sinful. Any approach which appeals to the New Testament’s abrogation of any Old Testament command must be on the sure ground of being able to show that the command is specifically abrogated or fulfilled, or belongs to a class of commands (such as ceremonial or judicial) which is generally abrogated or fulfilled. This cannot be shown in the instance of the commands against homosexual sin.

3.2.8 Romans 1.25-27 ‘Because of this God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with woman and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty of their perversion.’ Vasey attempts to lessen the impact of these verses by arguing that they are the culturally conditioned views of the Roman world by a Jew and that they are not referring to loving homosexual relationships.21 This comes across as very special pleading. Romans 1-3 is a unit. Here Paul is showing that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23). Paul shows the development of sin from the Fall and included in this development is homosexual behaviour. What is clear is that Paul is clearly describing as sinful, the abandoning by men of sexual intercourse with women, in favour of sexual intercourse with other men. It is this, together with his use of the expressions ‘inflamed with lust’ and ‘committed indecent acts’, that demonstrates that homosexual sexual activity is sinful. This ought not to be considered a culturally conditioned view, any more than the position that greed, envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice and gossip are also regarded as sinful (Romans 1:29).

3.2.9 1 Corinthians 6:9,10 ‘Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.’ This passage particularly shows that God declares homosexual acts to be sinful. They are contrary to God’s will and, along with all other sins, exclude the unrepentant sinner from the kingdom of God. It is argued by Vasey and others, however, that this, along with other passages in the Bible that appear to be talking about homosexuality are in fact not talking about stable, loving homosexual relationships, but about homosexual rape, religious male prostitution and pederasty. However, the key passages quoted above are quite clear. They use very plain language. They talk about lying with a man as one lies with a woman. In fact it appears that in 1 Corinthians 6:9 Paul possibly invented a compound Greek word for homosexual (arsenokoites), meaning precisely one who lies sexually with a man or one who beds a man when there were various other Greek words he could have used if he wanted to refer to homosexual rape, male prostitution or pederasty. Paul, or someone else before him, probably derived the term arsenokoites from the Greek Septuagint version of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 where the terms arsen (male) and koite (bed) are used.22 Paul’s use of this word, linked with the clear command in Leviticus, makes it abundantly plain that it is all homoerotic behaviour that is prohibited. It is not just homosexual rape, male prostitution or pederasty that is wrong. It is homosexual sexual activity as such that is wrong. All attempts to avoid the plain meaning of the words appear as very weak special pleading.

3.2.10 So, on the basis of Scripture the Christian cannot accept that homosexuality is natural in the sense of being in line with God’s will for us. The Bible teaches that a man and a woman are designed for each other sexually – they, and they alone, become one flesh. By contrast, both Old Testament and New confirm that homosexual sexual activity is included in the category of sin, along with the heterosexual sins of adultery and fornication. Vasey seems constantly to miss the point. He seems to think that the Bible, for cultural reasons, condemns certain sexual practices, such as anal intercourse, irrespective of the sex of those involved.23 What the Bible makes clear is that homosexual sex of any kind is included in the category of sin, along with the heterosexual sins of adultery and fornication. The Bible recognises only one sexual relationship which has God’s approval – that is, marriage.

3.2.11 One sin among many However, it must always be remembered that homosexual activity is only one sin among many. Yes, homosexual acts are among the sins that, if persisted in, exclude from the kingdom of God, but equally so do promiscuous heterosexual acts, theft, drunkenness and slander (1 Corinthians 6:9,10). There is nothing in the Bible that would single out homosexuals as worse sinners than any other sinners. Even if we accept that homosexual sex was one of the sins of Sodom we must remember what Jesus said to the city of Capernaum that refused to repent – ‘it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgement than for you’ (Matthew 11:24).

3.2.12 Homosexual sex is sin, and as sin it brings its own judgement, even in this life. ‘Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion’ (Romans 1:27). Sin brings misery. Whatever a man sows that he shall also reap. But the Lord Jesus helped people with all kinds of diseases and troubles and sins without respect to how these may have been caused, and he resisted the judgemental attitude so prevalent in the society of his time (Luke 13:1-5, John 9:1-3).

3.2.13 The terms “homophobia” and “homophobic” tend to be used of anyone who dares to question the present politically correct views on homosexuality and same sex marriage. Homophobia comes directly from Greek and literally means “fear of the same” (cf. arachnophobia, fear of spiders), but has come to mean hatred of homosexuals. As Christians we are neither to fear nor hate anyone, but follow our Lord in his loving attitude to all kinds of sinners. Of course there is a certain irony in the use of the term homophobia. If it is indeed a condition, perhaps the “homophobe” was born that way, or his environment has caused his homophobia – he has not chosen it!

