By: Thomas F. Booher
I was a bit concerned that John Macleod’s Scottish Theology would be a hard and dry read given it was taken from lectures. There are some expected deviations and rabbit trails but most of them were interesting, and it was pleasant to read MacLeod’s Scottish way of putting things. This is essentially a summary of four hundred years of Scottish theology, from the time just before the Reformation to 1938 when the addresses were delivered. The goal will be to highlight some of the major changes in Scotland’s church history and see how they compare to our own history in the United States.
Prior to the Reformation Scotland was a free and independent nation, but aristocrats ran things poorly and the clergy itself was wealthy and immoral. Scotland’s freedom had the benefit of allowing for a more thorough reform of the John Knox and Puritan variety. Such a reform was not so easy to accomplish in England.
Scotland’s worship during the Reformation would follow the regulative principle, producing a simple and plain. They constructed their Scots Confession in 1560 but adopted the Westminster Confession when it was written. The Scots believed that Scripture is the ultimate authority and rule for faith and life. Their desire to follow the Apostolic pattern produced a Presbyterian form of church government, where church discipline was regularly practiced. The Aristocrats who controlled Scotland did not like these changes because they were now held to God’s standards with the same strictness as the pauper, and in time Presbyterianism broke up the tyranny of the feudal order.
Indeed, conflict between the Church and civil power emerged as soon as the Reformation commenced. The Puritans in Scotland wished to shake loose of any civil authority over the church, claiming Christ as its only head and pressing the crown rights of Jesus. While the Tudors, Stuarts, and James VI tried to make the church fit their own ends by appointing bishops and abbots to make them money, godly men did not cave in to such enticements and did not allow tyranny to compromise the fidelity of the church.
From 1560-1647 Macleod says there was great theological controversy over the understanding of faith and assurance. Even some of the godliest men of the Reformation were found to question their own salvation. They had to speak differently at different times to address Roman Catholicism, Socinianism, and Arminianism. The most urgent question went from, “How shall a man be just with God?” to, “How shall I be satisfied that I have indeed passed from death to life?” Needless to say, when the question of assurance eclipses the question of how to be justified, neither justification nor assurance will be well understood. This is because a proper understanding of justification is the first step to achieving assurance of salvation.
There were Scottish men in the first part of the 17th century that linked the successors of Knox with the men of the Second Reformation. Robert Bruce and David Calderwood were both exiled for their faithful preaching and writing. They along with others taught many students in the universities which propagated the Puritan ideal. However, some who were Presbyterian were Erastians and conflict grew between them and the Puritans.
Samuel Rutherford, the Westminster Divine, wrote Lex Rex which laid out the limitations of civil authority over the Church and also expressed what the people owed in obedience to civil power. Lex Rex is very important to America since it was the Whig teaching of the American Revolution of 1689. John Witherspoon, John Locke, and Thomas Jefferson also drew principles from this book. Rutherford taught that the people of the land were to appoint their rulers and should determine how much power they wanted to give their leaders. He saw monarchy, democracy, and aristocracy as legitimate forms of government, but the king had a duty to the people and the people had no right to grant tyrannical power to the king.
For several generations after the Reformation Scotland held the Reformed confession as their creed. The doctrines of grace and sovereignty of God were expounded from the pulpit and the catechism was used to teach in the home with the children, but things began to change in the last third of the 17th century. Richard Baxter’s theology affected Scotland, which tended toward legalism and questioned the imputation of Christ’s active obedience. He accused the Reformed position of Antinomianism. Conformists of the Leighton school became Arminian and mystical. The culture was also shifting and embracing a form of Deism, which Thomas Halyburton and others combated.
The Neonomians (who were the followers of Baxter) formed as a reaction to Antinomianism, and many Calvinists began leaning toward hyper Calvinism. This was the landscape that the Marrow controversy found itself in. Even though Thomas Boston and the Marrowmen were defenders of the true gospel, the 1720 General Assembly found faults with them and their teaching. Boston wrote and clarified his position, and the teaching he presented on assurance of salvation was solid and helped clear up that extended debate.
