Learning from Lord Mackay: The Role of Two Kingdoms in the Christian Public Life

I am regularly asked to review books. I have the far too little time to undertake most of these requests. But such is the opportunity of authors who have many friends who are also authors. When I can, and if the subject of the book interests me, I try to read my friends’ books and write short reviews.

Thus I received the request to read and review, Learning From Lord Mackay: Life and Work in Two Kingdoms (SoS Books, Alberta, BC, 2017). The author, J. Cameron Frazer, asked me to read his book last year. I promised only to try. Finally, I am able to honor that promise.

I confess I did not even know the name James Mackay until Cameron sent me his little book. Now I am grateful he did. Why? For starters, I am deeply interested in the way the church should engage with political and social powers. As an American, living thorough the period now called Trumpism, I believe Christians should be concerned for issues related to public life because such issues are clearly related to living the gospel of the kingdom of God. Further, kingdom oriented believers in Christ must make faith a public concern that is consistent with their vocation in society. This little book captures the essence of the “two kingdoms” teaching of Protestantism in simple and clear prose thus is can benefit all interested Christians. Quite frankly, if you know nothing about “two kingdoms” theology this would be a simple place to start.

Lord James Mackay served as the Lord Advocate of Scotland (1979-84) and then as the Lord Chancellor of Great Britain (1987-97). One legal scholar has called him “one of the most brilliant Scottish scholars of our time.” But there is more to make him important to us, so much more. James Mackay is a humble, faithful Christian who sees all of life as a call to live God’s grace in every sphere of society. Lord Mackay has lived for the gospel and for his neighbors, both out of love for Christ. HIs life and theology speak powerfully to our present American context in which debates over “two kingdoms” rage among Reformation Christians. Sadly, most evangelicals do not even know what this intra-Reformation debate is about.

This little book consists of only four chapters. Chapter One introduces the idea of the “two kingdoms” and succinctly explains what this means. It is an essay which serves well as a primer on this vital subject. This is true even if you care nothing about the person of Lord Mackay. But Chapter Two shows you how James Mackay lived and worked, over the course of a long life, as a faithful servant of Christ in both public and private. Chapter Three shows what can be learned from a observing a contemporary legal and public mind like that of Lord Mackay. The final chapter locates him within many current discussions about law, politics and Christian faith.

Sinclair Ferguson, in the Foreword, asks: “Was Daniel a man like this? Is this why he was able to negotiate life in the Babylonian Empire?” Ferguson wonders aloud, “Is it still possible to ‘sing the Lord’s son in a strange land?’” He suggests Mackay’s life tell us we can. And Fraser wonderfully explains why.

Be honest. It is hard to imagine how a serious Christian, who lives humbly, and possesses a keen intellectual interest in the law or public service, can actually serve in our present context. The partisanship of the present time, as well as the alt-truths parroted by many Christians, makes it terribly hard for me to conceive of a life well-lived in this arena. I can think of only a few Americans I know who’ve done so for decades thus James Mackay, who has done so in an even more secularized society than our own, stands out to me as a role model.

Make no mistake about it. Our society has widely embraced secularism. At the same time religious conservatives, of various kinds and backgrounds, still seek to retain a power in the civil realm. The outcomes they desire for our society, both morally and socially, are not always consistent with Christian truth and witness. How then do we address the tension between secularism and various Christian attempts to control the outcomes of civil and social life? Behind the assumption that there is a radical split between the public realm of “facts” and the private (religious) realm of “values” lies a major problem. Less lie Newbigin saw this ver clear when he said that “the rival truth claims of the different religions are not felt to call for argument or resolution; they are simply part of the mosaic – or perhaps one should say kaleidoscope – of different values that make up the whole pattern” (quoted by Cameron Fraser on page 118). The secularist argument boils down to this  – religions are based on private values, thus they are never independently valid. But is this true?

Bishop Newbigin rightly concluded: “No state can be completely secular in the sense that those who exercise power have no beliefs about what is true and no commitment to what they believe to be right” (Fraser, page 118). It is thus forgotten that secularism forgets that ideological pluralism really claims there is no absolute truth. Newbigin  rightly concludes, “The difference is not between those who rely on dogma and those who don’t. It’s the difference between those who know what dogma is they are relying on, and those who do not” (quoted by Fraser, page 119). True tolerance, which I believe to a Western Christian virtue, is actually nourished by deep Christian faith, not by the denial of truth. Newbigin says even a state may acknowledge a religious faith to be true and deliberately provide full security for all of those who hold contrary views. An increasingly multi-cultural American society needs to be nourished by Christian truth and by humble Christian servants of truth. James Mackay is a living model of how to do this in public service.

Cameron Fraser shows how Lord Mackay has “been there” (Sinclair Ferguson’s words) for a lifetime and he has always sought to be faithfully there. This is much harder to do than most of us realize. This book shows you how a gracious Christian, with a heart for the gospel and the work of evangelism, can also serve his neighbors in serious and deeply important ways that allow the light of faith to shine brightly in increasing secular context. I highly commend this little book.

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