3.2.14 Good news for homosexuals Homosexual sexual activity is sinful. But the Bible’s emphasis on sin is not meant to drive us away from God to destruction and despair, but to show us our desperate need of the redemption accomplished by Christ and to call us to faith in him. After all, the Christian message is one of forgiveness and only a person who has done wrong can be forgiven. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, after listing the lifestyles, including homosexual ones, which exclude one from the kingdom of God, Paul says to the Corinthian Christians, “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God”.

3.2.15 Corinth was a notorious centre of all kinds of vice in the ancient world and some of the Christians had been converted out of such a vicious background. There were Christians who had been male prostitutes and homosexual offenders, but they had been transformed by the grace of God. They were freed from the vices that had once enslaved them. The gospel is a message of hope and the church is a community of hope. The church of Jesus Christ is made up one hundred per cent of moral failures. But they are moral failures who have been given a new life and a new lifestyle. All Christians, whatever their sexual orientation, are called to live a celibate life while single and to exclusive faithfulness within marriage.

3.3.1 Same Sex Marriage? The sections on marriage from the Universal Convention on Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights are often referred to in this discussion. The relevant sections are as follows:

Universal Convention on Human Rights, Article 16

(1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family…

(3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

European Convention on Human Rights, Article 12 Right to marry

Men and women of marriageable age have the right to marry and to found a family, according to the national laws governing the exercise of this right.

3.3.2 Professor Hugh McLachlan argues as follows: “What this says is that the rights pertaining to marriage of men and women should be the same. It does not say that men should marry only women or that women should marry only men.” This is really reading back into the text one’s own ideas. If that was really what they meant they would have said human beings (not men and women), and they would have said “without limitation due to race, nationality, religion or sex”.

3.3.3 Right to same sex marriage? There are some things that we all have equal rights to – equality before the law, right to life, right to property etc. But we don’t have rights to everything. You don’t have a right to be a ballerina, or an opera singer, or a brain surgeon. Only those appropriately equipped, physically or mentally, can become one of those. A man does not have the right to bear and give birth to a baby – he is not physically (or psychologically) equipped for it.

3.3.4 Similarly, two people of the same sex have no right to marriage – because marriage is for a man and a woman. It is not just that this is the teaching of the Bible; it is the practice of the human race from time immemorial. Do we think that we can simply overturn the wisdom of the human race over thousands of years, and for there not to be destructive consequences?

3.3.5 It is generally recognised that our human rights are restricted by the rights of others. For instance, I have a right to freedom of speech. But my freedom of speech is restricted by the right of my neighbour not to be slandered.

3.3.6 Similarly with regard to marriage. If it is argued that we have a right to marry, that right may be restricted by the rights of others – for instance the right of a child to have a father and mother. This is something that is hardly ever considered. But a mother and father provide different kinds of love and care to a child, and people of the same sex simply cannot provide this.

3.3.7 However, in relation to single parent families, the question is not what may happen in life – children may be deprived of a parent by death, or by marriage breakdown, or by teenage pregnancy. But that is a different matter altogether from the State actually legitimising and encouraging the existence of fatherless or motherless children.

3.3.8 The pressure from the gay lobby for same sex marriage and adoption of children comes because homosexuality is a biological dead end. Same sex couples are physically incapable of procreation. But they want to bring up children in order that their own values are passed on to a new generation. And of course by getting the right to marry, they get more respectability for bringing up children (they already have the right to foster and adopt). This is a huge social experiment, in which the guinea pigs are children. That is not fair or just to children and does not safeguard their rights.

3.3.9 In addition, the civil rights of homosexuals are already safeguarded through civil partnerships, so there is no real need for same sex marriage. It is really being pushed in a doctrinaire way by the gay lobby, without any consideration of the harm that it will do to marriage.

3.3.10 The whole idea of the State or Government redefining marriage is wrong-headed, if not oppressive. Sir William Scott said that marriage “is the parent, not the child of civil society.”24 Marriage existed long before the idea of the modern State. It does not belong to us as political animals; it belongs to us as human beings made in the image of God. We redefine it at our peril.


The Journal of Homosexuality, Vol 28, numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 1995, republished under the title Sex, Cells, and Same-Sex Desire: The Biology of Sexual Preference, quoted by Peter Saunders,
19 Michael Vasey,
Strangers and Friends, Hodder, 1995, p.126ff
20 Vasey, p.127
21 Vasey, p.129ff
22 David Wright,
Sexuality and the Church, ed. Tony Higton, ABWON, 1987, p.41, and Homosexuals or Prostitutes?, Vigiliae Christianae, 38 (1984), ps.123-53
23 Vasey, p.139
24 Dalrymple v. Dalrymple, 1811. For the original record from the Consistory Court, 2 Hag Con 54, p.669, see


Free Church of Scotland Position on Worship

From The Presbyterian Banner, December 2010 plus Appendix March 2011 and important Supplement August 2013

I confess very happily that I am an inclusive Presbyterian: I’ve very ready, despite my own prejudices, to live in the same church with office-bearers who have different viewpoints on many issues that are not decided by our Confession of Faith.  I’m also very happy to have close fellowship with churches like the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in the USA that do not have the same form of worship as ourselves, but do cling loyally to the Reformed Faith. Still, I’m very sorry to see that the Free Church of Scotland on 19 November voted 98-84 to change its position on unaccompanied singing of inspired material in public worship.

