MacGregor on the Future of the Catholic Church Reformed (HCC #4)

The author was a prominent Church of Scotland man whose career culminated as head of the Graduate School of Theology of the University of Southern California (USC). The purpose of this 1960 book (based on a series of lectures) becomes clear in the first chapter, “Success and Failure of the Protestant Reformation.” The Reformers had a vision for the indivisible holy catholic church which has been lost in many of their followers. The vision was the most important theme of the Reformers — bigger than justification (21). The other themes were secondary and their successors have erred by keeping the teaching while losing the context. For example, the issue for Calvin was paganizing influences in the church, which he countered with emphasis on the sovereignty of God. But that doctrine was in Thomas as well. Calvin’s placement of it under the rubric of salvation rather than de deo led to confidence and assurance, but the use of the doctrine by subsequent generations, abstracted from that practical aspect, has been deleterious. Likewise, Mariolatry was rightly resisted, but the Reformers would not approve of the overweening rejection of all reference to Mary typical in modern Protestant churches. To this day, in urban centers, the Catholic churches are heavily trafficked during the day because those people have a strong sense of Christ’s presence in the church which has been lost by the Protestant church; but it need not have been.

The second chapter, “Two Basic Failures,” details the failures of the Reformed Church. One is a loss of a concept of the corporate holy catholic church. Examples are given of the author’s attempts to stop for prayer at Catholic and Protestant churches. A variety of nuances of the standard objection to this vision, namely that it is mere externalism, are answered. The second is the gradual abandonment of the ideal of Christian perfection. The latter is illustrated by an interesting parable by Kierkegaard (43-45). A worldly Roman Catholic priest is described; but the Catholic parishioners know he is worldly and endure, holding better examples before their eyes. Then a Lutheran pastor that is equally worldly is described; but his parishioners praise him as a man of refinement, frank-heartedness, even godliness! The problem, MacGregor concludes, is that while the Protestant ideal of Christian perfection is superior to the “high ideal” of Catholicism’s vision, it is unattainable by the masses; and Protestant teaching lacks a secondary, achievable level that the masses can be held to. A low level of sanctification then becomes ratified as the norm.

In the third chapter, “Semper Reformanda,” MacGregor fortunately does not lean on the non-genuine slogan itself (though he twice did in the earlier chapter). The thesis is the need for the Reformed Church to continue reforming; it is illustrated by a variety of dualities meant to focus on both the genuine contribution of the Reformation to the holy catholic church, while also shining the light on absurdities that can result from a false appropriation. “Back to the Reformation” movements are based on an aesthetic preference and nostalgia, not reality, and thus are as vacuous and reactionary as neo-Thomism in the Roman Catholic world. Similarly, while the Catholic has the empty crutch of relics, the Protestant has a vulgar appropriation of “blessed assurance.” As to discipline, it is not so much an absence of it as a combining of “irksome bureaucratic discipline” with mob rule — “We have exchanged a priest-ridden people for a people-ridden clergy” (55). There is ignorance on all sides of the richness contributed by the other pieces of the fragmented church — but this is least excusable for the Reformed, since the reformation of the church we confess to be indivisible is at the heart of our reason for being (59).

The stage having been set by describing the problem, the second part of the book discusses MacGregor’s proposed three-fold agenda for renewal: restoration of church discipline, the individual pursuit of holiness, and “liturgical reform.” Chapter 4, “The Revival of Discipline,” opens the agenda. The focus of the discussion is external ways that Christians can exhibit their solidarity with the Body of Christ, and conformity of the pastorate to objective standards. What is needed is the imposition of uniform rules of privation such as Rome’s forbidding meat on Friday as a way for the laity to have a shared life. Within the Roman communion, these little acts that are universally observed give them a sense of community that cuts across all social class. Clerics must exhibit a love of theology, so they will not be tempted by the gimmickry that pervades much of the modern church. A way to remove the influence of money in eviscerating the exercise of discipline applied to wealthy contributors must be devised, not excluding consideration of establishing a system of bishops, which is not necessarily contradictory to the presbyterian system.

