The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

XIII. The Growth of Liberal Theology

§ 4. Erskine of Linlathen

If Coleridge’s theological influence depended less on his books than on his conversation and friendship with religious thinkers, the same is hardly less true of another contemporary layman, Thomas Erskine of Linlathen. Erskine’s natural gift lay rather in intimate spiritual converse and letters than in set writing. In mid-life he ceased to publish books, as if himself questioning his effectiveness as an author; but, for another thirty years, he talked and wrote to those who would find more readers than he ever could. Among his friends he counted Carlyle, Maurice, Stanley and McLeod Campbell, besides an interesting group of Christians on the continent, with whom, also, he corresponded, Vinet, Gaussen, Adolphe Monod and C. C. J. Bunsen. Erskine’s writings, however, have considerable importance, in spite of their amateurishness and lack of method: “Your books,” wrote Maurice, in dedicating Prophets and Kings to him, “seem to me to mark a crisis in the theological movement of this time.” While the orthodox Scottish divines of Erskine’s younger days grimly propounded “the sovereign decrees” of unbending Calvinism, there was room for his assertion in The Unconditional Freeness of the Gospel (1828) that “Christ died, not for believers, but for the world.“ Forgiveness, he declared, “is a permanent condition of the heart of God”; “God’s arms are open.” Man must not claim even faith as the ground of his pardon; if he does so claim, it is only an instance of his unextinguished pride; “He must have self to lean on, and so when he is obliged to surrender his own works, he betakes himself to his own faith as his prop. But this is still self.” The satiric humour, as well as the strong mystical vein in his writings, recalls William Law, who was one of Erskine’s favourite authors. In the comparatively few writers whom his defective eyesight allowed him to study, he looked for “light” rather than for theological learning: he preferred Plato and the neo-Platonists, Leighton and Law, to professional divines and their critical opponents. He dismisses a polemical writer with the judgment: “He is a great reasoner: but I do not find any light in him at all. The thing itself he does not see, but he can give many powerful arguments for it.” Any reader will feel that Erskine saw “the thing itself,” whether he could rightly explain it or not; the inner witness of the heart was to him a more compelling authority than Scripture or creed. Before he could accept doctrinal statements, his conscience must approve them as right and true. We may recognise Erskine’s influence in McLeod Campbell’s attempts to moralise the doctrine of atonement, and Maurice’s insistence on the ethical meaning of eternal life. But, if much of Erskine’s characteristic teaching came into circulation through the writers whom he inspired, his Letters (1877) and occasional volumes will never lack readers who prefer to go to the fountain-head, to draw their own immediate inspiration from one for whom religion was not “a mere set of notions” but “God within us.”