Alister McGrath on Theological Education (2)

This is a follow up post on the European Evangelical Accrediting Association (EEAA) annual conference that I was at last week near London.

Alister McGrath was the guest speaker looking at the challenges, vision and changing context of theological education. Here is a snapshot of some things that stood out for me from the second lecture we got to.

And again I should say that these are just my impressions and notes – not verbatim quotes!

Staying rooted historically; staying engaged culturally. Challenges and concerns.

Prof McGrath sketched the task of theology – to remain faithful to orthodoxy while engaging with an ever-changing culture and the new questions it raises. And as usual a story gets this point across best.

He told the story of C S Lewis being asked to speak to RAF crews in 1941 and having to ‘translate’ his understanding of Christianity into the language of his audience. Lewis judged his first attempts a failure but he kept being asked back.

Reflecting later, he said such translation can only be learnt by doing. In Lewis’ words, the “‘power to translate is the test of having really understood one’s own meaning.”

This is the theologian’s task – to translate God’s truth in understandable ways in his/her own context. Such translation is rooted in the past, and speaks into present. If we can’t do this, have we really understood God’s truth in the first place?

And from here McGrath appealed for evangelicals to be rooted in the past so as to speak with depth and meaning into the present. His concern is of evangelical shallowness and historical illiteracy and its rejection of the past. What C S Lewis called our ‘chronological snobbery’.

And he referred to the paleo-orthodoxy of Tom Oden, and the Deep Church movement in the UK (the name inspired by Lewis again) as examples of evangelicals in search of  historical rootedness for the present.  [Lots of other examples could have been mentioned like the late Robert E Webber and his Ancient-Future faith].

McGrath reminded us, that however cutting edge we think we are, our thinking will soon be out of date. Even a classic like John Stott’s Basic Christianity is becoming dated in its modern framework.

Knowing the past helps open our eyes. So read older books! Learn from other voices and see with other eyes. Read the theological giants of the past.

Seeing differently is  a great model for theological education. So get students to engage with these thinkers. Reflect and learn from them.  View these people as a resource. How did they do? How are we doing? Immerse students in the rich tradition.

If theological education fails to excite and thrill, then we have failed.  The task is to first catch that vision for ourselves and pass it on.  Theological education really matters. It is a privilege and a responsibility to have people ‘passing through’ your colleges. Excite them, connect them to the Great Tradition, help them translate God’s truth into their context, and help them see what difference they can make.

While he didn’t draw this out, humility is not far from the surface here. If our thinking will soon be out of date. If we can only have a partial and incomplete perspective. If we need to learn from others in the great story of the church … all of this should make us humble learners.

Comments, as ever, welcome.


7 thoughts on “Alister McGrath on Theological Education (2)

  1. Hi Patrick

    I’m currently re-reading Stott’s ‘Basic Christianity’ Are you familiar with the view McGrath refers to of “even … Basic Christianity … becoming dated”? I’d be interested to know in what ways the book is so regarded. The message of the book is certainly “rooted in the past”, but in what ways does it fail to “speak with depth and meaning into the present”?



  2. Greetings Tim and welcome. I think he meant that not so much the content is dated but that the context in which it was written and the culture it was engaging have moved on from a modern to a post-modern world. (And I should say he emphasised more than once his huge regard & affection for John Stott).

  3. I think we have seen in recent times within certain sections of Christianity a desire to engage with those who went before us, andt that for me, has been very helpful. It made me realize that I am part of something much bigger than what it is taking place right here, righ now but at the same time, it helps me to try to understand and articulate that same faith within the context that I live in. Also, you mentioned, it keeps us humble, sometimes, in our arrogance one can think that has discovered something new that nobody else has, when in reality each generation had to interpret or translate the message for the world they lived in. In the words of N.T.Wright, in his foreword in The King Jesus Gospel: “Part of the genius of genuine Christianity is that each generation has to think it through afresh.”

  4. Indeed the best of Anglicanism is very rich, I wish today’s Anglican theological students would read the best of the great Anglican Austin Farrer! I don’t often agree with the archbishop Rowan Williams, but I do with this statement that Farrer was “possibly the greatest Anglican mind of the twentieth century.” Though Farrer was an Anglo-Catholic he grappled with the great Augustine, and he knew the great depth of God’s eternity! (See Farrer’s term: Double Agency). Sadly, I am not sure I have ever heard NT Wright mention Austin Farrer? If I have missed it? please let me know!

    If I may, let me recommend the edited book about Farrer’s theology: Captured by the Crucified, The Practical Theology Of Austin Farrer, Edited by David Hein and Edward Hugh Henderson (T&T Clark, 2004). And also for those that want to go further? See Robert Boak Slocum’s book and work: Light in a Burning-Glass, A Systematic Presentation of Austin Farrer’s Theology, (University of South Carolina, 2007). This book is only 132 pages (with index and footnotes), but very readable. Finally, note his Farrer’s profound thoughts on Divine Action and Human Freedom (chapter 7, Last chapter), Farrer has several works on this subject…’The Freedom of the Will’, ‘The Christian Doctine of Man’, etc. (note chap. 7 itself).

    Thanks… 🙂

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