THE LEGACY OF DR SAMUEL ANGUS by IAN ELLIS-JONES ADDRESS DELIVERED BEFORE THE SYDNEY UNITARIAN CHURCH SUNDAY, 5 SEPTEMBER 2004IntroductionThere was a common formulation of Unitarian faith from roughly 1870 until thelate 1920s known as “The Unitarian Covenant”, that went like this: We believe in: The Fatherhood of God; The Brotherhood of Man; The Leadership of Jesus; Salvation by Character; The Progress of Mankind onward and upward forever.That covenant could easily have been written by Professor The Reverend DrSamuel Angus, M.A., D.Lit., D.D. (Queen’s Univ., Belfast), Ph.D. (Princeton),D.D. (Glasgow), Professor of Exegetical Theology of the New Testament andHistorical Theology in the Presbyterian Theological Hall within St AndrewsCollege, University of Sydney from 1915 to 1943.Samuel Angus was an Ulster Scott who spoke with a soft Irish burr. The manwho was often referred to as the arch-heretic of Australian Presbyterianismwas born at Craigs in the Braid Valley, the geographical heart of CountyAntrim, Ireland, on 27 August 1881. He came from Scottish stock that hadmigrated to Northern Ireland at the end of the 17th century following thecovenanting troubles.Angus, who had a strict Calvinistic Presbyterian upbringing, attended CraigsNational School and was privately coached in Latin by his great-uncle WilliamCowan. He went on to the Collegiate School, Ballymena, then won ascholarship to Queen’s (University) College, Galway, affiliated to the RoyalUniversity of Ireland (B.A. (Hons.), 1902; M.A., 1903; D.Lit., 1923). (There is,at Queen’s University Belfast, in the Faculty of Humanities, the Samuel AngusFund, established in 1981, which derives from a bequest by the late DrAngus. The income from the fund is available to the School of Classics &Ancient History and the Institute of Byzantine Studies, to be used for thepromotion of Greek and Byzantine Studies at Queens University.)Subsequently, Angus decided to study for the Presbyterian ministry andenrolled for the divinity degree at Princeton Theological Seminary, UnitedStates of America, and also at Princeton University (M.A., 1905; Ph.D., 1906).Interestingly, although he completed the seminary’s course, including honoursHebrew, he refused to devote himself fulltime to theological studies, preferring
to specialize in North African Latin Christianity, Greek Inscriptions and GreekPhilosophy, thereby forfeiting the seminary’s degree. (Later, Angus’sdetractors would take delight in asserting, not entirely incorrectly, that Angushad not completed his divinity degree.)Angus tutored privately in classics at Princeton and lectured at Chautauqua,New York. He then worked on Hellenistic Greek and New Testament criticismat Hartford Theological Seminary, Connecticut, and also spent a semester atMarburg, Germany. He later spent some time at Edinburgh before attendingthe theological faculty at the Humboldt University of Berlin and, still later,delivering the Gay lectures at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary inKentucky. By this time Angus possessed a vast mass of classical educationin the fields of philology, archaeology, comparative religion and philosophy.Angus was licensed as a probationer for the ministry by the United FreeChurch of Scotland in 1912. In May 1914 the General Assembly of thePresbyterian Church of New South Wales elected Angus by 105 votes to 55to its chair in New Testament exegesis and theology within the faculty oftheology, at St Andrew’s College, University of Sydney. He was ordained andinducted into the Australian Professorship by the Presbyterian Church of NewSouth Wales on 2 March 1915, later settling into a house in Ku-ring-gaiAvenue, Turramurra on Sydney’s North Shore. (His near neighbour was thecontroversial Scottish-born philosopher Professor John Anderson, with whomAngus would sometimes clash at the University of Sydney on the subject ofreligion.) At the time of his appointment Angus was 32 years old, and had allof 6 months pastoral experience. (He had been chaplain of the ScotchChurch in Algiers.)Angus’s WritingsSamuel Angus was the author of a number of important publications, includingThe Environment of Early Christianity (1914), The Mystery Religions andChristianity (1925), The Religious Quests of the Graeco-Roman World (1929),Jesus in the Lives of Men (1933), Truth and Tradition (1934), The Auld Sinner[published under the pseudonym of Cowan Harper] (1938), EssentialChristianity (1939), Man and the New Order (1942), and Alms for Oblivion(1943).Angus was a world authority on the ancient world, as well as being one of thegreat scholars of Christian origins and the “mystery religions”, a group ofpagan religions, dating from roughly 600 BCE, that were distinct from themore familiar pagan temple worship. The gods of the mystery religions haddiffering names and myths, but the faiths themselves had many importantfeatures in common: their gods died and came back to life; there wereinitiation ceremonies that reenacted the gods death and rebirth and wereoften described as giving salvation and even eternal life; they had ritualcelebrations including food and drink that reenacted a holy meal establishedby the god. Then there was ceremonial washing, miracles, a pagan god whocould change water into wine, a pagan version of the great flood, and much,much more. All sound familiar? Well, in Alms for Oblivion Angus wrote:
