James Denney: Pastor and Theologian for the Church

I have just returned from New Zealand where I presented the following paper on James Denney to a group of ministers-in-training. (A pdf version is available here). [Those interested in Denney, however, could do no better than read the primary texts themselves. By far the best and most comprehensive biography available is that by Jim Gordon, James Denney (1856-1917): An Intellectual and Contextual Biography (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2006), upon which I have relied heavily in the early parts of the paper. The most thorough treatment of Denney's overall theology remains John Randolph Taylor's, God Loves Like That! The Theology of James Denney (London: SCM, 1962). There's still much work on Denney that could be - and deserves to be - done. While Taylor's volume is OK, a more lengthy and critical evaluation of Denney's thought remains undone. Read: there's a PhD topic here for any who are interested.]


James Denney: Pastor and Theologian for the Church

Introducing James Denney

What I would like to do in this paper is to introduce you to the Scottish United Free Church theologian and NT scholar James Denney, and I want to do that by way of a brief look at Denney’s 13 years in pastoral ministry,[1] and then move on to consider some more theological issues on the nature of ministry itself that arise from Denney’s own life and thinking, and suggest that there are things about Denney’s theology that remain critical for pastoral practitioners today.

1856 was the year that saw the publication of John Macleod Campbell’s The Nature of the Atonement – a work that trumpeted God’s universal love revealed in Christ, a word all the more radical given its context in formalistic and austere Scotland. It was also the year that witnessed the establishment of the Wynd Mission in Glasgow,[2] and expanding interests in world mission, reaching as far as the New Hebrides (Vanuatu).[3] 1856 saw a congregation in Glasgow dare to install an organ in its sanctuary, and another congregation in Edinburgh explore the radical possibility of using a new order of worship. Some Scottish theologians were beginning to feel at home with Schleiermacher and Wellhausen,[4] and all were completely unaware of the bombshell that Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species would drop just three years later.

James Denney (1856-1917) was born at Paisley near Glasgow on 5 February 1856, and spent his childhood at nearby Greenock. His father John was a joiner by trade and a Reformed Presbyterian by conviction, serving as a deacon in the Cameronian (Reformed Presbyterian) Church.[5] These early years in such a staunchly conservative context instilled in Denney a permanent seriousness about spiritual and theological matters.[6] Arguably the most formative years of Denney’s life, however, were those nine years between 1874 and 1883 when he was a student – first an arts student at Glasgow University (1874-1879) where he graduated with First Class Honours in Classics and Philosophy, and then a student of theology at the United Free Church College in Glasgow (1879-1883). It was during these years when he was exposed to some of the most acute minds of his generation that Denney came to believe that the ‘life of the mind is answerable to the imperative of truth’, and that reality is ‘freighted with moral and existential significance’.[7]

Upon completing his theological studies in 1883, Denney was appointed Missioner at East Hill Street Mission of St John’s (Free Church, Glasgow) and then minister of East Free Church in Broughty Ferry, where he served as parish minister for 11 years until his appointment in 1897 at his old alma mater.[8] Denney served at the United Free Church College, first as Professor of Systematic Theology and then, from 1900, as Professor of New Testament Language and Literature, a post he held until his death in 1917 (the year before Barth published his ground-breaking Der Römerbrief). It was during those final decades that Denney’s theology reached its full maturity – drawing upon a whole life’s journey with God, and with God’s people.

Ministry at Glasgow and Broughty Ferry (1883-1897)

East Hill Street Mission, Gallowgate, Glasgow (1883-1885)

After being licensed to preach as a probationary minister in 1883,[9] Denney unsuccessfully applied for a teaching position at the Free Church College in Calcutta. Then St John’s in Glasgow was looking for a new missionary for their work at East Hill Street, Gallowgate, and Denney started there in July. His responsibilities reflected the typical stuff of nineteenth-century pastoral life: assisting with preaching at St Johns, regular preaching to the mission congregation, visitation evangelism, overseeing the Sabbath School, Sunday night lectures and supervising other work of the mission. This involved a host of activities: they ran industrial training classes, savings banks, libraries, clothing societies, and Thursday night lectures on popular science (and other topics) which were preceded with ‘Musical Entertainment’.[10] For all this Denney received £130pa (NZ$337) made up from various bequests, mission funds and preaching engagements.[11]

At East Hill Street, the young Denney quickly learnt that pastoral care is not about approaching people from a superior position. He confessed that ‘the smallest suspicion of patronage, of condescension or self complacency’[12] would be rightly met with a shut door. Neither was pastoral care about shoving down people’s throats propositions from the Westminster Catechism. Rather, with that confidence that attends one for whom spirituality is more about Christ than about self, Denney recognised that pastoral encounters require an ‘openness of mind and willingness to recognise and assimilate new truth’.[13] He also learnt the value of having intellectual freedom to explore the gospel and its implications, and that such freedom was an indispensable part of both his own spiritual integrity, and of what pastoral ministry is about.

A read through the available sermon manuscripts from Denney’s days at Gallowgate reveals a definite growth in his theological articulations. Although it was still far from the shape which it would take in his more mature work, already by 1885 there were early signs that it would be the fundamentals of the gospel which would dominate his thinking.[14] This comes home in his farewell sermon on Colossians 2:10 preached in June of the same year:

I felt constrained on this last occasion on which I could [speak to you] rather to present in one view the fullness of that Gospel which I came here to preach … Everyone will make mistakes at times, even with the honestest intentions, and no doubt I have sometimes missed the truth, sometimes disguised it in foolish words, sometimes confused it with explanations, sometimes corrupted its simplicity by reasoning about it … but I would not address you for the last time on anything but what is fundamental in the gospel and in the plainest words.[15]

What was ‘fundamental in the gospel’ for Denney was ‘the death of Christ which is’, as he put it, ‘the life of the Church. There is no gift of the Spirit until [Christ] is glorified, and He is glorified on the cross’.[16] Here are early signs that spiritual experience, formal education and pastoral responsibilities are beginning to find some integrated shape in informing Denney’s thinking. Certainly his farewell confession serves as a reminder that very few of us go through the journey of ministry without undergoing theological revision and development, and that our years at theological college and in early ministry are perhaps more about learning to ask the right kinds of questions than about getting a handle on all the answers – though hopefully there’s a little bit of the latter too.

Broughty Ferry East Free Church (1886-1897)

Denney left East Hill Street in June 1885 and went on to preach in a number of churches until he received a call from Broughty Ferry East Free Church in February 1886, where he was subsequently ordained on 22 March. He was 30 years old, and he could hardly have been called to a place more different than industrial Glasgow. By 1886, Broughty Ferry had transformed itself from ‘a watering place and little sea port’ to an increasingly popular holiday town, attracting nineteenth-century yuppies and holiday makers to its ‘pleasant site, fine air and good sea bathing’, as one writer of the day put it.[17]

The church’s Minute Book reveals that Denney was a well-loved minister, not least because it was to him that ‘many owed their souls’.[18] By all accounts, Denney’s time at Broughty Ferry was positive, and the relationships that he enjoyed with the church’s folk were mutually edifying.[19] Describing his relationship with the church session, he wrote: ‘I had rich merchants, secretaries of financial companies, schoolmasters, shopkeepers, tradesmen and coachmen in my session, and we were as true a brotherhood in Christ as a minister could wish to have part in’.[20]

They were big shoes that he filled there. Following in the footsteps of A.B. Bruce,[21] Denney maintained the high quality of preaching that the congregation was accustomed to, evidenced by the fact that two series of his Broughty Ferry expositions served as the basis for his commentaries on 1-2 Thessalonians (1892) and 2 Corinthians (1894). Of these two collections one commentator penned:

These works show Denney to be, what in every sense he was, the scholar, thorough, accurate, impartial, critical, but also far more than that. He was a great moral and religious force, an eminent Christian doctor of his generation, a kind of national conscience to his ministerial brethren in all the Churches.[22]

Not a few commentators have noted that a most significant influence on Denney’s theological pilgrimage took place while he was at Broughty Ferry. Within months of his induction, he married (on 1 July 1886) Mary Carmichael Brown (of Glasgow) who drew out of Denney a kindness and a tenderness that not a few who remember him testify were not his natural default setting. It was she who introduced him to the writings of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, which he devoured.[23] From this time on, Denney’s theology certainly took a more pronounced evangelical shape. While he absorbed Spurgeon, Denney was no sucker for popularist preaching, especially of the American flavour. Following his visit to America in April 1894, where he delivered lectures at Chicago Theological Seminary, Denney wrote to his lifelong friend, J.P. Struthers: ‘there are many things strong which I dislike – Baptist principles, belief in the millennium, premillennial notions, and in general the fads of the uneducated and half-educated man’.[24]

In light of this, one of the growing convictions that Denney felt during his years at Broughty Ferry was that it was his primary responsibility as minister and community theologian to articulate the dogmatic core of the Christian faith. It was this, he believed, that best equipped people for their own spiritual and intellectual journey. Too often, our sustained attention is drawn to matters that are at best periphery, and sometimes this can so become our habit that those periphery things actually threaten to become our new centre. Denney reminds us that no matter how busy and messy life and ministry get, we ought never wander so far that our compasses are unable to adjust themselves towards the centre of all things – even of God: the cross of Christ.