The matter of the propriety of limiting sung praise in public worship to inspired material without musical accompaniment has been under discussion in the Free Church for several years. Of course our sister is entitled to make its own decisions in accordance with its constitution. Still, it’s the way the matter has been raised and dealt with that is of particular concern.

As well as rescinding certain past decisions (1905,1910,1932) – not a bad idea if simply replaced with a simple Declaratory Act as to the meaning of the vows – the Assembly resolved:

“5. The General Assembly declare that purity of worship requires that every aspect of worship services, including sung praise, be consistent with the Word of God and with the whole doctrine of the Confession of Faith approved by previous Assemblies of this Church.

“6. The General Assembly ordain that every service of congregational worship shall include the singing of Psalms.

“7. The General Assembly ordain that, with regard to the sung praise of congregations in worship, each Kirk Session shall have freedom, either to restrict the sung praise to the Psalms, or to include paraphrases of Scripture, and hymns and spiritual songs consistent with the doctrine of the Confession of Faith; that each Kirk Session shall have freedom whether to permit musical accompaniment to the sung praise in worship, or not.

“8. The General Assembly advise that, notwithstanding the foregoing, no Kirk Session should agree to a change in sung praise or musical accompaniment against the wishes of the minister of the congregation, and that a visiting minister, presiding at a service in a congregation where the aforementioned freedom to use uninspired materials of praise and musical instruments has been exercised, may exercise that freedom or not as he sees fit.

“9. The General Assembly ordain that in meetings of Church Courts the use of uninspired materials of praise and of instrumental music will be avoided.

“10. The General Assembly appoint a Special Committee (using consultants as required) to investigate the feasibility and desirability of producing a  recommended list of paraphrases of Scripture and hymns and spiritual songs consistent with the Word of God and the whole doctrine of the Confession of Faith, and whether the Free Church ought to produce a praise resource supplementary to the Psalter, and to report to the 2011 General Assembly.”

These decisions arise from a plenary Assembly of all ministers and an equal number of elders. Against the advice of the Assembly Clerk, James Maciver, it was claimed that the plenary nature of the Assembly rendered Barrier Act procedure unnecessary. Barrier Act procedure dates from 1697 as a method for regulating the exercise of the lawful power of the church. The relevant part reads:

“…considering…that it will mightily conduce to the exact obedience of the Acts of Assemblies, that General Assemblies be very deliberate in making of the same, and that the whole Church have a previous knowledge thereof, and their opinion be had therein, and for preventing any sudden alteration or innovation, or other prejudice to the Church, in either doctrine or worship or discipline, or government thereof, now happily established; do, therefore, appoint, enact, and declare, that before any General Assembly of this Church shall pass any Acts, which are to be binding Rules and Constitutions to the Church, the same Acts be first proposed as overtures to the Assembly, and, being by them passed as such, be remitted to the consideration of the several Presbyteries of this Church, and their opinions and consent reported by their commissioners to the next General Assembly following, who may then pass the same in Acts, if the more general opinion of the Church thus had agreed thereunto.”

The proposal passed was not what was recommended by the relevant Assembly Committee (which essentially recommended the status quo), but was an amendment not considered by presbyteries beforehand. In the setting of the plenary Assembly a decision might well be taken that was not sufficiently weighed and considered, although a majority of Sessions were known to be opposed to change. I have the very distinct impression that a significant number of commissioners were anxious to avoid another split after the division in 2000, and so accepted the proposal as the best obtainable, but in the setting of Presbytery meetings it might well have been rejected. The decision also might have had something to do with the long-standing lack of a positive and succinct statement on the vows about worship, as well as the rather complicated legislation of the Free Church hitherto which might convey to sensitive consciences the thought that other forms of worship were of necessity to be regarded as sinful.

So the Free Church, by the barest of margins, has enacted new binding laws without Barrier Act procedure, and rescinded a contrary position adopted in 1910, again without the Barrier Act procedure required by the Act of 1736. I don’t think this was wise procedure and I’m afraid it may cause trouble. I confess some sympathy with the supporters of the substance of the decision, but their pushing the matter through as they have is disappointing. (I guess as a Church we can’t be too critical since we did something similar re our relations with the Free Church in 2005, but I was opposed then to not following Barrier Act procedure.) William Mackay, a former elder in Melbourne, rightly pointed out in debate how inappropriate it was to make this decision so soon after the new Psalter had been produced.

