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Herbert McCabe: The Underrated Theologian

Of nearly all the recent theological voices that merit attention, I can’t think of any that are more ignored and underrated than Herbert McCabe.  At least by theologians.  Philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Terry Eagleton, and Anthony Kenny all acknowledge the significant infulence of his thought on their own work.

One of the things that makes McCabe so interesting as a theologian is the way in which he combines radical and witty social, political, and theological critique with a razor sharp dogmatic precision.  This is what is so rare among theologians.  Either you have revolutionary theologians like Stanley Hauerwas who are something of a blunt instrument, despite all their brilliance, or you have systematically precise dogmaticians like George Hunsinger or Paul Molnar who lack innovation and original theological contribution.  McCabe is in many ways the best of both worlds.

Always controversial, McCabe is well known for his harsh criticism of  Catholic theologian Charles Davis for publicly leaving and denounching the Catholic Church as corrupt.  McCabe responded by saying that of course the Church was corrupt but that this was no reason to leave it.  In an editorial in New Blackfriars in 1965 he leveled all these critiques at Davis and was subsequently removed from his editorial position for stating that the Church “is quite plainly corrupt”.  He was reinstated three years later, and his opening editorial began with the folowing line: “As I was saying, before I was so oddly interrupted…”

Another central aspect to McCabe’s theology is the central role that his sermons played in his theological contributions.  Arguably some of the most carefully constructed and articulated sermons ever written, McCabe’s sermons encapsulate many of his central theological themes about our tendency to make God in to “a god” constructed in our own image, about ethics as the proper configuration of social life, and Jesus Christ’s human life and death as the ultimate revelation of the inner life of the Triune God.

I have just about acquired all of McCabe’s major books at last, and I plan to post more on him in the future.  Hopefully I can convince you to read this fascinating theologian and churchman.  In the meantime, here’s a quote from McCabe on the proper elements of the Eucharist as bread and wine:

The reason why it is hard for me to envisage a Coke and frankfurter becoming the body of Christ is that I have difficulty imagining them as food in the first place.


  1. WTM wrote:

    “…he combines radical and witty social, political, and theological critique with a razor sharp dogmatic precision.”

    It could be argued that this is a perfect description of George Hunsinger. :-)

    However, thanks for this post. I had never before heard of McCabe, and now I’m interested in checking out his work.

    Tuesday, August 7, 2007 at 4:49 pm | Permalink
  2. Ben Myers wrote:

    Shouldn’t that be “before I was so rudely interrupted”?

    And I couldn’t agree more about the Coke and frankfurter!

    Tuesday, August 7, 2007 at 5:19 pm | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:


    I believe ‘oddly’ is the correct quote. Although I’d have to check that issue of New Blackfriars to be sure.


    I should qualify that statement about Hunsinger. I think he has made/will make some important ecumenical contributions to Christian theology. But, I just don’t see him as a great innovator or creative synthesizer. But that’s just my opinion, of course.

    Tuesday, August 7, 2007 at 5:38 pm | Permalink
  4. scott wrote:

    I agree completely – Hauerwas had us read Law, Love and Language when I was at Duke, which is a terrific book. What you’d expect, of course, from a Marxist-sympathizing theologian who’s rumoured to have smoked pot with his students.


    Wednesday, August 8, 2007 at 4:03 am | Permalink
  5. isaac wrote:

    Halden, I look forward to your posts on McCabe. I am also quite the fan of his work. Since you gave us one of your favorite lines from his work, I thought I’d share a couple as well.

    Here’s a witty remark about drinking: “Thinking, though not itself a bodily process, requires concomitant bodily processes. (That is why we think more clearly after a few drinks).” (The Good Life)

    And this is a quote that I keep coming back to; I say it so much in sermons that most people at church have it memorized: “Christ is present to us insofar as we are present to one another.” (The People of God)

    Wednesday, August 8, 2007 at 4:19 am | Permalink
  6. “There is no higher synthesis” is a common Hunsinger line, so you will rarely see any synthesizing. ;-)

    Wednesday, August 8, 2007 at 7:42 am | Permalink

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