A Theologian for the Church

I want to turn now and consider some of what I think are Denney’s more valuable contributions concerning pastoral ministry,[25] and I will introduce these under the following headings. Denney was:

  • a holistic theologian
  • a word-centred theologian
  • a Church theologian
  • a worldly theologian
  • a staurocentric (cross-centred) theologian
  • an ecumenical theologian, and
  • a practical theologian

What I’m hoping we’ll see as we proceed is that each of these areas for Denney are not only intermingled, but that are in fact part of one great synthesis which is christologically determined and informed. In other words, to think about each of these things begins with the same question: ‘Who is Jesus Christ?’ For Denney, this question is the starting point for thinking about and assessing everything else.

A holistic theologian

Denney’s theological education did not finish when he sat his final exams at bible college but when he took his last breath at the age of 61. His published writings of serious bible commentaries and dogmatic theology, along with copious journal,[26] encyclopaedia and newspaper articles, all testify that Denney was a champion scholar.[27] But he was also committed to various justice projects in Glasgow, not least the fight for better housing for the poor. Certainly for Denney, theology is not only about ‘head-knowledge’ but is holistic, striving to draw together the disciplines of thought and the breadth of human experience: ‘It is no use being orthodox’, he once wrote, ‘unless you both feel and live your creed’.[28] He insisted that in order for doctrine to be true it must be existentially realised; that is, while not based on experience it must be certified by experience: ‘No dogmatic is worth reading or thinking about’, he wrote, ‘in which one cannot feel at all the critical places the pulse of vital religion’.[29] (It is worth noting that Denney was one of few English-speaking theologians at the time who was reading Kierkegaard (in German)). And so he began his 1894 Chicago lectures with these words:

Theology is the doctrine of God: systematic theology is the presentation in a systematic form of that doctrine. But the doctrine of God, in the very nature of the case, is related to everything that enters into our knowledge; all our world depends upon Him; and hence it follows that a systematic presentation of the doctrine of God involves a general view of the world through God. It must contain the ideas and the principles which enable us to look at our life and our world as a whole, and to take them into our religion, instead of leaving them outside.[30]

As a theological educator, Denney wanted to see evidence that his students were engaging with issues at a personal and practical level. Thinking about God ought never be divorced from the existential reality of living before and with God. Orthodoxy (right thinking) must be accompanied by orthopraxis (right living) and orthokardia (right heartedness).[31] This is because God is committed to not just the transformation of our minds, but also to the transformation of our hearts, lives and communities. In fact, these are intricately entwined. So Helmut Thielicke rightly warns us that the person who studies theology ‘might watch carefully whether he [or she] increasingly does not think in the third rather than in the second person … Theological thought can breathe only in the atmosphere of dialogue with God’.[32] Prayer and worship are not optional extras for the Christian theologian, but the necessary posture of thinking and service. Murray Rae recently reminded us that ‘theological knowing is inseparable from the life of obedience and faith. It is fostered through worship and prayer – those practices by which we submit ourselves to the Word and Spirit of God – and is borne of humility before the Word’.[33]

Certainly, Denney never read Scripture ‘as if he had written it: he always [read] it as if listening for a Voice’.[34] That’s why someone once said of Denney, ‘Had he lived to be a hundred years of age he could never have become a “fossil”. What he gave to his [congregation and] students and readers was his latest thought at the time’.[35] What he shared were those things which were alive to him. ‘The one conviction I have about teaching’, he wrote after 17 years of teaching, ‘is that whenever one is learning enough to be interested himself, he need have no anxiety about interesting his students’.[36] That is why he had no dilemmas about burning the large majority of his sermons when he left Broughty Ferry. Indeed, he once confessed, ‘If every scrap of sermon under this roof at this moment were to go up in a blaze, I would not singe the tip of a finger to save the best of them’.[37]

A word-centred theologian

Denney reminds us that Christian dogmatics assumes the givenness of revelation – that God is a talking God; that theology is not about those schemes and speculations which go up but is concerned with that Word which has come down. He wrote:

The starting-point … in Christian theology must be the revelation of God in Christ … In a sense, then, it is Christ who is the great problem of the Christian theologian; our first task is to answer His own question, ‘Whom say ye that I am?[38]

To engage in theology, therefore, is to engage in the action of divine grace. Theology is principally about Jesus and not about the Bible. However, while he rejected any suggestion of an infallible book, Denney maintained that the biblical canon enjoys a unique privilege of service in the divine economy wherein God superintends particular writers and writings in order to ensure a trustworthy and potent witness to the truth. It seems to me that what one does with the Bible – how one uses the Bible – is always more revealing than what one says about the Bible. This is no less true in Denney’s case for whom theology properly begins with rigorous exegesis of Holy Scripture, and then dialogues with the tradition with an eye both on the Church and on the world, ever returning to its source (ad fontes) in that same word of God.[39]

A Church theologian

There are churches whose environment is stale and sterile, with hardly a breath of the Spirit’s presence. In such churches one is reminded of a wax museum, where the living and the dead mingle cautiously and circumspectly, so as to not disturb each other. When the church appears to lack spiritual vigour and vitality, a new infusion of the Spirit may be necessary – someone who knows how to do spiritual CPR![40]

So writes Ray Anderson in his book on the emerging church. But these words also reflect the situation in a declining Scottish church in the early twentieth century, and Denney was certainly someone who tried to do such spiritual CPR! Speaking from the floor of the 1912 General Assembly, Denney spoke of the need for a revived Church, and a revived sense of the value of the Church itself. He said,

Many have disparaged the Church in the past. But I am sure of this, that the Church is the great witness to Christ and spiritual things in the world, and that the witness of the Church as an institution, bearing its continuous testimony, is the thing on which the permanence of the Christian faith in the world depends.[41]

I suspect that if Denney were with us today he would issue a similar call, whether to traditionalists, charismatics or those for whom faith is most meaningfully expressed with the grammar and values of the emerging church. Notice, Denney is not defending the Church’s institutionalism: He loved the Church too much for that. Rather, he is reminding the Church of two things: (i) that its existence in the world is indispensable to God’s purposes; and (ii) that it lives by and for the Word of God’s reconciliation in Christ and that to ‘do church’ in a theological vacuum is irresponsible, unfaithful and finally suicidal. He said, ‘The Church is concerned in the first instance not with what it has to do, but with what God has done for it’.[42] And the Church’s first response to that action, according to Denney, is worship – and particularly worship that consciously rests on God’s atoning work.[43] The sacraments, therefore, serve as God’s continuing witness through the Church of God’s reconciling Word, which is itself the ground of the Church’s being.[44] Therefore,

The primary function of the Church is to assert its origin; it is to bear witness to Christ as the author of all the blessings it enjoys. Its first duty, as its primal impulse, is worship … There is nothing so characteristic of the Church’s life as doxology.[45]

A worldly theologian

Denney lived in a time of great theological and philosophical flux, and when Presbyterian denominations were urgently grappling with the social implications of the gospel – poverty, unemployment, slave labour, the morality of war, people trafficking, fair wages, substandard accommodation, and alcohol abuse, just to name a few. Glasgow was Scotland’s main hub of industrial, commercial and social life and Denney provided robust leadership as he engaged with a wide range of these issues.

Denney understood that good theology doesn’t emerge out of ivory towers but rather out of our engagement with and in the creation. Like the NT itself, good theology – i.e. theology that is both faithful to its determining subject (the Word of God himself) and that which consciously serves the Church – is written by pastors and evangelists who are engaged with the questions of how the Gospel addresses the world’s concerns.[46] Denney reminds us that if theology is to be Christian theology – that is, theology determined by the incarnation – then it must be hammered out not only from articles and books but in the dynamic action of mission and of the challenges that being the missionary people of God attracts.

