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The Death Of Christ by James Denney


In the chapel of Trinity College, Glasgow, there is a stained glass window honoring the life and labors of Dr. James Denney. Beside the window on a plaque is inscribed, in part, the following:

James Denney, D. D. (1856-1917)
Supreme alike as scholar,
teacher, administrator,
and man of God,
to whom many owed their souls.

In paying tribute to Dr. Denney, Professor A. M. Hunter of Christ's College, Aberdeen, said,

|To scholarship of the first rank [Denney] brought a burning conviction of the truth and adequacy of the Gospel, and he would have no truck with those who, desiring to be in tune with the Zeitgeist, would have watered it down. In all his writing about the Christian faith he sought to be Biblical, real, whole, and clear, and he often declared that he had not the faintest interest in a theology which he could not preach.|

Dr. Hunter goes on to point out that James Denney could write on all the chief doctrines of the Christian religion (though he evidenced a weakness when it came to eschatology) |but it was the Atonement which was the center of his thinking.| The cross, Dr. Denney believed was |the hiding place of God's power and the inspiration of all Christian praise.|

Dr. Denney, however, died in 1917 and there are few today who know anything about him. A brief resume of his life, therefore, is in order.

Born in Paisley, Scotland, James Denney was reared a |Cameronian| or strict Reformed Presbyterian. His father was a deacon in the church, and all the fervor of Presbeterianism's long fight for freedom flowed through his veins. It is not surprising that, when further disruptions rocked the denomination, John Denney and his family withdrew and, with a large group of loyal independents, joined the Free Church of Scotland. Such zeal and commitment to what was believed to be the truth were passed on to his son James.

Following his graduation from the local academy, James Denney enrolled in the University of Glasgow (1874) where he distinguished himself in both classical literature and philosophy. He graduated with honors and a Master of Arts degree in 1879 and immediately entered the Free Church College, Glasgow, where he had the good fortune to study under Robert S. Candlish, A. B. Bruce, and T. M. Lindsay. In 1883 he graduated with a Bachelor of Divinity degree.

Denney's only pastorate was at Broughty Ferry (1886-1897), where he took his young bride, the former Mary Brown. Their life together was one of happy companionship, and when she died in 1907 without bearing any children, James Denney found nothing to replace his keen sense of loss.

Mary Denney contributed much to her husband's ministry. He was inclined to be authoritarian, and under her kindly encouragement he became more compassionate. In addition, James Denney was disposed by his training to be theologically |liberal,| and through her tender influence he became more evangelical. In fact, it was due to her recommendations that he began reading the writings of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, and the evangelical fervor of this British Baptist preacher radically changed the young Scot's ministry. One biographer records Denney saying, |Though it is my business to teach, the one thing I covet is to be able to do the work of an evangelist, and that at all events is the work that needs to be done.|

With stress upon expository preaching characterizing his ministry at Broughty Ferry, Denney was invited to contribute two commentaries to The Expositor's Bible: |The Epistle to the Thessalonians| (1892) and |The Second Epistle to the Corinthians| (1894).

In 1894, James Denney was invited to deliver a series of lectures in theology at the Chicago Theological Seminary. Two things are significant about this invitation. First, Denney was a pastor with a pastor's heart, yet his abilities had brought him to the attention of those in need of a lecturer in theology; and second, the invitation extended to James Denney gives evidence of his influence beyond the borders of his native Scotland.

Before leaving for the United States, the University of Glasgow honored Denney with a Doctor of Divinity degree.

Of Dr. Denney's lectures at Chicago (later published under the title Studies in Theology) Dr. Hunter, writing in 1962, had this to say:

Though forty years have passed since he died, Denney's work has not lost its relevance or its force. His writing has dated very little. In [him] you will find what you do not always find in our modern theologians -- what is in fact one of the first virtues of great theological writing -- perfect lucidity of thought and expression.

In honor of his lectureship, the Chicago Theological Seminary conferred on James Denney a further Doctor of Divinity degree.

On his return to Scotland, Denney was soon called upon to succeed Dr. Robert S. Candlish as Professor of Systematic and Practical Theology in the Free Church College. Two years later, on the passing of Dr. A. B. Bruce, he was appointed to the chair of New Testament Language Literature, and Theology. Later, in 1915, he was invited to become principal of the college, succeeding Dr. T. M. Lindsay. His premature death brought his illustrious career to an untimely end.

While Professor Denney was at home expounding the text of a given book of the Bible, and was also a capable exegete (in 1900 he contributed a work on |The Epistle to the Romans| to The Expositor's Greek Testament), his greatest contribution was made as a theologian. In this respect, his Death of Christ (1902) may be regarded as his magnum opus.

Dr. Denney laid great stress upon Christ's physical sufferings. He emphasized the substitutionary nature of His sacrifice and expounded its effects to the believer with evangelical zeal. Such was his aversion to the teachings of certain mystics on the subject of the Atonement that he avoided all identification with mystical belief. In spite of this, his work on the death of Christ remains one of the most definitive discussions produced to date.

When James Denney died, Dr. H. R. Mcintosh of Edinburgh was invited to pen a tribute to him. Here is part of what he wrote for The Expository Times (1917). His article is entitled |Principal James Denney as a Theologian.|

At the time of his death [he] was at the summit of his power [and] in his passing evangelical religion throughout English-speaking lands has suffered a loss greater, we may say with sober truth, than would have been inflicted by the withdrawal of any other mind.

James Denney deserves to be remembered. His books are his finest memorial. It is hoped that pastors as well as seminarians will purchase and read this excellent treatise, here produced in its unabridged format. Those who do so will find their lives and ministries stimulated and enriched by what this great man of God has to impart.

C. J. Barber

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