The truth is that it was paganism that carried me away from Christian superstition and brought me back to the Christian religion … .He also wrote, “I am a Christian because of the light that shines everlastinglyfrom the hill of Pallas Athene.”The mystery religions centre on the story of a man who became a god, or agod who became a man – the living, the dying and rising god as in the storiesof Isis, Osiris, Serapis and so on. These stories led Angus to seek thehistorical Jesus, the Jesus of history. He always encouraged people to followthe example of Jesus and imitate the life of Jesus, and firmly believed that itwas still possible to discover the historical Jesus of Galilee in the Gospelaccounts.At the time of his death in 1943 Angus was working on a new book dealingwith the historical approach to Jesus. In 1962 the unfinished material, editedby the good “Angus man”, the Reverend Ernest H Vines, was published inbook form under the title Forgiveness and Life. (Vines, who died in January1979 aged 90, was a Past Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Australiain the State of New South Wales. He also lectured at the Theological Hall,teaching New Testament Greek, and, in his later years, guest preached at theSydney Unitarian Church on a number of occasions.)Angus’s TheologyInitially, for the most part, Angus was well received by New South WalesPresbyterians. For example, his leadership in the opposition to a proposedchurch union during 1919-23 marked him as a "good Presbyterian". Howeverthere were some concerns about his doctrine. In particular, an addressdelivered to a Student Christian Movement conference in 1923 provokedsome controversy and aroused the opposition of theological conservatives(both fundamentalists and others). To some extent, Angus collaborated in hisreputation for non-orthodoxy, helping to form in 1916 a private discussion clubjocularly known as “The Heretics”. He loved debate but had very little interestin classical philosophical theology.Angus found his faculty academically and theologically conservative, and byits standards his theology was indeed radical. The Bible could not beaccepted as verbally inspired. Every doctrine had to have a basis in reasonor experience. Intellectual integrity was essential. Miracles he could notaccept; they had simply been attributed to Jesus to strengthen the case forhim. As for faith, in posthumously published Forgiveness and Life (1962)Angus wrote: Reasonable faith demands that any fact or facts which are represented as producing faith or corroborating it should be established beyond the possibility of cavil.However, he immediately went on to say this:
It also raises the question whether faith, though it may be aided by historic fact, can possibly rest securely on even the best-established historic fact.For Angus, the idea of the Trinity, which carried with it the idea of the Deity ofJesus, was incomprehensible and irrelevant. “God cannot to-day beapprehended or made real even to earnest men in those, now unintelligible,abstract categories,” he wrote in Truth and Tradition (1934).The Deity (as opposed to the divinity) of Christ was also to be rejected, alongwith the so-called Sinlessness of Christ. What was important was the “moralgrandeur of Jesus, which can be proven and made redemptively relevant tolife, rather than the negation of sinlessness” (Truth and Tradition). He couldnot say Jesus was God. God was One, he said, like a good Biblical Unitarianof yesteryear, with God being conceived as immanent. There was very littleon the notion of transcendence.Angus often referred to Jesus as being divine, but for Angus Jesus’ divinitywas inherent in his humanity. He believed in the basic goodness of eachhuman being and that all persons were divine in some measure. He said: “Idon’t know a mere man, we are all divine, God is our Father,” but he did notbelieve that Jesus was God for a number of reasons. For example, Jesusprayed to God. Jesus said, “Why callest thou me good? None is good, saveone, that is, God?” (Lk 18:19). For Angus, divinity referred to divine qualitiesof spirit. (As Sir Julian Huxley pointed out on many occasions, the term“divine” did nor originally imply the existence of gods.)The Virgin Birth was historically impossible, and orthodox notions of theAtonement in terms of substitution, expiation and propitiation were for Angusentirely untenable. Jesus appeared to be ignorant of such things, and