One of the advantages of the longevity of the Gifford Lectures is that the modern reader is able to engage with over a century of theological history. As a result, contemporary readers are able to trace the ways in which intellectual trends and fashions have waxed and waned. From the 1970s the trend was toward philosophy of mind, whilst the lectures of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century tended toward idealism and systematic natural theology (a trend almost certainly halted by Barth’s lectures of 1937/8). Andrew Fairbairn’s lectures, published in 1905, are both an interesting historical artefact, well within the tradition of the Gifford Lectures as well as a fascinating work of theology in its own right. As a systematic work of theology, concerned with theology broadly construed, the work is easily seen as being rather traditional. However, the book begins with a consideration of the problem of the Christian religion, arising from the incongruity between the plain historicism of the synoptic Gospels and the metaphysical nature of the creeds. It’s from this starting point that the lectures move outward to consider Creation, evolution and history as well as some notes on comparative religion (Fairbairn was Haskell lecturer in Chicago earlier in his career and this had given him extensive experience with Indian religious life). One of the strongest sections of the lecture series are Fairbairn’s arguments about the evolution of Religion. This, for Fairbairn, is not just a subjective process but rather, a process emerging from the entirety of the human environment (which goes some way to explaining the variations is religion that Fairbairn mentions).
What is particularly striking is the ways in which Fairbairn insists upon the reality and importance of evolution and natural science, seeking the world as being constantly created and sustained by God and the development of man, consciousness and intellect are completely in line with natural laws. Here then, in the early twentieth century is a work that seems to have much in common with the work of later theologians such as Arthur Peacocke. What seems to be important here is the way in which the theology-science dialogue seems to have decayed rapidly through the twentieth century before its renewal in the last few generations – Fairbairn and Peacocke would have little to disagree on theologically speaking, and the issue of why the historical gap between the two saw such a change in the science and theology discourse is well worth investigating further. Thus, Fairbairn’s lectures both illustrate much of what is great about early twentieth century theology whilst setting up a fascinating historical question on the nature of the evolution of science and theology discourse.