“Café Theology” Review

Preamble

Sometimes in life, good things can come about unexpectedly. As I was nearing the end of a summer working on a master’s dissertation, I was leaving the theology library one day and saw, as occasionally happens, that a lecturer had had an office clear-out and had donated some books to the library. Quite often, the pickings are meagre: little more than outdated journals. That day, however, there was a bit more on offer and as I scanned the shelves of the bookcase, I spotted an orange book entitled Café Theology. I had never heard of the resource before, but thought it looked interesting, might come in handy in the future, and ensure I had something vaguely to do with general (systematic) Christian theology on my bookcase.

A few months later, I returned to the book and began to scan parts of it. I had been encouraged to think about whether I could offer something by way of a theological group at my home church, where some want to go a bit deeper than a twenty-minute sermon on Sunday perhaps allows. Some form of course based on Café Theology quickly became an appealing idea, and the rest, they say, is history. A fabulous and diverse group of us formed to facilitate and participate in a course based on Café Theology on a series of Monday evenings.[1]

In this post, I offer a review of the resource, written by the now principal at Wycliffe Hall, Revd. Dr. Michael Lloyd, mainly by way of recommending it to any church where there is an appetite for going deeper in theological learning as part of its worship and witness.

Review

Twenty years ago, Michael Lloyd was asked to deliver a series of talks at the Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) Focus gathering to help equip and challenge those who were being stretched in other areas of life ­– especially work – but not necessarily, in understanding their Christian faith. Lloyd then spent some twenty months putting these talks into book form[2] of which the result was Café Theology. It is now in its third edition, complete with some study questions and an index at the back of the book.

The book comprises ten chapters, which cover the main elements of Christian theology in a logical and traditional order. Chapter 1 looks at the topic of Creation and maintains that it came about through the will of a Person, rather than randomly, and that it is fundamentally good. It is evident however, that our world today is not perfect as intended, and chapter 2 considers what has caused that: namely, the Fall. Here, Lloyd speaks more in propia persona, since he contends for a pre-angelic fall: something he has written on in his more scholarly work.[3] Chapter 3 is dedicated to what might be viewed as a more philosophical notion: providence. Yet, it becomes apparent that, theologically, God is involved and committed to His creation, and chooses to co-operate with those He has created. God’s commitment to creation is manifest in chapter 4 which deals with the Incarnation: how God became flesh in the form of Jesus Christ. Having considered Christ’s birth, chapter 5 concerns Christ’s death: the doctrine of Atonement where, however we might conceive of it, Christ died for us and reconciled us to God. Chapter 6 moves on to look at Christ’s resurrection and the sometimes little-considered topic of Christ’s ascension to the right hand of the Father. Chapter 7 considers various characteristics of the (Holy) Spirit, who is the guarantee of God’s continued presence with His Creation. Chapter 8 is the place where Lloyd tackles the Trinity: how God can be Three-in-One: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In chapter 9, the attention switches to think about how all of this will play out in the end, as Lloyd puts it, “the destiny of creation” (p.405). The chapter is neatly entitled “The Final Victory of God” and considers eschatological matters. The concluding chapter 10 concerns God’s Church. If God is Love, then He is about relationship and calls His followers into relationship with one another. This is most tangible within the Church. This final chapter considers some of the more challenging aspects of Church, as well as Her blessings, and what Her principal tasks and functions are. There follows a short epilogue addressed to anyone who reads the book who might have found it difficult and cannot (fully) believe, followed by some humble, honest, insightful, and practical suggestions for going forward.

So much for the theological content of the book: what of the style and how Lloyd communicates it all?

There is an enormous amount to recommend about Café Theology. Firstly, it covers a lot of ground well and is highly readable. The chapters are reasonably lengthy (generally 30-40 pages) but they are filled with helpful analogies via cultural references and allusions. Café Theology is not at all dry. Lloyd resists theological jargon in the main body of the text, and where theological notions are used (e.g., Incarnation), they are well explained. Perhaps most impressively, the book is highly relatable: Lloyd offers his own experiences sometimes on some very personal issues – notably his own experience of depression – and therefore, you feel that you can trust the author and relate to him. The balance of theological insights, cultural analogies, and personal reflections makes the book highly readable.

Secondly, Café Theology is rooted in Scripture. This is not a given in systematic theology, but Lloyd certainly does not dispense with Scripture in favour of tradition, reason, experience, or anything else; he gives Scripture centre-stage and bases his content on it. From any of Lloyd’s chapters, it is possible to form a list of a dozen or so key verses – generally from a broad cross-section of the Bible – that could be used to explore these theological ideas further. Lloyd makes use of commentaries from established biblical scholars (e.g., Wright, Carson, Bockmuehl, Fee) to substantiate the points he makes. Café Theology certainly cannot be said to be lacking in the Word!

