Constructing the theology of G. H. Morling

Summary of the argument of my PhD thesis (University of Divinity, Melbourne, 2022)

The term “mystic” is seldom associated with the principals of Baptist theological colleges. Australian-born George Henry Morling (1891-1974) is an exception. Described in 1922 as “small and spare with the face of a mystic,” Morling taught at the Baptist Theological College of New South Wales from 1921, serving as Principal from 1922 to 1960.

In addition to teaching several generations of theological students, Morling engaged in a wide preaching ministry in Australia and elsewhere including India, New Zealand, and New Guinea. He wrote hundreds of devotional and expository articles and booklets for general readers. In 1951, he published a guide to Christian spiritual formation titled The Quest for Serenity. At his memorial service, the President of the Baptist Union of NSW, Rev. Egerton Long, reportedly claimed, “We are in the evangelical stream today largely because of Principal G. H. Morling.” In 1985, the theological college was renamed Morling College in his honour.

The memory of Morling is secured in the theological college that bears his name, but the nature of his distinctive spirituality is scarcely known and his theological contribution to the church is poorly understood. My thesis is a theological biography and an exercise in retrieval. It analyses primary sources to construct a systematised account of Morling’s theology, identifying its key features. It situates him in his social, cultural and religious context, illuminating the likely nature and origins of his spirituality.

The work establishes a new orthodoxy for Morling and fills a significant lacuna in Australian evangelical history and theology. There is no previous critical analysis of his Christian thought. I have demonstrated that Morling is to be considered an outlier candidate for identification as a “hinterland theologian” whose contribution has continuing relevance for enquiry into the historical or theological development of Australian evangelicalism, pneumatology and spiritual renewal. The organised primary sources, fully indexed by Scripture reference, name and subject, together with a bibliography of sources quoted or cited by Morling, provide tools to facilitate a wide range of future Morling studies.

For Morling, the central authority in religion is Christ made real to us in Scripture by the Holy Spirit and confirmed in experience. From the perspective of the ecumenical creeds, there is nothing novel or controversial about his theology. He maintained a reverent and exegetical approach to theology with an emphasis on union with Christ and the Holy Spirit. Whether behind a pulpit or a lectern, he found favour with various audiences and was able to avoid the dangers posed by ivory-tower learning in the church, and popular fundamentalism in the academy.

Generally, Morling drew his biblical theology from the United Kingdom and his systematic theology from the United States. Apart from St Bernard, all theologians and biblical scholars whose works he quotes were Protestant. He was drawn to the works of earlier scholars who also possessed substantial pastoral and homiletical experience. His involvement in the Keswick movement in Australia gave Morling opportunities to explore and promote a distinctive evangelical spirituality informed by personal experience of union with Christ.

My study argues that Morling’s most notable contribution to Baptist theology is not his well-known emphasis on the Holy Spirit but his articulation of the doctrine of union with Christ of which life in the Spirit is a part. He regards it as the “deepest doctrine” of Scripture. It is union with Christ as a soteriological concept that draws together the disparate elements of Morling’s theology and gives cogency to his religious beliefs and practices. His teaching on union with Christ draws together all elements of the order of salvation. The tension expressed in the objective and subjective dimensions of salvation, and the indicative and imperative aspects of Christian living, exemplify Morling’s strong commitment to doctrinal-experimental theology.

Union with Christ is a theological doctrine, but it is more. It is a constellation of truths that can be felt and put to the test in the face of all of life’s challenges. It is a gift to be experienced. It perfectly expresses the opulence of divine grace as expressed in Morling’s thought. What his theology appears to lack is the extension of this application of divine grace from the realm of the individual to the community and the wider world, informing and motivating holistic mission.

Morling’s theological legacy may be summed up in two phrases that he occasionally uses in the primary sources. Firstly, it is his conviction that Scripture bears accurate and powerful testimony to the “opulence” of divine grace. There are two aspects to this opulence: its audacious provision to fallen humankind through the mercy and wisdom of a sovereign and holy God; and its gratuitous availability for all without limit. Secondly, it is his conviction that the ideal Christian, the ideal Baptist, is one known as “evangelical, forthright and balanced.” He defined his personal vision as “Scriptural, positive and balanced.”

These qualities, along with his conviction that “the true Christian is always a mystic,” profoundly shaped Morling’s theology and spirituality, and continue to challenge and inspire evangelical leaders today in the church, the academy, and the world.

Rod Benson, Moore Theological College, 12 August 2022.

Image source: Trinity Evangelical Church, Indiana.

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