Cunningham’s Theological Lectures

These lectures of Cunningham were first delivered in Edinburgh during the 1840s to first year seminary students who hoped to become ministers in the Free Church of Scotland. They were first published in 1878, some 17 years after Cunningham’s death, on request of his former students.

A new, paraphrased kindle edition is now available on Amazon.

The new preface (by the book’s new editor), in part says this:

The lectures by William Cunningham…, after dealing with some important preliminary matters, became an exposition of the first chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith. As such, it is a commentary on the nature of the Bible.

This work is not simply a reprint of William Cunningham’s original theological lectures. They have been paraphrased and revised to make them a little more accessible to modern readers. As such, this work is not a suitable source for academic research or referencing. The originally published text of 1878 should be used for such purposes. I hope, however, that this edited version will give the reader easier access to the theological perspectives of William Cunningham.

The text as I have amended it is still essentially a 19th century document. Many of the forms of expression are from the 1840s. Nevertheless, its language has been ‘straightened out’ by shortening very long sentences, turning passive voice to active in places, and translating the occasional Latin quotations into English. In a few places I have summarised Cunningham’s words rather than rearranged them. I have also made the language more inclusive by replacing the word ‘man’ with ‘person’, or like term, except where I believe Cunningham unambiguously meant adult male person or persons.

Cunningham’s lectures were originally published … to meet a perceived need. Some ministers of the Free Church of Scotland believed that their church was departing from its scriptural and confessional standards. They hoped that these introductory theological lectures, which they had heard from Principal Cunningham during the early 1840s, might aid the cause of Biblical truth.

Much has occurred theologically since 1878, and not all of the changes have been for the betterment of the Christian church. I believe that the theological lectures of William Cunningham can be an encouragement to Christians today – particularly to students of theology – because they state positive truths clearly. They also correct some wrong views about the Bible that are still held and promoted today. Cunningham identified and refuted them some 180 years ago.


Whose Worship is it?

I belong to a church that makes a public statement about what worship is. It does this by means of a document called the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF).

Ministers and Elders of our church each make vows saying that they agree with that document and promise to assert, maintain and  defend its propositions. They own it as a profession of their faith. The WFC begins with an extensive chapter on the Word of God. There it says that the Bible is God’s complete and alone verbal revelation to his human creatures. The Bible alone is authoritative and normative for God’s people in faith and practice. The Bible alone tells us how we must be saved and how we should respond to that salvation. God himself is the one who teaches us, by his word and Holy Spirit.

In addition to the vow to assert, maintain and defend the teaching of the WFC, ministers and elders of my church are asked whether they hold to the form of purity of worship as practised by this church. They must answer yes to be admitted to the office of teaching or ruling elder. They are free to say ‘no’ if they do not hold to it, but they would have to serve the Lord Jesus Christ in a different Christian Church if they did say ‘no’. Now, it seems to me that the promise is not simply to fall into line with whatever churches are presently doing, that is, to do whatever churches at large do for worship, but rather it is another deliberate reference to what the church publicly states to be its idea of purity of worship in the WCF.

In short, public worship (doing church) is what God has said it is to be in his word.

If this is not true in the minds of other christians, it ought at least be true for ministers and elders of my church.

The confession says this: “The acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scriptures.” WCF 21:1

This is a statement about the content of worship. Incidental matters like time, place, building design, seating comfort, and the tunes used for singing are to be decided by the local group using common sense (WCF 1:6), but the content of worship is to be received from the statements of the Bible. In short, what is prescribed (written down in the Bible) is to be done, but what is not prescribed is not to be done in public worship.

Now the WCF gives us some guidance regarding this matter. It states that the ordinary parts of public worship are: “[Prayer (WCF 21:4) and] the reading of the Scriptures with godly fear; the sound preaching and conscionable [intelligent; conscientious] hearing of the word, … singing of psalms with grace in the heart, [and] the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ.” (WCF 21:5)

This is a recognition that worship is God’s thing. He has given it to us for our benefit. Bible worship directs us to our God and his great salvation as revealed in his word. By it the Holy Spirit draws people to trust the Lord Jesus Christ and serve our Creator and saviour. I hope to say of few more things about the Bible and matters of worship in days to come.

In what way are Christians free from the Law of God?

I believe that the law of God, summarised in the 10 Commandments, still ‘binds’ Christians – that is, those whose sins are absolutely forgiven by God simply on the basis of who Jesus Christ is and what he alone has done. This means, for instance, that I do not think that Christians are free to disregard these commandments, nor do I think God’s law may be regarded simply as ‘wisdom’ literature, although wisdom is certainly there. It is God’s law, and as such it clearly reflects the character of him who does not change. God, in his law, unambiguously states how he requires his human creatures to behave.

