December 3, 2009

Austin Farrer: Anglican Philosophical Theologian

Filed under: Theology — William Witt @ 7:30 am

One of the conservative Anglican blogs (which seems oddly to be moving more and more in a Calvinist direction) posted a link to a video sermon today in which the decidedly Reformed (and not any sense Anglican) theologian John Piper “explains the relationship between election and free will.” Wow. I am glad that after 2,000 years someone has finally sorted that one out. (Piper is the Calvinist preacher whose critique on N.T. Wright’s version of the “New Perspective on Paul” prompted Wright’s really interesting book on Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, InterVarsity, 2009).

I did not want to get involved in a fruitless online discussion, for which I have neither time nor patience. However, the link to Piper did bring to mind a review I did awhile back on a book about Anglican philosophical theologian Austin Farrer, who, in my opinion, certainly is a bit more thoughtful about these things. Did I mention that Farrer actually was an Anglican?

Austin Farrer was one of a group of critically orthodox (mostly) Anglican Christians associated with Oxford University during the mid-twentieth century. A smaller literary group connected with this circle—C. .S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and, to a lesser extent, Dorothy Sayers and Charles Williams—is more well-known because of the continuing popularity of their (mostly fictional) writings. Farrer was friends with this group (he was Lewis’s confessor and a friend of Lewis and his wife Joy) but belongs more with a lesser-known group of academic theologians and philosophers who also knew and supported each other’s work: the Anglican theologians E.L. Mascall, Basil Mitchell, Michael Ramsey, the (non-Christian) philosopher Iris Murdoch.

There is a need for an accessible introduction to Farrer’s thought for at least two reasons. First, Farrer was a polymath—his published writings include dense philosophical theology, biblical studies, sermons, and popular apologetic expositions of basic Christian faith. He wrote no single systematic theology or one-volume summary that might place his views neatly before the reader in one place. To discover his views on a topic like sin or salvation one has to snatch a passage here or there from a sermon or popular apologetic piece. For example, when Anglican theologian Brian Hebblethwaite wrote an article on Farrer’s doctrine of the incarnation in response to the 1976 essay collection The Myth of God Incarnate (SCM, 1976, John Hick, ed.), he turned to Farrer’s The Glass of Vision (a biblical commentary), Saving Belief (a popular exposition of Christian doctrine), and to some of his sermons.(See “The doctrine of incarnation in the thought of Austin Farrer,” The Incarnation: Collected Essays in Christology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 112-125.)

Second, Farrer’s readings are not always accessible. His philosophical theology is demanding and requires considerable intellectual effort to penetrate. His biblical exposition is unlike standard academic fare either of his own or the current generation. So the uninitiated reader benefits from help, first, to grasp Farrer’s overall vision. How do the biblical commentaries fit with the philosophical speculations, if at all? Is there a coherent theological vision that lies behind and is reflected in the sermons and the popular writing? Second, those who lack Farrer’s intellectual acumen can use some help to penetrate the depths of his sometimes demanding arguments. (more…)

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