The Quotable Rabbi Duncan

I first encountered Rabbi Duncan a few years ago, via his (famous?) statement to a congregant who was reluctant to partake of the Supper because of her sin; “Take it, woman, it’s for sinners!” was his exhortation.

Rev. Prof. John Duncan was not actually a Rabbi, but a 19th century Scottish pastor and theologian, who earned that nickname because of his reputation as a Hebrew scholar, and passion for the Jewish people.

So when I was browsing the church library this morning, and came across a volume titled The Life of Rabbi Duncan (first published 1872), I took a peek, and found a chapter of “Miscellaneous Sayings.” He’s got quite a few gems, so I thought I’d share some:

Here he takes “damning with faint praise” to a new level, describing some pastor named Robertson:

Robertson believed that Christ did something or other, which, somehow or other, had some connexion or other with salvation.

This next I found to be an interesting glimpse into a discussion of death before the Fall (I think…)

that is rash theorizing of Delitzsch’s about the palaeontological animals suffering death for the devil’s sin. A brute’s death can never be penal. Where there is no conscience there can be nothing penal. It is strange how far grotesque speculation carries some men.

A few about Plato, and common grace:

Platonism is the grandest effort of the unaided mind of main; but truth, according to Plato’s loftiest conceptions, was only an abstraction, a thing (to kalon kagathon). Revelation introduces us to One who can say, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.” Platonism has to do with it — Christianity with Him.

The Christian Fathers found salvation only in Christ; but they had a bleeding heart for Plato, whose philosophy one of them called ‘a sigh for Christ.’

My heart bleeds when I think of Plato. God keeps in the consciences of men a knowledge and feeling of obligation to moral law, in some much more than others. And so such heathen philosophers were God’s scavengers to keep God’s prison-house clean — ‘My prison-house is not to be allowed to be so dirty as you would make it.’

Here’s a couple good ones about Arminianism and (Hyper-)Calvinism:

Hyper-Calvinism is all house and no door; Arminianism is all door and no house.

The Hyper-Calvinist is more consistent than the Arminian. Calvinism and Pelagianism are the only consistent systems. Arminianism is utterly inconsistent and irrational. I have talked with many Wesleyan Methodists, and I have generally found that they have no objection to being dealt with on the principles of Calvinism; but they are somehow jealous for the ultimate destiny of the universe on these principles. I think their concession of more consequence than their reservation.

On the knowledge possessed by OT saints:

We must not unsaint the Old Testament saints, but we must not make Pentecostal Christians of them.

Sin and the curse:

Sin is the infinitely horrible, the Curse is the infinitely terrible, and salvation from that horrible is not enough without salvation from that terrible, while deliverance from that terrible is impossible without salvation from that horrible.

Men don’t realize that ‘the curse of the Law’ is blessed. By the curse of the law overlapping it, sin had a right to hold the sinner while he is under the ban of the Empire. But then, the sin itself is cursed; and our depravity, whence the sin proceeds, is divinely removable. It is irremovable but for the curse of the Law — the curse upon the sin. That ‘but for’ is an important addition. That we should be saved and our sins also is an impossibility; consequently the plan of our salvation must combine the destruction of our sin and the salvation of our persons, and both together. Sin, by being condemned, loses the power which the law gave it to hold us, and so the ‘sin shall not have dominion over us’.

Inspiration of the Apostolic Writings:

It is a grand evidence for the inspiration of the Apostles, that the theology of the post-Apostolic fathers is so puerile. That cannot be accounted for on any other principle than the inspiration of the Apostles. God created the world, and infant philosophy began; God created the Bible, and infant theology began.

And finally, my favorite, an anecdote from his family:

[To his grandson] “You are a little sinner” Miss R.: “He is not responsible.” (He was nine months old.) “He is responsible, but I hope he has a Sponsor.”


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11 Responses to The Quotable Rabbi Duncan

  1. justsinner99 says:

    My personal favorite: “Hyper-Calvinism is all house and no door; Arminianism is all door and no house.” I may have to use that some time.

  2. RubeRad says:

    That is a good one, but you’re ‘justsinner’, you should like the last one the best!

  3. cath says:

    He is eminently quotable! There’s a collection of his sayings grandly titled Colloquia Peripatetica, published by one of his contemporaries (and actually available to read here), and a more contemporary collection which i guess will be available on Amazon, by John Brentnall.

    He was apparently very quaint although obviously a deep thinker and he was one of the solidly calvinistic professors in the Free Church College before/while it (the College) started to relax its orthodoxy in the second half of the C19th (ie rationalistic and Higher Critical views, denying/undermining the infallibility of Scripture etc).