A staurocentric theologian

Like his scholarship, Denney’s preaching and writing were the epitome of clarity, and he expected no less from his students. He who vigilantly wrote out his sermons in full once said to his class: ‘Gentlemen, the first thing in a sermon is lucidity; the second is lucidity; and the third is lucidity’.[47] While we might not always agree with Denney, at least it is deadly clear what he is saying.[48] While Denney was clear, however, he had very little positive to say about his own ability as a preacher (he was very critical, for example, of his lack of ability to find and use good illustrations, though he genuinely appreciated those who did).[49] That said, he certainly had an evangelist’s heart.[50] He once wrote to his friend William Robertson Nicoll, ‘Though it is my business to teach, the one thing I covet is to be able to do the work of an evangelist, and that at all events is the work that needs to be done’.[51] He had no interest in theological fads, once confessing, ‘I haven’t the faintest interest in any theology which doesn’t help us to evangelise’.[52] He also believed that ‘if evangelists were our theologians or theologians our evangelists, we should be nearer the ideal’.[53] ‘The evangelist’, he pressed, ‘is in the last resort the judge of theology. If it does not serve his [or her] purpose it is not true’.[54]

So it is of little surprise that at the heart of all Denney’s theology stands the cross.[55] He was convinced that it is ‘not Bethlehem by Calvary [which] is the focus of revelation in the New Testament’.[56] He understood that Christ’s whole life was a revelation of the Father and of what the kingdom looks like, but, he said, in order to truly preach Christ it is necessary to represent his death as ‘the main part’.[57] Denney believed that all theology, ethics, apologetics, prayer – indeed, all of life – took its bearing from that one place in history where God is most clearly manifest.[58] Here, more than anywhere, sentimentalised love and notions of a Nazarean martyr are dissipated, Jesus’ teachings and healings receive their proper context, dignity and interpretation, and the reign of God is secured in the world. Above all, here we see God – who God is, what God thinks of himself, and how God feels towards the world.[59] So as stoutly Protestant as he was, Denney used to say that he envied the Roman Catholic priest his crucifix: ‘I would like to go into every church in the land’, he said, ‘and, holding up the crucifix, cry to the congregation “God loves like that”‘.[60]

By being ‘a man of one theme’[61] – and because that one theme was the cross – Denney was able to approach every pastoral encounter with a word that echoes the heart of the NT itself. He wasn’t constantly scurrying around from idea to idea and conference to conference trying to pick up something to say. He understood that there is nothing more ‘relevant’ and ‘practical’ than the word that God has determined in the crucified Christ to gather all things unto himself.

An ecumenical theologian

Reared in one of Scotland’s smallest and most conservative churches, Denney had an early prejudice for small denominations. But the more he studied the NT, the more he heard its call for church unity. As a result, he devoted a significant part of his teaching years towards working for the reunion of the Presbyterian churches in Scotland. Sadly, he died 12 years before such union was formally realised in 1929.[62]

The unity of the Church, Denney pressed, is christologically grounded, and is experienced by its members in the Spirit who is ‘the bond of union’.[63] The Church’s unity, therefore, is not ideological but ontological.[64] It is not founded upon offices, constitutions, creeds, or polity, for such things, Denney stressed, are not mentioned or imposed by the apostles. The diversity of gifts reminds us that unity does not mean uniformity, which, Denney says, ‘suffocates all originality and enterprise in the Christian life’.[65] And so, for Denney, the NT puts no boundaries on the shape that Christian community might take. God has never been interested in cloning anything, still less the community of his people. The church should look different in Invercargill than in Oslo or Rangoon, or even Auckland. There’s something quite tragic about attending a church service in Bangkok that looks and sounds the same as one in Seattle or London.

Denney believed that two things militated against the fellowship and unity of the Church: (i) the composition of formal creeds, and (ii) a Church based upon an order of clergy.[66] We don’t have time to consider these in any depth. Suffice it to say that the creeds, for Denney, remain valuable (he used to teach through The Shorter Catechism, for example, at Broughty Ferry)[67] but they should not be seen as permanent legislative restrictions upon our experience. Neither should they be stubbornly clung to or sentimentally coddled as permanently defining shibboleths.

The creeds and confessions are sources, not laws, for theology. Faith comes to us, no doubt, as an inheritance, yet it is a new birth in every [person]; and he who lives by faith does not live under law.[68]

So Denney believed that ‘the Church’s confession of faith should be sung, not signed’.[69] He was really concerned that those creeds which where initially created to serve the Church in its self-defence against attacks on the gospel had become increasingly complex and binding upon church members. As a consequence, the very notion of what it means to be Church had shifted: the essentially organic and spiritual character of the body of Christ had been pushed into the background and into the breach stepped a fundamentally sterile concept of the Church. ‘It is always dangerous’, he said, ‘when we call in the law, no matter in what shape, to defend the Gospel’.[70]

Denney did, however, propose an ecumenically-motivated creed based on one germinal article. His suggestion was simply: ‘I believe in God through Jesus Christ His only Son, our Lord and Saviour’.[71] He also reminded the Church that ‘our Church expressly gives those who sign its confession liberty to dissent from it on matters not entering into the substance of the Reformed faith’.[72] The substance of this faith is binding on all: ‘the Church must bind its members to the Christian attitude to Christ, but it has no right to bind them to anything besides’.[73] Again, his ecumenism was determined by his christology. Finally,

A practical theologian

Denney reminds us that the often-made distinction between ‘practical’ and ‘speculative’ theology is unhelpful. A queen of the sciences, theology remains a ‘practical’ science, i.e., it exists not for its own sake but for the sake of the Christian community, and for that community’s witness to the Word of Life. Like all good theologians, Denney’s theology was carved out at the coalface with people in their doubt, grief, death, guilt and repentance. Even when he took up a formal academic position, he did not use that as an excuse to retreat into the havens of a cloistered cleric but he kept in touch with the wider community and church – serving on various public committees and occupying a different pulpit just about every Sunday for nearly 20 years. He also poured himself out in service at a denominational level, serving for many years as clerk of the Senate and, from 1913, as convenor of the Central Fund Committee of the Church – a job that practically killed him.[74] Furthermore, his faithful letter writing over a period of more than two decades to encourage struggling pastors speaks volumes about the person that he was, and about the things that he most valued.

In our own day, few have thought more deeply about the practical nature of ministry as Ray Anderson whose definition of practical theology is one which I believe echoes Denney’s and so is worth introducing here in this context. Anderson writes:

Practical theology is a dynamic process of reflective, critical inquiry into the praxis of the church in the world and God’s purposes for humanity, carried out in the light of Christian Scripture and tradition, and in critical dialogue with other sources of knowledge. As a theological discipline its primary purpose is to ensure that the church’s public proclamations and praxis in the world faithfully reflect the nature and purpose of God’s continuing mission to the world and in so doing authentically addresses the contemporary context into which the church seeks to minister.[75]

Ministry at the dawn of the twenty-first century should not look like it did at the dawn of last century, or of the sixteenth, or even as it did 20 years ago. Neither the world nor the Church are the same. However, there remain some important insights that we can glean from Denney about the content and centre of pastoral ministry. For while the apparatus of ministry is by nature of the case organic, for Denney the heart of ministry is determined by one thing alone – God’s reconciling work in Christ. This means that the heart of the Presbyterian Church in Nelson should be beating to the same beat as an Anglican Church in Beijing, or a Roman Catholic Church in Sierra Leone. It is this conviction that informs Denney’s essay on ‘Preaching Christ’ wherein he writes: ‘Changing conditions may demand for it different forms, but presumably under all forms there will be a vital continuity or rather identity in the substance which is preached’.[76] Every part of the Church’s ministry ought to be determined by what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called ‘the christological question':[77] ‘Who is Jesus Christ?’ The answer to this question certainly should find voice from the pulpit, but is not exhausted there. Rather, it informs and provides the ballast for every part of the Church’s life and witness, ever calling upon God’s people to review their action and thought in light of this one determining question. It is this christological question that provides the justification, direction and hope for pastoral care, for social justice, for mission, for worship, for church planting, for ecumenism, for counselling, for church polity, for the church’s identification with the poor and the powerless, for the church’s prophetic witness against those principalities and powers that destroy human being, and for the sacramental movement of the Church. In short, everything that the Church is called to be about finds its raison d’être not in itself but in the gracious being and action of the triune God in our world enfleshed in the Christ.[78]

Unfortunately, Denney doesn’t develop a theology of ministry along explicitly trinitarian lines. He does, however, say enough to remind us that there can be no authentic ecclesiology which is isolated from its trinitarian, soteriological and eschatological foundations. Denney’s emphasis on the indispensability of our personal and corporate experience of the living Christ in the world recalls for us that theology and ministry are inextricably linked, even while ministry both precedes and produces theology, rather than the other way around.[79]