The next chapter focuses on the “interior life” of the individual. A distinction is mentioned between “ascetic” and “mystical” devotion. In Rome, these two themes are sharply distinguished, while in the Reformed tradition they are “interwoven” (86). The vast literature on personal sanctification from both sides of the divide are reviewed, including more than a passing mention of Thomas a Kempis, Loyola, Francis de Sales, Robert Parsons, Andrewes, Rutherford, Guthrie, Boyd, Scougal, Leighton, Thomas Erskine, Barbour, Chalmers, and Rabbi Duncan. This literature is contrasted with the reading of today’s audience: Norman Vincent Peale.

The culminating chapter, “The Revival of Liturgy,” is evidently the subject that is also closest to MacGregor’s heart. He claims that both Luther and Calvin continued the structure of the mass as the organization of worship, only removing the explicitly offensive parts. The shift from Table to Pulpit that ensued was as much motivated by the acoustical problems of gothic architecture as for theology. The removal of instrumental music in the Scottish church was a 17th century innovation motivated by rationalism and economy and the “negative influence of English Puritans” who had “little interest in beauty” (110). The change from standing during prayer to sitting was motivated by self-indulgence, and the move to the individual cup is as improper as the individual wafer used by Rome. What is needed is decidedly not a subjective effort at “making worship more meaningful in my heart,” but a liturgical richness that will reflect the communal aspect of the Body of Christ.


There is no topic more important than the one Geddes MacGregor tackles in this book, and that is why I am giving more space to its review than a book of this size would normally warrant, and tagging it as “Part 4” in the Holy Catholic Church series. In the book’s favor, it can be said that a vision of the holy catholic church is indeed absent from the thinking of most modern Protestants, at least in America. Even Orthodox Presbyterians rarely evince an appreciation of this reality, though fortunately our book of order preserves much of the foundation, even if few pastors could explain how or why.

However, the book’s message is hobbled by many logical and historical mistakes, as well as a certain rhetorical trickiness. Some of these I outline in the remainder.

Though the Reformers and Reformed distinctives are always praised, there is a taking away with the left hand what he gives with the right. He has a recurring nasty habit of asserting that the Reformers were motivated by psychology and pragmatic means of countering “abuses” in the Roman Catholic church, rather than a discovery of the gospel and the direct teaching of Scripture. He says they were concerned about the “overemphasis” on merit, and the laxness in life. But many that remained papists were concerned about the moral turpitude in the church and desirous of seeing “reform” of those things — even Albert of Magdeburg whose simony and resulting financial bind led to the whole indulgence craze in Saxony to begin with. Many likewise agreed that merit was “overemphasized.” In contrast, when the gospel finally seized Luther’s heart, all notion of merit went out the window, not just its “overemphasis.” The Reformers scoffed at the idea that merely working to eliminate priestly concubinage or what not would address the real problem.

This confusion becomes explicit in application. It seems that a major anchor for the liturgical renewal movement is to favor the collective over the individual. It thus behooves us to dwell on this phase of the argument in a bit of detail. He says that individual salvation is a consequence of corporate salvation i.e.
we are saved –> I am saved.
In other words, he wants to model individual salvation as the existential instantiation of collective salvation. But is it the case that because “we are Americans” is true, therefore I am American? It follows logically as to form, but epistemologically it is question-begging: I cannot make the judgment that “we are Americans” unless I already know that “I am an American.” I could deduce “I am saved” from “all men are saved.” But unless universalism is true, the major premise is vacuous. We can sympathize with MacGregor’s motive: resisting the tendency to define the church as the bundling together of raw individuals that are saved out of the blue. It is a valiant attempt to shift attention from the individual, but it fails. The individual/church relation is a many/one duality in which due attention must be given to each pole in its correlative aspect. A better way to display the logic would be to say that
~a church –> ~individual saved.
that is “if there is no church then no individual is saved.” But that is a different question. That is to nest individual salvation in the exigencies of redemptive history. The individual is saved into the pre-existing church established by our Lord; there is harmony of the individual and collective aspect once the matter is rooted in the foundational reality.

