Wednesday 20 August 2008

Donald MacKinnon on apologetics

“The philosopher is not an apologist; apologetic concern, as Karl Barth (the one living theologian of unquestionable genius) has rightly insisted, is the death of serious theologizing, and I would add, equally of serious work in the philosophy of religion.”

—Donald M. MacKinnon, The Borderlands of Theology: An Inaugural Lecture (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1961), 28.


Anonymous said...

Donald MacKinnon retired to Aberdeen where he was a member of the Aberdeenshire Theological Club which goes back more than 150 years since its inception. One of my carefully filed possessions is an early article on Von Balthasar's Theo-Logic, signed by him, and sent to me with a letter about a paper I had presented on Julian of Nowrwich's Soteriology. Whenever anyone uses the word polymath, Donald MacKinnon is the benchmark I use to detect any exaggeration. The combination of intellectual grasp and devout intelligence, along with a gruff impatience with sloppy thinking and a volcanic anger at any negotiated truce with evil, gave him the air of an incredibly well read and philosophically brilliant Jeremiah! Thanks for the reminder of a remarkable man, Ben

Anonymous said...

I have some questions about this sort of thinking, these are issues I wrestle with as well and I seem to have found some use for apologetics, so here are the questions that have come from this, if you have time, please check them out.

What does such a view of apologetics say of defense against heresy within the church? (I'm thinking Athanasius, Irenaeus, Augustine or even more relevant, non-theology majors encountering Watch Tower or LDS folks)

Also, I find that apologetics, insofar as they are an exercise in teaching people that the truth that "Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead" is true in the same sense that George Bush is president of the united states(though Jesus is Lord forever), then the function of apologetics is aretegenic, so from a Barthian standpoint, is such an approach theologically legitimate?

Also, though I'm a grad student and it is vogue an cool even to me to not like apologetics, I also work 40 hours a week at a coffee shop and preach at a small baptist church that can't afford a real life pastor. In these contexts apologetic techniques have been quite useful for showing that the gospel isn't so irrational as to defy consideration(even if believing the gospel makes people do foolish things), especially at the coffee shop, though sometimes simply clarifying the gospel is even more useful. So, once again, if apologetics have cash value in practice outside of the academy does that protect them from Barth's assault?

Anonymous said...

Great quote. I'm not alone!

Anonymous said...

There is a book to be written, a collection of anecdotes of MacKinnon's eccentric habits, as well as of his enough-of-this-crap outbursts. Nicholas Lash records one in his recent Theology for Pilgrims (pp. 79f.):

"The date: a Friday in the early 1970s. The occasion: a meeting of Donald MacKinnon's seminar, the 'D' Society. Having been invited to address the Society, Dr Norman Pittenger delivered a paper on 'A Metaphysics of Love'. It was a warm-hearted encomium of 'process theology', punctuated by contemptuous dismissal of other metaphysical traditions. The chairman held his fire until a visitor from the United States was rash enough to sing a similar song. MacKinnon had had enough:

'Whenever I hear someone indulging in that kind of denunciation of classical metaphysical enquiry without any apparent prior comprehension of the issues involved, I am reminded of an occasion in Oxford, many years ago, when a distinguished Oxford philosopher (not Professor A. J. Ayer) was indulging in similar denunciation, and Sir Isaiah Berlin said that he was reminded of a man who had not had any breakfast attempting to vomit; a process as pointless as it is disgusting.'"

Lash comments: "It was, of course, quite inexcusable; an example of what I once described as MacKinnon's sometimes self-indulgent talent for denunciation. But it was quite unforgettable, and it was (I must admit) enormous fun."

Ben Myers said...

Hey Kim, welcome back from the Greek islands! Hope you didn't get too sunburnt.

Unknown said...

Geoff, I think you raise some good questions.

To be sure, to those who actually spend time with church men and women, as well as with the everyday "man on the street" (as it were), such sweeping statements can be potentially unhelpful.

But my guess is that McKinnon and Barth have an eye on the kind of apologizing that insists on classical proofs and whatnot (i.e., Thomism). If such concerns are indeed controlling, not only will it denigrate the practice of theology (in that what needs to be said won't be); it will depreciate the value of philosophy, leading the philosopher to practice his craft in "bad faith."

Just thinking out loud here...

Evan said...

Great quote! I thought Ben's article and response on an "apologetics of imagination addressed a lot of Geoff's concerns, and also clarified what exactly someone like Barth or MacKinnon might be arguing against... the thomist proofs that Chris brings up might be part of it, but I think the more direct target is a more modern, post-Enlightenment rationality.

Evan said...

[excuse the sloppy writing and linking!]

Anonymous said...

Evan is not wrong about the kind of apologetics Barth had in his sights, a hostility that honours the enduring influence of Wilhelm Herrmann on Barth's thought. But then Brunner's "eristics" eschewed this sort of apologetics too - the defence of faith before the tribunal of reason - and we know what Barth thought of Brunner's project. So - to be more specific - Barth's Nein! to apologetics covers not only all foundationalist epistemologies but also all natural theology, correlation theologies, and indeed all approaches which accept context, in terms of either contemporary experience or secular reason, as the point for dialogical departure (approaches that you find in theologians as diverse as Pannenberg and Küng). For Barth, all these efforts are doomed to failure because they accept continuities where there are none, i.e. they do not take with radical seriousness the sheer apocalyptic interruptiveness of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

Unknown said...

Ah, yes. The old nature/grace divide. Tsk.

Anonymous said...

The irony that emerges when one concocts an apology against apologetics is too rich to comment on... I guess I just did. More irony!

It's painful to see Christian thinkers mesmerized by such nincompoopery.

Shane said...

Well, I'm all for Barth's kick-in-the-teeth to contextualist and certain forms of correlationist theologies. A big Ja to that.

However, I just don't see how his animadversions to natural theology as such are justified.

Here's a philosophical claim:
Every event has a cause.

Here's another:
Nothing is the cause of itself.

Here's something that looks like a philosophical conclusion:

Therefore there must exist some first cause, itself uncaused which in some sense is the origin of all other caused events.

Prescind for the moment from the question whether this argument is successful--is Barth simply saying it is illicit to make this kind of argument? If so, then who is he to say what philosophers can and can't talk about? These are philosophical claims advanced for philosophical reasons, and I don't see any apriori theological reason a philosopher isn't free to think about whatever he damn well pleases.

I don't know if I would call arguments of this kind "apologetics"--because people seem to use the word ambiguously. If "apologetics" means an attempt to prove Christianity true in a way that makes faith redundant, then I'm against apologetics too, but then you couldn't call the argument I've adduced above "apologetic", because it certain is attempting to show a much, much weaker conclusion. Certainly "apologetics" in this sense would be a fundamentally wrongheaded enterprise, but it's a straw-man: who besides Hegel in the history of Christianity ever thought you could evacuate faith from Christianity by proving Christianity true philosophically?

If, on the other hand, "apologetics" just means an attempt to show that the apriori refutations of Christianity at the hands of philosophers are false, then the argument I just gave above is apologetic in its conclusions (if it works), and I'm perfectly happy to say that the Christian philosopher has an apologetic task.

I think what MacKinnon is gesturing towards is the necessity for Christian philosophers to be philosophers, i.e. for them to produce philosophical arguments and avoid attempting to smuggle theology in the back door out of some pietistic or evangelistic motivation.

If that is what 'apologetics' is, once again, I'm against it.

Paul Miller said...

So what had the great Barth exactly in mind, when he referred to apologetics?
A simple question, but somehow I do not think he meant the same thing as us, reading some of your comments. Or more important, what was the popular form in his days?
And what do you scholars, here on this blog, think of the kind of apologetics, written by my friend Andrew on (it is in English, mind you)?!

JKnott said...


I think Barth would have two problems with the argument, one philosophical and the other, far more important, theological. Of course the theological problem is only a problem with the argument as applied to theology, which I think is pertinent to some of your concerns.

As for the philosophical problem, I think he'd basically accept Kant's critique of metaphysics: we only know about things having causes within the limited sphere of our experiences; thus, the extrapolation is invalid.

The theological problem is with thinking that the God of the Bible has anything to do with a "first cause." Regardless of how literally you take the Genesis positing of an originally "very good" creation, after the fall everything changes. To extrapolate from the world as we can now observe it to God forgets this. A "first cause" of the world as it is, is anything but the God who suffered for our redemption in Jesus Christ; otherwise, why the necessity of Christ's death?

Hope this helps a bit.

Nincompoopery indeed!

Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday Paradise Lost!

Anonymous said...

Great quote, Ben. The discussion around some of these issues might be helped by an essay MacKinnon published five years before the Borderlands lecture, called 'Philosophy and Christology' in T. H. L. Parker(ed.), Essays in Christology for Karl Barth (London: Lutterworth Press, 1956), 269-97.
To hark back to an old post (... the blog world moves so fast!), it would be interesting to hear what you, Ben, make of DM's approach to the parables (in his Gifford Lectures - The Problem of Metaphysics (1974), which seems very different from yours. He certainly doesn't think that the parables are simple.

Anonymous said...

By way of clarification, MacKinnon doesn't (as suggested above) have Thomism per se in sight (he had, in fact, a great deal of respect for some of the Parisian Thomists and for their English interpreters at Blackfriars, Oxford). Rather, what he is on edge against is what he saw as the continuing philosophical and theological legacy of the nineteenth-century British tradition of metaphysical idealism. It's also worth noting that he is not contending against an openness to the place where the claims of the gospel impinge upon other things that might lay claim upon us, and (importantly) where the latter impinge upon the former. For MacKinnon, it wasn't good enough to say - look, here is the Christian way, and all you need to do is to follow it. Rather, you also need to acknowledge, say, the insights about evil which you might learn from Faulkner or Styron or Cormac McCarthy, and where those insights might make your Christian faith more agonizingly difficult than it would otherwise have been. MacKinnon once said (perhaps unfairly) that John Macquarrie was a man who felt happy in church. It wasn't a compliment.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Thomas D. Carroll said...

Most of this discussion has been about the theological ramifications of the MacKinnon quote, but I wonder about the philosophical. I'm afraid I don't know anything about MacKinnon (beyond the comments here). How did he conceive of philosophy of religion?

I can understand why one might think apologetics "the death of serious theologizing" (especially in the 20th century), but why would he say that also about philosophy of religion (esp. in 1961)?

p.s. I've been enjoying lurking around this site for a good while...Very interesting discussions.

Anonymous said...

I would try to defend MacKinnon here but to do so would be the death of serious theology and philosophy.

Shane said...

Sorry if I'm not responding too promptly to these comments--I'm hip-deep in Thomist Wittgensteinians at a conference and a bit slow as a result.

The basic objection I have to the old saw about separation of the God of the philosophers and God of the theologians objection that jknott has brought out here is this: if philosophy proves there exists one first, eternal, necessary, uncaused cause of everything else, what else could that be but God? There are various descriptions that might be true of God, but certainly the thing to which the philosophical proof points (if it were successful) must be identical to the Christian God, if indeed the Christian is real. Otherwise then there would be a first cause who wasn't God, and that would be deeply, deeply weird.

So the God of the philosophers objection is an epistemological objection--it shows at most that our natural knowledge of God is incomplete and therefore inadequate for salvation. But of course nobody is in the business of denying that. Cf. my comments above.

Shane said...

Also, a clarification question: is mackinnon influenced by the wittgensteinian philosophers of religion? I feel like there are echoes of that there.

Thomas D. Carroll said...

Re: MacKinnon and Wittgensteinian philosophy of religion (WPR) -- there probably wasn't a lot of WPR in 1961. Although, Malcolm had already pubished his article "Anselm's Ontological Arguments" by 1960.

That doesn't mean he wasn't influenced by LW or that he wasn't influenced later on by WPR...But the quote that started off this discussion would seem to have been too early to register WPR influence.

Thomas D. Carroll said...

I just came across this article, which may be of interest.

The article connects MacKinnon with John Wisdom (among other "linguistic" philosophers).

Anonymous said...

Aristotle - Aquinas - Kant - Moore - Wittgenstein: thus MacKinnon's philosophical family tree. Nicholas Lash: MacKinnon "understood, in other words, that the quality of what we say is decided by the quality of that disciplined attentiveness to 'what is' which, in all circumstances and at whatever cost, precedes, surrounds, and shapes our utterance."

