Thursday, 9 August 2012

Review of Enlightened Evangelicalism in Church History

It was bound to happen, but I received my first harsh review of Enlightened Evangelicalism: The Life and Thought of John Erskine in the latest edition of Church History. The reviewer is J. Stewart Brown, Professor of Ecclesiastical History at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

Brown calls the monograph a "well-researched biography," but then goes on to chide me for representing Erskine as an enlightened figure. Brown sees Erskine as simply a confessional Calvinist who "had little confidence in the natural capacities of a depraved humankind and little interest in social progress." Brown goes on to say, "Nor did he exhibit the Enlightenment virtue of toleration." Here, Brown uses my own research against me, citing Erskine's hostility towards John Wesley and Roman Catholicism. Further proof to Brown that Erskine was in no way enlightened is the fact that three of his 1765 theological treatises were not previously published. The inference is that an "enlightened" author would have also been a best-selling author. Such an assessment makes me wonder if Brown has actually read my book.

Throughout Enlightened Evangelicalism I argue that Erskine did have confidence in human reason. I discuss this issue at length, particularly in the chapter on Erskine's theological treatises, in which one of his treatises centers on the human capacity for natural reason. On the issue of tolerance, Brown is right that Erskine opposed Wesley and Roman Catholicism, but in the book I demonstrate the ways in which Erskine differentiated himself from others in Scotland by peacefully opposing Wesley and Catholicism in print and by legislative means. Erskine never participated in the anti-Catholic riots in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and ardently preached against such violence. In writing the book, I wondered if I had said too much about how Erskine differentiated himself from former seventeenth-century divines (especially in his rhetoric and theology), but somehow Brown came away with the conclusion that Erskine "was a pawky, old-style Calvinist, who looked back to the early seventeenth century."

In the second half of the review, Brown offers some favorable comments about my chapters on Erskine as a friend to America, and as a disseminator of books. But in his overall assessment he charges me with not being critical enough of Erskine. This is an interesting and somewhat surprising conclusion, given that he had previously used my criticism of Erskine's stance against Wesley and Catholicism to serve his interest of describing Erskine as intolerant.

Brown's review does not surprise me all that much. In the introduction to his edited book William Robertson and the Expansion of the Empire, he praised Robertson as a personal hero who built up Edinburgh University. Unfortunately, in Enlightened Evangelicalism, Robertson does not fare so well. By comparison to Erskine, I characterize Robertson as self-centered and interested in fame and glory at the expense of his pastoral ministry. My hunch is that Brown took offense at my depiction of Robertson and decided to let out some steam. While it would have been interesting if had the chance to respond to his review in print, I accept this aspect of scholarship. But of all the journals to print this kind of review, why did it have to be my favorite one!

More reviews to come... Isabel Rivers in the Journal of Ecclesiastical History and others to follow.

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