Volume 22 - Issue 3

A Word from James Orr

By Stephen N. Williams

As the editor gets his twopence worth elsewhere in this issue of Themelios, it is opportune to quote at length some words from a lecture whose centenary we celebrate this year. In the work subsequently published as The Progress of Dogma, the great Free Church theologian, James Orr concluded as follows.1

‘If, however, I were asked in what I think the distinctive peculiarity of twentieth-century Christianity will lie, I should answer that it is not in any new or overwhelmingly brilliant discovery in theology that I look for it. The lines of essential doctrine are by this time well and surely established. But the Church has another and yet more difficult task before it, if it is to retain its ascendancy over the minds of men. That task is to bring Christianity to bear as an applied power on the life and conditions of society; to set itself as it has never yet done to master the meaning of “mind of Christ”, and to achieve the translation of that mind into the whole practical life of the age—into laws, institutions, commerce, literature, art; into domestic, civic, social, and political relations; into national and international doings—in this sense to bring in the Kingdom of God among men. I look to the twentieth century to be an era of Christian Ethic even more than of Christian Theology. With God on our side, history behind us, and the unchanging needs of the human heart to appeal to, we need tremble for the future of neither. “All flesh is as grass, and all the glory thereof as the flower of the grass. The grass withereth, and the flower falleth; but the word of the Lord abideth for ever. And this is the word of good tidings which was preached unto you.” ’

The argument which led Orr to this conclusion is well worth studying. This is especially because the variety of subjects studied under the title ‘Theology’ today means that fewer and fewer theological students are grasping the broad sweep of the history of Christian doctrine. Orr’s volume offers an interesting way into that history. He argued that there was a logic to the historical development of doctrine that corresponded to the systematic relation of doctrines. By ‘development of doctrine’, or ‘of dogma’, Orr did not mean something that went beyond Scripture, but the unfolding of biblical truth. Theological text-books follow a logical order: prolegomena (including the questions of revelation, faith and reason, Scripture); the doctrine of God; theological anthropology; christology; the work of Christ (objective soteriology); the application of redemption (subjective soteriology); eschatology. The Church has deepened its understanding of doctrine precisely in that order: it sorted out the question of authority and apologetics in the first centuries; God as Trinity in the fourth; theological anthropology (Augustine and Pelagius) in the early fifth; christology in the middle of the fifth century; the atonement (Anselm) in the eleventh; subjective soteriology with the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. On eschatology, Orr thought in 1897, there is more to do; for the rest, his views are set out in the quotation.

A number of queries occur as we read these words, of differing kinds and weight. Would it not have been better, and is it not better today, to distinguish ethics from doctrine or dogmatics, and not from theology, and so make clear that ethics is theological ethics? Does not Orr’s conclusion reflect an optimism which turned out to be ill-fated? However we answer these two questions, we draw attention, one hundred years on, to two other considerations.

The first concerns theological novelty. Orr, it is true, did not cover everything; ecclesiology is formally absent from his scheme. But how are we to regard the history of theology? It is tempting to say no more of Orr’s position than that it was culturally conditioned. Surely we need fresh thinking in theology … and try telling theologians today, let alone in the next millennium, that we do not need much modification, still less, innovation! Indeed, Orr’s matching of logical and historical order in doctrine is open to serious criticism. But there is enough in what he says to make one pause long and think hard before tampering too much with what we might call ‘the tradition’. The force of Orr’s argument now, as then, lies in his reminder of just what we might be unravelling if we are too readily tempted to doctrinal revision.

The second concerns ethics. His claim, be it noted, is not that ethics is now becoming more important than what he calls ‘theology’. It is that intellectual advance is on the cards in the former, rather than the latter, sphere. But the task is demanding. One hundred years on, we have surely made less progress here than one might expect. Not only do many of us who are confident of our general doctrinal framework not have a clue about how, in practice, to approach ethical questions. We do not really understand very well what those questions really are. As soon as we have grasped the dimensions of a contemporary issue, society has proceeded to the next dilemma. How do we use the Bible when everything seems so fast and mobile? One hundred years on, though not quite in the way that he envisaged, Orr may well be right in pressing us to theological creativity (in fidelity to Scripture) in the area of ethics. Perhaps the intellectual credibility of Christianity will largely depend on its capacity to produce a fruitful theological ethic.

On the occasion of their centenary, we salute these lectures and their author.2 If we can recapture this sense of the solidity and depth of our doctrinal inheritance, and at the same time ponder the suggestion that Christian ethics demands peculiar attention, it will be much to our profit.

1 Publication came four years later by Hodder and Stoughton (London) in 1901. The quotation above is found on p. 353f.

2 Orr was a contributor to the renowned series. The Fundamentals, indicating a somewhat greater diversity in these contributions than we might usually suppose. His weighty The Christian View of God and the World(Edinburgh: Andrew Eliot, 1893) can be commended for several things, including, it may be helpful to point out, the spirit of its treatment of the question of hell, punishment and annihilation (pp. 386–97).

Stephen N. Williams

Stephen Williams is professor of systematic theology at Union Theological College in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and served as general editor of Themelios from 1995 to 1999.