Thirdly, I believe that Café Theology recognises enough strands and traditions within Christian theology; Lloyd’s conception of Christian theology is evangelical, but not monolithic. He quotes from a variety of theologians: Luther, Barth, St. Basil ‘the Great’, Balthasar, Torrance, Stott, Rowan and Jane Williams, Moltmann, O’Donovan, Gunton, to name a few. Lloyd is now the principal of an evangelical Anglican college in Oxford, but he does not limit himself to these traditions: there are, for instance, reflections from Dominican and Eastern Orthodox ones. Lloyd occasionally comes down on one side on some theological issues (e.g., the question of whether God suffers from evil), but he signposts other views in the footnotes, so anyone who wishes to inform himself or herself on such views are directed towards to them.

Writing a summary of Christian systematic theology that pleases all and satisfies people’s different theological backgrounds is an impossible task, but Lloyd has made an excellent attempt to produce one with Café Theology. I have, however, one tentative suggestion for how the resource might have been improved and one expectation that it didn’t quite meet, although this is likely personal taste and preference.

The main issue I encountered with Café Theology was that while highly readable, it could have been a good fifty pages shorter in length, had it been slightly better organised and less repetitive. I can think of a couple of places where this was apparent. Firstly, chapter 7 on the (Holy) Spirit contained no fewer than eighteen descriptors or aspects of the Spirit. A fellow course co-ordinator commented that this represented more of a state banquet than a café! Some excellent points were made – particularly in my view about Christianity’s (strained) relationship with the arts, the role of the Spirit in prayer and in the inspiration of Scripture – but could these eighteen points have been more helpfully grouped? Could the content have been broken down into something like: Spirit and the Godhead; Spirit and creation; Spirit and the individual; Spirit and the community? Secondly, I found that a lot of the material on chapter 9 (“The Final Victory of God”) had already been at least partly explored and explained in previous chapters, especially on Creation, Incarnation, and Resurrection. I felt that some of the material used in earlier chapters could have been saved for this later chapter.

Personally, I expected Café Theology to be slightly closer to an introduction to Christian theology than it turned out to be. I reiterate that probably stems from my own theological interests, but I occasionally felt that in choosing to make the content so “jargon-free”, important theological concepts were perhaps overlooked. This was particularly apparent for me on the more “heavy-lifting” doctrinal chapters on the Incarnation, Atonement, and Trinity. As examples, the notions of hypostatic union, propitiation/expiation, perichoresis and modalism, were all there in the background of each respective chapter; but were occasionally left floating by not being named and explained as such. I occasionally felt that anyone who has already dipped a toe in theological study could be left feeling a bit disorientated by Lloyd’s treatment of these more complex issues. Café Theology is a great gateway to further theological study, but I do not think it could be viewed as a proper introduction to Christian systematic theology. And, in any case, I do not think that Lloyd pretends it is one – this is more a “heads-up” to anyone who has engaged in some formal theological study, who would be looking to run the course in their own church context.

Overall, however, these small matters should in no way detract from Café Theology being an excellent resource for anyone who wishes to go deeper in their Christian faith by exploring some of its key building-blocks. I once heard an excellent sermon from Simon Ponsonby at St Aldate’s, Oxford, mainly on 2 Corinthians 13:5: ‘Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith’. His message was that we should “bother”[4] ourselves about two things: what we believe (theology) and how we live it out (praxis). It seems to me that Café Theology is an ideal resource for enabling this: particularly for those who want to look at some of these aspects for the first time or afresh. The book is in no way dry theology, but thanks to Michael Lloyd’s unique blend of theological, cultural, and personal insights, full of practical ways in which God’s love can be experienced and make a difference to ourselves and others.

I believe Lloyd’s labour in putting this book together has been a great service to the Church. I encourage anyone with any interest in learning more about God to add it to their bookshelf and to find a community – preferably made up of people with mixed theological backgrounds and experiences – with whom they can read and discuss it. I am thankful that I picked up Café Theology in that library in Edinburgh and that it now sits on my bookshelf; but I am especially thankful for those people with whom I read the book and thought hard about why this stuff matters.

[1] Some records of what took place can be found on this blog: https://cafetheologynewbury.wordpress.com/

[2] For an informative interview about Café Theology and Lloyd’s life more generally, see: https://www.eden.co.uk/blog/dr-evils-romp-through-christian-theology-p1423.

[3] Notably his D.Phil. thesis: The Cosmic Fall and the Free Will Defence (1997).

[4] Simon Ponsonby was informed by a Greek friend that the Greek verb Paul uses here (peirazo) for “examine” or “test” now sometimes has the sense of “bother” in modern Greek.

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