This ‘splendid work . . . should be read by all exercised Christians’. Rev Murdoch Campbell (whose own books were largely devotional) wrote this assessment of Scottish Theology around the time it was first published. It might seem strange to emphasise that all exercised believers should read this type of book. At first glance, the book may seem to be only about Church history and theology and not of universal interest. This would, however, be a clear case of mistakenly judging a book by its cover or title.
Interweaving biography, history, doctrine and instruction in a compelling way, it is a remarkable book full of spiritual and human interest. At each crucial stage it pauses to relate the unique understanding of the Scriptures attained in Scotland without losing the momentum of the narrative. This book helps us to understand the extent to which the truth prevailed in Scotland and the height from which we have fallen as a nation. Dr Macleod highlights the sanctified intellect of the Scottish theologians, in which piety and learning were married together. He compares John Maclaurin of Luss and Jonathan Edwards, for instance: ‘In both of them massive intellect went hand in hand with heart godliness of the most pervasive, controlling and winsome character’ (p 201).
While aspects of biography and history make the book easier to read than a doctrinal volume, this does not mean that it is an ‘easy read’. It was first delivered as lectures to divinity students and certain terms are assumed. The publishers have, however, sought to make some references clear in footnotes and also to translate Latin phrases. Yet the book will repay the time and effort spent in seeking to explore such teaching. Dr Macleod had a vast knowledge of the subject and introduces names that even the earnest student of Church history will discover for the first time. It is said that he had a photographic memory and the reader certainly benefits from a lifetime of warm acquaintance with the best books. The tone of the book is not detached and academic and it still retains the natural flow of an oral presentation. An attractive turn of phrase frequently conveys a great deal in few words.
It is based on a series of lectures delivered at Westminster Theological Seminary in 1939. At that time Dr Macleod was Principal of the Free Church of Scotland College, although he had been ordained to the ministry in the Free Presbyterian Church. This edition is a highly attractive reprint with a new foreword, and an appendix containing an unpublished lecture he gave. The publishers are greatly to be commended for giving such a vital volume a new lease of life.
Mr Campbell wrote at a time when many could perhaps be expected to know much more about the abundant illumination our forefathers received in the truth. His recommendation of the book to exercised Christians remains appropriate, however. This is no slight on any who may struggle with some aspects of the book. Rather it indicates that exercised Christians will be exercised about the truth in a spiritual way. They desire to learn from what the Spirit of God taught the Church in the past. Thus our attitude should be one of humble attentiveness, not proud self-sufficiency. The following are some areas about which we ought to be exercised, where this book will prove helpful. It does not deal with these matters exhaustively; instead it shows the benefit of understanding truth in the light of Church history.
1.Exercised about the whole counsel of God.
Scottish theology was concerned with the full breadth of revealed truth. It did not seek to confine what ought to be confessed or taught to a bare minimum. It adopted fully the whole doctrine of the Westminster Confession as ‘the mature utterance of the teaching of the Reformation age’ (p 358). A minimal statement of faith fails to testify to the whole counsel of God. The Confession by contrast, summarises a wide range of subjects. These are the key aspects of revealed truth and the Church needs to make a declaration on what we should believe about these subjects. We must also make it our own personal faith.
‘The history of the Christian Church is, from one side, the record of the treatment that the truth has met with through the ages.’ It helps us understand the truth with greater accuracy and clarity. In particular, we can see how the faith once delivered to the saints has been contended for against error. ‘The history of Christian doctrine will supply a key to many of the statements of our standard documents and enable the student to appreciate the exact significance of terms that have become technical and classical and as such are virtually indispensable for the statement and understanding of formulated doctrine’ (pp 358-9).
Such a book cannot enter into the way that every area of confessed truth has been discussed and defended in the past. Rather, it indicates the benefit of a historical understanding in relation to doctrine. It touches on key areas of truth such as: the gospel, justification, the new birth, sanctification, the law of God, assurance and the authority of Scripture.
2. Exercised about the faithful preaching of the gospel.
Dr Macleod focuses on the controversy surrounding the Marrow of Modern Divinity. This was the response to a kind of preaching where ‘the note of warning for the unbelieving and the impenitent did not get its own place, and no more did the wooing note that sought to win the sinner to the obedience of faith’. It had a practical impact because ‘the eye of the hearer was directed to the hidden man of the heart to the obscuring of the call to look out and away from self to the Saviour. . . . It is in the fullness of the Saviour that there is a supply for all the sinner’s need, and the hearer of the gospel has to learn to put forth the faith, that goes out to Christ, for all that will meet his need, and that looks away from everyone else as a source of help and hope’ (pp 148-9).The latter emphasis of a freely-offered Christ was recovered with a full vitality by men like Thomas Boston.
There was a Scriptural balance in the emphasis on law and gospel, salvation and holiness. Rabbi Duncan’s commendation of Thomas Halyburton is appropriate here. He ‘neither understates nor overstates the value of the law to the gospel or the necessity of the gospel to the law’. An Act of Assembly in 1736 concerning preaching also underlines this. Dr Macleod quotes this at length because it admirably expresses an emphasis on Christ-centred holiness. One telling phrase instructs preachers ‘that they make gospel subjects their main theme and study, and press, with all earnestness, the practice of moral duties in a gospel manner’ (pp 178-9).