I know that there was frustration that the Free Church worship style seemed a barrier to evangelicals disillusioned with the now so liberal Church of Scotland, but I hardly imagine introducing hymns and musical instruments is really the solution, assuming that it is within the church’s constitutional power to do so. If we have a proper balance in our practice, singing the psalms is liberating, honours the word, protects the conscience and is truly ecumenical.

The decision will not of itself lead to theological liberalism in the Free Church but when a few high flyers thumb their noses at the vows and garner support from others, with good men caving in for the sake of peace, you have pragmatism operating and ultimately you will get liberalism,

Of course most Free Church congregations will not change from exclusive use of the psalms, but some will. I remain very happy to have close relations with the Free Church, our sister if not our mother, but have no desire to follow in her direction on the worship issue. One very happily supports the superiority of the Psalms of the word of God, and it was pleasing to note at our second Leaders’ Training day in Melbourne on 20 November that our two newest ministers in Southern Presbytery (Messrs Bajema and Miranda) spoke so positively of their use in public worship.


I add the following comments 26/3/2011

1. For some considerable period certain ministers advocated change. Now these same ministers object that some of those opposed to the decision are publicly indicating their disapproval. This sounds like the pot calling the kettle black! -especially when the ground of opposition is the claim that the decision was not constitutionally valid.

2. It is claimed that singing of psalms and use of instrumental music is not a change requiring Barrier Act procedure.

a. The Barrier Act is not a means of changing the constitution but of regulating lawful changes within the constitution to ensure they are well considered.

b. The recommendation of the Trustees to the Plenary Assembly was that there should be no change in worship but some tidying up of legislation. The Presbyteries had been informed by the Chairman of Trustees in a letter dated 30/11/2009

‘…If the Plenary Assembly resolve to change the Church’s practice on worship then the matter would have to go to Presbyteries under the Barrier Act and come back to another Plenary Assembly for final resolution. The Board will recommend to the May Assembly that it empowers the Plenary Assembly to call another Plenary Assembly to receive the results of the Barrier Act round of Presbyteries and finally give its ruling on the matter. If the initial Plenary affirms the status quo it will of course be unnecessary to call another.’

c. As it turned out a proposal from Rev Alex J. MacDonald was submitted a day or two before the Plenary Assembly and it was accepted by a narrow margin, and was then declared to be a decision equivalent to one passed under the Barrier Act.

3. The decision was not an esoteric one on a point not of general interest to the church, nor was it one about which there was general agreement, – in which case one could argue that the intent of the Barrier Act was either not applicable or met by a decision of a plenary assembly, but it was one on which there was much division of opinion and concerning which it was known that about 70% of Sessions were opposed and thus ‘the exact obedience’ aimed at by the Barrier Act was not likely to be achieved.

4. It would appear that pressing ahead with change in these circumstances, even supposing it within the constitutional power of the Church, was not prudent but only likely to further division.

5. While one is not forced to use hymns and instrumental music, how one can keep the vow to  ‘assert, maintain and defend’ the worship of the church if one is not satisfied that scripture warrants hymns and instrumental music in public worship is not at all obvious.

6. In March 2011 a Memorial and Protestation appeared in several newspapers circulating in areas where the Free Church of Scotland is represented seeking signatures to a Memorial and Protestation to the Assembly to meet in May 2011 seeking that the decision of the plenary Assembly by recalled. Several former Moderators expressed their agreement with the Memorial although doubtless wishing the situation was not so serious as to require this practice.

7. Much as one respects many who have supported the change as Christian ministers, the proceedings have not been edifying. The Free Church of Scotland suffered from the tyranny of the right in 2000; does she now suffer through the tyranny of the left?


On of the finest statements of the Free Church of Scotland principle and practice is found in

The Free Church of Scotland: The Crisis of 1900 by Alexander Stewart DD and J. Kennedy Cameron DD: ([1910]Edinburgh: Knox Press 1985) – The Maintenance of the Heritage: Chapter XVI, pp 393 – 396.

This Gospel, alike in its fulness and in its freeness, the Free Church is able to preach in accordance with the terms of her Confession of Faith. She is in a position to give every aspect of revealed truth its appropriate place, and to unfold with the clear and harmonious exposition of a definite system the whole counsel of God. The teaching of the Confession was enough for the great preachers of Scotland during the two and a half centuries which embrace the most fruitful period of its history; and the Free Church of today does not profess to have reached unto higher attainments in the secret of the Lord than they. She will be satisfied if, with some measure of the same authority and tenderness, and with the same effectiveness of converting and sanctifying power, the doctrines of grace are proclaimed from her pulpits in the twentieth century.

