One of Scotland's greatest theologians was John Macleod Campbell. The currency of the word "greatest" is rightly suspect from overuse, like the danger of fake gold coins you need to bite it to see if it's the real thing. So the word is used advisedly - John Macleod Campbell was Scottish, a parish minister, and one of Scotland's greatest theologians. That raises the question of what makes a theologian not just good, but great. It isn't about erudition, as if accumulated knowledge, organised and well articulated into argument and demonstration to clear conclusions were itself sufficient evidence. It isn't about vastness of output, peer affirmation, popular appeal. originality in content or approach, public stature or academic recognition. These are secondary.
We are nearer an answer using phrases like creative faithfulness to the tradition, critical listening and imaginative re-thinking of that same tradition. Greatness requires such courage of personal convictions that these convictions are themselves open to examination and revision in the light of truth, and in obedience to an integrity of thought and faith required by the subject of study, God. And such thought and faith made both humble and honest by personal investment in the outcome and conclusions of the study of God, with further reflection on God's creative and redemptive ways with a recalcitrant creation, with our broken world and those creatures like ourselves made in his image and called human.
In all these senses Macleod Campbell was one of the greatest Scottish theologians. He was parish minister in Row (now Rhu), near Helensburgh on the Clyde coast. In 1831 he was deposed from his ministry by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland for his views on the nature, extent and meaning of the atonement. In 1856, a quarter of a century later, he published The Nature of the Atonement and Its relation to Remission of Sins and Eternal Life. It is a book with a long gestation, quarter of a century, written out of personal suffering, the style of writing containing long sentences of linked subordinate clauses, qualifying and clarifying in the bygoing. But it is brilliant in its distillation of profound biblical reflection, cumulative reasoned argument, pastoral intent (and intensity). Its great significance lies in its historic rootedness in the tradition of a Scottish Calvinist theology, but one in which he now called into serious question the supporting pillars and dogmatic fundaments of its limited atonement theology. Macleod Campbell was the most telling voice in the 19th Century reconfigurations of Scottish Reformed theology and its love affair with the Westminster Confession of Faith, rigidly understood. He was a faithful voice for a more generous Calvinism.
I mention all this as a way of introducing some of Macleod Campbell's reflections late in life, when the very theology for which he was deposed was becoming the widely accepted understanding of a God whose love in Christ was indeed and genuinely, a love for all, to be expressed and preached in a theology of the cross which secured the truth the Christ died for all. One clue amongst several others to the theological determination and intellectual faithfulness of Macleod Campbell to the truth of the Gospel as he saw and understood it, is in this paragraph:
"If when I am asked, "How do you know that the Bible is a Divine Revelation?" I thus answer, "Because it reveals God to me" am I to be met by the further question, "How do you know that it is God it reveals?" To such a question, the most solemn that can be addressed to a man, the answer is, that God is known as God by the light of what He is. If the Bible places me in that light, it makes me to know God and to know that I know God with a pure and ultimate certainty to which no certainty in any lower region can be compared." (The Desire of Divine Love, Leanne Van Dyk, Peter Lang, 1995, p.45)
Those who knew him recognised in that voice and those words, the humility and docility of a man who was, in a Scottish phrase, "far ben wi' God". Writing to his eldest son, again late in his life, Campbell had read Schleiermacher's biography and commented that he had "perhaps forgotten the love of God which calls to him as God's own child". There too is a clue to the theological passion with which Macleod Campbell preached and wrote of the love of God and the death of Christ for all who will come by faith. The God who loves and calls and desires fellowship with all His children, looks for an answering desire, love, and obedience of faith in receiving the gift of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.