So, You Want to Read John Mackay?

By DET contributors Scott Rice and Matt Warren

Born in the highlands of Scotland, ecumenist, missionary to Peru, Uruguay, Argentina, and Mexico, and ecclesiastical leader in the United States, John Mackay has left a legacy for the church that compares to a figure like Leslie Newbigin. Last fall, we (i.e., Scott Rice and Matt Warren) participated in a doctoral seminar that assessed the missional and ecumenical legacy of Mackay. Mackay is probably most well known for his The Other Spanish Christ. It has been said that this book, published in the 1930’s, very well might become standard reading in American seminaries as the church comes to grips with how the gospel translates into other cultures, a thrice-over task for Mackay. What we have put together below is a list of resources for anyone interested in investigating the work of this key ecumenical figure.

  1. John Mackay Metzger’s The Hand and the Road: The Life and Times of John A. Mackay. This book was just recently published and is hands down, a great place to start for the reader assessing what aspect of Mackay’s thought and life to explore further. Metzger, Mackay’s grandson, offers a detailed view of Mackay that stretches from his upbringing in Scotland, through his missionary preparation in Spain with Miguel De Unamuno and his studies at Bonn with Karl Barth, to his role as president of Princeton Theological Seminary. What is most impressive about this work is Metgzer’s ability to synthesize a life-story, one that concerns both a deep personal spirituality and a finely tuned theology, with Mackay’s constant attention to the church and its larger mission.
  2. John Mackay’s Ecumenics: The Science of the Church Universal. As a forerunner and leading participant in the ecumenical movement, Mackay attempts to ask in this work, and not uncritically, what is the nature of church universal, the church who confesses that Jesus is Lord, as it functions both internally and towards the world? Of course then, Mackay must take up the difficult questions of the church’s present splintered existence. Is the unity which it seeks external, spiritual, or something else? This is where Mackay puts forward his baldest thesis; that is, the church is most like its Lord and therefore united not when it looks inward but when it looks to the world in its missional task. Unity, for Mackay, happens in missional participation. If Ecumenics is to be willingly received or rejected, it will most likely hinge on this claim.
  3. John Mackay’s The Other Spanish Christ. Of this book, Reinhold Niebuhr said, “[it] must be published for it is rich in both original insights and in erudition in a field of literature still a closed book to most of us.” Its subject is the religious life and history of South America as shaped by the Iberian soul. Its “thesis,” says John Mackay Metzger, “in its most simple form is that the dominant conception of the Spanish Christ . . . is a dead Christ. The ‘other Spanish Christ’ is the living Christ of the Spanish mystics” (Metzger, 227). In essence, Mackay traces the missionary transmission of these two Christs from Spain to South America. Mackay does this in three parts. First, Mackay treats the Conquest and the initial transmission of Roman Catholicism to South America. Next, in Part II, Mackay offers an analysis of the religious system born out of the naturalization of Roman Catholicism in South America. Finally, in Part III, Mackay surveys the spiritual movements of South America that lay outside the bounds of the Roman Catholic Church, including those of both a religious and secular nature. In the latter half of this section, Mackay describes and evaluates Protestant missionary efforts, and reflects on the possibility of ecumenism in South America. To this day, it remains a useful resource for missionaries, theologians, historians, and all who wish to study Latin America.
  4. John Mackay’s A Preface to Christian Theology. Mackay composed this book even as Hitler’s forces marched across France and occupied Paris. The world stood at the end of one era and the uncertain beginning of a another. In this book, Mackay developes his famous call for the church to get off the Balcony and onto the Road. The Balcony and the Road are states of the soul. “By the Road I mean the place where life is tensely lived, where thought has its birth in conflict and concern, where choices are made and decisions are carried out,” says Mackay (30). After likening the world in its present situation to the travelers on the road to Emmaus, Mackay points his readers to where they may encounter Jesus Christ, namely, the Scriptures. Parenthetically, this book will be of interest to Barth scholars as Mackay draws heavily upon his theology. With the encounter with Jesus Christ in view, Mackay puts forth a Christologically informed conception of history as divine drama in which the will to fellowship triumphs over the will to power. In the remaining chapters, Mackay moves from ontology to ethics, from indicative to imperative. “Having dealt with things that are,” says Mackay, “we pass on to things that should be” (106). He discusses the kind of personal and corporate life born out of an encounter with Jesus Christ, and the relation of the church to the secular order. Here, Mackay restates the 1937 Oxford Conference slogan: “The role of the Church is to be the Church” (170, emphasis in original).
  5. John Mackay’s “A Letter to Presbyterians.” An important part of Mackay’s legacy is his brave stance against McCarthyism. After being labled a communist sympathizer by Joseph Matthews in an article entitled, “Reds and Our Churches,” Mackay drafted this letter and submitted it to the General Council of the Presbyterian Church, which adopted it in the fall of 1953. In this piece, Mackay first describes the menace of communism while also criticizing what he observed as a purely negative approach to the problem in American political discourse. Then Mackay sets forth three principles: 1) the church’s prophetic function in society, 2) the preservation of truth, and 3) God’s sovreignty in history. In the end, the letter played an important role in stemming McCarthy’s anti-communist tide. This short piece is an excellent way into Mackay’s thought. You can find a digitized reprint here in Princeton Theological Seminary’s new Digital Journals.


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