The Scottish Covenanters (Book Review)

The Scottish Covenanters (Book Review)

The Scottish Covenanters (Book Review)
Matthew Vogan
Matthew Vogan is the General Manager at Reformation Scotland Trust. He has written various books including volumes about Samuel Rutherford and Alexander Shields.
5 Sep, 2018

“If you only read one book on the Covenanters this should be the one. Not only does Vos provide an insightful, readable and enjoyable account but he sets it in proper context taking us from the Reformation in 1560 through the Revolution period”. This commendation on the back cover is not mere exaggerated advertising, this book is probably the most concise yet thorough and readable introduction to the history of the Scottish Covenanters. Without wasting words Vos covers the important personalities, events, and issues necessary for understanding the importance and place of the Covenanters in the history of the church.

The first two chapters cover the period of the Reformation in 1560 up until 1637 and two further chapters cover the period up to 1660. The benefit of the narrative presented is that it does not become overloaded with commentary. The reflections that are offered are usually of value. For instance:

The modern notion that while doctrine should be Scriptural, worship and organization are matters of indifference to be arranged according to expediency or human preference was entirely foreign to the Westminster Assembly and the Church of Scotland of the period of the Second Reformation. Great stress was placed on the importance of Scriptural forms of worship and organization. Probably the Church of Scotland has suffered more than any branch of the Christian Church through the ages on account of insistence upon a pure and Scriptural form of organization (p.65)

This was the sort of resolve that was behind David Dickson’s reply to Cromwell’s soldiers that invaded the Church’s General Assembly in 1653. They asked him as moderator whether the Assembly was convened on the authority of Charles II or Cromwell. Dickson said, “we sit here by the authority of Jesus Christ and by the law of this land” (p.78).

Vos covers the period of persecution 1660-1688 highlighting the key events and personalities. His focus is on witness-bearing and so the various public declarations are given specific focus. The controversy surrounding the indulgences is carefully explained and issues such as the lawfulness of armed self-defence are discussed in a helpful way. Ultimately the brutal executions, imprisonment and fines would be brought to an end. Vos makes the important observation:

Years before the nation as a whole the Covenanters anticipated the inevitable revolution which came in 1688…They had appealed to the nation; they had appealed to God himself; and they awaited the outcome with grim determination not to yield or compromise, come what might. They stood for the rights of God, and endured as seeing Him who is invisible.(p.148-9)

…in a few short years, the Covenanters’ rejection of tyrannical rulers became the nation’s rejection, and what had been called treason and rebellion, became the deliberate act of the nation, in the Revolution of 1688 (p132)

Chapters added to the close of the book on the sole headship of Christ over the Church and the continuing obligation of the Covenants help to highlight the ongoing relevance of the struggle narrated in the book.

Dr. J.G. Vos (1903-1983) was a noted minister, missionary and professor in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America. He edited an influential periodical called the Blue Banner Faith and Life. This complete overview of Covenanter history was originally a thesis and first published in 1940. This edition has been re-typeset and typographical errors have been corrected. The index has also been expanded.

Not everything in this book is going to attract widespread agreement. As Andrew Quigley notes in the endorsement on the back cover “many may not agree wholeheartedly with the…position…presented in the third part of the book”. Vos devotes a chapter to assessing the Revolution Settlement in a way that is altogether negative. Ultimately the majority of Covenanters decided that despite the defects they were not obliged to sin in joining with the Church of Scotland at the Revolution. Vos spends time narrating the next few centuries of the history of those who did not join. Eventually they formed the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

This book will be useful for reference for those who wish to be informed or inform others about this period of Church history. As Andrew Quigley mentions, it “breathes life into one of, if not the most disturbing and exhilarating periods in Scottish Church history”.

The Scottish Covenanters: Their Origins, History and Distinctive Doctrines by J. G. Vos (Blue Banner Productions, 2018, 256pp)

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What Do We Forget in Forgetting the Church’s History?

What Do We Forget in Forgetting the Church’s History?

What Do We Forget in Forgetting the Church’s History?
David Dickson (c.1583–1662) was a Professor of Theology at the University of Glasgow and Edinburgh who wrote commentaries on many different books of Scripture. He opposed the unbiblical worship and church government foisted on the Church in Scotland by Charles II and this cost him his position.
9 Mar, 2018

It doesn’t seem like a high priority to many. What pressing relevance can previous centuries have when our world is so different? Isn’t it just for those who like that sort of thing? No, because God requires us to recall His works done in the past (Psalm 105:5). And do we think that God has stopped working since the apostles? Church history glorifies God. We are to learn for our own benefit from what has happened to God’s people in the past (1 Corinthians 10:11; Romans 15:4). How will we understand our own times unless we know the influences that have shaped our generation (Ecclesiastes 1:9-10)? How can we build the Church if we take no time to understand what it is, has been and where it is going?

Looking back and understanding what God has done in the Church gives us a sense of perspective. We see how little we are and how short lived some of the ideas that seem so powerful today. The idea that new and now are always better is proud and short-sighted. An understanding of church history can keep us from error and give us hope and encouragement for the future.  We can be humbled when we take time to learn about the courage, godliness and failings of those that have gone before us. David Dickson puts it memorably: “God’s old works have new use in all ages, for the furtherance of believer’s faith, patience and comfort”.