As those called to leadership in local churches, it is so easy for us to be seduced into thinking that ministry is about us, about what we do, about what initiatives we set up, or about what sermon we preach. This was wonderfully illustrated in this recent post by a blogging mate of mine.[80] It’s also easy for us to be seduced into the lie that if we could just run this program or adopt this new model of doing church then that would solve all our problems. Denney is not so gullible, but is among those who remind us that the only ministry that we can ever authentically exercise is that action which is a participation in the Son’s service towards the Father in the Spirit, and in the Father’s honouring of the Son in that same Spirit. To do Christian ministry is to be gathered up into the very life and communion of the triune family, and with that fellowship to turn towards the world in reconciling love.[81]

Denney reminds us that theology happens – not in abstracto, but emerges organically out of, and for the sake of, ministry. Only such can theology be in accord with the divine modality.[82] An implication of this is that the praxis of ministry serves as the only appropriate context for doing theological thinking. In short, ministry ‘is itself intrinsically a theological activity‘.[83]

Leaving Denney aside for a moment, I want to briefly offer some thoughts that arise out of his conviction (which I think is right) that all ministry ought to be determined by one central question. To affirm that the vicarious ministry of the Church’s crucified, resurrected and ascended Lord is central to all we are about gives both content and direction to the Church in its ministry. This is because Jesus is the Church’s true minister who takes the things of God and faithfully discloses them to human persons, and who takes those same persons to himself and graciously binds them into his own Sonship with the Father. The Church has no existence apart from this Word who called it into being and who now equips it by the Spirit. For the Church to seek a ministry of its own is, therefore, to deny its only legitimate ministry and to turn aside to counterfeit activities which can never justify its own existence. To affirm that such ministry is made possible through the gift of the Spirit is to bear witness to the reality that God has united the Church’s ministry with that which has already been accomplished in Christ. Yes there are different ministries and gifts given to the Church, but all are forms of God’s own ministry and find their location in the world where God is. To stay embedded in ecclesiastical ghettos is to risk failing to participate in Christ’s own ministry to the Father for the sake of the world. In other words, to do Christian ministry means to be in the world – where Christ is. Equally, to abandon the Church in order to serve ‘in the Spirit’ (as is sometimes claimed) is to deny Christ’s promise to be with his people, and to suggest that Christ and the Spirit might be about different things.[84] For the Church to minister in the name of Jesus and in the power of the Spirit is to confess that it is our loving Father and not democracy or utilitarianism or pragmatism or marketing strategies or pastors and elders who sets the agenda for the Church’s life.[85]

By way of conclusion …

Sometimes as pastors, we get so bogged down in the nuts and bolts of ‘running a church’ that we fail to make time to wrestle – and to help our people wrestle – with the real issues, ideas and movements that determine our world, and upon which the Church is founded, and for which the Church lives to bear witness. Familiarising ourselves with someone like Denney who did not shrink from consistently bringing that word to ordinary people of what God has accomplished in Christ serves as a helpful reminder of our own calling. To break bread and drink wine and tell the story about which they bear witness, to befriend the outcast, to risk becoming vulnerable before one’s enemies, to respond graciously and prayerfully to criticism, slander and martyrdom, to spend oneself for those who can offer nothing in return, to put relationships before career and money, to do justice and to love mercy, is for the Church to participate in the prophetic and perichoretic action of the triune God, and in God’s love for our world. Denney reminds us that where there is faith there is freedom, where there is hope there is the action of God in his self-disclosure, and where there is love there is a prophetic vision and penetration into all that is enduring and real.

Of course, Denney was not perfect. As much as his theology anticipated many of the best insights of Barth and others, he could have done more to tease out the trinitarian implications of his theology, and he could have done more to help ordinary believers see how theology connects with all of life – the arts, having kids, gardening, etc. He left much of this to others. What he did bequeath to us, however, was a robust theological foundation and ministry example upon which to unpack some of these things. And I reckon that that makes him a better pastor than if he had simply done the unpacking, but failed to lay the foundation.

To read Denney is to take up an invitation to reflect on one’s own ministry, and to reflect on what word one will live by and help others to live by.[86] What I’ve tried to do in this paper is to introduce you to someone that you may have not known a lot about before, and to encourage us to learn from his experience and to think about our ministries as having one determining centre. Undoubtedly, that centre for Denney was christological, driven by his hope that people might come into contact with the reconciling love of God, the centre and climax of all things.


[1] As far as Denney’s pastoral practice is concerned, Jim Gordon’s excellent treatment is the fullest account of which I am aware. James M. Gordon, James Denney (1856-1917): An Intellectual and Contextual Biography (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2006), 99-134. See also Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, ‘Evangelist-Theologian: Appreciation of James Denney’, CT 1, no. 4 (1956), 3-5; Thomas Hywel Hughes, The Atonement: Modern Theories of the Doctrine (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1949), 83-91; Archibald M. Hunter, ‘The Theological Wisdom of James Denney’, ExpTim 60 (1949), 238-40; I. Howard Marshall, ‘James Denney’, in Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology (ed. Philip Edgcumbe Hughes; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969), 203-38; I. Howard Marshall, ‘Denney, James (1856-1917)’, in The Dictionary of Historical Theology (ed. Trevor A. Hart; Carlisle/Grand Rapids: Paternoster/Eerdmans, 2000), 156-8; Samuel J. Mikolaski, ‘The Theology of Principal James Denney’, EvQ 35 (1963), 89-96, 144-68, 209-22; John K. Mozley, Some Tendencies in British Theology: From the Publication of Lux Mundi to the Present Day (London: SPCK, 1951); 130-6; Kenneth R. Ross, ‘Denney, James’, in Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology (ed. Nigel M. de S. Cameron; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993), 239-40; John Randolph Taylor, God Loves Like That! The Theology of James Denney (London: SCM, 1962); T.H. Walker, Principal James Denney, D.D. A Memoir and a Tribute (London: Marshall Brothers, 1918).

[2] See James Wells, ‘The Wynd Mission’. The Free Church of Scotland Monthly (2 January 1899): 4; William G. Enright, ‘Urbanization and the Evangelical Pulpit in Nineteenth-Century Scotland’, CH 47, no. 4 (1978), 400-7.

[3] The PCNZ (the Northern Church) began its missionary work in the New Hebrides through William and Agnes Watt who arrived from Scotland in 1869.

[4] See, for example, James Denney, ‘Preaching Christ’, in A Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels (ed. James Hastings, et al.; vol. 2; Edinburgh/New York: T&T Clark/Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1908), 398-9.

[5] 1876 saw the union between the Reformed Presbyterian Church and the Free Church of Scotland.

[6] See Denney’s comments on the place of humour in the Bible. James Moffatt, ed., Letters of Principal James Denney to His Family and Friends (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1921), 78-80.

[7] Gordon, Denney, 9; cf. William Malcolm Macgregor, Persons and Ideals: Addresses to my Students and Others (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1939), 13-4: ‘[Denney] was then a shy, austere, rather formidable figure, a little older than many of us, and by no means easy of approach. In the Theological Society, where others splashed in the shallows, theorizing and talking at large, he was able to push out into deep waters as one who knew his way. He had been by far the most distinguished student of his time in the University, and to us he appeared already a master in classics and philosophy, in literature and the history of opinion within the Church. He had also the most admirable gift of pregnant and witty and often demolishing utterance. And to this rich intellectual equipment he added an overawing sense of the religious realities in their dogmatic form’.

[8] John Taylor observes that Denney’s two decades at the theological college in Glasgow mark its ‘golden age’, when the college was ‘looked to for leadership throughout the theological world … it is fair to say that no divinity school of the time stood higher, certainly none in the English speaking world’. Taylor, James Denney, 20.

[9] See Minutes of the Free Presbytery of Greenock, ‘CH3/166/4′, (Edinburgh: National Archives of Scotland), 470, 475-6.

[10] Session and Deacons’ Minutes of St John’s Free Church of Scotland, ‘CH3/1162/3′, (Glasgow: Mitchell Library, Glasgow City Archives), 174.

[11] The 1870s and 1880s were dominated in Free Church circles with the challenge of retaining existing church members, which inevitably diverted energy and resources from more overtly evangelistic efforts to win new converts. ‘Repeated calls for new programmes of church extensions co-existed with the difficult reality that the church was struggling to hold on to those already reached’. Gordon, Denney, 100-1.

[12] James Denney, ‘Patient continuing in welldoing’, (Unpublished Paper: New College, Edinburgh, nd), 6.

