Tag Archives: Introducing Christian Theology

Introducing Christian Theology: An Essay by Ian McFarland

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 mcfarlandIan 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.

Books to Introduce Christian Theology: Robert Jenson’s “A Theology in Outline”

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.


Robert Jenson, A Theology in Outline: Can These Bones Live?, ed. Adam Eitel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 152 pp, $27.95. (link to purchase)

Robert Jenson, a preeminent Lutheran theologian and former student of Karl Barth, has produced a fascinating little introduction to Christian theology. This book, A Theology in Outline, is a transcribed and edited version of lectures he gave to undergraduates as a visiting professor at Princeton University in 2008. Comprised of nine chapters plus an introduction, Jenson addresses most of the central loci of Christian theological reflection: Israel, Jesus, the Trinity, Creation, Imago Dei, Atonement, and Ecclesiology. Due to its style, however, the book is far from a dry exercise in academic theology; on the contrary, the chapters largely retain a lecture-like vibe and the tone is equal parts apologetic and conversational. Apologetic, because he appears to be trying to convince students of the relevance of Christian thinking (more on that in a second); conversational, because Jenson’s presentation of the topics always remains quite accessible without a significant amount of watering down the content.

jensonInterestingly, and I believe helpfully, Jenson frames his entire enterprise here as a response to the question posed to Ezekiel: “Can these bones live?” In short, Jenson’s book aims to discover whether Christian theology, the bones in this analogy, retains its relevance and life-giving power in our contemporary situation. This framework for the entire book works well both as a starting point for the myriad of scriptural themes and references throughout the chapters and as an orientation that takes seriously the challenge facing theology today – as well as the skeptic’s charge that theology is just a pile of dead bones, irrelevant for our world, or perhaps even for the Christian life.

To illustrate these features, we can consider briefly his chapter on the Trinity. With his characteristic wit, Jenson skillfully charts the emerging Christian religion’s missionary situation with regard to the competing understandings of God between Israel, the new Church, and the Greek worldview. He continues by describing the scriptural impetus for naming God as three yet lays out the difficulty this would have encountered within an ancient Jewish or Greek worldview, at least on the face of it. By then describing the conciliar consensus around the Trinity in the centuries after Christ, Jenson portrays both the simplicity of the Trinity as well as the various negotiations of worldviews and understandings of the divine that led to its more precise formulation and acceptance. In the midst of this discussion, Jenson never loses sight of the doctrine’s relevance to the Christian life as a means to reflect on the salvation history that we, even today, find ourselves within. The same sort of concerns are taken up in the chapters on other topics.

None of the topics are presented in an overly biased fashion, and one certainly does not get the feeling that Jenson is trying to force his version of the faith upon anyone. He masterfully navigates the main issues at hand in each of the doctrines and he does a good job presenting both an outline of what Christians have believed about the topic in the past, as well as the various options open to the believer today. More significantly, Jenson is always sure to relate each doctrine to its implications upon a Christian form of living. For instance, his chapter on the Church ponders what it might mean for the Church to be holy, and what sort of relation this might imply to the broader culture.

The book ends with a discussion of Christianity’s place within a competing system of worldviews (for lack of a better word) that mark out contemporary life. He is confident in theology’s ability to counteract nihilism and provide a compelling alternative for what makes for a life well-lived in the face of its challenge. These bones, that is Christian theology, can live, Jenson argues. That is, as long as it remains faithful to the cornerstone of its existence – Jesus Christ.

As you may sense, this book does require a bit of intellectual engagement and the ability to understand sometimes complex concepts both historical and theoretical in nature. For that reason, it is best as an introduction to theology for college-aged and older, educated Christians with a desire to think critically about their beliefs, especially as to how they all fit together and result in a semi-coherent picture of our relationship to God and each other. I certainly think this is one of the best introductions out there – one which you would do well to utilize when attempting to introduce Christian theology to those with a desire to explore their faith.