Savvas Costi writes: Much delight and anticipation accompanied the news that Graham McFarlane, Senior Lecturer in Systematic Theology at the London School of Theology (LST), where I studied, was releasing another book. A Model for Evangelical Theology may not be the most exciting title (as evidenced by the look on my wife’s face when she first saw what I was reading!) but it’s a goldmine of insightful gems analysing our current cultural milieu with suggestions to help the church move forward. The richness of what is contained within these pages is not something that can be excavated with a quick glance. I was pleased to see McFarlane include regular pause moments for reflection throughout the book, where questions were asked to stimulate deeper thinking. It’s also printed with space down the margins for those wishing to annotate, and there is an extensive suggested reading list at the end of every chapter. Those willing to dig deep and wrestle with the book’s key ideas will benefit most from reading it.
The title of the book comes with extra baggage because the word ‘Evangelical’ has become highly politicised. Much of its modern usage, particularly in America, is driven more by its political rather than theological beliefs. In the section which looks at the evangelical in theological method, McFarlane is clear to state that he is particularly concerned with the euangelion, or “evangel” in evangelical, which translates as the “gospel” or “good news” (p 60). McFarlane helpfully argues that
theology is exegesis of the gospel, [and that] its potency is seen to the degree it achieves the purpose of the gospel’ (p 219).
This is highly practical stuff because the gospel has the capacity to change lives. A feat which many Christians will affirm! In fact, the late Colin Gunton (a big influence on McFarlane’s thinking) goes as far as to say that if Christianity is true, ‘then it changes everything. Theology is the task of exploring that change’ (p 42).
As you read this book, it becomes very clear that McFarlane’s definition of theology is expansive and goes beyond the often assumed “study of God” mantra that is banded about in many faculties. The book draws attention to the vital place of theology in public life, and the need to keep it rooted with the task of proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. A disconnect between theology and the gospel has contributed to something of a crisis in the Western church; a theological amnesia leading to a weak sense of identity (p 243). This should not be the case because a robust theology will always be shaped by the gospel. John Webster puts it succinctly; ‘the gospel is that which brings theology into existence and holds it in being’ (p 28). It’s great to see that like the apostle Paul, McFarlane is still keen to keep the gospel as a matter of ‘first importance’ (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:1-4).
This is all consistent with McFarlane’s integrative approach, not just for doing theology but also for having a theological method, something which permeates ‘every aspect of faith’ (p. xi of the preface). There is an important distinction to make here:
Integrative theology describes what we believe and is a form of theology that seeks to draw different disciplines together in order to create what we might call a holistic entity. An integrative theological method, on the other hand, describes how we believe (p 63).
This is a useful discipleship and educational tool. What enables someone to grow in their faith? How does one come to believe in the good news of Christianity? This might sound like a mere technique for getting someone to believe, but McFarlane is clear to reject this. He is not talking about ‘a technique to be learned that can be picked up and laid back down at will.’ He is speaking in terms that are broader, and refers to ‘a particular way of living in the world’ (p 9). This way is multifaceted involving different strands that all need to be held together if this is to be ‘done’ effectively. We might call these different strands, ‘the Evangelical Quintilateral’ (p 67), five sources or “tools” for living as a Christian—Scripture, tradition, reason, experience, and community. McFarlane devotes a whole chapter to looking at each source in the second part of his book.
What McFarlane is proposing is a partial revision of an older model, one which can be traced back to John Wesley, with the aim being to ‘revive contemporary theological inquiry’ (p 67), where its relevance for ordinary living is clear to see, and where students and teachers of theology remember its true purpose; ‘to critically discern, articulate, and commend visions of the true life’ (p 205). I find that it is in McFarlane’s handling of theology as a subject matter in particular that you really get your money’s worth from reading the book (not surprising given it’s his specialism). The preface makes clear that the book is also written ‘to ignite a theological flame’ for further study, and below is a short selection of some points that are expounded upon in the book:
- ‘Theology necessitates engaging in struggle and conflict’ (p 8).
- ‘Good theology engages with the here and now, with the issues Christians face in their own lives … within the midst of our own and others’ messiness.’
- ‘To be a theologian is to be bilingual’ (p 12).
- ‘Theologians, like anyone learning a new language, are only successful in learning and maturing in their craft to the degree they live in the text—indwell it’ (p 13).
- ‘Theology is not static but constantly moving … enabling us to sort out “the sound beliefs and practices from the unsound ones”’ (p 22).
- ‘Theology cannot be anything other than communal’ (p 25).