As an elder in my local church, I’ve promised to assert, maintain and defend the teaching of the Westminster Confession of Faith. I’ve declared that this confession expresses the sense in which I understand the Bible’s teaching, and as such, the WCF is a confession of my own faith. In chapter 19:v of that confession, it states that the law of God ‘does for ever bind all, as well justified persons [Christians] as others, to the obedience thereof’.  I believe this because I believe it is what the Bible teaches. Now, I understand that the relationship of human beings to the law of God has been a vexed one for a very long time. The vexing nature of it is wholly due to our fallen, sinful condition. What follows is how I understand the relationship works for Christians.

The position of the Old Testament saints — those of Israel and other nations who had been brought by God’s grace to trust the Gospel — seems to be fairly clear.  God had chosen the Israelite nation, before it existed, in Abraham, the man of faith. In saying this, I am reminded by Paul that not all Israel were true children of Abraham by faith. Nevertheless, God rescued the nation Israel from Egypt by virtue of the blood of the Passover lamb (which lamb pointed to Jesus).  This indicates that the Israelites in their own person deserved to meet with the angel of death just as much as the Egyptians. Both groups were sinful people. The only reason the first born of Israel survived that night long ago was because of the substitute that God provided, the passover lamb who died in the place of Israel’s first born. Israel was rescued from Egyptian slavery and brought to the mountain of God to received his law.

This law was never intended to save anyone but, as indicated in Ex 20:1, it was intended for the people whom God had already saved. This reality was always in the context of the sacrificial system which displayed to sinners their release from death through the replacement death of God’s appointed substitute. The covenant (Ex 25) was also sealed in the blood of an acceptable sacrifice. That acceptable sacrifice was not really a bull or lamb or goat (this was acknowledged by David and others long before the birth of Christ) but the Lord Jesus himself to whom these sacrifices pointed.

Israel’s main failure was not their inability to keep God’s law perfectly. It was in their failing to hold to the Good News which the sacrificial system set forth. The sacrificial system anticipated the believer’s personal failure and it brought comfort to the sinner-saints, reminding them that God would provide an acceptable sacrifice for his people — those sinners who trusted the message of forgiveness.  The Old Testament sacrifices did a similar job to that which the Lord’s Supper does today. The first pointed forward to Jesus, the latter points back to Jesus. Again, Israel’s real failure was that it kept on rejecting the true God and his Good News (gospel) for other gods and non-gospels. In the main, they were not regenerated, though there were some who really did believe God’s promises and were saved. Jeremiah 31:33-34 points to the days when the true Israel (the church of Jesus Christ from every nation) will be brought to trust the Gospel by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The religious leaders in the days of Jesus had a slightly different problem. They claimed to keep the law, but as Jesus showed clearly, they had rejected both the law and the Old Testament presentation of the Gospel. If they had held to the OT faith, they would have received Jesus with open arms. As the New Testament also points out, the Law was never meant to save, but it was for those who are saved. The language of Ex 19 is taken up by Peter in the second chapter of his first letter. Keeping God’s law is part of how the church shows forth the praises of Him who called them out of darkness into His marvellous light. Paul in Romans 6 urges those who are saved by grace to live like saved people, using their body parts as weapons for righteousness rather than for sin. Obviously, the law is useful for convicting people of their personal sin so they can see the need for the Saviour, but in the context of Ex 20 and the New Testament, the law is for the people of God as they live in this sinful world. The law reminds Christians that they are always dependent on Jesus, which is to keep them gospel focused (for by the works of the law is no one justified). It is also to be a light to their feet and a lamp to their path regarding right and wrong, and show them what love looks like in practice.

Of course, efforts at law-keeping, such as they might be, do not and cannot contribute to a Christian’s salvation in any way, but nevertheless I do think the law is more than wisdom literature. It is, in fact, the rule by which we are to live as God’s people. Christians are to flee sin, and sin, as 1 John 3:4 tells us, is lawlessness.  Interestingly, the same apostle twice indicated in the book of Revelation two features that distinguish Christians from non-Christians. The first was that they ‘keep the commandments of God’, the second feature was expressed as ‘and [they keep] the testimony of Jesus’ or ‘the faith of Jesus’ (Rev. 12:17 & 14:12).  These are people saved by the grace of Jesus alone.

Again, the law is shown to be binding by the very nature of Christ’s obedience to it for us. We are to be followers of Christ. Christians are to do what he did. This is to be their aim. In this sense, the law is to be aspirational for the Christian. As saved people Christians are to live for Christ, and to say with David ‘Oh how I love your law’. Only a saved person can say that sincerely, and it should only be said with humility.

The great news, then, is that the law no longer condemns Christians because Jesus alone has lived and died  and has risen again in their place. Those who trust Jesus are free from the law of sin and death. The death that the law demands for our sin no longer has a hold on those who trust Jesus Christ. James, in his letter, calls the 10 Commandments the law of liberty (James 2:25) – God’s law is for those who have been set free from condemnation by the finished work of Christ. Christians have been made free and are kept free by their great God and Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. They can now live in order to love and obey him.