Book Notice: Donald MacKinnon

Though perhaps not as widely engaged as his thought warrants, Donald M. MacKinnon (1913-1994) has nevertheless left an indelible mark on contemporary theology. This oversight in theological literature may just be due to MacKinnon’s preference for occasional forms of writing. Whatever the reason may be, though, if you’re an avid reader of theology, it would be a curious circumstance if you haven’t encountered at least one of his students before. To name just a few, MacKinnon’s pupils included Nicholas Lash, Fergus Kerr, Rowan Williams, Sarah Coakley, David Ford, Frances Young, and John Webster. An impressive roll call, to say the least, and not a trivial reflection of MacKinnon’s legacy. This is why the release of Philosophy and the Burden of Theological Honesty: A Donald MacKinnon Reader, Ed., John McDowell, (T&T Clark, 2011) may be hoped to contribute to a retrieval of MacKinnon of sorts. This anthology collects 30 selections spanning 54 years of MacKinnon’s publishing career, from 1941-1995. Its contents, much like MacKinnon’s interests, evince a staggering breadth. If that’s not enough, however, and your curiosity still isn’t piqued, let me leave you with a taste of MacKinnon’s prose:

 There is no escape at any point in life from the fear that our very seriousness about ourselves is sound and fury signifying nothing. The medieval schoolmen would have said: inevitably so, for man is poised between being and not being; he draws his existence wholly from the self-existent God. The movement of human thought must reflect man’s situation in being. Because he is so poised between being and not-being, he will never see his experience as something assured. Again and again, in tacking stock of himself, he will not find easily the arguments which will assure him that his standing is secure. At their wisest the schoolmen would never allow that by a formula we could somehow escape the most fundamental conditions of our existence. In the end they would have said: the proof of the pudding is in the eating; a necessary implication of their insistence on the primacy of being over thought. And perhaps we must say the same. There is no other proof possible that a seriousness in life is justified than is found in living. One cannot by any magic escape the conditions of humanity, assume the absolute perspective of God. If it is better to arrive than to travel, we are still inescapably travelling in statu viae, to use the old phrase. And our perspectives are necessarily those of travellers, at least for most of the time. But there still remains a difference between the traveller who takes the measure of his road and the one who seeks to be oblivious of its windings. (310-11)

And for those especially curious about MacKinnon, here’s a sampling of additional works to consider:

Primary Sources

  • Borderlands of Theology: And Other Essays, Re-issued Ed., (Wipf&Stock, 2011).
  • Explorations in Theology, Vol 5: Donald MacKinnon, (SCM, 1979).
  • Themes in Theology, The Threefold Cord: essays in Philosophy, Politics, and Theology, (T&T Clark, 1987).


  • The Philosophical frontiers of Christian Theology: Essays Presented to D.M. MacKinnon, Eds., Brian Hebblethwaite and Stewart Sutherland, (CUP, 1982)
  • Christ, Ethics, and Tragedy: Essays in Honor of Donald MacKinnon, Ed. Kenneth Surin, (CUP, 1989)
  • Paul D. Murray, “Theology in the Borderlands: Donald MacKinnon and Contemporary Theology.” Modern Theology vol 14, no 3 (1998): 355-376.
  • Timothy Connor, The Kenotic Trajectory of the Church in Donald MacKinnon’s Theology, (T&T Clark, 2013).
  • André Mueller, Ph.D diss., University of Otago, [forthcoming intellectual biography of MacKinnon]

Donald MacKinnon on temporal existence

Donald MacKinnon on Christ’s assumption of temporal existence

What it was for [Jesus] to be human was to be subject to the sort of fragmentation of effort, curtailment of design, interruption of purpose, distraction of resolve that belongs to temporal existence. To leave one place for another is to leave work undone; to give attention to one suppliant is to ignore another; to expend energy today is to leave less for tomorrow. We have to ask ourselves how far this very conformity to the complex discipline of temporality, this acceptance of the often tragic consequences that spring from its obstinate, ineluctable truncation of human effort, belongs to the very substance of Jesus’ defeat.

from Themes in Theology: The Three-fold Cord, (T&T Clark, 1987), 162-3.