- ‘Theology arises from personal encounter and personal engagement, its goal is to end in personal transformation’ (p 27).
- ‘Theology is not something that only an elite perform—it is the prerogative of all who follow Jesus Christ’ (p 37).
- ‘We—all of us—do theology, but only some of us study’ (p 39).
- ‘Theology is a response to faith.’
- ‘Theology serves the reading of the text [scripture]’ (p 72).
- ‘The question is never “Doestradition play a role in your theology?” but rather, “which tradition controls your theology?”’ (p 103).
- ‘Theology is, in a sense, an experimental science.’ (p 167).
- ‘True theology is something that … needs to be experienced, and experience needs to be theologically sound’ (p 190).
- ‘[The church] is the living space where theology is birthed … [and] is also the context that most significantly moulds our theology.’ (pp 207–208).
Theologians have had something of a rough ride in academia over the last century (pp 204-205) and it is sad to see that university student numbers have dwindled in recent years, but McFarlane (along with Volf and Croasmun) put this down to theology losing sight, ‘to some extent, of the (gospel) forest for the sake of the (academic) trees’ (p.206). But this is to be expected when theology is divorced from the church. How then, can this be remedied in secular university settings where a large number of students are coming from non-churched backgrounds? If one is being truly rigorous in their pursuit of the truth (a main aim of academic research), then space should be made to facilitate and scrutinise the full spectrum of ideas, which should include giving a fair hearing to the Christian gospel. However, to grasp a fuller understanding of all that the gospel entails requires that we adopt forms of rationality that are personal, or relational, because as Parker Palmer has said, ‘truthful knowing weds the knower and the known’ (pp 164–165). There is a relationality to plausibility. This is worth keeping in mind when it comes to Christian apologetics.
Diminishing levels of faith literacy has been toxic for society (as argued by Krish Kandiah) and given how the pandemic over the last year has prompted a surge of interest in matters relating to faith and spirituality, as well as due recognition being given to the enduring influence of Christianity, a strong case could be made for saying that theology still has an important contribution to make in the academy. And as stated earlier, it should never be reduced to mere head knowledge. Studying theology is not meant to be an end in itself, but rather, a transforming ‘encounter with the triune God’ (p 49) that empowers believers to live as authentic Christians wherever they find themselves (p 43). The church should then step up to nurture its members in their own ‘faith seeking understanding,’ enabling them to respond to the call to unashamedly reach out and offer its message in ways that can be reasonably upheld. McFarlane is keen to ensure this is done in a way that is adequate to the task of theology, to better enable people to flourish (p 245), with the academic being ‘an aid to the ordinary, not a replacement or upgrade’ (p 39).
There is a challenge here because McFarlane’s proposal runs counter to the prevailing wisdom of the surrounding culture. In a relativistic, plural society it is radical to assert that ‘knowing the truth really is possible’ (p 19) and that Christian theology is more than just another narrative. To also emphasise the important role of tradition and community goes against the grain of the fragmented individualism that is pervasive in the West. This is nothing new because historically the church has always operated from the margins, seeking to bring renewal whilst maintaining an identity that is distinct from the surrounding culture, in whatever context it has found itself in. Perhaps the need to maintain faith in an objective reality is necessary to uphold notions of truth that are durable and universally recognised (p. 154). Secularism by itself implodes because there is no reality by which to regulate it. Without this accountability, truth and error can sleep in the same bed. This really is a sorry state of affairs and one in which, unfortunately, we’re all too familiar with in today’s world of “fake news”.
Although it’s been over a decade, it was certainly worth the wait being able to engage with McFarlane again. Given my church background in Newfrontiers, the book enabled me to see afresh the value of tradition (much like how James K.A. Smith helped me to see the value of liturgy). I gained much during my time sitting in on McFarlane’s lectures all those years ago, as well as studying for my undergraduate at LST. For me personally, it sparked my love of reading and laid the foundations for teaching teenagers in the classroom, encouraging them to do the “hard thinking” required to help make sense of the world we live in. We need both ordinary and academic theology together if the church is to be effective in its mission, with the ordinary (or devotional) being the foundational discipline that enables academic theology to have any significance (p 39). I hope that McFarlane’s proposed method gains a wide readership across both academic and church settings, guiding them to form the habits required to enable them to thrive.
Savvas Costi is a graduate from the London School of Theology who currently leads the Religion and Philosophy department at a secondary school in East Sussex. He did his teacher training at King’s College London. He is married with one daughter.