[13] James Denney, ‘Let no man glory in men’, (Unpublished Paper: New College, Edinburgh, nd), 7.

[14] Certainly, Denney is chiefly remembered – and revered – for his meticulous and penetrating writings on the atonement. See especially The Death of Christ: Its Place and Interpretation in the New Testament (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1909); The Atonement and the Modern Mind (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1910); The Christian Doctrine of Reconciliation (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1917).

[15] James Denney, ‘In Him dwelleth.’ (Unpublished Paper: New College, Edinburgh, 1885), 6.

[16] James Denney, ‘It is expedient for you’, (Unpublished Paper: New College, Edinburgh, 1885), 2.

[17] Anonymous, ‘Broughty Ferry’, in Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical (ed. Francis H. Groome; vol. 1; Edinburgh: Thomas C. Jack, 1882), 194.

[18] Taylor, James Denney, 189.

[19] See, for example, Moffatt, ed., Letters of Principal James Denney, 131.

[20] James Denney, Letters of Principal James Denney to W. Robertson Nicoll, 1893-1917 (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1920), 107-8.

[21] Denney preceded James Moffatt at Broughty Ferry.

[22] Walker, Denney, 50-1.

[23] W. Robertson Nicoll noted: ‘[Denney's] wife, who gave him the truest and most perfect companionship, led him into a more pronounced evangelical creed. It was she who induced him to read Spurgeon, whom he had been inclined to despise. He became an ardent admirer of this preacher and a very careful and sympathetic student of his sermons. It was Spurgeon perhaps as much as any one who led him to the great decision of his life – the decision to preach Christ our righteousness’. Cited in Ibid., 51-2.

[24] Moffatt, ed., Letters of Principal James Denney, 56. While at Broughty Ferry, Denney did however accept an invitation to preach in the local Baptist Church. Also, Denney was much more positive about America on subsequent visits. See Moffatt, ed., Letters of Principal James Denney, 125-8.

[25] My decision to focus on Denney as a theologian for the Church (as opposed to the well-traversed ground of his atonement theology, for example) is because Denney, as a churchman, models for us the kind of spiritual intensity, academic rigour, evangelical passion, practical leadership and theological acumen that are worthy of our emulation and of which we can never have too many models, particularly models from within our own denominational family. This aspect of Denney’s contribution has gone too unnoticed. Not a few significant thinkers have recognised Denney’s more general contribution. The English philosopher Hastings Rashdall recalled Denney’s ‘passionate scholarship’, and A.B. Macaulay described Denney as ‘an alpha plus scholar’. P.T. Forsyth went even further when he said that ‘[Denney] has more important things to say than anyone at present writing theology’. Cited in Taylor, James Denney, 9. And writing some years after Denney’s death, Forsyth confessed in an unpublished letter: ‘Denney became a court of reference in my silent thought. No man was so needful for the conscience of the Church and the public … There is nobody left now to be the theological prophet and lead in the moral reconstruction of belief’. Peter T. Forsyth, ‘Letter to William Robertson Nicoll, 25 November’, (Unpublished, 1920). And again Forsyth: ‘Denney is the greatest thinker we have upon our side’. Cited in Moffatt, ed., Letters of Principal James Denney, 153. Alec Cheyne identifies Denney as ‘one of the ablest biblical scholars his country ever produced’. He was one of ‘Scotland’s finest theologian[s]‘. Alec C. Cheyne, Studies in Scottish Church History (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), 135, 137. Moreover one recent biographer laments that Denney is ‘one of Scotland’s most significant yet increasingly neglected theologians’. Gordon, Denney, xv. Denney’s work also attracted praise from T.F. Torrance, Karl Barth, and H.R. Mackintosh. Mackintosh noted: ‘As theologian and as man, there was no one like him. I have known many theologians both scholarly and devout; but I have never known his equal for making the New Testament intelligible as the record and deposit of an overwhelming experience of redemption, and for generating in those who listened to him the conviction that the gospel incarnate in Jesus is the only thing that matters’. Hugh Ross Mackintosh, ‘Principal Denney as a Theologian’, ExpTim 28 (1917), 493-4. ‘He towered above the general body of theological teachers in this country. Some years since, an American student of divinity who had taken a protracted course of study in Europe singled out three men as having made upon him the deepest impression of power: Herrmann of Marburg, Wernle of Basel, Denney of Glasgow. He belonged emphatically to the very small class of great lecturers. Men went into his auditorium expecting something to happen, and came out awed and thrilled’. Mackintosh, ‘Denney’, 489. Paul Wernle was a very influential Swiss theologian. He received his doctorate from Basel in 1897 and was appointed Professor of New Testament in 1900, and Professor of Church History and the History of Dogma in 1901. His greatest work is considered to be Einführung in das theologische Studium (1908, 1911, 1921). See Richard E. Burnett, Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis: The Hermeneutical Principles of the Römerbrief Period (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 128-33.

[26] Including his many contributions to The Morning Watch, a Reformed Presbyterian Sunday-School magazine which ran from 1888 to 1915 and was edited by his friend, the Rev. John Patterson Struthers of Greenock.

[27] Denney’s colleague, W.M. Clow, bears witness to Denney’s passionate biblical scholarship: ‘Wide as was the range of his reading in all literature, as his apt quotations from many languages gave evidence, and thorough as was his mastery of the whole round of theological scholarship, he was essentially a man of one book. That book was the New Testament. Its history, its sources, its authors, and especially the Gospel writers, and Paul as their interpreter, called forth from him all his powers, with a deep joy in their exercise. To state the problem of a great passage, to trace and lay bare the writer’s thought, to expound the doctrines and apply the message to the lives of men, was a visible delight to him, as it was a devout fascination to his students’. Cited in Walker, Denney, 69.

[28] Moffatt, ed., Letters of Principal James Denney, 29.

[29] James Denney, ‘Dogmatic Theology’, The Expositor Series 5, no. 6 (1897), 426. Again: ‘The material with which the theologian deals can only be certified to him through religious experience; in other words, only a living Christian is competent to look at the subject’. James Denney, Studies in Theology (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1906), 17. And in a letter: ‘You can study other people’s diseases in hospitals, whether they like it or not, but in the last resort the only soul you can study is your own’. Moffatt, ed., Letters of Principal James Denney, 109. At times, however, Denney overstates his case. An example: ‘The only thing to be trusted is experience, and we must take care not to distrust it on the ground that we have the measure of all true Christian experience already in our hands, and can now impose that measure as a law. We cannot. There is no such all-comprehending law known to us, and familiar or unfamiliar we must welcome everything that Christ inspires’. James Denney, The Way Everlasting (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1911), 275. ‘The important thing in religion’, Denney urged in a sermon on Psalm 139:1, ‘is not the belief that God is omniscient, but the experience that God knows me … Omniscience is a divine attribute, but what is here experienced is a divine action – it is God through His searching knowledge of us entering with power into our lives. It is God besetting us behind and before, and laying His hand upon us’. Denney, Everlasting, 2.

[30] Denney, Theology, 1.

[31] See Graham A. Cole, ‘At the Heart of a Christian Spirituality’, RTR 52, no. 2 (1993), 49-61.

[32] Helmut Thielicke, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians (trans. Charles L. Taylor; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), 33, 34.

[33] Murray Rae, ‘Incline Your Ear So That You May Live: Principles of Biblical Epistemology’, in The Bible and Epistemology: Biblical Soundings on the Knowledge of God (ed. Robin Parry and Mary Healy; Carlisle: Paternoster, 2007), 163.

[34] Cited in Adam W. Burnet, Pleading with Men: Being the Warrack Lectures on Preaching for 1935 (New York: F.H. Revell, 1935), 102. The words are Denney’s description of J.P. Struthers. I am reminded here of Forsyth’s statement, ‘We never do the Bible more honor than when it makes us forget we are reading a book, and makes us sure we are communing with a Savior’. Peter T. Forsyth, ‘The Evangelical Churches and the Higher Criticism’, in The Gospel and Authority: A P.T. Forsyth Reader (ed. Marvin W. Anderson; Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1971), 48.

[35] Walker, Denney, 87. Mackintosh suggests that ‘Very few men … have reflected on the Gospel with such utter fearlessness … His mind was always breaking out in a new place’. Mackintosh, ‘Denney’, 489.

[36] Moffatt, ed., Letters of Principal James Denney, 175.

[37] Ibid., ed. 53-4; cf. Denney, Everlasting, 273: ‘It does not matter whether it issues from Nicæa or Augsburg, from Trent or Westminster. The mind that has been fascinated by Christ Himself, and that has begun to know what He is by its own experience of what He does, must never barter that original quickening and emancipation, and what it learns by them, for any doctrine defined by man. It is a false progress that is promoted by unbending conformity to creeds and confessions. The only way to become perfect is to cherish the initial liberating impulse, to keep our being open to the whole stimulus of Christ, to grow and still to grow in the grace and the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour’.

