Author Archives: Zack Groff

Book Review: Scottish Theology by John Macleod (Part 2 – Biographical Sketches)

This book review is by Zack Groff, an M.Div. student and Director of Advancement & Admissions at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (GPTS).

Banner of Truth, 2015, ISBN: 978-1848716155, 400 pages.

As seen in the first part of my review, the Banner of Truth has done a great service to the Church by making available Dr. John Macleod’s Scottish Theology to today’s Reformed readership.  Some of the most delightful aspects of Macleod’s historical narrative are the biographical sketches inserted into the narrative. Some of these sketches extend for but a sentence or two. Macleod devoted much more space – pages, in some cases – to others in accordance with their respective literary impacts. In this (somewhat) shorter part of my review, I will highlight a few of these significant figures from Scotland’s ecclesiastical history.

Macleod’s treatment of Knox runs for a mere two pages, though we feel the force of Knox’s ministry throughout the entire tome, and especially the first half of the volume. Truly, “Knox was a man mighty in words, and not less mighty in deeds” (5).

Yet Knox has also proven to be one of those rare figures in the history of the Church who is referenced by theologians of both sound and unsound convictions. For example, the Scottish Church Society in the nineteenth century sought to use Knox’s Scots Confession to advance an unbiblical view of the sacraments that is not truly advocated for in the Confession itself (26).

Samuel Rutherford’s legacy warrants 11 pages of text dedicated solely to his significant theological output. His devotional Letters and political Lex Rex have proved themselves to be supremely valuable to the Church. As observed by Macleod, “The fervid piety, the burning zeal, the love to his Lord, the loving response to his Lord’s love, and the lively figurative dress given to all these in the Letters exhibit the workmanship of a spiritual genius whose branches ran over the wall” (71).

In like fashion, Thomas Halyburton receives eight pages of treatment. As one of the ablest defenders of biblical Christianity against the Deism of his time, Halyburton wrote “carefully into the proof of the insufficiency of Natural Religion in regard to its discoveries of a deity, its defectiveness as giving direction to the worship of God, and in its discussion of where man’s true happiness is to be found” (128).

By contrast to these great theologians and men of letters, Thomas Chalmers, perhaps one of the most colorful churchmen in Scotland’s history, received but one paragraph on page 281 dedicated solely to him. This is because the Church has felt his influence not so much in the expansion of its library, but in the practical impact of his pastoral ministry in his local parish setting. Rather than concentrating the relevant material on Dr. Chalmers in one section of the book, Macleod mentioned his impact throughout the book to better illustrate his influence on various areas of Scottish church life.

One of the later figures introduced in Macleod’s work was the erudite and vigorous guardian of the Faith, Dr. Hugh Martin. Macleod’s description of Dr. Martin exemplifies the “grit” and “ruggedness” of Scotland’s Reformed community. His writing was that “of a man who felt intensely the power of the doctrine that he taught” (339). This quality of his mirrored that tradition out of which he emerged, a tradition that Macleod described in the following terms: “They aimed in their Reforming activities at getting down to bedrock and, when they reached it, they sought to build upon it” (7).

My hope is that this short appendage to the first part of my review shows that like Hebrews 11, this book is a veritable “hall of faith.” There are so many Scottish divines who are worthy of emulation in Macleod’s historical register. In the spirit of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11:1, churchmen ought to imitate the men whose lives are detailed in Macleod’s account insofar as these men imitate Christ.

Book Review: Scottish Theology by John Macleod (Part 1 – An Overview)

This book review is by Zack Groff, an M.Div. student and Director of Advancement & Admissions at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (GPTS).

Banner of Truth, 2015, ISBN: 978-1848716155, 400 pages.

How vast a treasure trove, how massive a corpus, and how great a task it is to sift through centuries of Scottish theological output and ecclesiastical history! Yet the Scots provide a uniquely rewarding subject for study. The theological gold to be mined is of greater value than the cost of the mental toil that comes along with the task. Dr. John Macleod has presented an enthralling account of the Scottish churches’ development on multiple levels of history: individual, domestic, and global.

Macleod’s purpose for taking up this project was linked closely with the invitation which Westminster Theological Seminary extended to him in 1938. Macleod sought to present his subject matter in a narrative and nontechnical manner. He described his goal as “to discuss the practical outcome of theology as that is seen in the message of the pulpit and in the life of the church” (2). Rather than producing a historical account concerned only with the formation and development of ideas, Macleod explored the impact of theological change over time in Scotland’s communities of faith.

