When Paul wrote his First Epistle to the Corinthians, he clearly felt himself forced on the defensive. Some parties in the church there were highly critical of his ministry and compared him very unfavourably with the ‘super-apostles’: men distinguished both by the superior wisdom they taught and by the rhetorical skills they deployed in delivering their message. Paul has no inclination to answer the charges on these terms. He cannot claim to be either as erudite a philosopher or as mesmeric an orator as these brilliant communicators. But, then, that wasn’t what he was about. His call was to a very different kind of ministry: ‘we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.’ (1 Cor. 1:23-24) Nor was he merely claiming that this was the best style of ministry for him personally. His claim was that if we are called to the ministry of the word (whether as apostles, prophets, evangelists or pastors) this is the only legitimate way of performing the duties of our office.
But, more specifically, what is he saying?
The popularity of the phrase semper reformanda seems to be on the up-and-up. Yet two serious questions haunt it.
The first, though far the less important, is, Who was the first to use it. Many have enquired and searched diligently but the answer still seems to elude us. It doesn’t occur in any of the great Reformed confessions or in the works of the magisterial Reformers, including Calvin. It’s not even clear what exactly we’re looking for. The phrase, semper reformanda, can’t stand by itself, yet we don’t seem to know what other bits were originally attached to it. Presumably, the subject of semper reformanda should be ecclesia reformata, so that whatever semper reformanda means it is something that should be done either by or to the Reformed church. But the precise statement, Ecclesia reformata reformanda est, is proving very difficult to find; and if found at all will probably turn up in the writings of one of the more obscure theologians (or their opponents), not in the works of one of the Masters.
Few historians of the First World War have deigned to consult the ‘Monthly Record’ of the Free Church of Scotland. That is their loss. The ‘Record’ might have had little contact with so-called ‘men of affairs’, but it was in very close contact with ministers, chaplains, soldiers, sailors and, above all, with Highland parishes. Its editor, Archibald McNeilage, was a brilliant professional journalist; and the annual Reports of the Church’s Highlands and Islands Committee still give a splendid insight into the social problems of the time.
Most of our readers now sleep soundly, secure in the knowledge that Calvinists are extinct. After all, you never see one on telly, and it’s a good seven years since the last stamping on fiddles or smashing of bagpipes.
But being, as it were, possessed of inside knowledge, I knew there were still some Calvinists around. I had even seen one or two, though much harder to spot than of yore, since they no longer wore black hats.
Now the really bad news. Not only are there still a few Calvinists around, but another closely related species has suddenly appeared: New Calvinists, the same but different.
Once more into the breach. I fervently hope it’s for the last time; and I fervently hope I have not been born to write the obituary of my country.
There is a well-loved saying among university lecturers, ‘The trouble with students is that they interfere with your work.’ But that’s as nothing compared with the way that the Referendum has interfered with Scottish life. To it, the Holyrood Parliament dedicated the longest election campaign in British history, and by doing so they put the whole nation on hold. The new powers to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament are on hold; the levels of Income Tax and Corporation Tax are on hold; Rosyth and BAE Systems are on hold; the Royal Regiment of Scotland are on hold; Scottish MPs sitting at Westminster are on hold; Prime Minister’s Questions are on hold; the Queen is on hold; I am on hold; the very swallows which by now should be flying off to Africa are on hold, fearful of taking a last farewell of the Scotland they love.
When I say, ‘on hold’, I don’t mean hesitating between two opinions, the Nationalist and the Unionist. I mean ‘on hold’ because on all the crucial questions the SNP refuse to give answers. We are offered only a blank cheque, promising ‘Independence’ but always with the rider, ‘Leave the details to us.’
The question on everyone’s lips is, What would life be like in an independent Scotland? At least, that’s what the political and chattering classes think is on everyone’s lips.
But for many of us, it certainly is not. We have a whole raft of much more urgent questions for Mr. Salmond, such as: What would you do about the barbaric Islamic State? What would be your policy on Scottish jihadists returning home and boldly claiming their civil rights? What have you to say on Mr. Putin’s illegal invasion of the Ukraine? What will you do to ensure that Israeli theatre companies feel safe in Edinburgh? What will you do about banks fined millions for malpractice, and then forking out millions more in bonuses for those who got them into the mess in the first place? What have you to say about the possibility of armed police at shinty matches in Portree; about overcrowded jails; and about abolishing the need for corroboration in criminal trials? What are your answers to the problem of fuel poverty and to the hardship faced by the thousands who are in work but receive no living wage? And what do you propose to do with the religious provisions of the Union of 1707?
And could you, please, tell me what life would be like in an independent Scotland?
First, a word about the national religion, football. Former Cardiff City manager, Malky Mackay, found himself in hot water last week when it was alleged that he had sent racist and homophobic texts to a pal. He’ll shortly be sentenced to be boiled alive; or at least, banned from all football-related activity.
As a Gaidheal I have a vested interest in opposing racism, and I cannot see that a man’s gender orientation has any bearing whatever on his prowess as a footballer. But have we really reached the point where malice can put private correspondence in the public domain and ruin a man in a day?
There is a clear issue. In the world of football, what is the Unforgivable Sin? If the said Mr. Mackay had merely said that all fundies are wankers he would be sitting today in the Manager’s chair at Crystal Palace. But he touched Britain’s raw nerves, racism and homophobia, and for these there can be no forgiveness.
But then on Monday I was ambushed (sorry for being so abrupt). It’s hard to explain how it happened. The Referendum campaign is driving me nuts, forcing me to adopt a life-style which minimises the risk of bumping into it. It’s turned me into a fugitive, compelled to walk in the shadows and send out advance-parties to make sure it’s not there. These are days when a man’s got to watch what he sees and hears.
And if there’s one place where you’re bound to meet Referendum it’s Reporting Scotland; and on Monday night my guard slipped or, more precisely, I got the timing wrong. I usually manage to switch on just in time for the weather-forecast (it’s important to know whether there’s going to be sunshine and showers in my study tomorrow), but this time, to my horror, Remote put on Referendum; and, paralytic with shock, I froze, unable to switch off.
In a flash, Referendum was under my skin. I had planned a brilliant investigative piece on the scandal now engulfing NHS Western Isles, after the shocking disclosure (to quote one headline) that ‘Hospital beds are overcrowded’. No details have been forthcoming, leaving the public in the dark as to whether patients are having to sleep two-in-a-bed or five-in-a-bed.
Few issues of principle have taken the foreground in the Referendum debate. Instead it has remained obsessed with one question, ‘Will we or won’t we be better-off?’ and this in turn dissolves into statistics which are no sooner heard than forgotten. Few of us want to clutter our heads with figures about Scotland’s contribution to the UK economy, the funding our universities receive from the UK Research Council or the number of barrels of oil that still remain under the North Sea. Apparently the nett result of such calculations is that Scotland is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and this, claim the partitionists, is clear proof that we can go it alone; to which the clear-headed might surely reply that, on the contrary, it is clear proof that Scotland has done very well under the Union. We ain’t broke, so please don’t fix us.