[38] Denney, Theology, 17. Italics mine. ‘Religion … does not depend on the things we are ignorant of, but on the things we know. Its basis is revelation, not mystery; and it is not affected by the fact that mysteries abound’. Denney, Everlasting, 28.

[39] Taylor, James Denney, 133: ‘[Denney] was nothing if not a Biblical theologian’. Denney did not shy away from the rich insights that biblical criticism opens up for us but instead harnessed all the tools at his disposal in order to better understand and exegete the Bible. His employment of the critical apparatus, however, was positive. It was, as he called it, ‘believing criticism’ and so it informed his defence of the central themes of the gospel rather than undermined them. He also modelled for us an ongoing conversation between Scripture, dogmatics, tradition, culture and pastoral experience. Interestingly, Denney at one time offered the following confession: ‘Does it ever occur to you … that we read our Bibles too much, and that it might do us good to read none for a twelvemonth, just as it would do some people good if for as long they read nothing else? I have sometimes felt weary of the very look and sound of the New Testament; the words are so familiar that I can read without catching any meaning, and have to read again, far oftener than in another book, because I have slid a good bit unconsciously’. Moffatt, ed., Letters of Principal James Denney, 81.

[40] Ray S. Anderson, An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006), 159; cf. Ray S. Anderson, The Soul of Ministry: Forming Leaders for God’s People (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 134.

[41] G.M. Reith, ed., Proceedings and Debates of the General Assembly of the United Free Church of Scotland (Edinburgh: Lorimer and Chalmers, 1900-1916), 165.

[42] James Denney, The Church and the Kingdom (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1910), 8.

[43] See Denney, Death of Christ, 103-4.

[44] Ibid., 85, 137: ‘From the New Testament point of view, the Sacraments contain the gospel in brief; they contain it in inseparable connection with the death of Jesus; and as long as they hold their place in the Church the saving significance of that death has a witness which it will not be easy to dispute … The truth seems … to be that both the Sacraments are forms into which we may put as much of the gospel as they will carry; and St. Paul, for his part, practically puts the whole of his gospel into each. If Baptism is relative to the forgiveness of sins, so is the Supper. If Baptism is relative to the unity of the Church, so is the Supper. We are not only baptized into one body (I Cor. xii. 13), but because there is one bread, we, many as we are who partake of it, are one body (I Cor. x. 17). If Baptism is relative to a new life in Christ (Rom. vi. 4f.), in the Supper Christ Himself is the meat and drink by which the new life is sustained (I Cor. x. 3f.). And in both the Sacraments, the Christ to whom we enter into relation is Christ who died; we are baptized into His death in the one, we proclaim His death till the end of time in the other. I repeat, it is hardly possible to exaggerate the significance of these facts, though it is possible enough to ignore them altogether’.

[45] Denney, Church, 7. Denney once told a friend that Christians had ‘run down the Church as if it had no real relation to living Christianity’ (Denney, Letters, 127); that is, the Church lacked a sense of the real and authentic spirituality that he believed the NT bears witness to.

[46] One who knew Denney well observed that ‘He was one of the very few men I have ever seen at white heat over what Christ has done for the world’. Patrick Carnegie Simpson, Recollections: Mainly Ecclesiastical but Sometimes Human (London: Nisbet and Co., 1943), 47.

[47] Cited in Burnet, Pleading with Men, 162. Denney was pained to see his friend P.T. Forsyth’s writing unread because of Forsyth’s difficult and obscure writing style. ‘Forsyth’s book [Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind] interested me very much, but the peculiarity of his style is such that only people who agree with him strongly are likely to read him through. It is immensely clever at some points at which it is not enough to be clever. It is like hitting Goliath between the eyes with a pebble which does not sink into his skull, but only makes him see clearer’. Denney, Letters, 97. And commenting on Forsyth’s Missions in State and Church, Denney wrote: ‘I found [Missions in State and Church] very difficult to read. If this is how one feels who is heartily at one with the writer, how must it strike an unsympathetic reader? He has more true and important things to say, in my opinion, than any one at present writing on theology; but if these papers were preached, as most of them seem to have been, I am sure most of the audiences, while willing enough to take hold of them, must have been sadly perplexed to find the handle. To convince a man that he has an inadequate or false view of the Gospel may do him good, or rather must do so; but to give him a strong impression that you are contemptuous of his view of the Gospel while you do not enable him convincingly to apprehend the better one may have quite opposite effects. But I do not like to say these things about a man whom I like so much, and in the few lines I have written I do not do more than allude to them’. Denney, Letters, 118-9. The other reason that Denney wrote out his sermons and lectures in full was because of his fear that his speech would otherwise ‘degenerate into pure haverel’. Moffatt, ed., Letters of Principal James Denney, 31. To ‘haver’ is a (particularly northern) Scottish word meaning ‘to talk without sense’.

[48] Unfortunately, sometimes such clarity leads to not being taken as seriously as one deserves. In more recent days, I have in mind, for example, the work of Tom Smail. I recall the comment made by A.M. Hunter: ‘In Denney you find what you do not find in many of our modern theologians …  what is in theological writing perhaps the first of all the virtues – perfect lucidity of thought and expression. In a time when theological unclarity is sometimes hailed as profundity and the method of the expositor is often obscurum obscurious, many of us thank God for Denney’s clarity’. Hunter, ‘Denney’, 240. On Smail’s work, see particularly The Forgotten Father (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1980); The Giving Gift: The Holy Spirit in Person (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1988); ‘Can One Man Die for the People?’ in Atonement Today: A Symposium at St John’s College, Nottingham (ed. John Goldingay; London: SPCK, 1995), 73-92; Like Father, Like Son: The Trinity Imaged in our Humanity (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2005); Once and For All: A Confession of the Cross (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2005).

[49] See, for example, Moffatt, ed., Letters of Principal James Denney, 23-5.

[50] Denney not only believed in a preaching church, but he had what Sell calls ‘a preachable theology’. Alan P.F. Sell, Defending and Declaring the Faith: Some Scottish Examples 1860-1920 (Exeter/Colorado Springs: Paternoster Press/Helmers & Howard, 1987), 195. See Denney, ‘Preaching Christ’, 393-403; Taylor, James Denney, 155-72.

[51] Denney, Letters, 176.

[52] Cited in Moffatt, ed., Letters of Principal James Denney, xii-xiii.

[53] Denney, Death of Christ, viii.

[54] James Denney, ‘The Theology of the Epistle to the Romans: IV. “The Gospel Divine Righteousness”‘, The Expositor Series 6, no. 3 (1901), 440.

[55] Denney believed that Christ’s death was both penal and substitutionary: ‘The Cross is the place at which the sinless One dies the death of the sinful: the place at which God’s condemnation is borne by the Innocent, that for those who commit themselves to Him there may be condemnation no more. I cannot read the New Testament in any other sense. I cannot see at the very heart of it anything but this grace establishing the law, not in a forensic sense, but in a spiritual sense; mercy revealed, not over judgment, but through it; justification disclosing not only the goodness but the severity of God; the Cross inscribed, God is love, only because it is inscribed also, The wages of sin is death’. Denney, Theology, 124. This was a position from which Denney did not waver. See Denney, Reconciliation, 273: ‘while the agony and the Passion were not penal in the sense of coming upon Jesus through a bad conscience, or making Him the personal object of divine wrath, they were penal in the sense that in that dark hour He had to realise to the full the divine reaction against sin in the race in which He was incorporated, and that without doing so to the utter most He could not have been the Redeemer of that race from sin, or the Reconciler of sinful men to God’.

[56] Cited in Taylor, James Denney, 10. Marshall has suggested that Denney is ‘the finest expositor of [the cross's] meaning in the New Testament’. Marshall, ‘Denney’, 158.

[57] Denney, ‘Preaching Christ’, 398.

[58] Gammie observes that Denney had ‘a tremendous earnestness, a burning passion for Christ, [and] an intense belief in the power of the Cross’. Alexander Gammie, Preachers I Have Heard (London: Hodder & Stoughton, nd), 163. Marshall argues that Denney’s reputation as a theologian ‘must stand or fall’ on his teaching on the atonement. Marshall, ‘James Denney’, 225.