Robert Fleming says that what we see in Church history is Scripture being fulfilled. God has made promises to the Church and we see these fulfilled again and again. Christ says that He will build His Church, we have abundant proof of this. We can admire this way in which the Word shines on “all the paths and footsteps of the Lord towards His Church in every age”. “One generation should declare the works of the Lord to another, and transmit the memory of His goodness to succeeding ages”. Every period adds something to this history, it brings “forth something further into the world, of the Lord’s counsel and design about His Church” (Robert Fleming). Even our period of Church history does this.

These are some of the things that we forget when we forget God’s works in His Church in the past. David Dickson summarises a selection of them in expounding Psalm 66:5-7 which speaks of the ongoing relevance of God’s works in the past. In doing so Dickson shows that Scripture requires us to gain an understanding of Church history for our good and God’s glory.

Dickson notices that the Psalmist especially points out the Lord’s works already done for His people. The Lord works for the Church’s deliverance and His own glory. People are so careless about observing His works, however, that there is great need to stir up our slothfulness. We must observe and make a right use of God’s works for His praise and our benefit. This is why the Psalmist says: “Come and see the works of God” (Psalm 66:5).

 

1. Wonder at God’s Works

Whoever does observe the works of God for His people will be forced to fear and admire His wonderful acts and care for them. “He is terrible in his doing toward the children of men” (Psalm 66:5).

 

2. God’s Remarkable Deliverances

The work of redeeming His Church out of Egypt is worthy of being made use of by everyone to the end of the world. It is in itself sufficient to show, that if necessary, God will invert the course of nature. He will do this for the good of His people and to deliver them from difficulties. “He turned the sea into dry land” (Psalm 66:6).

 

3. God is Faithful to His Promises

Just as the Lord did wonders in delivering His people out of misery, so He will work wonders in fulfilling His promises to them. He will do what is necessary to bring them into possession of what He has given them a right to by promise. Drying up the river Jordan so that His people might go in to possess the promised land provides evidence of this purpose of God for all future times.”They went through the flood on foot” (Psalm 66:6).

 

4. Our Unity with the Historic Church

The whole people of God are one body. That which is done in one age and to one generation concerns them all. Everyone is to make use of it in their generation. Everyone in future times should reckon themselves to be one body with the Lord’s people in former ages. They should make use of God’s dealings with them as if they had been present with them then. The Church in the Psalmist’s time joins itself with the Church in Joshua’s time, rejoycing in God with them at their entry into Canaan. “There did we rejoice in him” (Psalm 66:6).

 

5. God Can Do What He Did in the Past Again

The Lord is able and ready to do in any future time whatever He has done for His people in any past time. He rules by His power forever (v7). His actions in the past are perpetual evidences and pledges of similar actions that will be done in the future as necessary.

 

6. God Witnesses Everything that Happens to His People

Nothing is done in any place to which the Lord is not witness. There is no plot or movement against His people which He does not see. “His eyes behold the nations” (v7).

 

7. Those Who Oppose the Church Will Not Prosper for Long

There will be from time to time a generation who will not submit themselves to this sovereign ruler. They stand out against Him and malign His Church. Yet they will not prosper for long nor have cause to triumph in their rebellion: “Let not the rebellious exalt themselves” (v7).

 

Conclusion

In the verses from Psalm 66:8 onwards, the Psalmist exhorts the Church in his time to praise God. He has preserved them from being wiped out during their fiery trial and painful affliction under the tyranny and oppression of their enemies. This shows us that in every age (besides all the reasons for praising God for works done in the past) the Lord’s people have their own unique reasons for praising God’s care, providence and kindness.  One purpose of the Church’s troubles is to test the graces of God’s people and purge out their corruptions. This is why God brings one trouble after another, as metal is put into the fire more than once to refine it (v10).

There is no escape when God brings His Church into a time of trial (v11). He then shows us whether it is easier to serve God or men (v12). Yet when He delivers His people and gives them a time of release it carries as much comfort as their trials did grief (v13). These considerations are helpful as we use Church history to reflect on our own times. We may experience a time when the rebellious are exalting themselves but it will not be for long, comparatively speaking. “For the rod of the wicked shall not rest upon the lot of the righteous” (Psalm 125:3).

We forget vital things about God, His Church and His promises when we forget Church history. We need to make use of it to inform, encourage and steel ourselves for serving God in our own generation. This is why we have created some short documentaries highlighting a period of history not just forgotten in schools but also in many churches. It’s called Scotland’s Forgotten History. It looks at what we can learn from this period as well as what we can learn about it. Together with the videos we have produced a discussion guide. This is designed to help small groups discuss the biblical principles outlined in the videos along with relevant passages of Scripture.

 

Go forward best. Look back first.

Watch the mini documentary series that  opens up a compelling, yet often ignored, chapter in Scottish history to reveal some surprising lessons for the future.

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