Conclusion: A solid proposal of an intergative theological method that combines simple faith and academic rigor and is relationally permeated.
Graham McFarlane has been teaching theology in the classroom for more than two decades and has supervised a bulk-load of research students. I am one of them (and gladly so). Since he is my doctoral supervisor and I have never had the privilege to sit in his classroom, I was eagerly awaiting this volume to get to know his accumulated wisdom in a more systematic way.
First of all, I like the overall aim of the book that is readily summarised in the subtitle: integrating scripture, tradition, reason, experience and community. McFarlane proposes an integrated theological method that attempts to be specifically evangelical,1 meaning that scripture is not simply one principle among the others but the foundation for everything else. To me, this integrated view (as a whole) is the main contribution of the book and consequently I found Part One and the final conclusion most illuminating (even more so than Part Two). The following quote summarises best:
The task of academic theology will always be to question faithfully, discern prayerfully, recognize corporately, codify critically, & communicate clearly God’s self-disclosure in such a way that its meaning is clear for human life, in thought and praxis.(58)
This leads to the second thing I like: with McFarlane’s approach the church and the academia come closer (which I believe is also his intention with a very accessible writing-style). He makes sure that it is clear that every Christian is a theologian whenever they reflect on the Faith and that the academic theologian does the same only with a more rigorous methodology. With this view, to “do theology” has a lot to do with actually living the Christian life which is one of the major points of integration and of utmost importance for the academy.
Furthermore, I like McFarlane’s relational theology. Neither the title nor the contents-page suggest that this is a very relational proposal but it is. Relationality permeates the whole fabric of the book rather than being up-front. This might appear odd since McFarlane is a relational theologian through and through and I would have suspected to find this leitmotif more explicitly. However, the fifth area of integration, community, which is the one that makes this proposal a unique quintilateral rather than the classic quadrilateral, points specifically in this direction. Nonetheless, although I like the subversive relational tone of the book, I believe that his proposal could have gained more momentum with a more radical and consequential leitmotif of relationship.
Finally, the book’s setup might appear quite unique for an academic work (I consider it such). Time and again there are little grey boxes (“Pause”) with recommendations to reflect on the content. Interestingly, I like the idea very much since it breathes the spirit of the proposal that it is not just about theory, reason, knowledge, but that theology is very personal and must be birthed within ones own life. On the other hand, as a reader, it actually bothered me a little.2 I felt slightly patronised. Furthermore, besides the boxes, from time to time, there are some sentences like “did you get what you just read?”… whose intention are very well but they feel schoolmasterly. While these didactical tricks might be adequate for theological greenhorns and first year students it is a matter of discussion whether they should be part of an academic work. However, this slight critique does not in the least discount the proposal and the contribution.
Above all, I recommend the book since its author actually lives what he teaches and strives to integrate all five dimensions into his own life and theological existence in even more comprehensive ways . Thank you, Graham.
- Sadly, he defines evangelical only rudimentary despite the current heated debates circling this term. Since it is part of the title and as such important, he could have done with a more thorough treatment.
- I can almost hear and see Graham nodding and smiling, as only Scots can, that this was indeed his intention. He likes to bother very much and usually aims to do it :).