[59] Bernhard Steffen reminds us: ‘The scriptural basis for Christian belief in the triune God is not the scanty trinitarian formulas of the New Testament, but the thoroughgoing, unitary testimony of the cross; and the shortest expression of the Trinity is the divine act of the cross, in which the Father allows the Son to sacrifice himself through the Spirit’. Bernhard Steffen, Das Dogma vom Kreuz. Beitrag zu einer staurozentrische Theologie (Gütersloh: Bertelsmann, 1920), 152; cited in Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology (trans. R.A. Wilson and John Bowden; London: SCM, 1974), 241.

[60] Cited in Taylor, James Denney, 10.

[61] Sell, Defending, 195.

[62] 1929 saw the United Free Church of Scotland reunite with the established Church of Scotland. The minority who opposed the initial union retained their independence and the name United Free Church. The Free Church of Scotland, which remained outside of the 1900 union with the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland, was not part of the 1929 reunion.

[63] Denney, Theology, 187.

[64] That is, its unity is one of its marks, together with its holiness, catholicity and apostolicity. Oneness is known by each of its members, and their local congregations. For ‘these local churches [in the NT], reciprocally independent as they were, were nevertheless one; they were a church; they were the church of the living God’. Denney, Theology, 187; cf. John Webster, ‘The Goals of Ecumenism’, in Paths to Unity: Explorations in Ecumenical Method, by members of the Faith and Order Advisory Group (ed. Paul Avis; London: Church House Publishing, 2004), 1-12. The unity of the Church is manifest in a common reception of God’s love in Christ, and the common consent to the obligations that such love compels.

[65] Denney, Theology, 190.

[66] Denney was very concerned about the Church’s unity, a unity he pressed which is christologically grounded (particularly in Christ’s perpetual High Priesthood), and subsequently exposed attempts to create unity based on ‘orders of ministry’. Indeed, he strongly argued against any ‘priesthood’ within the Church apart from the sole High Priesthood of Christ. Any such ‘official mediators’ are, in effect, to ‘apostasize from Christianity’. James Denney, ‘Priest in the New Testament’, in A Dictionary of the Bible (ed. James Hastings; vol. 4; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1902), 100. That the Church of Rome, with its ecclesiastical hierarchy, should claim to have an unbroken line reaching back to the apostles is, according to Denney, without foundation. Empirically, he argued, there is no unbroken succession, and even if there was, no external continuity could ever guarantee spiritual correlation to Jesus and his apostles. Denney, Everlasting, 102. He derided the much vaunted ‘apostolic succession’ as ‘a dead weight which some Churches carry, and which, though sometimes imposing to the imagination, is never in the truest Christian sense inspiring’. Denney, Theology, 198. For more on Denney’s critique of the notion of the Church based on an order of clergy see Taylor, James Denney, 161-2. For more on Denney’s criticism of Romanism see Moffatt, ed., Letters of Principal James Denney, 102, 151-2.

[67] See Moffatt, ed., Letters of Principal James Denney, 62. Scottish universities in Denney’s day had abolished confessional tests for professors and there was a sense of new freedom in the intellectual community. This however – at least for Denney – did not signal a free for all. Nor did it mean the reduction of theology to simply a private matter. To be sure, Denney gave high place to personal experience, as we have seen. But it was the corporate experience of the Church that most occupied his attention, an experience expressed – but not contained – in the Church’s historic creeds.

[68] Denney, ‘Dogmatic Theology’, 427. The abiding practical value of the creeds ought be noted:

  • They serve as a framework for outlining the great themes of the Gospel.
  • They remind us of that great river of history to which we inseparably belong.
  • They recall for us that we are members of the Church catholic.
  • They are not crowded with subjective impressions.
  • They assist to equip the people of God to defend the faith against error.
  • They may help the church to diverge from a focus on hobby horses.

[69] Moffatt, ed., Letters of Principal James Denney, ix. For the application of this principle, see G.W. Anderson, ‘Israel’s Creed: Sung, not Signed’, SJT 16 (1963), 277-85. One is reminded here of Calvin’s attitude to theology, especially in his five-volume commentary on the Psalms. See Joel R. Beeke, ‘Calvin on Piety’, in The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin (ed. Donald K. McKim; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 137-9.

[70] The context of this statement is thus: ‘It [i.e. the Church] is no longer the fellowship of the saints, the community of those who possess salvation in Jesus Christ; it is the community which confesses certain historical facts, and recognises certain interpretations of them … The spiritual character of the Church has retired, and it has assumed an intellectual aspect … It was well meant, and it was well done, but it shifted the emphasis in the conception of the Church, and we have had to pay for that ever since. It became possible then to look for the marks of the Church, not in the actual Christianity existing in it, not in the new life which its members owed to Christ and lived to Him, but in the correctness of their opinions … It is always dangerous when we call in the law, no matter in what shape, to defend the Gospel’. Denney, Theology, 194, 195. Denney was convinced that the unity of the Church is not a matter of sentiment or of its works but is a matter of its belief. It is, therefore, theological rather than philanthropical, concerned with faith rather than good feeling. Denney believed that the Church should avoid shackling its members to a fixed creed. Since the Bible does not act as a ‘straitjacket’, neither should, or could, creeds and confessions. Such formulae can at best be secondary, and their answers provisional (cf. 1 Cor 13:9) and always subject to revision. See Sell, Defending, 204. Denney’s biographer, George Jeffrey, commented that Denney would have heartily endorsed the saying that ‘you can no more imprison the living, loving, Risen Christ in a form of words than you can capture a perfume in a net’. George Johnstone Jeffrey, ‘James Denney’, in Fathers of the Kirk: Some Leaders of the Church in Scotland from the Reformation to the Reunion (ed. Ronald William Vernon Selby Wright; London: Oxford University Press, 1960), 259. Denney held that the creeds and confessions, even those of the Reformation, seemed to remain one step beyond or adrift from the believer’s experience and life of faith.

[71] James Denney, Jesus and the Gospel: Christianity Justified in the Mind of Christ (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1908), 398. While some saw insurmountable difficulties in and with such an abbreviated formula, two of his peers gave favourable responses. Forsyth, writing on his own advocacy of a single article as the basis of union, comments, ‘I was greatly relieved and cheered to find Dr. Denney taking the same position in his great book on Jesus and the Gospels‘. Peter T. Forsyth, Theology in Church and State (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1915), 33. (Forsyth suggested that 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 might serve as the template for such a creed). This sentiment was echoed by H.R. Mackintosh: ‘[Denney's] exposition of this simple but profound confession has done more than perhaps he knew to quicken the movement for modification of the Creed, into a formula vital, unspeculative, and essentially religious.’ Mackintosh, ‘Denney’, 493. While Denney contributed to a growing number of ecumenical discussions that were taking place, he expressed considerable concern about a tendency in some circles to reduce the unity of the Church to its lowest common denominator. In his discussion on the simplification of creeds, for example, he pressed for what he called ‘the true principle of union’ which he saw as the gospel itself. He maintained that the place of creeds and denominational distinctives remains: ‘It is very natural that the first steps toward the recognition of such … [true principles of union] should be hesitating and uncertain. Churches which have inherited complex and elaborate creeds – creeds which, though they may be called confessions of faith, are not really confessions of faith, but more or less complete systems of theology – are apt to think that it is in the complexity and elaboration of their confessions that the difficulty lies. Their first thought is that what we need for union among Christians is the reduction or simplification of our elaborate creeds. Why, for example, it is asked, should we cling to the Westminster Confession, a document containing hundreds of sharply-defined propositions, about many of which there is no prospect of Christians ever agreeing? Why should we not recognise that it is hopeless to expect union on this basis, and go back to a sublime and simple formula like the creed of Nicæa? Would not all Christians gather round that? This has not only been ventilated as a possibility, but has been definitely proposed as the doctrinal basis of union between the Presbyterians and Episcopalians of Australia. Plausible as this may sound, it is plausible only to those who have never appreciated the nature of the difficulty which has to be dealt with. What we want as a basis of union is not something simpler, of the same kind as the creeds and confessions in our hands; it is something of a radically different kind. To simplify merely by going back from the seventeenth century to the fourth is certainly an easy matter, but what a contemptuous censure it passes on the Christian thought of the centuries between. When a man speaks of giving up the Westminster Confession for the Nicene Creed, one can only think that he has no true appreciation of either’. Denney, Jesus and the Gospel, 390-1. We may or may not agree with Denney here, but his desire to steer a cautious, gracious and unanxious path through the matrix of ecumenical discussion is worth remembering, especially when we hear quick calls today that ecumenism involves abandoning all denominational distinctives. The main criticism of Denney’s ‘symbol’ was its failure to include reference to the Holy Spirit. Somewhat unsurprisingly, Denney suffered from the accusation that he was implicitly binitarian in his theology. See Sell, Defending, 205. A similar observation has been offered by A.E. Garvie. See Alfred E. Garvie, ‘”Christ Crucified” for the Thought and Life of Today’, ExpTim 30, no. 2 (1918), 83-5. For Nicoll’s correspondence to Denney and Mackintosh on this matter see T.H. Darlow, William Robertson Nicoll: His Life and Letters (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1925), 360-5. Taylor, Denney’s chief expositor, has argued that such an accusation is totally unfounded; it exhibits a failure to appreciate the place and role of the Spirit in Denney’s thought and writings. Taylor, James Denney, 119-32. Denney claims that the Creeds have historically been embarrassed about the article on the Spirit. Sell suggests that such embarrassment is Denney’s! For Denney, argues Taylor, the Spirit’s operation is co-extensive with Christian faith and experience. Rather than being absent, the Spirit is everywhere through his theology, without being explicitly cited. The implications for this are, for example, ‘to understand what is meant by the Spirit is to understand these two things – the New Testament and the Christian Church … In them and in their mutual relations we have the only adequate witness to what the Spirit means for Christians’. James Denney, ‘Holy Spirit’, in A Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels (ed. James Hastings; vol. 1; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1906), 731; cf. James Denney, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (ed. W. Roberton Nicoll; London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1900); Denney, Reconciliation, 310-1. It is this Spirit of Jesus who unites the members of the Church to Christ their Head and King, and who brings all Christian experience to unity. Hence, anticipating some reaction to a supposedly deficient pneumatology, Denney proposed that since the Spirit and faith are correlative, the Spirit is included. Denney, ‘Holy Spirit’, 738.

