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Review of Theology: The Basics

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Alister Edgar McGrath (born 23 January 1953) is a Northern Irish leading theologian, Anglican priest, historian, scientist and apologist. He was principal of Wycliffe Hall at Oxford, and taught at Cambridge University and Regent College.  Currently he is Professor of Historical Theology in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford. McGrath holds three doctorates from the University of Oxford. He is known for his writings on historical theology, systematic theology, the relationship between science and religion, and apologetics. He is in constant demand as a speaker at conferences throughout the world. His other works include Christian Theology: An Introduction, The Christian Theology Reader, The Dawkins Delusion, Science and Religion, The Twilight of Atheism, C. S. Lewis, Historical theology, and The Reformation Thought. The first two works are mentioned in this book.

In Theology: The Basics, McGrath introduces his readers to key theological issues such as God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, faith, creation, salvation, atonement, religious history, and heaven contextualizing them within the bible and the works of distinguished theologians. In each chapter, McGrath offers an overview of an important theme, summarizes the contribution of major theologians, and concludes the chapter with suggestions on how readers can further their study on the topic.

Although the book has only two hundred and twelve pages, it covers the main doctrines of Christianity and the history of intellectual debates behind them.  He explores the major Christian denominations highlighting both their differences and shared customs and beliefs. Such a kaleidoscopic presentation offers a clearer view of our foundational beliefs while depicting Christianity in its most coherent form at the same time.

McGrath considers his book as a short introduction to the basics of Christian theology. His aim is to encourage readers interact with some of Christianity’s seminal texts and explore its leading ideas. He hopes that readers will finish the book feeling dissatisfied and their appetite whet to know more.

The book consists of ten chapters each of which discusses a foundational doctrine of Christianity. At the end of each chapter the discussion is briefly summarized and followed by a list of study questions aimed at facilitating group discussion. In the appendix two important lists are included: a glossary of theological terms and details of theologians cited. Following doctrinal themes mentioned in the Apostle’s Creed, McGrath devotes a chapter for each foundational doctrine: namely, the doctrine of faith, God, creation, Jesus, salvation, Spirit, Trinity, church, sacraments and heaven. I will summarize the chapters in the following pages.

Chapter 1: Faith

Based on the writings of Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther, McGrath discusses what faith means and entails. The author notes that faith is both about accepting that God exists, and that He can be known and trusted. Christian faith is a matter of the heart and not an intellectual assent and thus, requires personal commitment. He adopts Calvin’s definition of faith as, “a steady and certain knowledge of the divine benevolence towards us, which is founded upon the truth of the gracious promise of God in Christ, and is both revealed to our minds and sealed in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.”[1] 

The chapter also presents the intellectual debate on proving the existence of God to which the philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-62) opined that that the existence of God is something neither to be proved nor disproved. He argued that atheism itself is a belief system since it believes in something, which is the absence of God. But atheism cannot prove the correctness of what it believes in. Similarly, John Paul II, in his encyclical letter of 1998, mentioned that human reason couldn’t explain the mystery of life and why we are here.  Therefore, God graciously chose to communicate his truth by revelation which would otherwise remain unknown.

The chapter concludes with Luther’s assertion of faith as trusting in the promises of God as well as on His integrity and faithfulness. The efficacy of our faith is not based on its intensity but in the reliability of the One whom we believe.

Chapter 2: God

The Bible uses several images and analogies to describe God. God is presented as a Shepherd, Father and King. Scripture uses these analogies because their attributes are the closest human language offers to reflect the image of God. But these words and all others are deficient to describe God wholesomely. For example, when we say that God is our Father we are saying that He loves, cares and provides just as a father does to his children. But it doesn’t mean that He is a male. God has no gender. The same is true with the other examples as well. As Calvin said, God’s revelation is “accommodated” to our capacity for reflection because our ability to cope with ideas is limited. “What is known of God is known by revelation; and that revelation is adapted to our capacity as finite, fallen human creatures…. God accommodates himself to our ability.”[2]

God is personal. He is not an impersonal cosmic force as Aristotle described Him in his “unmoved mover” analogy. Aristotle could not imagine a loving God. And all the

attributes and passions we ascribe to God cannot work if God were an impersonal force.

God is almighty but choses to put limitation on Himself for our sake. The greatest insights of the Christian faith is that we know a God who could do anything – but who chose to be powerless to redeem us. God suffers for us and with us.

Chapter 3: Creation

This chapter discusses the gnostic philosophy of dualism that sees two opposing forces such as good and bad or matter and spirit inherently imbedded within nature. This led to the assumption that there are two gods – a bad one and a good one, the former responsible for the creation of ‘evil’ matter and the later forming the world out of preexisting ‘evil’ matter. The author affirms the Apostles’ Creed which describes God as “creator of heaven and earth.”  He created the world ex nihilo (out of nothing), not from preexisting matter as Plato and other Gnostic philosophers thought.

        Quoting from landmark works of Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and Karl Barth, McGrath discusses the concept of natural theology. The idea that God created the world implies that nature has the mark and signature of its Maker printed all over it. Therefore, God has revealed Himself in nature. This natural revelation (or natural theology) is of paramount importance to supplement God’s specific revelation in the Scriptures.

Chapter 4: Jesus

        Jesus is the Messiah: the Lord’s anointed, the divinely appointed King of Israel.

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