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Reformed and Evangelical: The Historical Context of “The Sum of Saving Knowledge”

In the back of our bound standards, there is a curious little work. It does not bear the same status as an official document of our church, but it is there, nonetheless. The Sum of Saving Knowledge not only represents the doctrine of our confession, it demonstrates a searching concern that the gospel is understood, presenting it clearly, soundly, persuasively, and comfortably. Though a bit clumsy, the fuller title it bears today is quite accurate: The Sum of Saving Knowledge: or, a Brief Sum of Christian Doctrine, Contained in the Holy Scriptures, and Holden Forth in the Foresaid Confession of Faith and Catechisms; together with the Practical Use Thereof.

The document itself is quite instructive. Additionally, the church context giving rise to the production of this little work confirms that a full-orbed commitment to Reformed doctrine is not only consistent with, but historically joined to the fervent concern over the salvation of sinners. What follows is both an effort to demonstrate this balance within our heritage and to encourage our readers to take up The Sum of Saving Knowledge and read it for themselves.

In August of 1639 the Assembly approved an “Act anent Ministers Catechizing, and Family Exercises.” The act demonstrates the concern of the gathered church, not just a few individual members, to ensure that each family would be instructed in the knowledge of God. It mandated that “every minister, besides his pains on the Lord’s day, shall have weekly catechising of some part of the paroch, and not altogether cast over the examination of the people till a little before the communion…” Within 10 years in August of 1648, the General Assembly reiterated that concern and enacted weekly catechizing, two sermons, and examination of parishioners. And in July of 1649, one year before the Sum is said to have been produced, we find another “Act concerning Catechising.” It is this act that most clearly relates to The Sum of Saving Knowledge, though not necessarily implying its direct and immediate creation. The assembly enacted as follows:

The Generall Assembly…doe ordaine every minister…to take course, that in every house where there is any who can read, there be at least one copie of the Shorter and Larger Catechisme, Confession of Faith, and Directorie for Family Worship. And doe renew the Act of the Assembly, August 30, 1639, for a day of weeklie catechising, to be constantly observed in every kirk; and that every minister so order their cathetick questions, as thereby the people …may at every dyet have the chief heads of Saving Knowledge, in a short view, presented unto them…

Thus the church in its collective and official capacity demonstrated a long-standing interest and commitment to the regular and deliberate instructing of its members in Reformed doctrine, particularly leveraging that doctrine in order to cultivate an understanding of saving knowledge.

The lives of the authors of the Sum confirm this balance. It is the accepted position that David Dickson and James Durham were its combined authors. The authors had an intimate relationship. Dickson was born in 1583 and ordained as minister in Irvine in 1618. After being exiled to Aberdeenshire for his opposition to episcopacy and Erastianism in 1622, he returned to Irvine in 1623 to exercise a well-cherished and highly fruitful ministry. For many he is remembered as the one who spoke at the reforming assembly of 1638 against Arminianism and was chosen to serve his first term as moderator in 1639. In 1641 he was appointed to the Chair of Divinity in University of Glasgow. And in 1643, along with Alexander Henderson and David Calderwood, he drafted The Directory of Public Worship. In 1650 he was translated to the Chair of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh, and eventually died in 1663. Beyond his well-received commentary on the Westminster Confession, he was the author of several biblical commentaries, having established the plan to appoint well-gifted ministers with the task of publishing helpful commentaries on difficult parts of Scripture – a scheme which gave us Dickson’s commentaries on the Psalms and Hebrews as well as Durham’s commentaries on the Song of Solomon and Revelation.

W. G. Blakie provides us a glimpse into Dickson’s ministry:

His ministry was of the most fervent evangelical type. Wodrow says of it, ‘Multitudes were convinced and converted, and few that lived in his day were more honoured to be instruments of conversion than he. People under exercise and soul-concern came from every place about Irvine and attended on his sermons, and the most eminent and serious Christians from all corners of the Church came and joined him at his communions, which were indeed times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord; yea, not a few came from distant places and settled at Irvine, that they might be under the drop of his ministry.’

In Dickson, we find a man who delighted in the good news of Jesus Christ. He maintained this personally upon his deathbed. “David Dickson, who told Livingston with his latest breath, ‘I have taken all my good deeds and all my bad deeds, and cast them in a heap before the Lord, and have betaken me to Jesus Christ, in whom I have full and sweet peace.’” He was a man resting upon the work of Jesus Christ alone.

James Durham was younger than Dickson, being born in 1622, the very year that Dickson was exiled. He married and became a soldier of the covenanting cause, though he himself was not given to religion at that time. Wodrow records that Durham’s conversion stemmed from his mother-in-law pressing him to attend church on the Saturday of a communion.

He went that day, and heard very attentively. He seemed to be moved that day with the Preacher, being very serious in his discourse, so that there was something wrought in Mr. Durham that day; but it was like an embryo. When he came home, he said to his mother-in-law, ‘Mother, ye had much ado to get me to the Church this day; but I will go tomorrow without your importuning me.’ He went away on the Sabbath morning, and heard the minister of the place, worthy Mr. Ephraim Melvine, preach the action sermon upon 1 Peter 2:7; and Mr. Durham had these expressions about his sermon: He commended him; he commended him again and again, till he made my heart and soul commend him; and so he immediately closed with Christ, and covenanted and went down immediately to the table, and took the seal of the covenant; and after that became a most serious man.

After a brief but bright ministry, Durham died in 1658. From his new birth to his earthly death, Durham was a man much in the things of Christ: Christ crucified and communing with Christ, as is evidenced by his sermons on Isaiah 53 and his commentary on the Song of Solomon. We find Durham communing with his crucified by risen savior on his deathbed. William Blaikie recounts the story:

‘Brother,’ he said to his colleague, Carstairs, ‘for all that I have preached and written, there is but one Scripture I can remember or dare grip unto; tell me if I dare lay the weight of my salvation upon it? It is “Whosoever cometh unto me I will in no wise cast out.”’ ‘You may depend on it,’ said Carstairs, ‘though you had a thousand salvations to hazard.’

The last verse found upon his lips, is the first verse printed in The Sum of Saving Knowledge, an intriguing coincidence. It was Dickson who recommended Durham to the ministry, and Dickson who recommended Durham to serve as a professor of divinity. And it was Durham and Dickson together who left us The Sum of Saving Knowledge.

Although a brief survey, that the Church of Scotland held to a union of Reformed doctrine and evangelical zeal is undeniable. A thorough study of both the historical context as well as the lives and ministries of the authors would only strengthen this persuasion. In short, we have been left a great heritage. Will we maintain that heritage and be zealous for the teaching of scripture as stated in our confession, while we maintain an earnest focus upon the sound conversion of sinners? Among other requests we present to the Lord, let us be sure to ask him to restore both a love to doctrine and a love to lost souls, both those within and without the church.

Jonathan D. Mattull
Jonathan D. Mattull
Rev. Jonathan Mattull serves the congregation of Sovereign Grace Presbyterian Church (FCC) in St. Louis. He received his formal theological training through Covenant Theological Seminary and distance courses through the Free Church Seminary in Inverness, Scotland. He is married with three children.