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A Consuming Fire: The Piety of Alexander Whyte

Michael A. G. Haykin

Reviewed by: William M. Hobbs

Date posted: 03/09/2008

A Consuming Fire: The Piety of Alexander Whyte, edited by Michael A. G. Haykin. Published by Reformation Heritage Books, 2006. Paperback, 121 pages, list price $12.00. Reviewed by OP pastor William M. Hobbs.

This little gem takes the reader back to days of great preaching and great controversy. Alexander Whyte (1836-1921), called the last Puritan, was the renowned preacher at Free St. George's in Edinburgh from 1873 to 1916.

The body of Haykin's little book is twenty-eight excerpts from sermons (quite suitable as devotions), offering us important lessons from a life consumed with a love of Christ and a holy hatred of sin. A sermon of Whyte's was an assault from heaven itself, an assault upon the hill of everyman's will. It was said that not even the most hardened pagan could leave a Whyte sermon without his heart being laid open.

The other part of Haykin's book is a nineteen-page biographical sketch. The humble Whyte had little stomach for anything other than prayer and preaching. Perhaps that is why he is so little known in our day, while we remember controversialists of the past.

Why Whyte was so averse to theological controversy is hard to determine. Haykin traces it to his broad catholic Christianity, wide correspondence, and love of learning. Simply put, Whyte did not see the danger of the higher criticism and the theological creativity of his day. Whyte would not engage the foe. In a ten-year Free Church struggle, Whyte supported the liberalizing Old Testament scholar William Robertson Smith against much wiser men.

Still today, we meet the need in the church for faithful preachers and faithful watchmen. And therein lie the two lessons from the life of Alexander Whyte. The church needs preachers, valiant men, possessed by the Word, who have the gifts, the stamina, and the desire to preach to the hearts of listeners. People need to hear again from God, and modern preachers need to reacquaint themselves with the prophets of old. As the saintly Gwynn Walters used to admonish his seminary students, "Never let a soul leave you without being forced to choose each time between himself and Christ." Such was the preaching of Alexander Whyte.

But the second lesson is not to be missed either. Today if you walk through the doors of St. George's West (now in the Church of Scotland!), you will enter immediately into a cafeteria and a shop featuring Palestinian goods. The old auditorium in the back, still with a marvelous, elevated pulpit and gallery, has been lopped off. Now relegated to a cluttered corner of the restaurant is an old masonry fresco: "Alexander Whyte, beloved minister to this congregation. . ." The winds of the liberal scholarship that Whyte failed to sense and fight have taken the heart out of the once great Free St. George's Church, as in much of Scotland, and left mere shadows of earlier days of glory. Plainly, controversy, while never to be sought, must not always be avoided.

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