Simon Barrow

Edward Farley: exponent of constructive theological wisdom

By Simon Barrow
January 11, 2015

Academics and church leaders are among those mourning the loss of Edward Farley, a scholar and writer of "constructive theology", who died at the end of last year (2014) at the age of 85.

A well-attended memorial service was held for Farley at Nashville’s Second Presbyterian Church on 3 January 2015.

This creative, thoughtful and engaging theologian was perhaps best known for his work on 'divine empathy' (also part of the title of perhaps his most influential and ambitious book, Divine Empathy: A Theology of God).

In this work, Farley attempts to "think the unthinkable" – the way in which God may be said to come forth actively and redemptively to meet and change the human situation. Fortress Press, his publisher, summarises it well:

Farley's [book] sympathetically engages yet moves beyond both the classical tradition as well as contemporary anti-theisms in formulating a concept of God that is strikingly original, intellectually honest, and comprehensive. Farley's treatise employs the "facticity of redemption", the actual experience of freedom and empowerment, as the primordial source for our thinking about God (Part 1), God-symbols (Part 2), and God's activity (Part 3), including the figure of Jesus. [His] astute analysis leads inexorably to a view of divine creativity and empathy that is one of the more profound religious visions of our time.

In adopting this approach, Edward Farley was keen to unite the intellectual work of theological exploration, which he did both through reassessing sweeping narratives and attending to fine detail, with active Christian engagement in the world.

He carefully examined the practices, narratives and outlooks which could develop sustainable wisdom within the Christian community, including the ability to review the past and act in the present with a critical consciousness toward human infallibility, as well as the concomitant need to listen to the difficult promptings of the Spirit.

Theological educators and practical theologians, like me, have been profoundly grateful for Edward Farley's insights, alongside those working in the area of theology that gets dubbed 'systematics'.

Farley was an exponent of what is usually called 'constructive theology', along with people as diverse as Peter Hodgson, Serene Jones, Paul Lakeman, Gordon D. Kaufman, Sallie McFague, Catherine Keller and Sharon V. Betcher.

'Constructive theologians' are those who take up the task of seeking coherence within and between the broader narratives and disciplines of Christian theology (Christology, pneumatology, ecclesiology, patristics, biblical studies, missiology, etc.), while remaining alert to the dangers of "systematising" too much.

Their work stands in contrast to (but in my view, when read and received well, can be complementary to) the endeavours of ardent anti-systematicians such as Stanley Hauerwas (passim on Ekklesia) and positive de-constructionists like John D. Caputo (The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event) and The God Who May Be: A Hermeneutics of Religion by Richard Kearney.

The aforementioned all operate in a more-or-less Protestant or Reformed orbit, but find some significant equivalence within aspects of what Catholics call "fundamental theology", among mystical apophaticists (ranging from Vladimir Lossky to Jean-Luc Marion) and in intellectual movements (Protestant, Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox and Anabaptist) towards ressourcement - rediscovering tradition and scripture within a dynamic and changing present. I have written more about this in an article entitled 'Being Christian in a sceptical climate' (Ekklesia, 2009).

Back to Farley. He wrote not so long ago in the influential Christian Century magazine: "Christians are inevitably engaged everyday in existential responses to the world, and theology concerns the wisdom by which one brings the resources of a religious tradition to bear on the world. This task calls not for indifference or innocence or naïveté but wisdom - the ability to assess what is going on and to appraise new possibilities.

"To put it another way, in living out of the inherited symbols and narratives of one's faith, one isn't just applying dead truths to a living situation. Instead, one is embodying or incorporating oneself into a living tradition. That's a creative act and an interpretive act, an act of theological understanding."

A US Presbyterian pastor, Farley was latterly the Drucilla Moore Buffington Professor of Theology, emeritus, at Vanderbilt Divinity School.

His many important titles include Deep Symbols: Their Postmodern Effacement and Reclamation (1996), Fragility of Knowledge: Theological Education in the Church and the University (1988), Good and Evil: Interpreting a Human Condition (1990), Ecclesial Reflection: An Anatomy of Theological Method (1982), Faith and Beauty: A Theological Aesthetic (2001), Practicing Gospel: Unconventional Thoughts on the Church's Ministry (2003), Theologia: The Fragmentation and Unity of Theological Education (2001), and of course Divine Empathy: A Theology of God (1996).

Farley was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky. He earned degrees from Centre College and Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary before enrolling at Union Theological Seminary. He earned a doctorate in philosophical theology in 1957 from Columbia University.

“Edward Farley was a renowned philosophical theologian and superb teacher, whose two books on theological education had deep impact on how seminary educators think about their work. He was also a composer, professional jazz musician, student of world literature and skilled amateur naturalist – in short, one of the best minds and most learned leaders of his generation of Presbyterian ministers”, commented Barbara Wheeler, founder of Auburn Theological Seminary’s Center for the Study of Theological Education, in connection with his memorial service.

He taught at DePauw University and Pittsburgh Theological Seminary before coming to Vanderbilt in 1969. Farley is the only theologian to have won Vanderbilt’s Earl Sutherland Prize for Achievement in Research, which he received in 1991.

Edward Farley authored twelve books and monographs, including a memoir, and delivered a range of distinguished, named lectures.

* 'Toward Theological Understanding: An Interview with Edward Farley' (Christian Century): http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=366

* A summary of Edward Farley's Theologia: The Fragmentation and Unity of Theological Education (*.PDF Adobe Acrobat document): http://www.ecclesialdreamer.com/wp-content/uploads/2006/03/Theologia.pdf

With thanks to the PCUSA News Service.

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of the think-tank Ekklesia.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.