Angusfound no evidence whatsoever in the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels forany single doctrine of the atonement; any supposed suggestion to thecontrary in the Scriptures (see, in that regard, Mk 10:45) had to be rejected asan unauthentic interpolation. The only sacrifice required by Christianity (andJesus) was self-sacrifice. As for the Resurrection, there was no necessity fora physical Resurrection, and none was likely. For Angus, the resurrectionaccounts were not only contradictory but “haggadic” teachings to bring out thevalue of Jesus. He spoke about the “resurrection faith” as a spiritualexperience which can be had in and with Jesus.The “religion of Jesus” was contrasted with the “religion about Jesus”. Thehumanity of Jesus was God’s personality. The personality of the Living Jesusof Galilee was central to Angus’s religion; Jesus was “our only Lord”, primarilybecause of his preeminent moral leadership. In Jesus in the Lives of Men(1933) Angus had this to say: Jesus is not accredited to us today by his miracles, or by a virgin birth, or by a resurrection from an underworld, or by a reanimation of his body from the grave, or by fulfillment of prophecies; he is accredited by his long train of conquests over the loyalties of men, and chiefly by the immediate, intimate
and inevitable appeal made by him to everything that is best and God-like in each of us, and by his ability to “make men fall in love with him”, and “to win the world to his fair sanctities”.In an article by Dr Angus on “Faith in God through Jesus” published in theAustralian Intercollegian of 2 April 1923 Angus expressed his view that nostatement of Christian faith could properly insist on demanding more thanJesus himself asked people to believe, nor should any such statement claimfinality or infallibility. For Angus, a Christian was one who was inwardly andwhose life was molded after that of Jesus, who was Lord because he hasshown us ourselves in the light of God and also because he has shown us theFather. Christianity was the religion of the Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, andChristian character was entirely independent of any particular orthodoxy.Christianity should be determined rather by its fruits than by its dogmas.Like a good Biblical Unitarian of yesteryear, Angus spoke almost in terms ofsalvation by character. In Christianity and Dogma (1933) he wrote: The world realizes that character is the supreme possession of man and believes that religion should steady man in his purposes and guide him in the arduous task of character-building; whereas this controversy has given the impression that the Church exists not primarily to promote Christian character but to produce and conserve dogmas.As for Christian guidance, in Essential Christianity Angus wrote: In the last resort, Divine guidance can come only through a man’s conscience and reason in the presence of God, and no external authority can alter that, one way or the other.In Truth and Tradition Angus had this to say about Christianity andPresbyterianism in particular: Are the alleged doctrines of Presbyterianism static? Is it simply a question of deciding whether a statement is orthodoxy or heresy? Or is truth the supreme quest for both orthodox and heretics. Are we to fear the new because it is new, or revere the old for its sheer age? … Are we bound for ever to the forms and beliefs of our predecessors? Nay, more, are we bound forever even to the contents of those beliefs? Must we accept and uphold all the beliefs that have been admitted by the Presbyterian Church during the past, and are the past practices of our Church, including the axe and scaffold, to be maintained to-day?Angus postulated what he described as a “unitive Christianity” that wouldband together Christians of all churches, however diverse their theologies.Too long had Christianity been divisive. Competitive Christianity had to yieldplace to co-operative Christianity.The Conservatives Fight BackAngus’s orthodoxy was questioned first in the Presbytery of Sydney and laterat the 1932 General Assembly of the Church. However, the battle began in
earnest in 1933 when growing concern over Anguss teaching at St AndrewsCollege led the conservatives to attempt to have him removed from theProfessorship.Angus’s chief opponent throughout the years was one Robert John HenryMcGowan who for many years was the minister of the Ashfield church.McGowan was a staunch evangelical who held fast to the doctrinal standardsof Presbyterianism. Be that as it may, Angus’s supporters would continue toaffirm, as would Angus himself, that Angus’s teaching was nevertheless inaccord with all that was true and valuable in Presbyterianism.The Rules of the Presbyterian Church required a long process for such acharge to be sustained. "Brotherly conferences" with the alleged offenderneeded to be held. The advice of the