Thursday, January 26, 2017

Robert Burns & Hyper-Calvinism

There’s no doubt that Rabbie Burns  (1759-96) had an aversion to Calvinism. I see this aversion in his own writings. Also, I’ve just finished (re-)reading James Barke’s quintet novelization of Rabbie’s life story, in which he brings out Rabbie’s anti-Calvinism loud and clear. However, it tends to be a caricature of Calvinism that’s being attacked by him – what we theologically-minded folk call “hyper-calvinism”.

William Fisher (buried in Ochiltree Cemetery) of “Holy Willie’s Prayer” fame (or infamy) is a prime example of hyper-calvinism (which, of course, has as much to do with Calvinism as Arminianism!) Also, James Barke in “The Wonder of All the Gay World” (the third volume of Barke’s Burns quintet) makes a big deal out of Rabbie supposedly demolishing the morality of one of the Bible’s heroes of faith, ie, King David, (adulterer, murderer etc.) Barke (and maybe Burns himself) seem totally oblivious to the fact that, unlike Freemasonry, Christianity (and certainly Calvinism) is not a system of morality! King David, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses et all are pathetic examples of morality. As am I! These all show our need of a Saviour, ie, that perfect human being, Jesus Christ! In other words, all human beings (apart from Jesus) are immoral. This is what Calvinism teaches.

Though Burns does seem to warm towards “Daddie Auld”, a Presbyterian minister in Machline, “Holy Willie” (as portrayed by Burns) is a gross distortion of Calvinists. Holy Willie is a straw-man argument that has served to help Calvinists like me get verbally whacked in Scotland! Eg, on two different trips to Scotland, I have been verbally abused by militant Atheists. Upon my being introduced as a Presbyterian minister, they have felt the need to declare their hatred for God while gnashing their teeth and swearing at me – before I have even uttered a word! Also, I was amazed at the way some Scots spit at the mere mention of the name “John Knox”. When pressed, they are unable to articulate why they hate Knox, but only that they hate him! For all that, Calvinist Knox is still one of my Scottish heroes! I’m presently enjoying reading “John Knox” by Jane Dawson, (a book that a friend kindly sent me as a gift).

Anyway, back to the subject we are discussing (ie, Rabbie’s aversion to Calvinism). From what I can see, Rabbie never attacked Calvinism! I qualify this bold statement by stating the following: It was that gross distortion called hyper-calvinism that was the subject of the indelible and vitriolic ink that filled Robert Burns’ immortal poison-pen. Therefore, from this Calvinist, kudos to Rabbie for showing the hypocrisy of hyper-calvinism!

Footnote: To become a Freemason, Rabbie would have had to declare a belief in an albeit undefined Supreme Being to gain entrance into the inner workings of the Masonic Lodge. This declaration qualifies him, at the very least, to be called a Deist.

In his “Holy Willie’s Prayer” Burns paints the Mauchline Parish Church’s Elder, William Fisher, as a religious hypocrite. Apparently, he would literally spy through bedroom windows and visit pubs etc., collecting intel (read “gossip”) and report it back to the Church’s Session (ie, Board of Elders), and the local Presbytery (ie, an administrative court consisting of a body of elders and ministers). The hypocrisy is that at times he himself would be guilty of indulging in the debauchery he was condemning.
In the poem, “Holy Willie’s Prayer”, Burns, while acknowledging Calvinist teachings, (such as Original Sin, Predestination and Election), shows that “Holy Willie” is offside with his Church’s Session and with the Presbytery, when these failed to admonish a friend of Burns, one Gavin Hamilton, for travelling and working, instead of reading his Bible, on the Sabbath. This serves to illustrate that Fisher was in conflict with the Church. Eg, “Holy Willie” prays the following:
“Lord, hear my earnest cry and pray’r,
Against that Presbyt’ry o’ Ayr;
Thy strong right hand, Lord mak it bare
Upo’ their heads;
Lord visit them, an’ dinna spare,
For their misdeeds.”
Fisher viewed Burns and Hamilton as “non-elect”, and as such, and in accordance with his Hyper-Calvinism, had no love whatsoever for them, nor showed any grace towards them, believing that he was operating in accordance with God’s view of them. Hyper-Calvinism does not hold the Calvinist Doctrine of “Common Grace”, which teaches that God’s grace extends to all people that on earth do dwell, and not just His elect. Apparently Gavin Hamilton eventually died in a ditch…

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