The Reformation Church in Scotland had a powerful influence on Scotland’s social and political history. The before-and-after picture that Macleod has given is dramatic. Before the Reformation came to Scotland, “there was hardly a country in Europe that was more backward in civilisation, or one in which life and property were less secure” (3). He continued, “the discipline of the Kirk was one of the most potent instruments for bringing a hitherto turbulent and untamed community into some shape of order, decency, and civilisation” (12).

The ultimate political consequence of the Reformation in Scotland was that it produced a culture resistant to tyranny. Of this effect, he wrote memorably, “A people instructed, interested, and evangelised proved the anvil on which the hammers of royal absolutism and oppression rained their blows in vain” (41).

Though Macleod took pains to lecture in as practical a manner as possible, he rightfully devoted much space to unfolding the rich theology of the Scottish Reformation and its successors. Among the Reformed Scots, there was an admirable fidelity to Scripture that dovetailed nicely with strong confessional integrity. This was reflected in the historical role of the Regulative Principle of Worship in Scotland. Macleod rightly recognized that “such a principle to regulate the practice and worship of the church is one that gives the Lord the credit of his own beauty” (10).

These qualities were also expressed in the Scottish missionary enterprise in the nineteenth century. “the church in effect avowed that it was as surely its function to be aggressive in sending forth the Word of Life to the ends of the earth as it was undeniably by its calling to be conservative of the truth of the word by confessing and standing for it at home and seeing to its transmission to the succeeding age” (208).

This was the value of the Scottish way of doing theology. When Scottish theologians and churchmen strayed from this orientation, they became lost in the reigning spirit of the age, whether it was Deism, High Church Sacramentalism, Moderatism, Erastianism, or even Arminianism. It was deviation from the balanced truths of Scripture that fueled the conflagration of the Marrow Controversy. As Macleod expressed poignantly, “There are timid souls who are easily carried by a cry. They hear a slogan; they take it to be as good as it sounds; they answer its call; they stampede” (162).

The lodestone of the Scottish Reformation was its development of a thoroughly biblical ecclesiology. “There is scarcely any segment of the circle of Christian truth that has had more abundant heed paid to it in the theology of Scotland than that which takes to do with the church of God” (32). Macleod has painted a picture of the Scottish view of the visible Church as Christ’s Church, over which He is both Bridegroom and Head, the source of blessing and seat of authority.

Scottish Theology is valuable today first because it ought to establish and deepen an appreciation for the theological heritage bequeathed to the Reformed community by our Scottish forebears. Any serious reader already committed to the Reformed faith – and Presbyterianism in particular – should leave this book with a deepened appreciation for the theological heritage of Scottish Presbyterianism.

To that end, finally, this book is an invaluable resource for embarking on a protracted study in sound Scottish theology. With the republication of many of the more difficult-to-find books (such as Scottish Theology itself) on the market today, it is possible to build upon the foundation laid by this book. Such a project would be a worthy task to pursue, indeed!

In the second part of my review, I take a closer look at some of the biographical work that Macleod does in service to his broader historical treatment.

Book Review: Seeking a Better Country by D.G. Hart & John Muether

This book review is by Zack Groff, an M.Div. student and incoming Director of Development & Recruiting at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (GPTS).

P&R Publishing, 2007, ISBN: 978-0875525747, 288 pages.

The task of writing about a beloved relative or friend presents certain challenges to both aspiring and experienced authors. A favorable bias toward the subject may muddy the author’s perspective. The author must resist the pull of hagiography. Writing about one’s own spiritual community presents these same challenges. Laudably, Hart and Muether avoid the impulse to sanctify the history of American Presbyterianism in their joint work. Instead, their book is a balanced, but critical, account of the national development of their own community of faith.

The occasion of the 300th Anniversary of the first meeting of the Presbytery of Philadelphia inspired Hart and Muether to prepare a brief overview of America’s Presbyterian churches. From the start they endeavor to paint a realistic picture. They consciously avoid a triumphalist tone in recounting the frequently troubled history of American Presbyterians.

