Hinterland Theology: A Stimulus to Theological Construction: A Review

Alan P.F. Sell, Hinterland Theology: A Stimulus to Theological Construction (Studies in Christian History and Thought; Milton Keynes/Colorado Springs/Secunderabad: Paternoster, 2008). xvi+715pp.

In his book Defending and Declaring the Faith: Some Scottish Examples 1860–1920 (1987), Alan Sell had already demonstrated his ardour and gift for bringing the dead back to life, for turning strangers into friends, and for wading the small streams and largely-inaccessible rivers on the landscape of British ecclesiastical life. Now, over two decades later, Professor Sell, in Hinterland Theology: A Stimulus to Theological Construction, turns his binoculars south to introduce readers to some other forgotten saints, to those whose writings are not the staple of general undergraduate courses. These are the second eleven (actually ten), if you like, of Nonconformist Dissent – drawn from among those who served the Church in the wake of the Toleration Act of 1689 after which there was ‘no longer one authority to which appeals on religious questions could be lodged’ (p. 54), and in the wake of the Enlightenment and the Evangelical Revival, and in the wakes of modern biblical criticism and theological liberalism. From the outset, Sell suggests that ‘we have not fully understood the Lockes and Barths of this world until we have investigated what the hinterland people made of them’ (p. 2).

Drawing upon letters, sermons, tracts and monographs, and with an eye on doctrinal controversies, the prevailing intellectual winds, and impressively alert to pastoral challenges, Sell has penned an encyclopaedic dictionary of rarely-mentioned theologians – Thomas Ridgley, Abraham Taylor (who ‘shot across the London sky like a volatile theological meteor’ (p. 41)), Samuel Chandler, George Payne, Richard Alliott, David Worthington Simon, T. Vincent Tymms, Walter Frederick Adeney, Robert S. Franks and Charles S. Duthie. Apart from Chandler, who was Presbyterian, and Tymms, who was Baptist, the rest were Congregationalists, and all but two (or perhaps three) were sons of the manse. Each chapter begins with a comprehensive biography of the chosen personality before turning to introduce and then engage with their thought, contribution and intellectual location. A familiar encore of themes appear over the period surveyed (1667 to 1981), including deism, miracles, apologetics, supernaturalism, Bible, Trinity, theism, Arianism, Calvinism, Unitarianism, Roman Catholicism, theological method, the eternal generation of the Son, kenotic christology, divine impassibility, natural theology, ecclesiology and pastoral ministry, among others, suggesting that theological adjustments and time-lags, and the ongoing ‘construction through conversations’ (p. 1) conducted by hinterland theologians, significantly stimulated the philosophico-theological landscape, and bore significant fruit – for good and for ill – in the Church.

After a brief Introduction, the book is presented in five parts. In Part One, ‘In the Wake of Toleration’, and with colour and wit, Sell introduces us to Thomas Ridgley whose ‘greatest contribution lay in the field of theological education’ (p. 13), and to Abraham Taylor and his defence against John Gill’s charge of antinomianism, and his plunge into the debates over the doctrinal declension betrayed in eighteenth-century trinitarian controversies and, in particular, his dissatisfaction in these matters with fellow Congregationalist, Isaac Watts. (Taylor charged Watts with sponsoring Sabellianism and Socinianism, with teaching that Christ possessed a super-angelic spirit, and with displaying a lack of clarity over the nature of divine personhood, among other things). Sell also introduces us to Samuel Chandler, the ‘moderate Calvinist’ and ‘apostle of liberty of conscience and freedom of thought’ (p. 85) who also wrestled with John Gill (on the relationship between morality and the will of God) and with Anthony Collins, John Locke and Thomas Morgan (on deism), and with John Guyse (on what it means to preach Christ),who spoke at Watts’ internment, who (from 1732 to 1739) was a prime advocate of the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts that precluded Dissenters from holding state or civic office’ (p. 77) and whose greatest talents most conspicuously shone forth from the pulpit.