Procurator, the churchs barrister,needed to be obtained. A libel (charge) needed to be framed and agreed to bythe Presbytery.It was a slow process made more difficult by the fact that the WestminsterConfession of Faith, the subordinate doctrinal standard of the church, sayslittle about how the Scriptures are to be interpreted. The Presbyterian Churchat the time, and ever since, has been unable to determine exactly what beliefswere essential to the faith.In addition, there always have been a number of questionable legalities aboutthe formulation of the required libel. Those problems have never beensettled.The “Angus affair” (aka the “Angus case”) dragged on for 12 years, in churchcourts, presbytery, the NSW and Australian general assemblies and thelatter’s judicial commission, with the heresy issue being pursued - at timesvigorously - even though no formal legal charge of heresy was ever laid. (TheChurch itself never brought charges, and the conservatives lacked thenumbers to take decisive action against him.)In September 1939, following the revival and subsequent postponement of theAngus case in the General Assembly, Angus suffered a stroke that left oneside of his face paralysed and affected both his sight and speech. InFebruary 1940 his jaw was wired up to make speech possible, but he sufferedconsiderable discomfort from thereon. He had been greatly affected by theattacks that had been made upon him in more ways than one.Although the case was never finally resolved, it effectively ended in 1942when the Church’s procurator, Bryan Fuller QC, successfully moved in theAustralian Assembly that “all communications dealing in any way with thecase of Dr Angus be discharged from the business paper, without prejudice tothe rights of any of the parties; and that any of the parties concerned mayobtain the restoration of any of the matters to the business paper by motionpassed pursuant to notice.” By that time Dr Angus was very ill although heread, with the greatest difficulty, a paper on the Christian ministry at the NSWGeneral Assembly in May 1943.
Dr Samuel Angus died of metastasised cancer in the Scottish Hospital,Paddington, on 17 November 1943, and was subsequently cremated at theNorthern Suburbs Crematorium where his cremains, as well as those of hisdear wife, are located. (His wife Katherine, whom he had married in 1907,and who had been an invalid confined to a wheelchair for many years, hadpredeceased him in 1934. They had no children.)Throughout all of the Angus case Professor Angus continued to teach,influencing great numbers of Presbyterian as well as Methodist andCongregational candidates for the ministry, for Angus was also President ofthe United Theological Faculty of all three Christian churches. (A UnitedCourse of Training had been in place for many decades when the UnitingChurch came into existence in 1977.)At the University of Sydney Angus was a councillor of St Andrews Collegefrom 1926, sometime curator of the Nicholson Museum of Antiquities, andwas prominent in the foundation of the board of studies in divinity in 1936. Healso served on the council of Knox Grammar School, Wahroonga, from 1926to 1943. (There is a school house named after him at Knox.) ProfessorBruce Mansfield, in his book Knox: A History of Knox Grammar School 1924-1974 (Sydney, 1974), refers to Angus’s “cultivated attachment to the classicalliterary traditions on which the School was founded”. Angus was also activein the affairs of St Margaret’s Presbyterian Church, Turramurra, where theReverend Ernest Vines would serve as minister for a number of years, andalso found time to occasionally play golf at Avondale Golf Club, Pymble. Byall accounts, Angus was a man of considerable charm and undoubtedreligious devotion, qualities that were acknowledged by even his harshestcritics and detractors.History Repeats ItselfIn the early 1990s the Presbyterian Church of NSW was again rocked by aheresy trial known as the “Cameron case”.On 2 March 1992, the Reverend Dr Peter Cameron, Principal of St AndrewsCollege at the University of Sydney, preached a sermon at a Dorcas SocietyRally in the Ashfield Presbyterian Church entitled "The Place of Women in theChurch". As well as supporting the principle that women should be ordainedto the ministry, it argued a case that the Bible had to be understood within thecontext of the times in which they were written, particularly as regards suchmatters as homosexuality. In due course, the Presbytery of Sydney decidedto try Dr Cameron on a charge of “preaching a sermon which containedstatements inconsistent with Chapter I of the Westminster Confession ofFaith".The Presbytery found Dr Cameron guilty of what, in effect, was heresy. It didthis in the face of the Procurators advice questioning whether Dr Cameronhad any case to answer. Further the Procurator warned the church againstthe danger of a majority imposing its beliefs on a minority.
