Farrer in the Pulpit: A Systematic Introduction to His Sermons

By Slocum, Robert B. | Anglican Theological Review, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview
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Farrer in the Pulpit: A Systematic Introduction to His Sermons

Slocum, Robert B., Anglican Theological Review

Austin Farrer, the hundredth anniversary of whose birth is celebrated this year, has been described as the greatest Anglican thinker of his generation. He was a philosophical theologian and biblical scholar, as well as a noted, preacher and pastoral writer. He published extensively in all these areas. This review article provides a systematic introduction to the theology of Farrer's published sermons, focusing on his anthropology, Christology, ecclesiology, and eschatology. Points of note include Farrer's frequent use of human experience as a starting point for theological reflection, his use of analogy to convey theological understanding, and his emphasis on the lived application of theology in human lives of faith.

Austin Farrer (1904-1968) was an Oxford don and a noted preacher whose sermons reveal the depths of his theological insights in the context of living faith and pastoral application. He may well be the most significant Anglican theologian of his era. Although the theology of Farrer's preaching and teaching is quite well integrated and connected, it is helpful to identify the various systematic areas of his attention as separate points of reference for understanding his contribution in biblical and philosophical theology.1 This approach should prove helpful as the hundredth anniversary of Farrer's birth is celebrated in 2004.


Farrer's understanding of human nature provides an appropriate starting point for considering his theology in a systematic way. It is only in our own life that "we can possibly touch the nerve of God's creative action, or experience creation taking place."2 He starts with the person, "the willing I, the I who chooses and cares," who is "that real I which has to meet Gods will." This is the most basic "point of contact: I have to face God."3

Farrer clearly recognizes the interplay of human free will and divine initiative as one of the most important and challenging of theological questions. Our freely chosen engagement in the saving process is necessary. He explains that "Gods plans do not simply leave room for free operators, they employ free operators in carrying them out."4 And yet, our free will may not be all that we think it is. Farrer draws on a psychological understanding of the human unconscious, and warns that "our independent freedom of will is very slight: it is the conscious surface of the mind." But there are "what depths beneath, of which we have little notion, and which, doubtless, affect our actions to an indeterminable extent."5 Farrer uses the analogy of himself swimming over deep water to illustrate this understanding of our "conscious life," observing, "We keep to the surface of our mind and think we are free. We make a great to-do with our kicking and striking, and think that we are going where we choose; but when we look round and take our bearings, we find it is the currents that have carried us."6 We do have free will, and it matters greatly, but we may also be "moved" by influences that affect us below and beyond the level of our conscious awareness.

Farrer also considers the basis of our humanity, in terms of how we come to full personhood. The first answer for that question would be: not by ourselves. He warns that we would have remained "like idiots in the cradle" if "no one had smiled us into smiling back, or talked us into talking."7


Farrer's Christology also reflects his emphasis on the realities of human experience as a starting point for understanding. Jesus lived a human life; he was born to a human mother, he grew up, he had relationships with others, he made decisions and acted in specific ways, and he died. Farrer states emphatically that Jesus was not "a divinely mesmerized sleepwalker, a jointed doll pulled by heavenly wires" or "a painful pedant, carrying out with pharisaic exactitude a part which had been written for him by a divine hand."8 Jesus had nothing less than a full humanity, and his humanity was lived in ways that we can understand.

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