In the services of the sanctuary the Free Church adheres to the simplicity which is a supreme characteristic of New Testament worship, and which prevailed in Scotland during the best days of its religious history. She dispenses with instrumental aids in her service of public praise. For this restriction she believes that she has ample Scripture warrant. She regards the use of instrumental music in the House of God as out of harmony with the spirituality of the New Dispensation. Adapted as it undoubtedly was to the period of the Church’s growth in which her services were to a large extent of a sensuous and symbolical character, it is among the “childish things” which she “put away” when she came of age in the day of Christ. An outstanding feature of New Testament worship is its independence of the external and its repression of the sensuous. The Father is worshipped in spirit and in truth. He listens to the language of the soul, and takes delight in those spiritual offerings of the grateful heart which find their most appropriate expression in “the fruit of the lips.” There was no need for instrumental music in those days of the Church when the power of the truth as it is in Jesus was most deeply felt in men’s hearts. “Indeed it is only within the last half-century,” says Dr. D. Hay Fleming, than whom there is no higher living authority on the subject, “that, in Scotland, instrumental music in God’s worship has come to be regarded as compatible with Presbyterianism and evangelical preaching.” (The Reformation in Scotland, p.310) There is no need for it still when the message of the Gospel makes music in the soul. These external trappings of worship are an invariable sign of spiritual impoverishment and retrogression. They are the attempt to make sensuous gratification take the place of spiritual enjoyment. When the tide of spirituality rises, it is always found that such professed aids to devotion are largely swept away. The need for them is no longer felt. They are found to be a hindrance rather than a help to the praises of the full heart. That these features of modern worship make a powerful appeal to the natural mind is a fact which cannot be gainsaid. Whether they are at the same time pleasing to God is another question. Certain it is, at any rate, that once there is a departure from the simplicity of worship which is sanctioned in the New Testament Scriptures, it is difficult to draw the line in actual practice. Experience has proved that the element of praise in the services of the sanctuary tends more and more to degenerate into an exhibition of musical proficiency; the needs of the congregation for the vocal expression of thanksgiving are largely set aside; and the Father’s House is turned to a great extent into a place of entertainment.

In the matter of public praise the Free Church confines herself to the words of Inspiration. It is not a little remarkable that the precedence which she thus accords to the hymns of the Holy Ghost should be the occasion of bringing upon her a large amount of reproach, and that even at the hands of those who profess to believe in the unique authority of Holy Scripture. The objections to the Psalter as a manual of New Testament praise are indeed in many cases of the most superficial character. Although advanced in the name of progress and enlightenment they are not always intelligent. The Psalms, for example, are often said to be deficient as a vehicle of evangelical truth and Christian feeling. Scarcely any charge could be more unfounded. The Psalms are full of Christ. When He himself first tasted of the joy of His Incarnation, and set His face upon the steep but pleasant path of obedience which ended in Joseph’s tomb, he found the words which best described the willingness of His heart in the Book of Psalms. When He gave expression again to those awful sufferings which culminated in the agony of His dereliction, it was in the same portion of the sacred volume that He sought the fitting medium of utterance. And, on the other hand, when an inspired apostle seeks, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, to declare the glory and honour which the risen saviour received from the hand of His Father as the reward of His redemptive service, it is to the Book of Psalms that he turns for the terms that most appropriately unfold the splendour of the Mediatorial Throne. Again, when after the Resurrection Christ expounded to His wondering disciples “the things concerning Himself” as the suffering and triumphant Messiah, the Psalms were one of the special portions of the Divine oracles to whose testimony He appealed. And when the apostles went forth on their great mission of preaching the Gospel of Christ to their fellow-men, the effect of the illumination which then flooded their minds was at once apparent. Their recorded sermons are in some cases little more than an exposition of those portions of the Book of Psalms which speak of the Death and Resurrection of their Lord.

Once indeed we realise that the key to the Psalter is held in the Saviour’s pierced hand, we shall find it “vital with His presence and vocal with His voice.” The Book of Psalms is a perfect instrument of praise, a complete and permanent manual of congregational song. There is no aspect of spiritual experience which it does not delineate. There is no phase of spiritual emotion to which it does not give utterance. From the de profundis of penitential sorrow to the exultant strains that are appropriate to the Delectable Mountains – it covers the whole range of expression. There is no form of Christian effort to whose activities it will not form a fitting accompaniment of song. For long generations in Scotland it has been inseparably associated with those peaceful and hallowed Sabbath scenes in which

“the kneeling hamlet drains
The chalice of the grapes of God”;

And for the more stirring and arduous field of missionary enterprise it furnishes material not less sufficient or suitable. The Psalms are adapted to every age of the Church’s history. “Unshackled from time altogether,” to use Dr. Hugh Martin’s striking words, “they are the Holy Spirit’s expression for mental action and spiritual emotion transpiring in a realm above all outward dispensation – the realm of immediate fellowship with God.”

