‘Do you believe Jesus died for your sins?’ “With grace I replied, no, no, no, no…that’s ghastly theology…you don’t want to go there.”
Those are the words of Rev. Scott McKenna, the minister of Mayfield Salisbury Church of Scotland (CofS) in Edinburgh, Scotland. The CofS is the national church in Scotland, a Presbyterian denomination dating back to the Protestant Reformation in Scotland.
If John Knox (1513-1572) knew the state of the CofS today, he would turn in his grave!
Rev. David Robertson, the Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland (FCofS) responded to McKenna’s gospel-denying heresy on his blog, prompting a meeting between the two men.1 In the course of their meeting, they agreed to address the issues in a public forum. On September 30, 2015, the two men presented their arguments in Mayfield Salisbury Church on two important topics—the nature of the Bible and the nature of the atonement. McKenna, as a good liberal, came to dialogue. Robertson, as a convinced Evangelical, came prepared to preach and defend the gospel. Although Mayfield Salisbury CofS advertised it as a “public conversation,” Robertson knew that the issues at stake were very serious indeed. In his blog, he writes:
I found myself walking down South Clerk Street towards Salisbury Mayfield Church of Scotland. I was in a literal cold sweat to the extent that I wondered if I was going to collapse. Why was I in such a state? Because I felt I was walking into the lions’ den. I was there to debate Rev. Scott McKenna, minister of the Church, on the Bible, the atonement and the future of the church in Scotland. 2
Upon arriving at the venue, the (former) Moderator of the CofS, John Chalmers, informed Robertson that the debate would not be recorded, contrary to what had been previously agreed. When Robertson insisted that a recording be made, they agreed. However, some days after the date, McKenna informed Robertson that, although the debate was recorded, the video had been destroyed on his (McKenna’s) instructions.
Why was the video of such an important debate destroyed? McKenna’s reason was Robertson “had hurt Scott [McKenna’s] feelings.”3 What had Robertson done to hurt McKenna’s feelings? He had told McKenna to his face and in front of a live audience of over 250 people that he did not consider McKenna to be a fellow believer, and that, if McKenna were a member of the FCofS, he would “excommunicate” him!
This gives a fascinating insight into theological liberalism. Anything is tolerable, and dialogue is welcome, as long as no one takes a stand or insists that truth is truth. For Robertson (rightly) to call McKenna an unbeliever—even though he did it nicely, and with great reluctance and a breaking heart—is something that the theological liberal cannot tolerate. Listen to Robertson’s analysis:
Scott [McKenna] had said that at least we don’t excommunicate one another, to which I responded that if he was in my church, sadly, I would have to excommunicate him, because he does not recognize the body and blood of Christ. We do not worship the same Christ. That seems to be a fairly obvious and Christian position. Scott regarded the notion of excommunicating another Christian, as being so offensive that it could not be put on the Internet. He had no problem in putting on the Internet that the notion that Jesus died for our sins is “ghastly theology,” but suggesting that any church might excommunicate anyone for denying basic Christian doctrine was a step too far. Indeed, so appalling that the tapes must be destroyed.
I was under phenomenal pressure on Wednesday night. JC (John Chalmers) did not mind me arguing about theology; neither did Scott, as long as I was prepared to admit that we were all Christians who were on the same road, following the same Christ. I felt pressured and was tempted. After all, I could have been nice, said that whilst we disagreed we were all Christian brothers and sisters and gone home saying that I had stood for the Gospel by arguing for the atonement, the Bible, and Jesus. Everyone would have been happy. Except me. Because I know my Bible. And I know my Lord…. To stand in front of that crowded church and give in to the pressure to affirm the confused liberal non-existent Christ of Scott, as the same as the Christ of the Scriptures, would have been a betrayal of all that is sacred, holy, and beautiful. If my answer upset people (and some clearly were), and if it upset Scott, then I am truly sorry, but that is a price I have to pay. I actually hate upsetting people, especially those I like. But I am not going to deny Christ, in order to bow to personal or political pressure.4
Happily, Robertson was suspicious before the debate started. He asked a friend to record the debate on his phone, so that there would be a permanent record. In addition to that audio recording, Robertson’s friends made a verbatim transcript of the entire debate. Both are available on Robertson’s blog.