I fear that this blurring of Reformational principles points to a deeper spiritual problem. As evidence, consider his citation of one David Read, a young theologue in the late 30’s who spoke of the willingness of his generation to reconsider the calvinistic doctrine of man because of events in Germany in that time (47). This can be answered at its own level by suggesting that the events in Germany in that time point to the plausibility of the self-renewal of man. It all depends on your major premise. But leave that aside. Note that in Mr Read’s comments, the sense of sin within is entirely absent; the insight came entirely from observing others. Berkouwer noticed in contrast the temptation to self-righteousness that dwelling on the sin of others easily brings:

“Connections” outside ourselves need not be denied, for no man is an island to himself. We should not deny the universality of guilt. Our confession must be the same as Isaiah’s: “I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (6:5). Yet, in all these “connections” and all this solidarity, there can never be a self-excuse. We can only pray for God’s renewal of our lives and his blessing on the lives of others. “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Ps 51:7). (Studies in Dogmatics: Sin, p. 19, emphasis in original)

Everyone sees the sin in others. Even Enlightenment moralist J. G. Fichte observed that society is impossible without contractual obligation, and everyone is indignant when defrauded. To jump from that to a “willingness to reconsider the calvinistic doctrine of man” without ever indicting oneself as the chief sinner is simply pharisaism masquerading as deep and spiritual insight.

A recurring problem of the book is obfuscation through absence of definition and/or the injection of ambiguity. A few examples.

1. The assertion that the Reformers substantially kept the form of the mass is ambiguous. The problem is, you need to put things in some order. If the mass included singing a psalm and prayer, then when the Scot includes the singing of a psalm and a prayer, is he “following the mass” to that extent? I submit that liturgy advocates need to give up reasoning in this way. If liturgy is an inescapable concept, then the most primitive baptist already “has a liturgy” and the advocate needs to advance to the next stage of argumentation. It is a non-starter. The example of the evolution of Calvin’s service given on pp 106-7 is hardly convincing in this respect.

2. The discussion of “Christian perfection” is similarly defective. First, why the assiduous avoidance of the term sanctification? Is it because he is not content with the Reformation sharp distinction between justification and sanctification? He says the ideal of Christian perfection is “difficult beyond all conceivable description” (36). This is surely an overstatement. Of course it can be described. To describe it correctly however requires the creation/fall/redemption schema for viewing redemptive history and understanding the place of the law of God. None of this is broached in MacGregor’s discussion. No wonder it is “inconceivably difficult” to describe.

3. His rejection of “antinomianism” is therefore ambiguous as well. We must distinguish antinomianism as general lawlessness (I Jn 3:4) versus an understandable mistake that can be made in the radical embrace of free justification. As Berkouwer said somewhere else, antinomianism is preferable to legalism. But we should understand this only in terms of the second form. Again, MacGregor makes no such distinctions, however necessary to the discussion.

4. Expressions like Christian perfection, ascetic vs mystic devotion, and inner life are never defined, though subjected to detailed discussion. Nay, even church. Anyone even cursorily familiar with the literature is aware that there are many senses of the word “church” and keeping them straight will avoid all kinds of confusions in discussing what will be needed to rescue and reform the church.

With these examples in mind, the reader will be able to pick out numerous other ones in a perusal of this book. As an exercise to this end, identify the rhetorical tricks in this sentence: “while it is true that modern Roman Catholicism has, by reaction, grossly exaggerated the status of Mary in just the way that all the Reformers would have bitterly deplored, it has also to be recognized that Protestantism’s self-conscious abstemiousness toward her is no less productive of travesty” (15).

It is one thing to avoid scholastic over-refinement; it is another thing to culpably blur the picture. It is one thing to say, “I will purposely leave this concept fuzzy at first, and allow the discussion to bring the needed precising”; it is another to use the vagueness to slip alien principles in through the back door.

An example is the ascetic/mystic distinction, talked about at length but never defined. We can infer that “ascetic” refers to purgation of negative or evil impulses, while “mystic” refers to contemplation of God. But neither of these gets to first base apart from union with Christ. You cannot purge the evil within — certainly not by eating fish on Fridays. You cannot see God if you are offended by Jesus Christ. His favorable citation of, not just lying Jesuits, but even a Unitarian in the pantheon tells it all. That he finds something commendable in the papist solution of a two-tiered ideal of sanctification is hardly a commendation of that concept.

