John Macquarrie

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John Macquarrie

John Macquarrie (born 1919) was professor of divinity at Oxford University. His authoritative study, Twentieth Century Religious Thought, was a high point of modern scholarship. His later work, Principles of Christian Theology, was characteristic of the Anglican tradition.

John Macquarrie was born on June 27, 1919, in Scotland. Educated at Paisley Grammar School, his scholarly degrees (M.A.; B.D.; Ph.D.; D.Litt.) were all from the University of Glasgow. Before his appointment as Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford University in 1970, he was with the Royal Army Chaplains Department (1945-1948), minister of St. Ninian's Church, Brechin (1948-1953), lecturer in theology at the University of Glasgow (1953-1962), and professor of systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City (1962-1970).

Macquarrie's reputation in the scholarly world was established with the publication of two books: An Existentialist Theology (1955) and The Scope of Demythologizing (1960), both interpretations of the thought of the German theologian Rudolf Bultmann. Macquarrie was also translator of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger's major work, Being and Time, and wrote a book introducing Heidegger's philosophy. For awareness of the thought of others and for analysis that is scrupulously fair and clear, his Twentieth Century Religious Thought (1963, 1981) is without equal in modern scholarship. In the mid-1960s he left the Church of Scotland for the Church of England, being more comfortable with its broadly catholic and richly symbolic theology. Macquarrie's own religious beliefs were systematically stated in Principles of Christian Theology (1966, 1977).

Part One of Principles discusses the inevitability of grounding theology in some philosophy or other. Confessing his indebtedness to Wilhelm Dilthey and to Edmund Husserl, Macquarrie's methodology emphasizes description of human experience rather than deduction from supposedly logical premises. Such description always has a bi-polar quality, moving between the existential pole of personal life and the larger ontological pole in which we live and move and have our being. The analysis is clearly and openly indebted to Heidegger, but not uncritically and with a far more profound appreciation of and respect for the value of religious symbols.

For purposes of summary, it is easier to begin with the ontological pole. Macquarrie believed that the proper issue for religion is not whether some god or other exists as a super being among but above other beings. Rather, the issue is what is always implicit, though seldom explicit, whenever we say that something is. "God" is our name for the power that gives the verb "to be" its meaning, the power of is-ness in everything that is and without which we would have to say that it isn't, the power of being in everything that has being and without which it would not be, the power of reality in everything real and without which it would have no reality. So understood, the traditional issue of the "existence" of God becomes meaningless; but a new issue arises. Is this power of being, or Being itself, good? Only if Being is gracious is it worthy of the title God.

Macquarrie believed that there remains a critical difference between people of faith and people who lack faith. It does not really have to do with belief in a supernatural being. Rather, it has to do with the experience and conviction that Being itself is good, gracious, supportive. The true atheist affirms that Being is simply indifferent, leaving human existence without good will or support, whereas the religious person trusts in and is committed to the graciousness of Being.

The existential pole of Macquarrie's theology analyzes these attitudes of faith or doubt. The ontological pole argues faith's reasons for trusting in the goodness of life. Human beings are authentically religious when they trust in and are committed (the existential pole) to the goodness or graciousness of the power that lets things be or Being itself (the ontological pole). The word "God" is therefore not a neutral designation, as is "Being." Properly speaking, to say "God" is to assume the attitude of faith—of trust and commitment—toward Being.

Part Two is titled "Symbolic Theology" and covers much of what is traditionally considered the essentials of Christian doctrine. Macquarrie was convinced that all language about God is symbolic and must not be taken literally, though it must be taken seriously. Human language is constructed to describe individual beings and is therefore inadequate for describing Being itself. Hence, all language about God is symbolical, analogical, paradoxical, and mythological. Theological statements are to be honored insofar as they symbolize the experienced character of Being, but they are to be denied as literal descriptions.

Macquarrie used this approach to interpret the doctrine of God, of Creation, of Providence, of the Spiritual Presence, and of Personal and Cosmic Destiny. Perhaps his most instructive chapters concern the person and work of Jesus, who is known in the New Testament as both "Lord" and "Word." The title "Lord" describes the existential pole in which individual persons value and commit themselves to following Jesus. A person who says "Jesus is Lord" is primarily saying something about himself or herself—that he or she is committed to obeying Jesus, to discipleship. The title "Word" describes the ontological pole in which it is claimed that Jesus reveals the final "Word" (Greek logos) about the nature of reality. A person who says that Jesus is "the Word of God" is primarily expressing a belief about the way the world is made and works—that the character of creation is focused for us in Jesus, and therefore that Being is gracious.

Part Three is titled "Applied Theology" and deals with such practical matters as the church, its ministry and mission; preaching and sacraments; worship and prayer; and hope for the transformation of the world. Perhaps no work of modern theology moves with such comfort from philosophical abstraction to practical application. Throughout, Macquarrie's thought is ecumenical or catholic, evidencing both knowledge and appreciation of the broad spectrum of Christian thought—from Quaker to Roman Catholic, from conservative to liberal, from Baptist to Orthodox.

Jesus Christ in Modern Thought (Philadelphia, Trinity Press International, 1991) is the conclusion of a trilogy of books examining a treatment of Christ as both human and divine. The book is divided into three parts: theologies of Christ from the Bible through the 16th century, the theologies of Christ over the last three hundred years, and his own theology as it relates to Christ. Macquarrie treats the identity of Jesus as inseparable from the community of his followers, and Jesus as a man who received God's spirit and through his free will and obedience was raised to the status of Christ and achieved divinity. The Gospels ultimately portray Jesus "as truly man, or even the true man, who simply by being man in the fullest sense is also Son of God."

Further Reading

In addition to the books cited in the text, important works are: The Faith of the People of God (for lay readers) (1972); God Talk (1979); The Humility of God (1978); Christian Hope (1978); In Search of Humanity (1983), the first of a trilogy which includes In Search of Deity (asdkads) and the aforementioned Jesus Christ in Modern Thought. An evaluative study of Macquarrie's thought can be found in Existence, Being and God by Eugene Thomas Long (1985), (Oxford, Harold Copeman, 1994); and Mediators Between Human and Divine: From Moses to Muhammad (Oxford, 1997). Another book is Mary for All Christians (Grand Rapids, W.B. Eerdsmans, 1991); Macquarrie's book. Jesus Christ in Modern Thought is discussed in "Reviving Adamic Adoptionism: The Example of John Macquarrie" by Charles Hefling Jr., Theological Studies (September, 1991). □