McGrath, Alister. 1996. A passion for truth: The intellectual coherence of evangelicalism. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Alister McGrath is principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and was, at the time the book was written, research professor of theology at Regent College. He is a Senior Research Fellow at Harris Manchester College, Oxford, President of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics, and serves as associate priest in a group of Church of England village parishes in the Cotswolds. (from http://alistermcgrath.weebly.com/)
McGrath begins by noting the evangelical hostility towards academic theology, seeing it as a fundamentalist legacy, and yet “…no revival in history has ever been born out of a renewed interest in purely academic theology…. [It] depends upon the renewal of evangelicalism” (13). He also summaries he dominance of pragmatism in evangelicalism, the secularism of the academy and the elitism of academic theology. He gives a working definition of evangelicalism whereby it has a devotional and theological focus. Scripture is the ultimate authority; and there must be an emphasis on conversion, a concern for sharing faith and preparation for tolerance and diversity (22-23). The purpose and structure of the book is “…an exposition of the place of Jesus Christ in Christian thought from an evangelical perspective” (24).
The book is divided into five parts:
Part 1. The uniqueness of Jesus Christ reminds us that this is a particular revelation that has universal validity (26). However, modernism and mastery have pursued the deification of humanity (31). The significance of Jesus Christ is His revelational, soteriological, mimetic, doxological, and kerygmatic importance. His significance is that He is not only the basis of salvation but also “embodies the contours of the redeemed life” (41), in other words a focus as Lord, Christ and Savior. McGrath quotes D L Moody: “The place for the ship is in the sea; but God help the ship if the sea gets into it”.
Part 2. The authority of Scripture is summarized in the Westminster Confession—“affirming the centrality and sovereignty of Jesus Christ in all matters of faith and life”. The liberating dimension of scriptural authority can be seen that “…Jesus Christ himself saw Scripture (in his case, the Old Testament) as God-given” (55). This “ frees us from the slavish demand that we follow each and every cultural trend, and offers a framework whereby we may judge them….” (62). The rival approaches to authority include:
1) Culture, where “There are many competing beliefs and values on offer” (67);
2) Experience, which has come to mean the inner life of individuals, although individuals have very different psychological qualities and attitudes (76). It follows that the way we experience thing is not necessarily the way they are (78); Theology must address, interpret and transform experience; “Experience and understand are like two sides of the same coin, which reinforce and enhance one another” (87);
3) Reason is seen as “…the social location of an individual, which determines the intellectual options open to him or her. However, both ‘Reason’ and ‘revelation’ are subject to the limitations of historicity” (94);
4) Tradition is also a rival authority, so we “…need to distinguish issues of hermeneutics and issues of authority” (101). The relation between Scripture and and systematic theology: A biblical systematic theology is concerned with the explication of the distinctive vocabulary and conceptualities of Scripture, in order that their meaning may be understood and proclaimed in the living world of today: (104):
The notion of ‘Biblical theology’ includes both Scripture and narrative. McGrath suggest a need for feedback between doctrine and Scripture, the interpretive and the narrative (112). His conclusion is that “Scripture is coherent and informed” (116).
Part 3. Evangelicalism and postliberalism: The reaction against liberalism in its appeals to religion, culture and experience is to recognize false universals (121). Its distinctive feature is “accommodationism” (122) and claiming “the inevitability of progress, the virtue of toleration, and the power of reason” (123).
McGrath challenges us that “…there is nothing distinctively liberal about being academically serious and culturally informed” (126). Liberalism and the quest for ‘public theology’ includes a critique of liberal fundamentalism.
McGrath reminds us to rediscover the distinctiveness of Christianity and summarizes Lindbeck, who critiques evangelicalism along cognitive and linguistic lines. “Cognitive theories presuppose use of the non-literal ‘four master tropes’ of thought and discourse (metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony) in the process of conceptual thinking, rather than reducing them to a crudely literal conception of representation, as Lindbeck seems to suggest” (141).
Human language is illusive, hence the need for poetry, symbolism and doctrine (143); We should recognize that ”Theory plays a much more determinative role in our approach to experience than pure empiricism suggests: theory itself determines, at least to some extent, the experience which that theory is supposed to explain or interpret”.(145).
Lindbeck’s cultural-linguistic approach draws on Clifford Geertz and Ludwig Wittgenstein; According to McGrath, “…the most fundamental evangelical critique of postliberalism concerns the inadequacy of it commitment to extralinguistic and extrasystemic realities” (148); An evangelical critique of postliberalism should outline the virtues of evangelicalism: its distinctiveness, insistence on the Scriptures and the centrality of Jesus Christ (149). This leads to important questions, like:
1) What is truth? Religions make truth claims, so the two are different and language adapted to religion must be seen to have its limitations (151)
2) Why the Bible? Is necessary because Scripture rests on revelation and focusses on a person, not a text—Christ is the center of the Christian faith
3) Why Jesus Christ? Christology “attempts to uncover and explore the correlation between history and the theology of the New Testament” (161)
McGrath notes that (and attributes it to Jeffrey Stout) that a preoccupation with method alone is like clearing your throat before a lecture—it should only be done once.
Part 4. Evangelicalism and postmodernism. “The entire ‘Enlightenment project’ can therefore be understood as a sustained effort on the part of the thinkers to develop objective science, universal morality and law, and autonomous art according to their inner logic” (165). There are four areas in which the Enlightenment shows its influence:
1) The nature of Scripture (denying its narrative character)
2) Spirituality, including suppression—with a reference to Robert Banks
3) Apologetics–“It is a travesty of the biblical idea of ‘truth’ to equate it with the Enlightenment notion of conceptual or propositional correspondence, or the derived view of evangelism as the proclamation of the propositional correctness of Christian doctrine” (177)
4) Evangelism. “A theology which touches the mind, leaving the heart unaffected, is no true Christian theology” (178)
In Postmodernism all claims to truth are equally valid and there is no truth as such (188); Postmodernism “has an endemic aversion to questions of truth” believing they are illusory and oppressive (189)—telling the truth is tantamount to oppression” (192).
Part 5. Evangelicalism and religious pluralism. The nature of pluralism “is not merely that prescriptive pluralism is intellectually vacuous at certain critical junctures; it also seems guilty of precisely the dogmatism and imperials of which orthodox Christians are so freely (and uncritically) accused” (206).
McGrath raises the question: What is religion?, suggesting that it is false category, yet one that requires respectful dialogue with other ‘religions’. Dialogue and mutual respect are essential characteristics (212) but “Honest disagreement is no sin” (217).
The evangelical approach to religions and salvation is that God created the world, so it is no surprise that it should bear witness to him (220). The Christian view acknowledges God as redeemer, not simply creator (224) and “A sharp distinction is thus drawn between the historical person of Jesus Christ and the principles which he is alleged to represent” (227).
Pluralism drives a wedge between God and Jesus Christ (229). The place of Jesus Christ in salvation is clear, in that the NT is Christocentric—He constitutes salvation. The nature of salvation “is a particularity, not a universality” (236) and “In no way does Christianity declare that salvation is a possibility only for those inside its bounds” (237). God wishes everyone to be saved and has mercy on all, not wanting anyone to perish (237).
Christian salvation and the world religions include the notion of pluralism and the agenda of modernity. It follows that “Perhaps the greatest challenge to evangelicalism in the next generation is to develop an increasing intellectual commitment without losing its roots in the life and faith of ordinary Christian believers” (243).