He is attracted to acts that would show one’s solidarity with the church. But this reminds me of arguments common amongst Methodists of my parents’ generation, that one should refrain from smoking as a testimony to the world against worldliness. The problem is, unless such a privative act is based on the word of God, it has no such testimonial value; it is in fact just an assertion of will against the expression of a different will.

It is amazing to me how inevitable it is that, once the law of God is rejected, any and every substitute law is tried in its place. To adapt one of Chesterton’s sayings: when you reject the law of God, you will submit instead to… anything.

Besides vagueness and ambiguity, often, distinctions that are key to the discussion are not noticed at all. For example, the difference between corporate, “called” worship and private exercises of pious devotion is never drawn out explicitly. This allows MacGregor to shift back and forth between them — like van Til’s two washerwomen taking in each other’s laundry. The felt-need of the pious individual is appealed to to justify his program for liturgical renewal, and yet the goal of the liturgical worship is not subjective satisfaction.

Instead, matters of importance are waved at, given superficial profundity via story and aesthesis. (He seems especially drawn to images of men with brooms — “the only other person in sight was an old man obscuring the altar as he swept out the sanctuary with a large broom” [28]. And again, “during sermon this zealous servant of the sanctuary would take up his broom and sweep out the middle alley, in order to save himself that fatigue of a weekday visit” [114].) As Dr Bahnsen used to point out, when philosophers run dry of argumentation, they resort to stories.

He claims to oppose sentiment and inspiration as proper motives for church life. However his own use of categories like “vulgar” reveal the same method he is criticizing. Indeed, strip out the literary distractions and logical solecisms, and the whole argument really boils down to an abhorrence of the vulgar. As such, I heartily approve of MacGregor’s aesthetic judgments — his critique of an anti-Marxism that is even more materialistic than Marxism; the deracination of our society that makes a writer like Norman Vincent Peale appealing; even the lament about the ugly mud huts we live in in suburbia. But none of this insight entails that we should become more liturgical.

In conclusion, the exposition must be criticized along several lines:
1. There is a complete absence of biblical exegesis or even general invocation of scriptural themes to establish his points.
2. Instead, tradition is appealed to.
3. But the use of tradition is quite selective and at key points, quite misleading.
4. The tradition of his own church, the Westminster Confession and related standards, is also curiously absent from the discussion.
5. The tenor of his thought is quite at odds with those standards at several points.
6. The appeal to the “Reformers,” which is apparently the trump card to negate those standards, is revisionist and sometimes provably false.
7. The rhetoric used to drive his assertions home is laced with ad hominem and the “sucker punch.”
8. The new “regulative principle” proffered by MacGregor seems to have more to do with an aesthetic sense than the sovereignty and aseity of God; in contrast to all the Reformers.

In connection with the last point, it is shocking that the so-called Reformed Regulative Principle of Worship is never mentioned at all. I will argue anon that this principle is more at the heart of Calvin’s theology even than predestination. Or more precisely: both doctrines are necessary consequences of the aseity and thus self-definition of God, which is arguably the lynchpin of Christian theology.

Geddes MacGregor, The Coming Reformation (Phila: Westminster Press 1960) Lib of Cong BX4811.M25 1960

2 thoughts on “MacGregor on the Future of the Catholic Church Reformed (HCC #4)

  1. “I will argue anon that this principle is more at the heart of Calvin’s theology even than predestination.”

    Looking forward to this as well as how Machen and the OPC et al. fit into the “presbyterial succession” view hinted at in your series. Another related issue I would be interested in seeing addressed in light of the foregoing is how the traditional marks of a true church (word, sacrament, discipline) are to be regarded.

  2. The problem with “Protestantism” is that it is entirely un-Protestant. Those who follow Jesuit eschatology in refusing to confess the Papacy to be that Antichrist & Man of Sin, and Rome to be the Whore of Babylon, will eventually end up sliding back into bed with the Vatican.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *