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Christian encounters

02 May 2014

Andrew Davison on a range of titles that introduce questions of religious belief

The Living God (Christian Belief for Everyone)
Alister McGrath
SPCK £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10 (Use code CT343 )

The Question that Never Goes Away: What is God up to or not in a world of such tragedy and pain?
Philip Yancey
Hodder & Stoughton £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9 (Use code CT343 )

God Matters
Peter Vardy and Charlotte Vardy
SCM Press £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9 (Use code CT343 )

Encounters with Jesus: Unexpected answers to life's biggest questions
Timothy Keller
Hodder & Stoughton £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50 (Use code CT343 )

THE second volume of Alister McGrath's introduction to Christian theology deals with the doctrine of God and creation. McGrath's style is decidedly conversational. Stories from academic life abound, and quotations are introduced withlines such as "One of my favourite stories from the classical age comes from . . .". The book will appeal to enquirers, as well as to committed Christians of all traditions. This might have led to blandness; I think he does it well.

McGrath starts with history, revelation, and Christ, as the basis for an understanding of God. He then moves on to God-as-personal, discussing the "personal" divine attributes before the abstract ones. The final two chapters deal with God as Creator and as Trinity. On that final topic, McGrath is not primarily concerned to squash every possible misconception but rather to convince his readers of the doctrine's significance.

With The Question that Never Goes Away, Philip Yancey returns to the problem of suffering, which was the topic of his first book. The new volume is short and, unfortunately, disappointingly cheap in its production values. The tone is deeply personal, written either in the first person or in the third person of "he" or "she said" rather than "it is the case". His sources are remarkably diverse, and Roman Catholics and not a few Anglicans are set among a range of Protestant interlocutors. Yancey sets out the context with stories from some of the settings in which he has offered practical pastoral counsel in the face of tragedy.

There is nothing here of the style or vocabulary of academic theology, although he makes references to theologians. That said, Yancey's conclusions line up with a recent post-liberal approach in theology: grand "explanations" of evil, as part of a bigger picture, are theologically dubious and pastorally unhelpful; the best emphasis is on the presence of God in Christ, mediated in profoundly practical ways by the Church as his body. Here, Yancey shows an enthusiasm for the Church which is increasingly characteristic of one half of contemporary American Protestantism.

Yancey is happy to consider ways in which suffering can lead to growth, and to emphasise resurrection and redemption. His first priority, however, is wise discernment of what would be best said to a particular suffering person, and what would be best not said.

Like Yancey, Timothy Keller is an American Protestant publishing superstar. His Encounters with Jesus combines mission talks, delivered to students in Oxford, with a set of Bible studies, given to high-fliers in New York. The book bears the marks of its two-fold origin. The first half offers variations on evangelistic themes, such as why Jesus is who Christians think he is, and why you should join them; the second half explores topics in Christian discipleship. The preacher will pick up valuable ideas from both halves.

Every chapter involves some form of biblical exposition. Keller does not seem to appreciate quite how creative and doctrinal he is being here. In the introduction, he states his preference for presenting the biblical message as it is, with "No one person's interpretation . . . imposed on the passage." Other people may interpret the Bible; this author (he believes) gives us the Bible pure and simple. Students of hermeneutics everywhere will shudder, and, indeed, time and again, Keller augments the biblical text with theology coming straight from his Calvinist heritage.

Much of this will seem reasonable to Christians of a wide range of perspectives. Other instances will raise questions, not least the sense that pretty much everything about the life of Christ was orientated to assuaging the wrath of God. Can we really say that Jesus sat at Cana drinking future bitterness, so that we could drink future joy? Must we interpret his agony in the garden as divine foreknowledge of the "hell" about to come from the Father, and not (as with, say, Maximus the Confessor) in terms of a human fear of death?

Peter Vardy is known for his contribution to teaching, through books and conferences for older schoolchildren. In God Matters, he and Charlotte Vardy chart A-level philosophy of religion. As suits current school teaching methods, they like to give us lists of positions for particular topics. There can be problems with this. Take their list of approaches to faith: some of the alternatives are in fact complementary. Moreover, real thinkers, especially great ones, are not easily reduced to one position. A good teacher will explore these complexities (perhaps combined with worries about whether exam assessment will repay such subtlety).

Key arguments are often presented in a boiled-down form, as a list of premises and conclusions. This offers admirable clarity, although we can lose a sense of the thinkers concerned as writers of living prose. The chapter on the "God of the Philosophers" is rather dry and fails to capture the appeal of some of the figures under discussion. What Aquinas, for instance, meant by calling God self-subsistent goodness itself cannot be reduced to the putative divine attribute of "omnibenevolence".

Such quibbles aside, this is one of the best textbooks to have emerged in this field for years. It is a mine of well-chosen quotations, and a supporting website offers many more, at greater length. That resource will appeal to teachers, as will the multi-faith perspective. Undergraduate students of science and theology would also have much to gain from reading the first half of this book.

The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is Tutor in Doctrine at Westcott House, Cambridge, and soon to be the Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences at Cambridge University. His books include The Love of Wisdom: An introduction to philosophy for theologians (SCM Press, 2013).

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