Lash and Rowan Williams both honour the immense influence of both MacKinnon and Wittgenstein - as does Fergus Kerr.

Shane said...

I've spent the last week at a seminar at Princeton on Elizabeth Anscombe, one of the benefits to me of which has been an appreciation for the varieties of Wittgensteinianism. Anscombe and Peter Geach represent one school. Rush Rhees and D.Z. Phillips, quite another.

I don't yet know where the dominicans like Fergus Kerr and Herb McCabe fit into the picture though. I'm not sure of the chronology of it all, either.

(Hey Ben, given your love of all things argumentative and wittgensteinian, how about some blog posts on Anscombe's work to contrast with Phillips and his lot? Perhaps an Anscombian take on "Modern Moral Theology" or her Wittgensteinian defense of natural law theory?)

JKnott said...

To Shane's question: "if philosophy proves there exists one first, eternal, necessary, uncaused cause of everything else, what else could that be but God?"

Let me grope toward a response with a general principle and an analogous case which will help us understand the principle and how it applies to philosophy. The principle: all discourses in which "proof" is relevant can, by definition, only claim to prove what is true within the purview of the discourse itself.

So for instance, science tells us that matter and energy, though these can be converted into each other, cannot be created. The amount of matter/energy is constant since the singularity before the Big Bang. Now, must we say either that the totality of matter/energy is God, or that there is no God who created matter? No; rather, accepting the truth of the scientific principle of the conservation of matter/energy as true within the purview of science, Christians must posit a kind of causality outside this purview. God's creation of the universe is by a means science knows not of.

In the exact same way, if philosophy proves there is a single, "first, eternal, necessary, uncaused cause of everything else" this eternality, necessity, uncausedness, etc., can be proved true only within philosophy's purview. Note well: I do not claim to know what philosophy's purview is, only that it has one, outside of which its claims, however undoubtable within the purview, cannot be known to hold (because if we knew they did, we'd know something outside of our own knowledge, a logical impossibility).

The point is, human knowledge of any sort, however valid, is always limited. Whatever we think we know, scientifically or philosophically, can turn out to be false once we know more, or true only to an extent or within limits. A philosophically proven "first cause" may in the end turn out to be the "first" only in a sense, and not in other senses not even yet imagined. Thus, perhaps, it might not really be God but a creature (even if the first creature).

After all, while we're imagining things: Suppose philosophy proved there was a single, eternal, uncaused cause of everything else that was either unconscious (say, a principle or "energy") or malicious? Would we then have to assume God is this way? Or, rather, could we not insist, as I do concerning the generalized "first cause," that this need not be the God we worship, because even our best knowledge is always limited?

Anonymous said...

Re: MacKinnon and Wittgenstein. I'm not really sure that Wittgenstein was a huge influence on MacKinnon. Certainly the early work of Russell and Moore was very significant on M's intellectual development, as you might expect given that he studied philosophy under Isaiah Berlin and H. H. Price in Oxford during the mid-late 1930s. During that time he also came to understand the developments in symbolic logic and the philosophy of mathematics that foreshadowed the work of the Wiener Kreis (e.g., Peano and Frege - whom he was still encouaging his students to read in the 1970s), as well as the work of the logical positivists themselves. He actually came to know Friedrich Waismann (an important figure in the Wiener Kreis), with whom he co-lectured a paper on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason in 1942. He also co-taught some papers with Hans Cassirer, and, as a student attended a paper on Kant by Hans' father, and one of the greatest German philosophers at the time who was pursuing a middle way between Carnap and Heidegger, Ernst Cassirer. So MacKinnon was very familiar with the European and British (e.g., Russell, Moore, Ayer) milieu within which Wittgenstein went his own unique way. He also had personal contact with followers of Wittgenstein, especially John Wisdom, whose essays on 'Philosophical Perplexity' MacKinnon probably read as a student. Isaiah Berlin took MacKinnon to a lecture by Wisdom in November 1935, and MacKinnon would later become friends with him (I suspect that it was M. who arranged for Wisdom to give the 1948-50 Gifford Lectures).
Yet, MacKinnon doesn't engages with Wittgenstein's work at any length, and this may suggest that he hadn't quite made up his mind about it. There are some very critical comments in his early work about W; in the later work M. quotes a couple of W's one-liners, but that's about it, really. M. did share with W. a fondness for quoting Butler's maxim that 'Everything is what it is and not another thing'. There is a good review of one of John Wisdom's books, reprinted in Borderlands of Theology.
A couple of other philosophers who influenced MacKinnon enormously, to add to Kim's list would be Joseph Butler, Kierkegaard, and R. G. Collingwood. In the 40s-50s he was quite influenced by Marcel (whom he knew personally). In the sixties and seventies he was one of the few British intellectuals encouraging his students to read Ricoeur, Gadamer, Habermas etc.
Finally, someone above mentioned that M's comment on apologetics has in view a "modern, post-Enlightenment rationality". I think this comment needs some fleshing out. MacKinnon himself hated it when theologians dismissed "post-Enlightenment rationality" without their first having gone to school with Kant.