Such are some of the truths which the Free Church is called upon to “assert, maintain, and defend.”

Some New Psalm Versions

Knox PCEA uses

The Complete Book of Psalms for Singing with Study Notes

[1991, second printing 1994; 368 pages, full music, hardbound.] ‘This is beyond doubt quite the finest English language Psalter I have ever seen. The language is both majestic and modern; the words are Scriptural and simple; the tunes are nearly all very well known. This book merits a very wide circulation in the interests of true ecumenism.’ – Rev Dr F.Nigel Lee, Brisbane which can be obtained from the church.

From time to time additional fresh translations will be added here. Readers are invited to submit suggestions to:


Psalm 116

This version of Psalm 116 was written by Rowland Ward January 2011 and revised December 2012


Metre: Tune: Londonderry Air


1  I love the LORD because he hears my pleading.
2  He’s heeded me; through life I’ll call on him.
3  The cords of death and Sheol’s terrors bound me;
in deep distress I grief and trouble found.
4  Then I cried out, I called upon the LORD’s name:
“You I implore, O LORD, deliver me.”
5  The LORD our God is kind and good and gracious;
6  the simple trusting ones the LORD keeps safe and sound.

When I was low, to me he gave salvation.
7  Return again my soul unto your rest,
because the LORD has lavished good upon you,
8  because my helpless soul you brought from death.
You saved my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.
9  Before the LORD I’ll walk in lands of life.
10  I trusted you in time of great affliction;
11  and so I recognised all human help must fail.

12  For all the benefits he’s poured upon me
how can I give thanks to the LORD above?
13  Salvation’s cup I’ll lift up in the LORD’s name;
14  vows to the LORD before his people pay.
15  Indeed the LORD cares much for all the faithful,
their death is not a small thing in his eyes.
16  I am your servant, LORD, your loyal servant;
your handmaid’s son, whose bonds you broke and set me free.

17  So I a sacrifice will bring before you –
an offering of thanks for what you’ve done;
the LORD’s most holy name I will acknowledge:
and openly proclaim his worthiness.
18  Unto the LORD I’ll keep my solemn promise,
before the faithful ones I’ll give my pledge,
19 there in the courts of GOD’s own holy dwelling,
there in Jerusalem. O praise the GOD of grace!

Mutiny on the Bounty

Mutiny on the Bounty


The Pitcairn story by Rowland Ward who, with his wife, recently (August 2010) spent two weeks on Norfolk Island

BountyProbably most people have heard of the mutiny against William Bligh (1754-1817) which has featured in five films and numerous articles and books. Lieut. Bligh and his crew were on an expedition backed by Sir Joseph Banks to collect breadfruit plants in Tahiti and take them to the West Indies where it was thought they would provide a cheap food source for the slaves. After several months in Tahiti the 26 metre long Bounty set sail with her 44 crew for the West Indies. After sailing some 2,000 kms a bloodless mutiny occurred led by the first mate, Fletcher Christian who had left a native white on Tahiti. The date was 28 April 1792. Bligh was an enlightened man for his times and was not harsh. However, he was dictatorial, and humiliation of Christian in front of others may have been the last straw.   Picture: The Bounty

Set adrift with 18 men in a 7 metre launch with no charts, a broken sextant, a pocket watch and limited provisions Bligh managed the amazing feat of sailing 5500 km to Timor via Tofua Island near where the mutiny occurred. He lost no one on the voyage, which he calculated was 6700 kms altogether, except a man who was murdered by natives on Tofua. Several men died subsequently. Bligh returned to England and his report created a sensation.  Search was made in vain for the Bounty hence the saying ‘bounty hunters’.

Pitcairn Island

Meanwhile the mutineers and four loyal to Bligh returned to Tahiti where the majority remained. Nine men, led by Fletcher Christian, together with six Polynesian men and twelve Polynesian woman and a baby set off in the Bounty. On 15 January 1790 they chanced upon Pitcairn Island, which was not correctly marked on charts, and they felt safe on this tiny 4.5 sq km hideaway. They burnt the Bounty to prevent detection or desertion. Each of the sailors took a wife for himself and also divided the land into 9 parts. So there no land and only were three women for the six Polynesian men. They were treated as slaves. The sexual and racial situation was an explosive mix.  Two of the sailors’ wives died so they took two of the other women. Four mutineers were killed in one day, including Fletcher Christian. Soon there were only four mutineers, ten women and some children. More violence, a suicide and one death by natural causes and in 1800 John Adams was the only mutineer left, and he was constantly drunk.

