Donald Macleod passed away in Edinburgh, Scotland, on May 21, 2023 at the age of 82. Over the past six decades, he was acknowledged as one of Scotland’s preeminent theologians and cultural commentators. For many Scottish believers, he was also their beloved teacher.
Macleod was born into a working-class, Gaelic-speaking home on the Isle of Lewis off the west coast of Scotland in 1940. He left the island to study at the University of Glasgow and then the Free Church College in Edinburgh. At the age of 22, he was ordained as the minister of Kilmallie Free Church of Scotland in the Scottish Highlands. In 1970, he moved to Glasgow to serve as the pastor at Partick Highland Free Church, where he typically preached six times a week in either English or Gaelic. Toward the end of the 1970s, he was called to Edinburgh to serve at the Free Church College (now Edinburgh Theological Seminary) as professor of systematic theology, where he’d eventually take on the role of principal in 1999. He remained on the faculty full-time until 2011 and continued to teach there for years after.
As a theologian, Macleod was known for his retrieval of historic Scottish Reformed theology and his outspoken defense of the Westminster Confession of Faith.
Macleod was known for his retrieval of historic Scottish Reformed theology and his outspoken defense of the Westminster Confession of Faith.
His greatest theological obsession, however, was the cross of Christ and the love of God displayed therein. In the preface to Christ Crucified, he wrote of the cross, “If I may paraphrase the dying words of John Knox, this is where I first cast my anchor; though the surrounding theological seas have always had their own fascinations it is this rock that really matters. I owe it everything, and all that remains now is to see it from within the veil.”
Macleod’s most lasting influence came through the classroom, where he taught virtually every prospective Free Church minister for decades. So widespread was his influence that by 2011, his son could write that only three Free Church ministers serving at the time hadn’t studied with him.
In addition to his work as a theologian, Macleod established a reputation as an outstanding journalist. In his festschrift The People’s Theologian, Brian Wilson—a journalist and former minister in the Tony Blair government—remarked that Macleod was “by far the most literate and stimulating columnist writing in the Scottish press.”
That work began in 1977 when Macleod became editor of the Free Church of Scotland’s Monthly Record. In what might otherwise have been an obscure periodical, Macleod made the magazine home to some of Scotland’s most thoughtful (if also controversial) cultural and theological commentaries. One month, Macleod would be engaging in a theological critique of T. F. Torrance’s view of Christ’s fallen human nature. In the next, he’d be taking his chief political antagonist Margaret Thatcher to task for ignoring the plight of the poor.
Macleod’s most lasting influence came through the classroom, where he taught virtually every prospective Free Church minister for decades.
Macleod would go on to write weekly columns for more than two decades at the West Highland Free Press and later the Stornoway Gazette, both regional papers in the Highlands and Islands. That he devoted so much of his time and effort to the concerns of this region speaks volumes about his own sense of identity as a Gael. Spending most of his life far away from the Highlands in Edinburgh, Macleod considered himself an exile, and he never stopped speaking back to the place that had made him who he was. His last column ran on April 20.
Macleod’s life wasn’t without significant and painful conflict. For reasons both personal and theological, in the 1990s he became a lightning rod of controversy within the Free Church of Scotland. Denominational tensions, which often ostensibly revolved around Macleod’s life and work, came to a head in 2000 when a group of ministers and churches left the Free Church of Scotland to form the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing).
The central passion of Macleod’s life was preaching. He once wrote,
Each Lord’s Day, congregations should be led to the point where they cry, “Oh! The depth!” And if they are not—if we have robbed the Gospel of the great elements of mystery and wonder and depth and paradox—then we have failed in our mission and cheated our people. . . . The only message we have a right to preach is one so astonishing that angels desire to look into it and so profound that they have to stoop to do so.
This was where Macleod was in his element, stretching the English language to its limits to communicate the love of God in Jesus Christ. He was notorious for the idiosyncrasies of his presentation—he never made eye contact, and the intonation of his thick Lewis accent was at times difficult to follow. And yet many who knew him as theologian, journalist, and preacher said it was in his sermons that he left his most indelible mark.
On Sunday evening, shortly before his death, I preached at a congregation in Inverness in the Scottish Highlands. I was making small talk with two church members in the fellowship hall after the service, and our conversation came around to the fact that I was in Scotland studying Macleod’s work. The people’s faces lit up. Several stopped to tell me about some personal interaction with Macleod years before. One man pulled me aside for 15 minutes to ask about Macleod’s doctrine of God. Another told me proudly about how he’d sat through Macleod’s systematic theology course in 1980. He proceeded to quote verbatim Macleod’s opening lines from the first lecture. Later in the evening, he brought me a photocopy of his hand-written notes from the class. His wife said these were the only papers from seminary he refused to throw away.
Having preached throughout Scotland for almost three years, I wasn’t surprised by these interactions. Donald Macleod had a reputation as “the people’s theologian”—so much so that I often heard him referenced in conversations as “the professor.” For many who never had formal theological education, Macleod was still their teacher.
In his last essay as editor of the Monthly Record in 1990, Macleod wrote on the nature of heaven. He concluded that in heaven
there is total shalom: a sense of sheer well-being. Every need is met. Every longing is fulfilled. Every goal is achieved. Every sense is satisfied. We see Him. We are with Him. He holds us and hugs us and whispers, “This is for ever.”