In Part Two, ‘In the Wake of Enlightenment and Revival’, Sell considers the life and contribution of George Payne, a thinker who ‘set out to be “useful” but was perceived as “dangerous”’ (p. 123). Sell’s discussion here introduces us to the landscape of early-nineteenth century thinking on metaphysics and ethics, on moderate Calvinism, and on the Trinity. Sell turns next to the inexorable logician and winsome evangelist Richard Alliott, who was ‘among the first Congregationalists to notice Schleiermacher in print’ (p. 191) and who, while longing for the revival of the Church, insisted that there would be no revival until believers ‘experience within stronger faith in the presence and word of our God, in the finished work of Christ, [and] in the indwelling of the Spirit in our hearts’ (p. 200). But Alliot, who by 1860 held the Chair of Theology and Philosophy at Spring Hill College,  held no misconceptions that ‘piety by itself will not sustain a ministry’ and that ‘scholarship will render a preacher more effective’ (p. 203). Sell describes Alliot, who authored Psychology and Theology (1855), as ‘a theologian between the times’ in whom ‘classical theism’s cosmological-causal head came together with Romanticism’s heart, and the whole was undergirded by the Evangelical Revival’s concern for souls’ (p. 222).

Part Three is titled ‘In the Wake of Modern Biblical Criticism’. Here we are acquainted with David Worthington Simon, T. Vincent Tymms, and Walter Frederick Adeney. Describing Simon as ‘the most spiritually anguished, the slowest-burning, and the most pioneering scholar – and hence the most highly suspect – to fall with the confines of this book’ (p. 227), Sell recalls Simon’s study at Lancashire College and in Germany (a land to which he returned again), his oversight of the newly formed church at Birkenhead from 1855, and his call to serve as Resident Tutor and Professor of Theology at Spring Hill College, ‘an institution where at least relatively open theological enquiry was the order of the day’ (p. 236), and then, from 1883, as Principal of the Scottish Congregational Theological Hall in Edinburgh, and thereafter as Principal of Yorkshire United Independent College on Bradford (1893 until 1907). Alive to the changing intellectual environment, Simon, championing what Sell names as a ‘biblical-historical-pneumatic epistemology’ (p. 250), championed a marriage of both intellectual and spiritual depth, resisting attempts by some to divorce the historical and the spiritual and arguing that the soul’s relation to God is not independent of biblical facts. From Simon, Sell turns to Tymms, tracing the Baptist theologian’s journey from Regent’s Park College, to his pastorates at Berwick, Accrington and Clapton, to Vice-President of the Baptist Union of Great Britain and Ireland, to President of the London Baptist Association, and to the Presidency of Rawdon College, Leeds. Sell reflects on Tymms’ widely-read book, The Mystery of God, and his embroilment in controversies over Bible translation, particularly as such affected the Indian mission field. He notes that Tymms distinguished himself by encouraging ‘original thought among his students rather than … prepar[ing] them for examinations’ (p. 311), and by his Forsyth-like witness to the centrality of Christ’s Cross which has ‘irradiated the world with light, and is filling the moral universe with songs of everlasting joy’ (p. 317). Tymms would press further still, insisting in his stimulating and judicious book The Christian Idea of Atonement, that ‘the cross is God’s definition of Himself’ (p. 340). Moreover, the cross is, Tymms insists, the only word of theodicy available to the Christian: ‘The cross is … precious because it reveals that God is not a mere passionless watcher of an agonising evolution, but is Himself a partaker of the universal travail, and has been constrained by love to take the chief labour on Himself’ (p. 345). Sell introduces us next to Adeney, Congregationalist minister turned Professor of Church History and New Testament, whose attention to the centrality of the cross fell some way short of Tymms’, but among whose enviable gifts included an ability to ‘write at varying degrees of technicality, and … a particular concern to reach ministers, people in the pews, and children’ (p. 366). He was one of those ‘believing biblical critics’, like Westcott, Hort, Peake and W.H. Bennett, who ‘harvested the fruits of modern biblical criticism in such a way that only the most suspicious conservative evangelicals’ (p. 410) would think to accuse him of undermining Scripture. No advocate of sentimental theology, Adeney championed the truth of God’s fatherly love – love expressed in the ‘essentially Christian’ (p. 399) doctrine of the Trinity – as ‘the source and spring of the Christian gospel’ (p. 395). Still, he warned that ‘speculation about God always plunges us into darkness’, an observation which draws the following comment from Sell: ‘It is, no doubt, an unsanctified thought, but one sometimes feels that some present-day theologians think that they know as much about the inner working of the Trinity as some older Calvinist divines thought they knew about God’s inscrutable will’ (p. 411).

‘In the Wake of Theological Liberalism’ is the equally-revealing title of Part Four, and the subjects here are Robert S. Franks and Charles S. Duthie. Again, Sell locates each personality in their biographical and intellectual context before turning to introduce and appraise their writings and thoughts. Sell highlights the former’s engagement with the thought of Kant, Abelard, Anselm, and Schleiermacher, and the latter’s engagement with Pascal, Barth, Thielicke, Ferré and Tillich. Of these last two named, Duthie’s introducing of their thought to both Church and students (he spent 30 years of his life training ministers) was ‘not because [he agreed] with all the main positions they occupy but because [he felt] deeply that they are concerned to fashion a living theology for our own time, a theology which is faithful to the “given” Gospel in terms of man’s predicament today’ (p. 521). In calling the Church to its evangelistic task, Duthie suggested that we not only read Tillich with Barth in hand, but also the reverse.

After 562 pages, Sell still has more to say, and the book’s final part is a 71-page conclusion wherein Sell retraces the landscape he has just surveyed, recapitulates key themes, offers suggestions about contemporary practice, and recalls that the voices of hinterland theologians – past and present – are ‘frequently constructive, occasionally provocative, and variously stimulating. They have pertinent observations to share on our current theological agenda, and they challenge us by reminding us of some themes which we may have been inclined to overlook’ (p. 635).

Readers already familiar with Professor Sell’s writing will know that he is a meticulous researcher whose reading is extensive, whose commitment to ecumenism is exemplary, whose love for, and devotion to, the Nonconformist tradition is contagious, who is not shy of noting error and distortion of the Gospel when and where he sees it, whose acumen for critically-identifying contemporary theological trends is cultivated and well coached, and whose writing betrays not a few hours of pastorally-informed reflection. While Hinterland Theology could certainly have done with a more meticulous proof-reader, with this hefty tome Sell has given us a rich resource. That he decided to take the trouble to write this book leaves the Church in his debt. This volume will be of interest to historians, theologians, philosophers, and a must-read for those with a particular interest in British Nonconformity.

 

2 thoughts on “Hinterland Theology: A Stimulus to Theological Construction: A Review

  1. Your review of Sell’s work whetted my appetite for deep theological reading. There is something about a meticulously researched treatise that satisfies the soul. I have one work by Sell, and it spoke to my heart of a person who really gave himself to investigating and understanding his subject. Now, the reviewer has given us a rather thorough precis that awakens the painful and greedy desire for theological knowledge and understanding – perhaps to be likened to the hart that pants after the water brook. I like the salesmanship so much I will recommend it to my son who is also a minister as a tome which will challenge his mind and heart intellectually and theologically.

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  2. Jason,

    Thank you for this careful and thoughtful review. Alan Sell’s many writings over the years have helped me to better understand the often overlooked free-church tradition (my own) within the Reformed family. He has been a steadfast keeper of the flame (and the lore) of this tradition. And good to see a mention of RS Franks, whose writings on the atonement have been helpful to my work.

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