Picture: The Pitcairners’ Bible & Prayerbook

Bounty_BibleHowever, Adams was converted through reading the Bible and the Church of England prayer book taken from the Bounty. In 1814 a British vessel arrived and found a quiet God-fearing community led by Adams. The news caused another great sensation in England, and much interest in the Pitcairners followed, and they were often viewed through rose-coloured spectacles. In 1856 the 193 inhabitants moved to the larger Norfolk Island which had previously been a convict settlement, and is now administered as an Australia external territory. The impressive convict ruins at Kingston, just a few weeks ago declared a World Heritage site, remind one of Port Arthur.


Move to Norfolk 1856

While some few returned to Pitcairn later, and about 50 people live on Pitcairn today, most Pitcairners remained on Norfolk where a large proportion of the permanant population of about 2,000 are descendants of the mutineers. By the 1870s the popular image of a God-fearing community was showing marks of strain. Formal adherence to Christianity could not conceal underlying problems. High Church tendencies in the Church of England of the time, and contacts through American trading vessels saw a strong Methodist movement after the death of the long-serving chaplain/leader of the community in 1884. A small Seventh-day Adventist Group soon followed. The Roman Catholic Church only came in 1957. Today the Church of England congregation is under the Diocese of Sydney. We enjoyed a good Biblical message, but the regular attendance is only 28 or 29 plus tourists. A third of the population describe themselves as C of E, but an equal number do not state or say they have no religion. Despite its  remarkable origins active religious practice in the community is modest – no more than about 7% of the population on the average day of worship plus such tourists as attend.

Norfolk is still an idyllic place in terms of climate and life style. There is no port, so goods are landed by longboat and are expensive. But the land is productive, meat and fish reasonable in price, and taxes modest (no income tax or council rates, but a 12% GST). It’s not a place for children really (just about everyone on the plane with us was older than we are!), but very interesting historically, and very restful.  The Gospel is preached but the people in general are content to be caring to each other but not committed to Jesus Christ. That’s not enough for them or for us.  Lord, wilt thou not us revive!

Book of Daniel – a quick overview

The book of Daniel originated with the Hebrew prophet Daniel. He is the key figure throughout and so the manuscript belongs to about 536 BC. Some critics have wanted to place it around 160 BC because of their hesitancy about or even rejection of predictive prophecy. They think the events described in reference to the Greek empire are too precise to have been written beforehand. On the other hand, we know from the best of the Jewish books of the 2nd century BC that there was no true prophet among the Jews then (1 Maccabees 14), and the form of the Hebrew and Aramaic language of the book is certainly much earlier than the 2nd century.

The simple structure of the book should be noted. It is written in Hebrew except 2:4-7:28 which is written in Aramaic, the common language of those days, apparently because this section has special relevance to the nations. Chapters 1 to 6 are narrative in the 3rd person; chapters 7-12 are visions in the 1st person. However, note that the two parts are tied together both by the content and by the overlapping of Aramaic.

Ch 1: Daniel aged about 14 arrives in Babylon 605 BC

This chapter shows the loyalty of Daniel and his three friends to God despite all the pressures to conform. Don’t let the world squeeze you into its mould!

Ch 2: The Dream of the Image 602 BC

Four world empires which despite their varied forms are all of a piece, and are overthrown by a stone cut out without hands.

Gold: New Babylonian (605-539 BC)

Silver: Medo-Persian (539-331 BC)

Brass/bronze: Greek (331-168 BC)

Iron & clay: Roman and successors

Ch 3: The Golden Image

It looks like Nebuchadnezzar doesn’t want to reckon with a silver empire after his. His golden kingdom alone matters: he makes himself to be God (3:15), and indeed he was king by God’s decree. Yet God’s decree is no insurance for those who do not live responsibly toward the sovereign God. On the other hand, those who trust the living God know that, whatever happens, God makes everything work for their ultimate good. Who is that fourth person in the furnace?

Ch 4: The King’s Madness

Nebuchadnezzar was a man who couldn’t make up his mind. He died in 562 BC and prior to this suffered a period of madness [technical name: boanthropy] as described in this chapter so that he behaved like a beast without fully forgetting who he was.

Ch 5: Belshazzar’s Feast 539 BC

Strictly Nabonidus was king but other historical records tell us that he assigned royal functions to his son Belshazzar and lived in Arabia for 10 years. Thus Belshazzar promised Daniel the 3rd highest position in the kingdom if he could explain the writing on the wall (5:16).

Ch 6: Daniel in the Lion’s Den 537 BC

The precise identity of Darius the Mede (5:31) is still disputed; it could be the throne name for King Cyrus or the name of his personal representative in Babylon. The Persian empire, unlike the Babylonian, was a constitutional monarchy, hence the king was bound by the decree.

