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Scotland: Crucial Debate – Evangelicals Now

This is the lead article in this months Evangelicals Now


On 30 September David Robertson participated in a debate with the Revd Scott McKenna, in his Mayfield /Salisbury Church of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Figure Image
The view down the Royal Mile in Edinburgh |

This debate had arisen because of Mr McKenna’s sermon on YouTube in which he declared that Christ dying for our sins is ‘ghastly theology’. David Robertson, who is Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland, wrote a response to which McKenna objected. The two men met and had a good conversation and decided to hold that conversation in public.

The subject of the nature of Christ’s work on the cross as substitutionary atonement is crucial for Evangelicalism and drew many to come and listen. Over 250 people gathered on a Wednesday evening to hear this theological discussion.

David Robertson reflected on the debate, answering a number of questions for en.

en: How would you describe the strength of the evangelical view of the cross?
The liberal gospel cannot stand before the biblical gospel. The narrative is usually that an evangelical biblical understanding is a dumbed-down fundamentalism that is easily swept away by the enlightened, compassionate learning of the liberal interpretation.

The trouble is that contemporary liberal theology is a house of cards. When it comes into contact with a more robust, solid biblical theology it is easily blown apart. There were so many examples of this in the debate itself. (You can read the full transcript at 8/a-theological-conversation-with-scott-mckenna/) The liberal often uses a simplistic version of theology/history and language to confuse people. Scott, for example, at first declared that the doctrine of the atonement came about through Anselm, but during the debate he said it was invented by Calvin! Scott tried to claim that the Church Fathers supported his view, but was unable to substantiate his claims (at this point I was very thankful for the habit I have had for many years of reading ten pages from the church fathers each day!).

en: What do you think the debate says about the Church of Scotland?
Sadly, I think the liberal establishment of the Church of Scotland is rotten to the core. I don’t say this because as a Free Church minister I am engaged in some kind of turf war.

In fact I stated at the beginning that my purpose in taking part in the debate was to defend the traditional theology of the Church of Scotland and my brothers and sisters within it who share the same Christian faith. I would love to see that denomination renewed and reformed.

However my experience, confirmed by this debate, is that the poisonous extreme liberal theology espoused by Scott is not only allowed and protected within the Kirk, it is at its very heart. We had agreed that the debate would be chaired by the amiable current CofS Moderator, the Revd Dr Angus Morrison (an evangelical) and that it would be filmed and put on the Internet because of the widespread interest in the subject. However, the Moderator was compelled to withdraw because he had lost his voice and was replaced by the Assembly Clerk, John Chalmers. And although the debate was recorded, it was not put online.

When I pointed out that we had an agreement, I was just told that the tapes had been ordered to be destroyed because it was not a ‘good witness’. The fact is that the Church of Scotland establishment were determined that the debate should not be publicised or put online, because they did not want the ordinary Christians who remain within the Church of Scotland, to realise just how far the Church has gone into error.

This quote from the following letter I received from a lifelong Church of Scotland couple helps explain why: ‘We too were horrified to learn in March of Mr McKenna’s denial of the atonement. We protested to Edinburgh Presbytery expecting disciplinary action. None was forthcoming and we felt made to feel wrong for mentioning this fundamental aspect of the faith.’ It would seem that in the interests of damage limitation, and to prevent more people joining the growing exodus from the CofS, the evidence was buried.

en: Why have the liberals taken over ?
DR: Evangelicals have lost the battle because they are fighting the wrong battles. A few years ago I was told by a leading evangelical within the CofS 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 influence 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 and playing the game of telling everyone how wonderful they are. It’s also about prophetic leadership and having the guts to challenge the status quo and the power cliques within the organisation. It’s about speaking truth into power. CofS evangelicals are currently fighting a losing battle to stop SSM being recognized by the Kirk. Why are they not taking up the baton, dealing with the denial of what the Bible says is of ‘first importance’? My fear is that, for some evangelicals, the main battle they are fighting is to try and persuade evangelicals to remain within, rather than deal with the heresies of those who are their colleagues.

The ‘hurt feelings/love’ card is continually used to negate any serious discussion. In this way they can proclaim themselves as ‘loving’ and their opponents as nasty. For example, Scott 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 recognise the body and blood of Christ. We do not worship the same Christ.

Immediately someone tweeted: ‘Free Church minister excommunicates another clergyman who’s not even a member of his denomination.’ This was to misunderstand and trivialise the exchange.

en: What pressures did you feel were on you in the debate?
Phenomenal pressure! 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 tempted to go along with this. After all I could have been nice, and 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. I know that the Israelites were told to have no other gods except God. I know that they were not allowed to pick and mix between Yahweh and the idols of the nations.

I know that the early Christians came under enormous pressure to admit that Caesar was Lord as well as Jesus. They could easily have said Jesus is Lord and then bowed to Caesar as well (to keep the peace, and their heads). But they didn’t. They loved Jesus. They were faithful unto death. To stand in front of that crowded church and give into 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. I am not Martin Luther, but this was for me a Lutheresque moment – ‘Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God’.

You can see earlier reports of this on my blog:




  1. Do you accept David that the comment “rotten to the core” is inflammatory?

    I began my journey within evangelicalism attending a church that I am grateful for with a foundation of biblical teaching. This encouraged me then to leave work and study theology in an evangelical institution which tragically fell into decline and then ceased to exist. I am grateful for that experience too. There is no doubt that Evangelicalism has much to offer.

    However I’ve also encountered hostility within Evangelicalism to outsiders. It disturbed me and continues to disturb me when I encounter this.

    My response is some people are liberal – get over it.

    Now I know David you will probably not let this get past your moderation or if you do make it out to be waffle, me to be a “woolly liberal” a supporter of heresy etc. That’s OK it’s your blog. Do what you want.

    However, in the CofS congregation I am part of I never more have been at peace or connected with Jesus and the word, with biblical teaching second to none and knowing the love and empowerment of God like never before.

    1. “Do you accept David that the comment “rotten to the core” is inflammatory?” – Nope. Not if it is the truth. Which it is.

      “However I’ve also encountered hostility within Evangelicalism to outsiders.” – Me too. And I have encountered hostility in every group towards outsiders. What I would not do is make a generalisation and condemn the lot.

      “My response is some people are liberal – get over it.” – Yep – just like some people are racist – get over it. Some people are thieves – get over it. Some people are adulterers – get over it. You get the point?

      1. Yes I too have encountered hostility to outsiders from all groups. Something that the apostle Paul addressed between Jewish and gentile Christians, but is it in keeping with the Christian walk?

        You claim is that your statement “I think the liberal establishment of the Church of Scotland is rotten to the core” is not inflammatory, but the truth and not a “generalisation and condemn the lot”. And you equate liberals (as in “the liberal gospel”) with racists, thieves and adulterers.

        Yeah I “get the point”.

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