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.