The CofS participants destroyed the video, but the evidence is intact. Robertson throws down the gauntlet:
As I warned John and Scott in the vestry before the meeting—any attempt to suppress the debate would rebound badly upon them. They either did not listen, or thought that the benefits of suppressing the truth were worth the risk of the bad publicity. Well now they have both the bad publicity and the truth. Spin that.
Given the importance of the debate, I quote from the transcript.5 It shows just how “ghastly” the theology of McKenna is. The following quotations are from McKenna:
And so the first thing is, the Bible is something with which we interact, and it brings you, your soul alive. The Spirit in the Scripture can bring your soul alive and that’s certainly my experience and I suspect it may be the experience of many people here this evening. It’s amazing how powerful it can be. So I have this sense that it is inspired, or God-breathed.
So the Bible is in a sense, a God-inspired human document which has been shaped by the Spirit of God but written by these respective communities. And they were trying to express their faith, their experience of The Sacred, trying to put into words almost that which was inexpressible, and that seems to me what the Bible is about. It brings together mythology, spirituality, liturgy, fragments of history, and they’re all woven together.
I hope the reader can recognize the liberal doublespeak here—when a liberal claims that the Bible is “inspired,” or even “God-breathed,” he/she does not mean that the very words of the Bible are truth, but that the Bible is inspiring, and that it moves the reader spiritually or religiously.
Here is what McKenna teaches about the cross:
I was talking about penal substitutionary atonement, which is the notion that, in order to satisfy the wrath, the anger of God who had been offended by the sin of man, Jesus had to die as a blood sacrifice to pay for this sin, in order to satisfy the wrath of God. Now I would be saying that I think this leaves us with a fairly despotic… despot of a god; a barbaric god who is vindictive and immoral.
Atonement is oneness with God; union with God; intimacy with the Sacred. That’s what atonement is and I think that many people within the church crave that, absolutely crave that.
There were plenty of ways in which people could have their sins forgiven without a blood sacrifice. Most of the sacrifices at the Temple had nothing to do with sin. Nothing to do with sin at all. And Jesus teaches his own disciples. He says to them forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. No blood sacrifice. He taught his disciples that you can have your sins forgiven by prayer, by penitential prayer, by repentance, by acts of charity. So there are alternative models available.
So there is a lot of different perspectives on atonement and I think atonement at the end, and I’ll finish with this, at the end is all about our union and intimacy with the Sacred. God is able to forgive without requiring a blood sacrifice and the prophet said that, “I don’t want your blood sacrifices.”
Liberals believe in a relationship with God without the satisfaction of God’s justice. They are even happy to explore various “models” by which Christ makes us “one” with God—the “At-One-Ment” of which McKenna speaks. The Moderator of the debate, John Chalmers, sums up the liberal mindset with his question to Robertson, “Can you live with those differences of view on the nature of the Atonement?” (in other words, can we agree to disagree on the various “models”?). It was Robertson’s “No” that McKenna found so offensive, and led to an attempted burial of the debate. Robertson scandalized McKenna and all liberals with his uncompromising defense of the truth:
The scandal is not that Jesus says, “Oh, God will accept everyone, isn’t that scandalous?” I will go out on the street and ask anybody, “Do you think God will accept you?” “Oh, yes.” I’ll tell you what the scandal is. The scandal is that God won’t accept you unless your sins are forgiven through the death of his Son Jesus Christ on the cross. That’s what they hate. They hate the theology of the cross.
After the debate, Robertson excoriated the establishment of the CofS: “Its prophet is Machiavelli rather than Christ. It is deceitful, manipulative and political. As many who have left the CofS can testify, the establishment is also bullying and vindictive.” (At the same time, Robertson expresses deep love and concern for the people of the CofS, and especially for the evangelicals who choose to continue in the denomination).