[72] Denney, Everlasting, 69. The sermon, entitled ‘Learning from the Enemy’, is based on 2 Samuel 16:11.

[73] Denney, Jesus and the Gospel, viii; cf. p. 375: ‘Christianity does not mean the recognition of necessary truths of reason, but an attitude of the soul to God, determined by Christ.’ When we weigh up Denney’s contribution, we must give due regard to his own conclusion to his work on Church unity and the proposed creed: ‘it is not the acceptance of any theology or Christology, however penetrating or profound, which keeps us Christian; we remain loyal to our Lord and Saviour only because He has apprehended us, and His hand is strong’. Denney, Jesus and the Gospel, 411. The pastoral implications of this for a Christian doctrine of assurance, for example, are significant.

[74] The Central Fund Committee raised £180,000pa to raise stipends for between 700-800 of the poorer ministers. Moffatt, ed., Letters of Principal James Denney, xiii: ‘To the surprise of those who did not know him except as a scholar, he did the work ably. He could master detail, he had a clear head for figures, and, as his letters indicate, he applied himself unsparingly to the task, no matter how it trenched upon his time and strength. It involved repeated journeys to Edinburgh, and constant committee work. But, apart from a humorous grumble now and then at the waste of time, he grudged nothing, if he could carry through this labour for his fellow ministers. It proved further that he was ready to practise what he preached so often, about men [sic] assuming responsibilities in the Church instead of being merely passengers in the ship or sitting in the cabin criticising those upon the bridge. He did not allow this work to interfere with his duty as a professor, but I fear it was one of the elements of strain which wore him down at the end, that and the intense feeling stirred by the war’. See also his letter to his sister, dated 15 December, 1915, wherein he lamented: ‘… as for exercising any self-denial to support poor churches in the country, you might as well ask for subscriptions to plant a colony in the moon’. Moffatt, ed., Letters of Principal James Denney, 189; cf. pp. 207-8.

[75] Ray S. Anderson, The Shape of Practical Theology: Empowering Ministry with Theological Praxis (Downers Grove: IVP, 2001), 22.

[76] Denney, ‘Preaching Christ’, 393. See also Eduard Thurneysen, A Theology of Pastoral Care (trans. Jack A. Worthington and Thomas Wieser; Richmond: John Knox Press, 1962), 11-31. While Denney could not swallow everything in Ritschl, especially his unduly-pressed distinction between religion and metaphysics, insofar as Christ must be our starting point, Denney was grateful to Ritschl. A.E. Garvie felt that Denney was over-critical of Ritschl. See Alfred Ernest Garvie, The Ritschlian Theology Critical and Constructive: An Exposition and an Estimate (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1899), 187, 222, 286-95. In Denney’s defence, James Orr argued that Garvie’s criticism of Denney’s on Ritschl were too severe. See James Orr, The Ritschlian Theology and the Evangelical Faith (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1897), 78.

[77] See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christology (trans. John Bowden; London: Collins, 1966), 27-37.

[78] Church of England House of Bishops, Eucharistic Presidency: A Theological Statement by the House of Bishops of the General Synod (London: Church House Publishing, 1997), 13: ‘Any theology of the Church must ultimately be rooted in the being and acts of God: the church is first and foremost the people of God, brought into being by God, bound to God, for the glory of God’.

[79] See Ray S. Anderson, ‘A Theology for Ministry’, in Theological Foundations for Ministry (ed. Ray S. Anderson; Edinburgh/Grand Rapids: T&T Clark/Eerdmans, 1979), 6-21.

[80] David Hayward, What Jesus gets every day! (2008 [cited 17 June 2008]); available from http://nakedpastor.com/archives/2102.

[81] It is worth reminding ourselves that God does not work in ideal situations. Nor does he ever hold back waiting until our utopian visions are realised. Ministry is always messy. Just as well we serve a God who in serving us is not hesitant to get his own hands dirty – and indeed pierced. Moreover, even Jesus didn’t come to do his own thing. Neither did he ever seek ticks of approval from those to whom he was sent. Instead, his ministry was to do the will of the Father and to live by every word that proceeds from God’s mouth. God is always the prime minister in the creation and his ministry always concerns his gracious initiating and bringing into actualisation of our experience God’s own reconciliation with a besmirched and broken humanity. Authentic pastoral ministry, therefore, is done in the service of the divine Word – our participation in Christ’s ministry being a proclamation of a finished work. Denney’s comments on 2 Corinthians 5, preached during his time at Broughty Ferry, are insightful here: ‘[Reconciliation] is God’s earnest dealing with the obstacle on His own side to peace with [human beings] which prevails on [human beings] to believe in the seriousness of His love, and to lay aside distrust. It is God’s earnest dealing with the obstacle on His own side which constitutes the reconciliation; the story of it is “the word of reconciliation”; when [human beings] receive it, they receive (Rom. v. 10) the reconciliation. “Reconciliation” in the New Testament sense is not some thing which we accomplish when we lay aside our enmity to God; it is something which God accomplished when in the death of Christ He put away everything that on His side meant estrangement, so that He might come and preach peace. To deny this is to take St. Paul’s Gospel away root and branch … The putting away of [God's condemnation of the world and its sin] is “reconciliation”: the preaching of this reconciliation is the preaching of the Gospel’. And again, ‘When St. Paul says that God has given him the ministry of reconciliation, he means that he is a preacher of this peace. He ministers reconciliation to the world … It is not the main part of his vocation to tell [people] to make their peace with God, but to tell them that God has made peace with the world. At bottom, the Gospel is not good advice, but good news. All the good advice it gives is summed up in this – Receive the good news. But if the good news be taken away; if we cannot say, God has made peace, God has dealt seriously with His condemnation of sin, so that it no longer stands in the way of your return to Him; if we cannot say, Here is the reconciliation, receive it, – then for [humanity's] actual state we have no Gospel at all … When Christ’s work was done, the reconciliation of the world was accomplished’. James Denney, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1907), 212, 213-4.

[82] Pastoral ministry, therefore, can never be construed solely as the practical application or technique which makes theological knowledge ‘relevant’.

[83] Anderson, ‘Theology for Ministry’, 7. Italics mine.

[84] See Moffatt, ed., Letters of Principal James Denney, 169-70.

[85] See Anderson, ‘Theology for Ministry’, 7-9. Also Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit: a Contribution to Messianic Ecclesiology (trans. Margaret Kohl; London: SCM, 1977), 10: ‘What we have to learn … is not that the church “has” a mission, but the very reverse: that the mission of Christ creates its own church’.

[86] Taylor has suggested that ‘Perhaps the greatest lesson which [Denney] has bequeathed us is the lesson of his own person. In all that he says he is sharing a theology which has been wrought out in experience and lived out in life. His life and work stand as a challenge to men and women of this day to commit ourselves as courageously to the search for the truth which is timeless. He calls us in our own time to the serious study of theology as the adventure of our lives’. Taylor, James Denney, 189.