The case went on appeal before the General Assembly of New South Walesand after a long hearing the appeal was dismissed with voting figuresfollowing factional lines. An appeal was lodged with the final court of appealin the Presbyterian Church, the Judicial Commission of the General Assemblyof Australia. There was arguably a better likelihood of the appeal beingsustained because the Judicial Commission was less factionally weighted.However, before the matter came to hearing, Dr Cameron resigned from thePresbyterian Church of Australia, eventually returning to Scotland. His appeallapsed and the original decision was sustained. He is now an Anglicanminister in Scotland.The same Church and the same procedure dealt differently with both theAngus affair and the Cameron case. The difference was the theologicalclimate in which the matters were considered. However, both cases, as wellas a 1975 charge of heresy brought against the Reverend Ted Noffs by theMethodist Church of the day which came to little, illustrate the futility of tryingto determine theological truth by the votes of the majority. A heresy trialsuperimposes the rule and will of the majority, rendering practising ministersopen to attack because of the shades of difference between their beliefs andthose of the so-called orthodox majority.For Unitarians, and most thinking people, heresy trials have absolutely noplace at all. They also strike an anachronistic chord in Australias tolerantsociety, putting up barriers between the church and the people to whom it istrying to speak. Different theological ideas should be dealt with in opendebate, rather than through legal or judicial action.The Legacy of Samuel AngusAnd what, then, is the legacy of Samuel Angus? Not his theology, which wasalmost entirely derivative. Not even his scholarly writings on the mysteryreligions, important though they remain to this day. What is singularlyimportant is a way of thinking, a way of acting. He was committed to the taskof establishing and presenting the “reasonableness” of Christianity and itsrelevance to the whole of life. He had a love of truth for truth’s sake,expressed in his total willingness and commitment to bring rationality to bearon all the doctrines of the Christian faith. In Essential Christianity (1939) hewrote: There is a very real danger of believing too much and being too little and doing too little. A religion shines better in its simplicity than dressed in metaphysics. It can be better apprehended in action than in theological formulation … True religion is not adherence to any particular dogma or loyalty to any church standard. True religion is the daring faith in the reality of the things that are unseen and eternal, and the devotion of life to these things, for the enlargement of our personalities and the enoblement through us of other personalities. …
In the view of Samuel Angus, the New Testament writers gave us a distortedpresentation of Jesus and his teachings. Angus, like Albert Schweitzer,sought the “real” Jesus, the historical Jesus, the man behind the NewTestament accounts, the man beneath the enormous overlay of Greco-Roman mythology. For Angus, what became Christianity was anamalgamation of certain mistaken and apocalyptic conceptions held by Jewsof that age regarding the Messiah and even more certain ideas fromHellenistic religion, especially from Gnosticism and the mystery cults, andnone of the alleged cardinal doctrines of historic Christianity (including but notlimited to the Deity of Christ and the Atonement) originated with Jesushimself.It has been said that Angus’s chief desire as a teacher was to set the minds ofhis students free to deal with evidence without bias. Often verballyaggressive and even sarcastic, he sought to make his students seekers aftertruth, and to be intellectually honest in the face of widespread prejudice,bigotry and narrow-mindedness. In the words of one former student, quotedin the late Susan E. Emilsen’s biography of Angus entitled A Whiff of History(1991): [H]e taught me to think and to judge everything said or written as to whether it was true or false, reasonable or unreasonable, and above all he infused me with a passionate love and loyalty to the real Jesus of Nazareth.Angus was a courageous man, who towered above the pettiness andviciousness of his detractors. In his own words: I cannot change my message; the Church can repudiate it. I shall go on teaching and writing as I have been doing in the interests of religion, but whether within the Presbyterian Church or without it, is for the official Church to decide. … If my Church refuses my services, ‘lo, I turn to the Gentiles.’ It is in the Church’s power to expel me as her teacher, and I make no plea as to what the Church should do; but it is not in any ecclesiastical hands to expel me from my prophetic calling or to cause me to cease to be a teacher of the truth of the Divine Master whom I have chosen as Lord and for which I am prepared to stand against any institution on earth, even if necessary against the Church to which I belong by tradition and by loyalty.That is how we should remember Samuel Angus. That is his legacy.Defiant and courageous to the end, he shone … even in darkness. -oo0oo-