Robertson challenges the members of the CofS: “The unpalatable truth for evangelicals and traditional Presbyterians is that Scott McKenna is not on the eccentric fringes of the Church of Scotland. He is one of its mainstream leaders who I suspect is being lined up for higher office.” This is the theology openly espoused in the CofS, for which there is no discipline. The CofS has (long ago) lost the marks of the true church.
Robertson’s words to those who hang on in such an apostate denomination are stirring. Do they want to re main in the CofS and fight for the gospel? “I am prepared to say, ‘fair enough, go for it,’ with one caveat. If God has called you to remain and fight—then fight!”
How deceptive is the conscience-soothing attitude of some! Robertson cuts through the pretense, explicitly stating what “fighting” means:
And please, “stand up and fight” does not mean go away and write another paper, have another conference, set up yet another evangelical group to talk to yourselves. You are Presbyterian men and women. Behave as such. Forget the politics and the quiet infiltration. Don’t fall for the fantasy of the “one more push and we will have the great evangelical victory.” Be open. Be up front. Love the Lord and his people and the people of Scotland with passion and purity. Pray. Repent. Have faith. Preach the Word.
You can just be honest and give up on any hope of the Church being reformed and renewed (even if you throw in a bit of pietistic revivalism to give the flock hope) and instead decide to stay to look after your own local congregation. You can decide to abandon any pretence of real Presbyterianism, act as an independent congregation, refuse to send up funds to central funds and prepare your congregation for being thrown out. Because that is what will eventually happen.
A few years ago I was told by a leading evangelical within the C of S that the strategy now was to get a seat at the table, get more evangelicals as conveners and even moderator. In one sense that has worked. In another it has been a disaster. What’s the point of having a seat at the table, if you don’t get to determine the menu? How can you be neutral or “moderate” in any position of power, when it comes to the basics of the Gospel? Political power in the church is not just about sitting on committees, attending receptions, kissing babies, and playing the game of telling everyone how wonderful they are, and how hunky dory everything is. It’s also about prophetic leadership and having the guts to challenge the status quo and the power cliques within the organization.6
To which I add my “Amen.” Or to paraphrase Elijah, “How long halt ye between two opinions? If the Christ of Reformed Evangelicalism be God, follow Him; but if the (non-atoning) Christ of Liberalism be God, then follow Him” (see). And then follow the true Christ out of the CofS! We need more Elijahs in the CofS, and in all departing churches. May those faithful few who still cling to wreckage of the CofS lead God’s people out of that synagogue of Satan, and away from Christ-denying heretics like Scott McKenna! When they do, let them be prepared to bear Elijah’s reproach: “Art thou he that troubleth Israel?” ( ).
1 The FCofS split from the CofS during the “Disruption” of 1843 under the leadership of Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847). In 1900, the FCofS joined with the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland to form the United Free Church of Scotland, which then re-united with the CofS in 1929. The FCofS, of which David Robertson is the Moderator, is that part of the FCofS that remained outside the union and retains the name FCofS. Affectionately, by some, they are known as the “Wee Frees.”
2 David Robertson, “The Scottgate Tapes—A Revealing Insight into the Current State of the Church of Scotland,” The Wee Flea Blog, October 6-10, 2015, https://theweeflea.wordpress.com/2015/10/06/the-scottgate-tapes-a-revealing-insight-into-thecurrent-state-of-the-church-of-scotland/) [accessed December, 10, 2015].
3 Robertson, “Scottgate Tapes.”
4 Robertson, “Scottgate Tapes.”
5 David Robertson, “A Theological Conversation with Scott McKenna—Full Transcript,” The Wee Flea Blog, October 8-9, 2015, https://theweeflea.wordpress.com/2015/10/08/a-theologicalconversation-with-scott-mckenna/#more-1819 [accessed December, 10, 2015].
6 David Robertson, “The Scottgate Tapes.”