Category Archives: Book Reviews

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.

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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.

Book Review: The Whole Christ by Sinclair Ferguson

wholechristIt’s not often that you come across a book like The Whole Christ by Sinclair Ferguson, it is well-written, of moderate length, winsome, pastoral, and academic all at once. It’s full title is The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance– Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters, quite a mouthful, and quite telling as to what a reader can expect to find inside. It’s a work that promises to be convicting, encouraging, and informative, and anyone familiar with Ferguson’s other titles will know this to be par for course. A title so long may be intimidating to some, and those unfamiliar with the Marrow Controversy may be put-off by this work, but let me assure you of the importance of this book: It’s not often I read a modern work that I know I will read again and again, but The Whole Christ is one of those books. It’s an instant classic and a work I expect to influence pastors and laymen for many years to come. Continue reading

Mini-Review: This World is Not My Home by Michael Williams

This World Is Not My HomeThis World Is Not My Home by Michael D. Williams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Outstanding. Thoughtful, well-researched, and fairly irenic given the nature of it. Lots of direct citations from Chafer, Scofield, and Darby while offering sound refutations. Not only does this inform the reader of the teachings of dispensationalism but offers biblical refutations. More importantly, it paints a better picture of the world, the church, redemption, and God Himself than dispensationalism does. This book is sadly out of print but isn’t too hard to locate and very worth the time.

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Book Review: Every Good Endeavor by Timothy Keller & Katherine Leary Alsdorf

everygood

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

Riverhead Books, 2012, ISBN:978-1-59463-282-2, 304 pages


In recent decades, the literature surrounding the specific “faith and work/vocation” theme has ballooned. Though I have passing familiarity with some works focused on calling, pastoral ministry, and the like, Every Good Endeavor is my introduction into the literature surrounding faith and vocation generally. To put that statement into context, I have read Os Guinness’s volume on calling several years ago, but I did so as one exploring the call to full-time vocational pastoral ministry. This book has a different intended audience: the vast majority of Christians who are not called to become full-time pastors, preachers, and pulpiteers.

Drawing on both the extant literature as well as on experiences of professionals in his congregation (like Katherine Leary Alsdorf), Keller lays out a Christian paradigm for work along the Creation-Fall-Redemption/Restoration theme.

Some notable themes from the book, in my own words:
– all lawful work is God’s work (and thus, ministry in some way)
– all human efforts/work, marred as it is by sin, are flawed in some way
– we ought to pursue human flourishing in our work, and not merely a financial bottom line
– our work reveals our idols; or, more specifically, our attitudes regarding work reveals more deep-seated motivations, presuppositions, and misconceptions we may harbor in our innermost being
– common grace
– God’s love and goodness are central in any conception of purpose for work and the world

One surprising find, from my perspective, was how much of Keller’s presentation echoed confessional language and structures. That is, there are several points in the book at which I was pleasantly surprised by an articulation of ideas reminiscent of the Westminster Confession of Faith and/or the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

I would cautiously and humbly put forward a couple of modest points of critique:
1. Keller uses the beautifully poignant tale of Tolkien’s “Leaf by Niggle” to make the point that our worldly efforts and endeavors have eternal significance. I agree that there is some kind of eternal significance in the work that we do now (and particularly in how said work shapes the lives of our neighbors), but I would tread very carefully when following this impulse to the conclusion that we’ll find specific examples of unfinished work completed in Glory. On page 250, Keller writes, “You can work with passion and rest, knowing that ultimately the deepest desires of your heart – including your specific aspirations for your earthly work – will be fulfilled when you reach your true country, the new heavens and new earth.” I’m not too clear on what “your specific aspirations for your earthly work” includes, and if it applies Tolkien’s fictional vision literally, I simply cannot agree. I hope that critique makes sense, and that I’m not misreading on this point.
2. Keller twice cites a story of a friend of his that waived a bonus at work because it came as a result of effort/investment that, while legal, did not result in human flourishing. While I certainly would not bind this fellow’s conscience in an attempt to persuade him to take the bonus, I think that it would be inappropriate to counsel someone to do the same in an analogous situation. Perhaps I’m a bit more straightforward, but if my conscience wouldn’t allow me to take a bonus as a result of “work x”, then I would not be able to perform “work x” in good conscience at all.

Just my two cents. Overall, I really liked this book. I will be thinking deeply about it for quite some time, and I am interested in making some kind of application of its teachings in my context as a pastor in the future.

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Book Review: Why the Reformation still matters by Mike Reeves and Tim Chester

Why the Reformation still mattersScreen Shot 2016-08-17 at 16.37.25

By: Michael Reeves and Tim Chester

Inter-Varsity Press, 2016, ISBN:978-1783594078, 176 pages

The ecumenical movement, represented by developments such as Evangelicals and Catholics Together, the Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, and the recent Together2016 Conference have led many to declare that the work of the Reformation is over, and now is the time for a reunion between Protestants and Catholics. In Why the Reformation still matters Reeves and Chester set out to answer whether it is still true to say ‘ecclesia reformata semper reformanda est’ (the reformed church is always to be reformed), or whether it’s time to call a halt to the process, and look on the Reformation as something to be though upon with a little shame. The contention of the work is that “The Reformers are not embarrassing grandparents- they are vital conversation partners with the potential to renew and reinvigorate our churches” (Reeves and Chester, 2016, 18).

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Mini-Review: Fool’s Talk by Os Guiness

Fool's Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian PersuasionFool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion by Os Guinness
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a must “re-read.”

I’ve never considered myself an Os Guinness fan, but this won me over. He is winsome, thoughtful, well-researched, well-illustrated, readable, and good amount of interaction with more academic sources. People who have read a lot of apologetics will probably appreciate this more than people who are just getting started, but everyone will learn from this book and his posture towards apologetics is worthy of imitation for all Christians.

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Mini-Review: Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith

Career of Evil (Cormoran Strike, #3)Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Very very good. Mystery is outside of my wheelhouse, but I am a big enough J.K. Rowling fan that I have embraced this series. I think this was by far the most gripping and compelling book in the Strike series. There were moments of suspense told from the killer’s perspective that will make you uneasy. I don’t particularly enjoy being uneasy, but that seems to be the name of the game with this type of book. The characters are interesting and realistic, the plot has its usual amount of twists and turns, and it is a great addition to the series.

Can’t wait to see the BBC adaption!

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Book Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

“Horrible things happen to wizards who meddle with time.” – Hermione in the Prisoner of Azkaban

The same can be said of authors who meddle with time.  Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is the eighth installment in one of the most beloved franchises of all time.  The reception was enthusiastic as the books flew off of the shelves (like magic).  However, the reviews that have been coming in are very mixed.  Even people who like it have some reservations about it.  The plot is a winding and twisting time-traveling story that brings back many familiar characters (Umbridge, Cedric, and others)  and portrays some of the most popular in the light of an alternate universe (Draco, Hermione, Ron, Snape, etc.).  A review of any Harry Potter book could ramble on forever since the universe is big and complex.  Instead of doing a walk-through of the book, I’ve decided to comment on a few of the characters and then offer my final impressions of the book.

***Spoilers Begin Here***

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