    Could Robertson in your first quote have been Robertson of Brighton? Hugh Martin, who would have been one of Duncan’s contemporaries, interacted extensively with this Robertson’s views on the atonement in Martin’s classic work, The Atonement – he would have been an Anglican clergyman i think, and Duncan’s sarcasm about his doctrine is entirely deserved!

  4. RubeRad says:

    Good call cath, the book actually says the quote is in reference to “Rev F. W. Robertson (late of Brighton)”

    So how does the fall of the Free Church College coincide/relate to the fall of Princeton?

  5. cath says:

    V interesting question. I don’t know one single thing about Princeton, but I’ll ramble on quite happily about the Free Church College. It was staffed to start with (ie from the formation of the Free Church in 1843) by thoroughly good eggs – William Cunningham, George Smeaton, James Buchanan, et al. John Duncan was more or less the last of the old guard.

    By the time the second generation of professors was installed, from say the 1850s-60s onwards, the dominant approach was the trendy German one – Schleiermacher and Wellhausen have a lot to answer for, eg. John Duncan’s own successor was AB Davidson, and his student and eventually a professor was a William Robertson Smith, who was (eventually, reluctantly) put on trial for heresy because of some of his views on Scripture (did Moses really write the Pentateuch, should the Bible be approached the same as any other book, etc).

    Other dodgy characters from the same time were Profs Marcus Dods and AB Bruce – again their views of the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture were faulty and some of them were also part of the retreat away from the historic Calvinistic doctrines on the nature and extent of the atonement.

    There were all sorts of rumblings in the church, and in the church courts, throughout especially the 1860s, 70s, 80s… It must have been a thoroughly unhappy time, the second half of the C19th, especially given the huge wave of optimism and celebration that had greeted the formation of the Free Church in 1843. But the issue in 1843 had been the spiritual independence of the church, and (as it transpired) lots of people could be on the side of the angels in that dispute without necessarily remaining committed to the (much more fundamental) church doctrines of inspiration or atonement. By the end of the C19th ministers trained in the Free Church’s Colleges were saying quite openly from pulpits and on the floor of the General Assembly that the Confession of Faith was outdated, overly long and complicated, harsh and vengeful, basically not appropriate for the kinder, gentler Christianity their enlightened minds led them to embrace… you know the kind of thing.

    So with the Confession itself discredited, attempts to use it as a benchmark of orthodoxy became less and less compelling. The lowest point of all came in the early 1890s when the General Assembly passed a ‘relieving act’ to the effect that subscription to the whole Confession was no longer required from officebearers (and from then on, things get even more hideously complicated (doctrinal shifts, innovations in worship, mergers and splits, …) let’s not go there).

    I find it a fascinating period overall – lots of major social, technological and intellectual changes. But just the usual story really. Doctrinal standards getting relaxed behind the scenes till enough of a majority builds up that the Confession itself gets officially demoted, and all the while the culprits protesting that they really still believe all the important things. The rapidity of the change in what seemed like an irrevocably orthodox communion (timescale 1843-1893) is perhaps the most sobering thing of all.

    So – Princeton?!

  6. RubeRad says:

    Wow, that’s a lot of great information. It sounds like what I’ve heard about Princeton, the gradual encroach of German liberalism. The last great generation was Hodge, Warfield, etc. and the last holdout was Geerhardus Vos (here’s a fascinating little bio), who didn’t want to join Machen, Van Til, Murray etc. in founding Westminster in 1929. You may also find some tidbits in this memoir (which I helped to publish!)

  7. Zrim says:

    Talk about quotability:

    “And that is why when we read Vos, we are reading a man who understands—understands the critics and unmasks their presuppositions by reducing their systems to the horizontal plane, above which no critical approach can rise. And, I may add, Vos unmasks the agenda of conservative systems—even fundamentalistic and broad evangelical moralism—which imitates liberalism by reducing the Biblical text to the horizontal. For modern conservatives, “practical” is a synonym for non-eschatological.”

  8. cath says:

    Nah, sorry, JRD def has the edge on the quotability front.

    Sounds like Princeton might have succumbed slightly later than the FC then? I’ll have a look at your memoir. I guess it’s a bit annoying to ask for the e-book here, so I’ll put up a separate comment over there.

  9. Borxoi says:

    Another memorable quote from Rabbi Duncan: “That God works half and man works half is false; that God works all and man works all is true.”

  10. Ian Maclean says:

    Pacing back and forth in his lecture room one day with tears his students overheard him say …poor plato, he knew so much but did not know the saviour…

  11. RubeRad says:

    Nice! Thanks for dropping another quote for us

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