Prof. JL Mackay - Tribute
November 1, 2018
The news of the passing of Principal Emeritus John L. Mackay on October 25th 2018 came as a shock to the Free Church of Scotland and beyond, and was met with a profound sense of loss.
John L. Mackay was born in Glasgow on 4th June 1948, the elder son of John Mackay and Margaret Lamb. Having attended Hutcheson’s Grammar School, he graduated with 1st Class honours in Mathematics and Political Economy from the University of Glasgow before continuing his studies at Oxford University. When, after graduation from Oxford, John was offered a position as an economist with the government, as a young Christian, he began to wrestle with the question over where to apply his gifts. Between 1973 and 1976 he lectured in Economics and Statistics at the University of Dundee. During those years he came to terms with a sense of the Lord’s calling into ministry; so, in 1976 he began study at the then Free Church College. Concurrently, he undertook a Bachelor of Divinity degree with the University of London, graduating in 1979 with 1st class honours. (He had taught himself both Hebrew and Russian as a young man!)
In February 1980 John was ordained and inducted as minister of Rosskeen Free Church. There, his pulpit and pastoral ministry was fruitful, faithful and proactive with a lively engagement in youth work and the initiation of services in Milnafua. It was a time of planting seed, much of which came to fruition in later years during the ministry of his successor, Kenny Macdonald.
Within 8 months of his arrival in Rosskeen, he had met and married Mary Lamont, a Christian school teacher who herself had been seeking God’s guidance over her future. Their marriage was to be a truly happy one. John L. was a loving and selfless husband; and when, in the course of time, John and Fiona were born, John L. was a caring, attentive and patient father, never missing an opportunity to teach his children, often in creative and entertaining ways; and occasionally indulging in some sheer fun. Such family devotion has left a legacy of lasting and precious memories.
It was not long before the Church seized the opportunity to make further use of John’s academic skills. In 1983 he was appointed Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at the Free Church College, a position which he held for the next 30 years. This meant that an entire generation of Free Church ministers, and many others, were taught the language and theology of the Old Testament by him. The many complexities of learning Hebrew inevitably resulted in casualties among the student body. Yet, however disastrous exam results were, John L. was never demeaning towards those whose academic skills were lacking.
Hebrew difficulties were contrasted by the sheer delight of sitting in Prof. Mackay’s Old Testament theology classes where Scripture passages which, for many, had been hitherto obscure, were opened up; and the entire Older Testament brought together under the Covenant framework, and located within God’s overall plan of salvation in Jesus. Classes usually ended with Q&A in which, time and again, he demonstrated a unique ability to think through an issue, and then clearly explain it, off the top of his head, with the minimum use of words.
But, whatever the academic quality of his classes, John’s lectures always took account of the complexities of the pastorate, knowing, as he did, that most of his students would soon have to face them. Each lecture, no matter how intellectually stimulating, was tethered in the real world of real ministry, often interspersed with anecdotes, many of them personal, revealing something of the warmth and mischievous humour which characterised him.
In 1993 Prof. Mackay’s knowledge of Church practice and administrative skills were recognised by the General Assembly in his appointment as Principal Clerk, a role which he undertook for the next seven rather difficult years. During that period the urgent need of the hour was authoritative, impartial, professional guidance. That guidance was found in John L.’s impeccable logic, clarity of thought, and thorough knowledge of Church practice, helped of course by a commanding presence, precise diction and insistence upon decorum. (It was only after he retired as Assembly clerk that commissioners felt safe to take their jackets off!)
But his interests extended even beyond the classroom and the Assembly floor. John loved sung praise, and was extensively involved in the translation and production of Sing Psalms, an excellent rendition of the Psalms which has been received throughout the Church worldwide, and has recently been included in the new edition of the Trinity Hymnal.
In 2010 Prof. Mackay was appointed as Principal of the Free Church College, a position he held until his retirement in 2013. The fact that in the midst of such a heavy workload, he was able to write a proliferation of Old Testament commentaries is in itself testimony to his vast ability. His commentaries, which have been widely received, bear the two important qualities of rigorous scholarship and accessibility to the ordinary Bible student.
John loved his family, and indeed all that went on around his home. In recent years there were health challenges, which he faced with quiet grace; but for most of the time he was able to be productive in writing and other activities. His prayers continued to be full of praise to God to whom he was thankful for all the blessings he had enjoyed. John L. Mackay passed away peacefully at his home on Thursday, 25th October, surrounded by his loving family. He was 70.
As a self-effacing and humble servant, John would have deplored the prospect of adulation. But we do give thanks for what God did through the use of his many gifts. John L. was given 10 talents; and his legacy is that he put these to the best possible use for the glory of Christ and his kingdom.
To John L.’s wife, Mary, along with the rest of the family: son, John and his wife, Anne, and their son, Roy; daughter, Fiona and her husband Iain; as well as John L.’s brother, Alistair, and the wider family, we extend our deepest and prayerful sympathies, and commit them to the God of peace.