I’m beginning a multi-part series that functions as a running evaluation of books that are suitable as introductory guides to Christian theological reflection. Each book I’ll review is aimed at a beginner level audience with little background in theology, and so, could be utilized in a small group, mentoring, or individual exploratory setting. The goal of this series is to discern which books can help different types of people begin reflecting on their faith, their commitments, and how Christianity might relate to the whole of their life.
Other posts in the series can be found here.
In this post, I want to look at a lecture that Ian McFarland gave titled, “Why Engage in the Discipline of Theology?” Admittedly, this strays somewhat from the goal of this series: to examine the suitability of books for introducing folks to Christian theology. However, when I came across this lecture – in manuscript form – I immediately thought that it would be worth including in this series. You can access the lecture manuscript here – Ian McFarland – Why Study Theology.
Ian McFarland (PhD, Yale University) is currently the Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge – a post established in 1540 (!) by King Henry VIII. The lecture was originally given to a Lutheran seminary audience but is easily accessible inter-denominationally. The main concern that runs throughout his talk could be summed up as “Why Bother?” That is, why do theology in the first place? Why not just get on with Christian practices that more evidently impact people’s lives? The question is made all the more disconcerting given the tragic history of Christian theology. At many times, it has not seemed like Christians talk about anything good or anything newsworthy for that matter. Add to that the oppressive ends sought by many Christian theologians throughout the centuries – e.g. justifying imperial rule, sanctioning the Crusades, sparking the Inquisition, supporting the enslavement of indigenous peoples, etc. etc. etc.
“The gospel Christians proclaim is supposed to be “good news” for all people everywhere,
yet Christians seem chronically incapable of convincing the world that what they have to say is either news or especially good.”
McFarland argues that, far from eliminating the need for theology, this history actually necessitates theological reflection in the present. Christian theology, he argues, is not something that must be figured out before one can engage in Christian practices (thank God!), but is necessary because of Christian practices that are already being carried out. Its goal is to make sure those practices – and wider ways of Christian talk about God – are faithful to the Gospel.
Christians are called to give an account of their particular hope (1 Peter 3:15). In describing our hope, we are not simply telling our story because Christians claim that their story is also God’s story. Christian theology aims to help Christians tell this story of God’s relations with God’s creation in a way that is faithful to its status as good news. McFarland cites two separate goals in this task.
First, Christian theology is in some sense apologetic. In the modern period, it faces the charge that theology is inherently oppressive and strikingly harmful to human life. It, therefore, must tell its story in ways that both acknowledge its past use and result in the affirmation of life. Second, theology is polemical. This, McFarland argues comes from the scriptural call to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1) because not all of them are from God – or, as he puts it: not all ideas and concepts are good ways of speaking the Gospel. This is theology’s task of judging between different proposals for how to tell the Christian story. In doing this, however, theology must always be aware of the temptation toward dogmatism. A self-critical spirit should be ensured that avoids the poles of either absolutism – only one way of speaking is right, and relativism – all ways of speaking are right.
The changing cultural situation Christians find themselves within requires continual reflection on the theologian’s part to help discern which adjustments to their way of speaking can be of greater benefit to new generations. Its tone should always be conversational in this regard. This should result in its willingness to say both “yes” and “no.” This conversation is not simply limited to the present or especially limited only to those in one’s direct proximity. On the contrary, McFarland argues for the necessity of looking to the history of Christianity in conversation with those who have come up with ways to tell the Christian story before us.
“This means listening to all these voices, past or present, in the hope and the confidence that as you enter into the conversation, whether in the work of Irenaeus of Lyons or Martin Luther, of Julian of Norwich or Karl Barth, or of the person sitting next to you, you will find yourself able to discern amid all their very human words the very Word of God.”
This little summary of McFarland’s work, I hope, piques your interest in this lecture. I have found it incredibly helpful for my own thinking about the task of theology, and it’s basic enough so as to be understood by a general educated audience – perfect for classroom or Christian ecclesial education settings. The best part about it is its brevity and its simplicity. It’s barely a 15-20min read and McFarland clearly lays out his main points in an engaging and convincing manner. The lecture could reliably be used to introduce someone to the reasons why theological reflection can be useful or it can provide fodder for one already reflecting upon their faith, helping them to perceive its worthiness to a greater degree.
Ian McFarland is certainly one of the best systematic theologians today and it is a special treat to have someone of his caliber take the time to offer up accessible reflections on why theology is a worthwhile Christian practice to engage in. I hope you’ll take a look at his essay: Ian McFarland – Why Study Theology.
Note: Please only use the attached pdf for educational or personal purposes (use in Church educational settings is fine). It is licensed for free distribution (Scholars Commons @ Laurier © 2017) and originally published as: Ian McFarland, “Why Engage in the Discipline of Theology?” Consensus 23, no. 2 (1997): 43-59.