Sadly, later defections in the Secession Church introduced an unbiblical universal atonement into the preaching of the gospel. This only served to make the gospel offer less, not more, free. Though the Amyraldian view was resisted by faithful men, it was ‘responsible for the collapse of the Confessional orthodoxy which had for ages’ prevailed in Scotland (pp 62-63).
3. Exercised about the authority of Scripture.
‘Taking their place at the footstool of their Lord and His Apostles, our Reformers handled the Scriptures of the Old Testament with the same reverence and submission with which both Christ and His Apostles treated them.’ ‘It was on the divine Word that they built, and their teaching owed all the authority that it claimed to the written Word which was its warrant.’ Dr Macleod shows how the authority of Scripture was implemented in every area of the life of the Church through the regulative principle. The Reformers believed that Christ has given in Scripture ‘not only a correct but a comprehensive and sufficient pattern and model’ (p 9). ‘Such a principle to regulate the practice and worship of the church is one that gives the Lord the credit of His own bounty’ (p 10). This was established at the Reformation and had to be maintained in every generation.
Dr Macleod laments the way that the foundational authority of Scripture was brought into question in the Victorian era and undermined the doctrinal attainments of the past. Thus ‘the purely Scottish tradition came to be regarded in the light of a provincial peculiarity. The young bloods in the ministry let go of the faith of their fathers’ (p 327). He refers to such all-too-familiar trends as the ‘New Light’ tendency (see below). It was responsible for reversing the attainments of the Reformation in fully honouring God’s Word.
4. Exercised about the need for assurance.
The subject of assurance emerges on various occasions during the course of the book. It is touched on in a way that highlights both the importance and the careful balance given to this doctrine in the past. The relevant chapter in the Westminster Confession reflects such wisdom. It is important to see it as ‘a blessing that may be enjoyed and that is to be much desired’ (p 32). Dr Macleod spends time illustrating how personally real this was to men like Donald Cargill as well as discussing the potential for misunderstanding when distinguishing believing assurance and felt assurance.
5. Exercised about the kingship of Christ.
The regulative authority of Scripture is Christ’s kingly rule. The doctrine of Christ’s sole Headship over the Church therefore became a unique point of witness for the Scottish Church. In different ways and at different times, this has been challenged by political rulers and others. This was ‘the word of their Lord’s patience for witnesses in all ranks of society who loved not their lives to the death. They believed it to be the truth of God that their Lord is the Head of His own Church, and to preserve this truth and pass it down to later ages intact they were willing to lay down their lives for it’ (p 50).
We have a duty to prize, peruse and preserve such a precious truth which has been bequeathed to us at such great price. The state still seeks to encroach upon the spiritual independence of the Church, but sadly it is a backsliding professing Church that is trampling most upon the crown rights of Christ today.
6.Exercised about the declension of the Church.
Where did the backsliding and apostasy in the professing Church in Scotland originate? Many might identify the Victorian times, when it became most manifest in the larger Churches. Dr Macleod traces it all the way back to the Reformed Presbyterian Church in the eighteenth century. The error did not take hold there in the same way as in other Churches and the innovators left to form a new body.
The slogan used to present defection from the truth as an advance was ‘New Light’, which they claimed they were receiving from Scripture. This is relevant to our own times, when such ideas are afflicting the professing Church to a far greater extent. While we may get a better grasp of Scripture, believers can be assured that ‘any further truth which as light will break forth from the Word will have no quarrel with the truth and the proportion of what they have already come to know’ (p 250).
It is appropriate that the chapter should be entitled ‘New Light and what it has done’. It introduced defection in relation to the infallibility of Scripture, the sovereignty of divine grace and the state’s duty to the Church. This did not just bring about the Declaratory Act and its drive to jettison the Westminster Confession. A carnal principle was working like leaven through the visible Church; today this has become virtually triumphant. It is the assumption that the will and wisdom of the flesh is of greater authority than the Word of God. In practice, this prevails with many that profess to be Evangelical and Reformed.
This is why (to take only the most notorious example) homosexuals are permitted in the ministry of the Church of Scotland today. It is only a further point along the course that was set many generations ago. Dr Macleod calls the Declaratory Act era ‘the ebb-tide’. Sadly, his comments on the Free Church Declaratory Act tend to invite a false view of its operative effect, in contrast to his earlier more incisive analysis. He follows the ebbing tide to the Church of Scotland Articles Declaratory of 1921, which consolidated and invited further defection. He criticises the rise of the influence of Karl Barth’s theology, liberalism masquerading as Reformed doctrine. We need to read this book if we are exercised about the decline of the visible Church in Scotland. It will help us to understand the nature of the Church’s declension and the steps of defection.
7. Exercised about the future of the Church.
This is also a book for those who are exercised about the generations to come. They look to the future with both concern and hope. We have a responsibility to pass on the heritage of truth to which this book witnesses. Principal John Macleod had lived through the era that eclipsed the glory in our land but he had a confident expectation that the same truths would witness future glory. He had ‘the hope that, with a resurgence of evangelical godliness in days of reviving, (the faith and witness of the Reformed Church) will have an ample vindication, so that its future will in glory and in power surpass the brightest days of its past’ (p xii).
Taken with permission from the Free Presbyterian Magazine, April 2016