Recently when browsing the newly-arrived journals at my college library I opened up a recent issue of The Reformed Theological Review (73:2, August 2014). I was interested to see that it contained (pp. 142-43) a review of Sarah Martin’s Davis McCaughey: A Life (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2012). McCaughey was, among other things, New Testament scholar, Master of Ormond College, inaugural President of the Uniting Church in Australia, and Governor of Victoria. The review focused mostly on Martin’s account of McCaughey’s theological and ecclesiastical work. Although this was at the expense of Martin’s engagement with the other areas of McCaughey’s life, within the compass of a brief book review in a theological journal, this limitation is fair enough.
What is not fair enough, however, is the conclusion the reviewer draws. I quote the final paragraph in full:
McCaughey’s earthly pilgrimage came to an end on Good Friday, 2005. He was not without insights and eloquence, but having rejected what he saw as the narrow creed of Irish Presbyterianism, he was left with little of any substance to put in its place. In the end, this is a sad book – and all the sadder because it is not altogether evident that many involved in its telling realise how sad it is.
In fact, to describe this conclusion as unfair doesn’t quite capture my concern. It’s more that this is a quite unscholarly conclusion and, at least in my view, below the standard expected in a peer-reviewed journal. In concluding that this is a ‘sad book’, the author appeals to some deeply personal criterion, to which, apparently, Martin and her sources were simply blind. And, devoid of this criterion, Martin was unable – so the reviewer suggests – to understand, or provide an informed judgement on, McCaughey’s life.
Yes, of course, reviewers are perfectly entitled – and expected – to expose an author’s prejudices, failures and errors. But any successful critique on those grounds needs to be backed up by relevant information and data. And the conclusion would be along the lines that the author had failed in his/her own objectives, or neglected to take into account relevant scholarship, or, in the case of a biography, omitted critical moments in the subject’s life. Nothing like that applies here. This is an arbitrary claim that Martin didn’t know how to judge her own material: she didn’t know – but apparently should have known – how sad the story was she was telling. So, the conclusion is a judgement on Martin’s inability fully to understand her subject matter. But – and this is my interest – it is also a judgement on Davis McCaughey’s theology.
The reviewer’s reason for making this judgement is his own claim that McCaughey’s journey was one of departure from earlier theological convictions to a position “with little of any substance”. The only apparent basis provided in the review for this journey consists of two quotes from Martin’s book. The first is McCaughey’s comment at Princeton in 1967 that the church “must be prepared to live without guarantees, without the guarantee of an infallible book, or infallible creeds, or an infallible church”. The second is from McCaughey’s 1987 Boyer Lectures in which he quoted Niebuhr’s comment that “we must be saved by love” which the reviewer glosses with the comment, “by which he meant love of one’s neighbour”.
Neither these quotes nor anything else in the review can justify the claim that McCaughey’s constructive theological view had little substance to it. To make that judgement in an intellectually responsible way, it would be necessary to study and analyse the corpus of McCaughey’s theological writings. Even Martin’s biography is not the source material for such a judgement.
The reviewer is perfectly entitled to disagree with McCaughey’s theological views, and to disagree strongly. But to suggest that McCaughey’s theology had “little of any substance” is simply wrong. McCaughey was far from the most prolific or influential theologian; by contemporary academic standards his literary output was significant, but modest. Nevertheless, judging from the body of his theological writings – many of which are readily accessible in various publications – McCaughey was an informed, thoughtful and creative interpreter not only of New Testament texts (his particular area of expertise), but also of the creedal orthodoxy which nurtured the Church catholic and into which he sought to draw the sectarian Protestantism of both his native Northern Ireland and his adopted Australia. It is also seems that in one area he was likely well ahead of most of his theological peers: his deep appreciation of the relationship between literature, imagination and theology. Some of his – admittedly brief – proposals in this area measure up very well alongside the best writings on this now important theme in contemporary Christian theology. Remarks he made to the Victoria/Tasmania Synod of the Uniting Church on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of his ordination (see below) provide an insight into the personal faith which both nurtured and was nurtured by his developed theology.
There are others far better placed than I am to defend McCaughey’s theological reputation. I can only say that whenever I have read his theological writings, I have found them illuminating, faithful to the gospel, creatively engaged with the classic traditions of Christian thought, and worthy of considered engagement. The RTR’s review makes a quite contrary claim – but does so without fully attending to the criteria of accuracy and fairness to which scholarly discussion, not least scholarship pursued as a Christian ministry, is summoned.
Some readily available examples of McCaughey’s sermons and theological writings:
Peter Matheson and Christiaan Mostert (eds), Fresh Words and Deeds: The McCaughey Papers (Melbourne: David Lovell, 2004).
Video of Part 1 of McCaughey's sermon at the inauguration of the Uniting Church, June 22nd 1997 (commencing at 5mins)
Address to the 2002 meeting of the Victoria/Tasmania Synod of the Uniting Church in Australia. The text of this speech was distributed widely throughout the synod following the meeting.
Davis McCaughey, "If I had known then what I know now" in William W. Emilsen and Susan Emilsen (eds), Marking Twenty Years: the Uniting Church in Australia: 1977-1997 (Sydney: UTC Publications, 1997).
J. Davis McCaughey, Commentary on the Basis of Union (Melbourne: Uniting Church Press, 1980).
J. D. McCaughey, "Church Union in Australia" The Ecumenical Review 17(1), 1965, pp. 38-53.
J. D. McCaughey, "Confession of Faith in Church Union Negotiations" Mid Stream 6(3) 1967, pp. 24-46.
J.D. McCaughey, "Language About the Church", Reformed Theological Review 15(1), 1956, pp. 1-17.