The authors focus their account in two ways. First, they detail the perpetual contestation of American Presbyterian identity between rival factions. Second, they highlight the influence of American culture on the development of that identity in the United States. The product of their work fulfills their goals in lucid, fast-paced historical prose. Though they avoid unnecessary minutiae in their account, Seeking contains enough useful historical data to contextualize the modern American Presbyterian experience. The scope of their work is true to their intent to be both helpful and realistic.

Hart and Muether make four major authorial moves. First, they illustrate the characteristics of American Presbyterianism that distinguish it from other Christian communities in various seasons of American history. The authors do not merely distinguish between Presbyterians and other American Christians, however. They also note the differences between American Presbyterians and their kinsmen abroad. America’s earliest Presbyterians were formally independent of their Scottish predecessors. Seeking is not primarily about Presbyterians in America, but about American Presbyterians. Thus, Seeking addresses primarily the history of the PCUSA and the several churches that have separated from it.

Second, the authors chart the rise of the mainstream Presbyterian Church from humble colonial beginnings to prominence as a member of the United States Protestant mainline. They observe, “The original Presbyterians in America were not ambitious, nor did their resources promise an auspicious church to emerge from their disorganized beginnings” (31). However, by the mid-twentieth century, “the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. was firmly part of the so-called Protestant establishment” (258). The overarching narrative of the book follows the historical development of the PCUSA. Therefore, separatists (e.g., CPC, PCCSA/PCUS, OPC, PCA, EPC) and others (e.g., UPCNA) receive attention throughout the book in order to contextualize the varieties of Presbyterianism in relation to its mainstream expression.

Third, the authors divide their history into three periods marked by particular conflicts and trends. The first part of the book covers the Colonial-Revolutionary era (1706 to 1789). The controversy between Old Side and New Side Presbyterians over Christian living, revival, and the qualifications of ministers characterize this period in which the trajectory of American Presbyterian identity was uncertain. Itinerant preachers found great success, and the result of the controversy favored their emphasis on individual expressions of religious piety. With the founding of the nation came the formal creation of the PCUSA, which faced the issue of a politicization of its mission from the start.

The second part describes the Antebellum Church (1789 to 1869). In this period, Presbyterian identity crystallized with “the coming of the seminary” (108). However, the split between Old School and New School factions revealed a growing American resistance to Calvinistic soteriology with the advent of revivalism. Theological infidelity and division notwithstanding, this was a time of rich doctrinal seriousness, especially among Old School Presbyterians. With the Civil War, another church split occurred between North and South. Sadly, this division revealed the captivity of Presbyterians “to the policies of the state in ways that would shift the emphasis more toward being American than being Presbyterian” (165).

The final section of the book chronicles the era from the close of the Civil War to the present (1869 – 2006). This period is marked by a number of ecclesiastical separations and reunions. Each division and reunion provoked questions of when to leave, remain, or unite as denominational loyalties became less important in broader American Christian culture. Confessional Presbyterianism struggled to stand its ground against theological and ecclesiastical assaults by Liberal and Neo-Orthodox factions while resisting the anti-intellectualism of Fundamentalism and the popularity of Dispensationalism. As stalwart defenders of the Faith departed, the mainline Church slid toward apostasy.

The fourth move that the authors make is to highlight recurrent trends over time. Disputes over theological heritage were catalytic for the development of Presbyterian identity in each era. Presbyterians repeatedly struggled to avoid politicizing their message, even as brilliant theologians defended the essential spirituality of the church. As factions grew up over time, those who championed the cause of cultural relevance would consistently employ rhetoric against strict subscription to the Church’s Standards. Tensions between ambitious ecumenism and tight theology in the Church persisted throughout as well.

Seeking is an important help to Presbyterians as they engage with American Christianity, individuals who come into their churches, and other organized Christian bodies. As Presbyterian ministers encounter those outside of (or coming into) Presbyterian circles, Seeking will help them answer the question, “What is American Presbyterianism?” This work ought also to encourage patience as Presbyterian churchmen seek to purify the Church over the long-term.

Finally, Seeking is helpful for the development of a deeper communion with God. As we reflect upon the history of American Presbyterianism, we should grow in gratitude for the preservation of biblical expressions of the Presbyterian Faith. God deserves our praise and thanksgiving for maintaining a Presbyterian witness that is faithful to Scripture, committed to intellectual exercise, and concerned for the condition of men’s souls.