There are two sides to everything Alister McGrath writes. He can make general, sweeping statements that wax eloquent, reminiscent of a persuasive J. I. Packer or an imaginative C. S. Lewis. But on the particulars, he can induce a cringe. His new The Passionate Intellect: Christian Faith and the Discipleship of the Mind generates the same phenomena.
McGrath aims, in part one of his book, to reassert theology’s purpose and place in the church. After that, in part two, he attempts to display how a properly established theology engages the challenges from an unbelieving and rebellious society. The former outperforms the latter.
In part one, I almost emptied my pen with underlinings, circles, with “amen’s” and “yes, yes, yes!” on the margins. McGrath gives his readers a framework to enter theological studies, not a prolegomena, but an incentive to make theology matter. Your theology may get published in a journal or provoke 80 blog comments, but is it bed-side theology? In other words, does your theology matter to the mind that’s being devoured by cancer or to parents who have just experienced their third miscarriage? If the answer is No, McGrath’s suggestion isn’t to get more practical. Rather, he suggests that your theology isn’t deep enough!
There are a few troubling statements sprinkled throughout part one. For example, of the three sources of the theology—the Bible, reason, and tradition-the Bible, says McGrath, is of “special importance in theological debate and personal devotion.” With some generosity, I could grant that to be a Protestant statement, preferring he could’ve said “of primary” or “of first” importance. Then he asserts that the authority of the Bible is linked with the idea that “in some way, the words of the Bible convey the words of God” (emphasis mine). The phrase “convey the words of God” doesn’t put much oomph behind the authority of the Bible the way “are the words of God” does. Grant it, McGrath may be looking for ways to include Orthodox, Catholic, and Neo-Orthodox Christians, but my impulse is still an evangelical cringe.
McGrath offers a wonderful apologetic for the idea of tradition being a “thoroughly biblical idea.” The apostles not only handed down texts, but a “certain way of reading and understanding those texts,” which has been proven through centuries of orthodoxy.
The high point in part one is McGrath’s use of the Lord’s Supper as an illustration of doing theology that matters. Thinking deeply (and rightly) about the Lord’s Supper causes thankfulness when we remember God’s faithfulness in Christ and hope as we look for Christ’s return.
McGrath is at his best when he makes statements like, “The heartbeat of the Christian faith lies in the sheer intellectual delight and excitement caused by the person of Jesus Christ of Nazareth” or “The Christian faith has the power to capture the imagination-not merely to persuade the mind-by throwing open the depths of the human soul to the realities of the gospel.” Theology, for McGrath, is not only a quest for truth, but for meaning and significance.
In part two, McGrath uses this robust theology to engage with culture. Sadly, part two fails to live up to part one. I’ll admit, part of my disapproval comes from the fact that McGrath spends almost his entire time engaging with the new atheism. Engaging with figures like Dawkins and Hitchens has its importance, but books have been published at nausea on this topic. Besides, arguing against these popular intellectuals is like arguing against sound bites designed for cable news.
The strangest and most disappointing part is McGrath’s attempt to accommodate the Christian worldview with the theory of evolution by way of Augustine’s interpretation of the Creation account. McGrath suggests that the six days of creation “are not to be understood chronologically.” The created order is not static, according to McGrath. While God created the world in an instant, God is still active and continues to develop and mold it, even to the present day, as John 5:17 suggests. Creation is not a completed past event, but rather, through God’s providential involvement, “he has created the world with an intended capacity to develop,” so that living things would make their appearance gradually over time” rather than instantaneous. This interpretation, argues McGrath, “makes sense of the whole Bible,” not just the first several verses.
My immediate question, which McGrath never addresses, is what about Adam? Is he historical? It seems that if living things made their appearance gradually, then, No, Adam is not a historical figure. If that is the case, what to do with Luke 3, Romans 5, and the authority of Scripture? My evangelical cringe is again summoned.
Not only does the presence of Luke 3 and Romans 5 call into question McGrath’s claim that this “makes sense of the whole Bible,” but so does the history of redemption. I realize that Creation, Fall, Redemption are categories placed upon the whole of Scripture, but at some point, which seems very early on in the Scripture’s account, God moves from creating to restoring the creative order.
Also, the narrative of Genesis seems to put an emphatic ending to God’s creative work. Genesis 1:30–2:2, “God saw everything he had made, and behold, it was very good. . . . Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work he had done” (emphasis mine). The narrative clearly portrays a finished work that God was pleased with and rested from.
Not to mention that Augustine’s interpretation is novel and rarely, if ever, repeated in church history until Christians are faced with the theory of evolution. It seems like a strange bed-fellow for Christian evolutionists.
McGrath’s The Passionate Intellect aims to inspire its readers to think deeply about theology in part one. He bravely succeeds. Yet he fails to have the right stuff to put on display for us in part two. The first hundred pages are well worth your time, but you’ll have to decide whether or not it’s worth the price of the book.