What is Ragged Theology?
What is Ragged Theology? I came up with the phrase when I set up my blog in 2012 to describe the theology which Dr Thomas Guthrie believed and practised. It is a theology that is making a comeback in Scotland today, one that emphasis truth and love, doctrinal fidelity as well as practical Christianity and a theology that loves the church while at the same time loving the world in which God has placed us. There is always a tension in Christianity between truth and love. Love without truth is sentimentality, truth without love is legalism. What made Guthrie such a great leader and preacher was how he embraced such a love for truth and at the same time a love for sinners. It was his particular love for the poor and marginalised that made him so remarkable. I think ‘Ragged Theology’ is best summed up in my favourite Guthrie quote;
We want a religion that, not dressed for Sundays and walking on stilts, descends into common and everyday life; is friendly, not selfish; courteous, not boorish; generous, not miserly; sanctified, not sour; that loves justice more than gain; and fears God more than man; to quote another’s words – “a religion that keeps husbands from being spiteful, or wives fretful; that keeps mothers patient, and children pleasant; that bears heavily not only on the ‘exceeding sinfulness of sin,’ but on the exceeding rascality of lying and stealing; that banishes small measures from counters, sand from sugar, and water from milk-cans – the faith, in short, whose root is in Christ, and whose fruit is works .
Thomas Guthrie, Faith and Works, Man and the Gospel.
I was born 100 years after Guthrie died. I was born into a very different Scotland. It is one where the church has very little influence, indeed we can say with a certain degree of confidence the church is seen largely as an irrelevance. Why is that? Well I believe it is because we have abandoned the truth and abandoned our responsibility toward the poor and the oppressed. Large sections of the church are preaching a content-less gospel where there is no sin, no saviour, no judgement, no hell and society has quite rightly concluded the church has no point, and who could blame them? Much of the church that has retained the truth has entered into a bunker mentality. It is fractured, defensive, suspicious and, on the whole, talking to itself. In particular, the church has ceased to have any concern for the marginalised which has always been a hallmark of the church at its best. So what made Guthrie’s ‘Ragged Theology’ so different?
1. Vision – Guthrie had incredible vision. He literally, by God’s grace, changed Scotland. His vision was not shaped by the challenges of 19th Century Scotland but rather shaped by the greatness of the God he served. He believed that the Christian gospel could save anyone and transform any community. While others saw homeless and ragged children as burdens or a nuisance, Guthrie saw in these street children the potential for moral and spiritual change. As he says; bedded in their dark and dismal abodes, precious stones lie there, which only wait to be dug out and polished, to shine, first on the earth, and hereafter and forever in a Redeemer’s crown (Seed-Time and Harvest of Ragged Schools, Thomas Guthrie). By the time of his death Guthrie had, along with many other social reformers, changed childhood. Rather than being seen as commodities, towards the end of the 19th Century, children were seen as those in need of protection and nurture. Partly as a result of lobbying from social reformers like Guthrie legislation was passed protecting children from working long hours in often dangerous situations.
On issues such as the Manse Fund, Guthrie showed incredible vision. The odds against the new Free Church in 1843 were huge but the new movement had a big vision for 700 manses. Turning to Guthrie the ‘big beggar man’, and after a tour of 13 Synods and 58 Presbyteries in less than a year, the target of £100, 000 was smashed. Thanks to Guthrie, 100’s of Free Church ministers were able move into manses and continue their ministries.
The DNA of men like Thomas Guthrie and Thomas Chalmers is that they had a big vision. It wasn’t a congregational vision or even a Free Church vision but a national vision. Through church extension, the Manse Fund, education and his incredible work with Ragged Schools, Guthrie gave us a great example of the need for a coherent Christian vision for Scotland.
2. Truth – Like so many Christians who get involved in social action, Guthrie never lost his moorings when he become a social reformer. It is clear from his writings that he adhered to the bible as the word of God and remained confessionally Reformed throughout his ministry. He believed in the supremacy and centrality of preaching as the main method that God uses to save sinners. There is no evidence that he ever watered down his preaching or softened his stance on any major Christian doctrine as he became the figurehead for social reform in 19th Century Scotland. Here he is in full flow on the dangers of ‘soft peddling’ the truth; Yet, shall I conceal God’s verity, and ruin men’s souls to spare their feelings? Shall I sacrifice truth at the shrine of a false politeness? To hide what Jesus revealed were not to be more tender, but only less faithful than He. If the taste of these days were so degenerate as to frown down the honest preacher who should pronounce that awful word “Hell,” and leave him to vacant pews, it were better, far better, that he should be as “one crying in the wilderness,” and getting no response but the echo of empty walls, than that he should fail in proclaiming the “whole counsel of God. (The Gospel in Ezekiel). Guthrie preached the whole counsel of God with love and tenderness but never compromised on doctrine.
3. Love – As a minister of the Gospel, Guthrie embodied love. We are told in James that Pure religion and undefiled before God, even the Father, is this, to visit the fatherless, and widows in their adversity, and to keep himself unspotted from the world James 1 v 27. The fruit of true Christianity is always love for the poor and the oppressed. Many people regard practical love for the poor as a deviation from the gospel. Nothing could be further from the truth. Guthrie’s work with ragged children enhanced his message and gave his Christianity a reality and authenticity that made the gospel attractive to sinners. It was once said of Thomas Guthrie by 2 men drinking in a bar in Glasgow he’s different from all the other preachers altogether. He practises more than he preaches. Guthrie’s love for sinners wasn’t a show for Sundays. His love was on display throughout the week as he visited some of the worst closes and stairs in the Cowgate, Edinburgh. He was regularly broken by the sights that he saw. Love was the great motivation of his ministry.
4. Hope – It was this combination of truth and love that gave Guthrie such hope for the communities he worked in and for the individuals he sought to reach. The gospel, when preached in all its fullness and freeness, should fill every sinner with a sense of hope that Christ died to reconcile them to a holy God. The church has gone though many periods when this message has been lost or when she has lost confidence in the power of this gospel to reach the darkest and most hopeless parts of our communities. Guthrie (among others) gave the Free Church the belief that the gospel, accompanied by education for the poor and the practical outworking of love through the local church could redeem the darkest and most hopeless communities. There is a famous story about Dr Guthrie and Thomas Chalmers standing on George IV Bridge looking down on to the Cowgate. Guthrie tells us; Hopeful of success, he [Chalmers] surveyed the scene beneath us, and his eye, which often wore a dreamy stare, kindled at the prospect of seeing that wilderness become an Eden, these foul haunts of darkness, drunkenness and disease, changed into “dwellings of the righteous where is heard the voice of melody.” Contemplating the scene for a little in silence, all at once, with his broad Luther-like face glowing with enthusiasm, he waved his arm to exclaim, “A beautiful field, sir; a very fine field of operation (Out of Harness, Thomas Guthrie).
Thomas Guthrie brought hope to thousands through his preaching, his pastoral care and his practical Christianity. Nobody was beyond redemption for Guthrie. He preached a gospel that was free for the worst sinner and believed that nobody was a hopeless case;
It is a dreadful thing to close the door against any man’s or woman’s reformation. Religion calls us to hold it open to the worst, even as God holds it open to us who can – knowing more ill of ourselves than we can know of others – and ought to say with Paul, “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief
Thomas Guthrie, Out of Harness.