Monday, June 06, 2016

The Christian Life and Hope (Alister McGrath) -- Review

THE CHRISTIAN LIFE AND HOPE: A Guide for Study and Devotion (The Heart of Christian Faith). By Alister E. McGrath. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. X + 118 pages.

                Although there is a trend within the Christian community to downplay the importance of doctrine and theology, knowing the content of one’s faith is, in my estimation, still important. While I embrace the concept of orthopraxy (right behavior), I sense that orthopraxy is rooted in theology. While I am a member of a non-creedal denomination, where great freedom is offered to persons to explore their faith, there are important touchstones that help us make sense of our faith. What we need then are accessible resources that lay out the elemental doctrines of the faith so we can have good conversations about theology. That is the purpose of Alister McGrath’s The Heart of Christian Faith series. That series has reached its conclusion with the fifth volume—The Christian Life andHope. These five brief and readable books provide a study guide for anyone wishing to explore their faith.

                As for the author of these books, McGrath is a British theologian teaching at Oxford University. He is evangelical, but British evangelicals tend to be a bit more moderate than many of their American counterparts. He’s also Anglican. McGrath has been a prolific author over the years, writing on a wide variety of topics. He was a scientist before he was a theologian, so that precision of thought is often present in books. He was also trained theologically in a historical fashion, which I personally prefer! I used the first edition of his textbook Christian Theology: An Introduction when I taught theology two decades back. I did so in large part because he approached theology from a historical perspective. In this series of books, he doesn’t go into quite as much detail, especially historically, but he does help us get the picture of the Christian faith.

                In this volume McGrath picks up where he ended in The Spirit of Grace. In volume four of the series, McGrath explored the doctrines of the Holy Spirit, of grace, and of the church. In this volume he starts his exploration with the sacraments. He speaks of them as “signs and memories of hope.”  As a Protestant he embraces two sacraments, and here takes us into some of the varieties of interpretation of them. As to the real presence, he offers three primary visions—transubstantiation, sacramental union, and memorialism, leaving it to the reader to choose which works best.

                From sacraments he moves to resurrection. While he explores the life and ministry of Jesus, including atonement theories, he leaves the discussion of the resurrection to this volume. He speaks of the resurrection in relationship to the universality of Jesus. In the resurrection the incarnate Jesus is present in a new way, so that we might encounter him. Since this is a volume focused on the Christian life, McGrath connects Jesus’ resurrection to our own. He includes in the conversation the whole question of the heavenly body and how that relates to our own mortality. As to when, well that is a matter of speculation, and so he does not dwell on that question. Resurrection leads to heaven. He notes that growing up he had a disdain for heavenly talk, but as time passed discovered the importance of the hope that heaven offers. It is a hope that good will triumph over despair.

                The final chapter explores what he titles “Between the Times.” He takes up the reality of life in this world. In fact, that we are citizens of two worlds—the City of God and the City of this world. We are on a journey to heaven. It’s not an easy journey. It has many pitfalls and obstacles, as both Augustine and John Bunyan demonstrated. A key to navigating this world is worship, which “is about heightening our awareness of the transcendent aspects of life. It is about seeing through and beyond this everyday world to what lies beyond” (p. 79). In this chapter he also speaks of the ascension and the “kingly rule of the risen Christ.” In response to those who want to portray Jesus as a political activist, he suggests that Jesus came to transform the people of God. Jesus was concerned about creating a community of the transformed. He had no illusions about taking down the Roman Empire, but he could create a new realm within this world that would witness to the grace and mercy of God. When confronted with the choice between worshipping the emperor or God, they chose God and many suffered martyrdom as a result.

                In the concluding chapter (chapter 5), McGrath brings the series to a close. He reminds us where we began—with the creeds—and then reminds us of the journey that leads to the hope of heaven. He speaks clearly of the importance he attaches to Christian doctrine, which he suggests offers “us this big picture, a way of seeing things that helps us make sense of what we observe around us and experience within us” (p. 94). That is the value of these books. They help us frame the big picture so we can make sense of the reality around us and in us. Christianity, he suggests offers us a picture of reality that has coherence. Even if our experiences within this world are fragmented, the Christian faith helps us find a coherent picture.

                 What I like about McGrath is that he recognizes the importance of thinking through our faith. That's why we have doctrines. They emerge out of our contemplation of the things of God. I may not have as strong an attachment to the creeds as does he, but Christian maturity comes as we dive into the meaning of our faith. I also appreciate the tone of his work. He's more conservative than I am, but I am comfortable with his presentation. We need not agree with him in every point to gain a deeper vision of the Christian faith. Thus, this is a good place to start exploring one’s faith. 

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