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Lessons drawn from a meteor’s trail

20 May 2016

Christopher Hill on the work of Nels Ferré reconsidered

Content and Method in Christian Theology: A case study of the thought of Nels Ferré

Alan P. F. Sell

James Clarke & Co. £25



ALAN SELL is an eminently clear-thinking philosophical theologian. But he offers no “sweeteners” in the above title. He speaks of Nels Ferré as of a meteor flashing across the sky for three decades, but now vanished.

As a theological student half a century ago, I bought (and read) Ferré’s The Christian Faith, on the recommendation of Huw Parri Owen, who taught philosophical theology at King’s, London, at that time — though Owen (and, with him, H. D. Lewis) had disagreements with Ferré, especially over the autonomy of ethics. But in testimony to Sell’s meteor metaphor, I have not gone back to Ferré since.

In fact, this book “does what it says on the tin”, as it is not only a fascinating (and obviously fair) account of Ferré’s extensive and not always consistent writings, but is also a window on to the relationship between the content of theology and the theologian’s philosophical presumptions, which, in fact, determine the theologian’s method.

So, whether Church Times readers have heard of Ferré or not, Sell invites us to look at content and method in theology — an important and necessary investigation. This book is, therefore, not just for those interested in a now rather forgotten Reformed theologian of a past generation.

Ferré rejected the Swedish Baptist fundamentalism of his pastor father. He was attracted by personalism, and by the emphasis of the Swedish theologians Anders Nygren and Gustav Aulén on agape (love) in relation to being. He was also significantly influenced by the current process philosophy of his student days in the United States through A. N. Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne. He was, therefore, an admirer of Karl Barth but not a follower. He rejected both the reductionism of Bultmann and the logical positivists, but was sympathetic to Paul Tillich, whose friendship he valued even when he decried Tillich’s denial of transcendence.

Sell systematically examines Ferré’s epistemology, his wide explorations of Christian doctrines, ethics, and approach to interfaith questions — all against the background of the various philosophical and theological movements of the mid-20th century.

As a snapshot of international Protestant philosophical theology, this book is a gift for any student looking back at these issues. Sell sympathetically but rigorously examines Ferré’s language with a continence acquired through respect of what linguistic philosophy has to teach all theologians. But he does this with delightful short asides, such as: “I do not know the grounds on which this can be said.” Sell’s own default theologian is P. T. Forsyth.

Ferré is haunted by ontology and process philosophy, of which Sell is critical. Nevertheless, Sell has an admirable human and theological sympathy with his subject. This is a very good book for all who should be concerned about the relation between philosophy and theology, if only to learn from Ferré’s adventurous mistakes.

The Rt Revd Christopher Hill is President of the Conference of European Churches. He is a former Bishop of Guildford.

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