Ch 7 The Vision of the Four Beasts c 548

Note that the time of this chapter is earlier than chapters 5 and 6. Daniel has been in exile about 60 years but the future is not going to improve in the way he was thinking. There would be a long period of human empires followed by the Messianic kingdom which would not give special prominence to Israel and would involve trials and persecutions. This seems the explanation for Daniel’s troubled spirit (7:15). The parallels with the four metals in the image (chapter 2) are obvious:

Gold – Winged Lion – New Babylonian 605-539 BC

Silver – Bear – Medo/Persian 539-331 BC

Brass – Winged Leopard – Greek 331-168 BC

Iron & clay – Indescribable – Rome and successors

Note that “the little horn” rises from the 4th kingdom and persecutes for “a time, times and half a time”.

Ch 8 The Ram and Goat Vision

At 8:1 we switch back to Hebrew because the main message from here on relates to the position of God’s people. Note that “the little horn” rises from the 3rd (Greek) kingdom, persecutes God’s people and tramples the temple for 2300 days – something over 6 years. There is probably symbolism in the number, but the actions of Antiochus Epiphanes 175-168 undoubtedly are referred to. He desecrated the temple and had a mind to wipe out the Jews. The common verbal expressions in chapters 7 and 8 do not mean what is described in 8 is still future but that it provides in what occurs from the 3rd (Greek) kingdom an illustration of what will happen on a deeper level from the 4th (Roman) kingdom.

Ch 9 The Seventy Sevens Vision 538 BC

It is very important to appreciate the context in which this passage must be understood.

a. it expands on the outline of the future in chapters 7 and 8 but b. specifically (9:2) refers to Jeremiah 25:8-14 and 29:10 which speak about the 70 years of exile. 2 Chronicles 36:21 explains that the number of years of exile corresponded to the number of years the land had not enjoyed the sabbath it was due each seven years (Leviticus 25);  c. the prayer (9:3-19) is the prayer of one who knows the nation has lost the privileges of the covenant – the temple and sacrificial system, the city of Jerusalem and life in a land flowing with milk and honey because of covenant disobedience. “But if they will confess their sins and the sins of their fathers…I will remember by covenant….I will remember the land” (Leviticus 26:40ff).

The passage (9:20-27) tells us that the end of the 70 years of exile will introduce a new period of 70 units of seven. The exile was closed by Cyrus as God’s “Anointed One” (cf Isaiah 45:1) who allowed the Jews to return. The new period will be climaxed by the true Anointed One who will deal with the sin problem that had caused the exile in the first place. The 70 sevens is a complete and perfect period during which the perfect plan of God will be realised in effective dealing with sin and deliverance from sin’s bondage (v24) through Messiah’s death (v27) which causes God’s covenant to prevail. The end point of the 70 sevens is therefore the eternal sabbath, the goal of history. Notice the 3-fold division:

seven sevens – the city will be rebuilt but no 50th jubilee year follows (Lev 25:8-13) since true liberty will not follow the rebuilding of Jerusalem; this comes only with the Messiah.

sixty-two sevens – an odd or broken period as if to convey the idea that the period from the rebuilding until the coming of Christ (the first time) is uncertain to us, and a period which even with what has gone before is still incomplete.

one seven – the last seven is itself complete, a single seven. Like creation it suggests a new and complete work of God (cf Gen 1:1ff), but also completes the perfect plan of God (70 sevens). In the middle (not the end) of this seven Jerusalem is destroyed [which it was in AD 70] leaving three and one half to the end of history. This broken period is a symbol of the Christian dispensation – a period of trial and persecution but also a period which ends in triumph. [The same period is expressed as 42 months in Rev 11:2; 13:5 and 1260 days in Rev 11:3; 12:6.]

So Daniel learns that the city will be rebuilt but destroyed in order that God’s covenant may prevail through Messiah’s death so that its full benefits will be realised in the building of the spiritual temple and the establishing of the kingdom which will have no end. The earthly city/temple is not the key – Messiah is.

Ch 10 The Vision of a Man 536 BC

The time: after the overthrow of Babylon by Persia, and at the time (10:4) of the Passover (an earlier deliverance).

The key figure: a priest-king ruling in and through history; compare the description of Jesus in Rev 1:12ff.

The subject: the future of God’s people.

Ch 11 The Suffering of God’s People

vv 1-35: developments in the 3rd world kingdom

vv 36-45 more difficult – perhaps generalised description

Ch 12: Climax: Salvation/resurrection/judgment

Where is God in the troubles of Ch 11? But keep the perspective of chapters 10 and 12.

Some points to ponder:

1. The LORD has all authority over nations and individuals.

2. Mere human kingdoms are temporary, but Messiah’s kingdom is eternal.

3. The work of Messiah is the means by which this eternal kingdom comes.

4. God’s chosen ones inherit the kingdom only through tribulation.

5. The present calls for faithfulness to the LORD in a hostile environment.

6. The climax of world history is in God’s hands.

NB: There are difficult things in the Book of Daniel but don’t let them distract you from what is plain.