Anonymous said...

Hey Shane, I reckon we should call this - 'If philosophy proves there exists one first, eternal, necessary, uncaused cause of everything else, what else could that be but God?' - the Argument From A Lack Of Imagination lol.

Sorry in advance. :)

Shane said...

@Jonathan keith,

Suppose a mathematician proves that there exists exactly one number with some property. Will the theologian come along and accuse her of a lack of imagination? "Perhaps mathematically there is only one such number, but in the light of the gospel, we can imagine others . . ."

The situation is just the same in philosophy. If we prove something, then it's the case. If it isn't the case, it wasn't proven. The whole supposition of my comment is that the question be actually proven, in which case trying to deny or evade it seems boorish.

Anonymous said...

It's not boorish to point out that the only relevance of a supposition is to entrap an unimaginative opponent.

If philosophers proved -- in whatever strong sense he desires -- that Shane did not exist, I am sure that Shane would just reinterpret the claims of philosophy because he has plenty of imagination.

Shane said...

If someone presents me a proof that I do not exist, I've got a pretty good prima facie reason to think his argument has gone wrong. Either the proof is invalid, or the premises are mistaken. One man's modus ponens is another man's modus tollens after all. G. E. Moore is surely right: it is inconceivable that we could be more certain of any of the premises of a skeptical argument (such as the one purporting to show I don't exist) than we are of the falsity of its conclusion. Then, we very sensibly set about looking for where the argument went wrong.

This doesn't seem to be the standard way of proceeding in theology. Obviously, if theology requires revelation, polling the folk for common sense intuitions won't necessarily be of much use. Granted.

However, I fear that the necessity of revelation encourages a certain lackadaisical Tertullianism among theologians. When confronted with an adversary, they place their thumbs on their noses and wriggle their fingers menacingly and whisper beneath their breath, "credo, credo, credo, credo ..."

Shane said...

I'm being a bit facetious, of course.

But only a little bit.

Anonymous said...

The faith must be based on truth religion.

Anonymous said...

Hi Shane,

I'm not sure I should argue, since I was only stirring anyhow :). But what the heck, two points. Firstly, it's all rather hypothetical, isn't it? I mean, we don't have a proof that there exists one first, eternal, necessary, uncaused cause. I'm tempted to claim we're unlikely ever to have one, but that would expose my lack of imagination lol. Secondly, it's still a big jump from such a proof to establishing the existence of God, wouldn't you say? Might there not be such an uncaused cause that is not God?

Shane said...

Hi j,

You've taken the wind out of my snappy comeback's sails, so I'll go on to say that yes, this is a bit hypothetical. I'm intrigued by some of the proofs for God's existence (in modified forms), but I'm not ready to put my money on the table for them yet.

Regarding God however, if we prove there is uniquely one uncaused cause that is the cause of everything else and that thing is not God, then well Christianity had a nice run. Same thing with Jesus's skeleton. They ever dig that up and sorry Charlie, time to fold up shop and move on. . .

Not that I think either of these things are likely to happen. I'm just imagining. (cue John Lennon . . .)

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