Another important development was the emergence of the Seceders. They broke from the main churches because they saw a faction using the Confession and Constitution of the Church in order to impose an unholy tyranny. The Seceders were Reformed and orthodox, but by 1747 they broke into two. This kept the Reformed faith alive in Scotland, England, and even in America. The non-evangelical wing of the church in Scotland was embracing Deism, however, and the Seceders did little to address this growing problem. While men like Thomas Chalmers engaged in apologetics, many evangelicals did not.
The Moderates formed and were weak in their love for God, had Pelagian theology, and were essentially Universalists. They created a split in the Reformed churches. They called themselves Christian Deists and elevated reason and common sense over revelation, making themselves the measuring rod of ultimate truth.
The descent into liberalism was now on and progressed until 1810. Broad church teaching was imbibed by Conformists under the Episcopal regime, and the Neonomians and Orthodox followed suit. Erastianism reinstated lay patronage and forfeited the congregations’ right to choose their own pastor. The Moderates were little concerned with the gospel and instead turned their attention to social agendas, not unlike liberal churches that we see here today.
There were bright spots during this dark time, including the Haldane brothers who started the missionary movement in Scotland. But some of the Seceders were claiming they had “new light” which advocated a complete severance of Church and State and abandoned the Confession. Their Testimony of 1830 spoke uncertainly on the atonement and men like Morison of Kilmarnock preached a universal Atonement and inched toward Pelagianism.
By 1847 the Synod of Relief joined the now United Secession. They had at best an Arminian view of the atonement and gospel, and with that came gimmicks and tricks to try to get people saved, evidenced by D.L. Moody’s evangelistic campaign to Scotland in 1873-74.
There was thankfully an undercurrent that produced something of an evangelical revival while Moderatism was gaining a foothold. Men like Thomas Chalmers, Robert M’Cheyne, George Smeaton, and William Cunningham were part of this resurgence. Much of the preaching in the state church by the late 19th century was orthodox and earnest, but Morisonianism continued to grow and broad churchism coupled with a high sacramental doctrine infiltrated Presbyterian churches. These churches stressed the universal fatherhood of God, discarded the simple and plain style of Puritan worship, and abandoned the Sabbath. They began teaching a baptismal regeneration and repudiated the teaching of a sovereign God who elects men to save.
The growing Moderatism was the precursor to Modernism, which didn’t like anything supernatural and rejected Scripture as God’s authoritative Word. Even the more conservative churches in Scotland began loosening their convictions and did not cling so tightly to the Confession. They fell prey to sensationalism and revivalism, more concerned about getting decisions for Christ than learning true and sound doctrine that yields enduring fruits of the Spirit, echoing American church history.
Then in 1929 a union occurred in Scotland that united most Presbyterians on the basis that they only have to accept the fundamentals of the Confession, likewise paralleling fundamentalism in America. These fundamentals were not spelled out clearly, except that they had a doctrine of the trinity and that faith in the risen Christ saves. Ministers were not held to strict subscriptionism, meaning congregations did not always know where their ministers stood theologically. The work of the Holy Spirit and the need for the new birth were not emphasized, and many churches were fully liberal. This was the sad state of the Church in Scotland at the time of Macleod’s lectures.
When a desire to leave the old ways and to loosen commitment to the Confession takes root, it’s not long before the Confession is pushed aside altogether. We saw that in Scotland and in America, and that leaven continues today. There is a new morality, which hardly has morals at all. Science and the intellect of man are placed over Scripture, making man God and God wrong, if He is to exist at all. The fact that one cannot know truth unless Truth reveals itself is forgotten. Truth is assumed, but it is now a slippery thing, and based only on empirical evidence.
Scotland lost confidence in the inspiration and authority of Scripture around the time we did in America because their epistemology didn’t allow for special revelation. So long as Scotland and America continue to manufacture their own sources and grounds for truth, everyone will do what is right in their own eyes, and in so doing incur the wrath of God. The Church needs bold and faithful witnesses during this time, wedding apologetics and the gospel with prayer that the Spirit would blow and work in the hearts of men through gospel truth.