Professor James P Mackey (1934–2020)

Former Thomas Chalmers Chair of Theology, Dean of Divinity and founder-editor of Studies in World Christianity: The Edinburgh Review of Theology and Religion.

An Irishman, born and bred, James Patrick Mackey had a dazzling student career, BA with First Class Honours from the National University of Ireland, followed by a LPh, BD, STL and DD from the Pontifical University of Maynooth.  He then moved to the north, and took a PhD on the nature of evil in modern philosophy and theology supervised by the notable Presbyterian theologian, Professor James Haire. After a variety of short-term university teaching posts in subjects as diverse as Hebrew, Old Testament, Philosophy and Dogmatics he became first Associate Professor and then Professor of Systematic and Philosophical Theology at the University of San Francisco.  He served there from 1973 until his appointment to the Thomas Chalmers Chair of Theology in the University of Edinburgh in 1979. Following his retirement twenty years later, he and his wife Noelle returned to Waterford in Ireland.

Mackey’s appointment to Edinburgh caused a sensation.  Although there had been Roman Catholic teachers of theology in recent times in Scottish universities, including Dr Noel O’Donoghue, a former teacher of Mackey at Maynooth, this was the first occasion an ordained Roman Catholic theologian had been appointed to a theological chair with the full involvement of a Board of Nomination, half of its members representing the Church of Scotland. When news of the appointment leaked, sections of the Church of Scotland was deeply disturbed; there was an acrimonious debate in the General Assembly and in the national press. But attempts to block the appointment proved futile. When Mackey arrived, he quickly showed himself to be a theologian of exceptional gifts and deep ecumenical sympathies, who regarded theology as a discipline in which the old confessional boundaries were now largely irrelevant. 

In research, Mackey’s publications ranged widely over philosophical theology, Christian doctrine, theological method and latterly Celtic religion. He explored central Christian doctrines, particularly Christology and the doctrine of the Trinity, on both of which he published important monographs – Jesus the Man and the Myth (1979) and The Christian Experience of God as Trinity (1983).  He initiated a major research project on Celtic Christianity which attracted widespread interest and international collaboration, to say nothing of attracting a stream of research students to Edinburgh.  A succession of books appeared with Mackey as author or editor, most notably, perhaps, Religious Imagination (1986), Modern Theology: A Sense of Direction (1987), An Introduction to Celtic Christianity (1989), Power and Christian Ethics (1994), and The Critique of Theological Reason (2000). In retirement, he continued his theological work as an honorary professor at Trinity College, Dublin. Two further studies – Christianity and Creation: The Essence of the Christian Faith and its Future Amongst the Religion (2007),  and Jesus of Nazareth: The Life, the Faith, and the Future of the Prophet (2008) – represented his theological destination or ‘endgame’ as he described it.

A stimulating, not to say provocative, teacher who demanded the best of his students, Mackey epitomised liberal, post-Vatican II Roman Catholic theology in constant dialogue with philosophy, science, and other faiths. Formerly a priest – a calling that perhaps never left him - and often at odds with church teaching, he remained loyal to the Roman Catholic Church. Latterly, he wrestled with the challenges of global Christianity, and was the founder-editor in 1995 of Studies in World Christianity: The Edinburgh Review of Theology and Religion. 

From 1984–1988, Mackey acted as a vigorous and highly effective Dean of the Faculty of Divinity. Despite cuts being imposed on higher education by the government, the Faculty flourished under his leadership during those years. He negotiated the transfer from the University of Aberdeen of the Centre for the Study of Christianity in the Non-Western World with its Director, Professor Andrew Walls, and the translation to Edinburgh of the two-person Department of Religious Studies in the University of Glasgow.  In addition to serving on numerous university committees, including the Gifford Committee on which he played a leading role, Mackey was much involved in the development of the Graduate School of Divinity, of which he became the first Director, establishing this important dimension of the Faculty’s (now School’s) work on a strong foundation.

As we recall gratefully Jim Mackey’s important contribution to the life of New College, we extend our condolences to Noelle and to their son and daughter.


Professor Mackey's obituary in The Irish Times