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Explaining for explainers  

13 May 2016

Andrew Davison assesses a revisiting of apologetics


Mere Apologetics: How to help seekers and sceptics find faith
Alister McGrath
SPCK £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9

WITH Mere Apologetics, Alister McGrath has returned to the theme of one of his earliest books, Bridge-Building (IVP, 1992), which I have valued since it was first published. His new book exhibits all the hallmarks of his mature style. It is careful and methodical, demarking themes deliberately: the tasks of apologetics, for instance, are listed as “defending”, “commending”, and “translating”. C. S. Lewis also now has particular prominence.

A comparison between the earlier book and this one confirms a comment in the recent work, that McGrath now places a higher premium on personal testimony and autobiography. A comparison also suggests something rather damning about the state of theological literacy in the Church today: McGrath takes a good deal less for granted, intellectually speaking, in 2016 than he did in 1992. In subject-matter and general pitch, Mere Apologetics is a far more introductory book.

One might put that down to different purposes for the two books, but the emphasis in Mere Apologetics on the need for a serious “discipleship of the mind” today, in the preparation for mission — the need for learning, not least about philosophy — reinforces the sense that the average Christian is simply less well informed than 25 years go. Certainly, McGrath thinks that we now live in a less rationalist age, and, while that has its problems (McGrath is no enthusiast for a post-modern milieu), it does open up creative possibilities. Apologetics has as much to be “imaginatively compelling” today as “intellectually persuasive”.

As a term, however, “post-modernity” is starting to look rather threadbare, and so we might wish for a finer grain to McGrath’s discussion of the intellectual and cultural climate in which we commend and defend the faith today. There is much water under the bridge since the heady days of post-modernism in the 1980s.

What of those who were not even born then? My guess is that, for them, witness to the communal and activist dimensions of Christianity will have particular currency, but there is almost nothing of those aspects of Christianity in Mere Apologetics. McGrath writes, for instance, that “all moral values ultimately rest on beliefs,” but to this we might well add “and are shaped by communities” (following Alasdair MacIntyre). Similarly, McGrath rightly encourages us to emphasise the hope that the gospel offers, but today, for added traction, one might also emphasise the opportunity and invitation to embody and work for that hope, which is also part of the gospel.

Theologically speaking, when it comes to breadth, McGrath highlights the need to “present the whole gospel”, not just one area of doctrine. That is welcome. In a worked example of breadth, however, he chooses not to take his likely readers far off-piste, offering a variety of approaches to the theology of the crucifixion. Similarly, the chapter after that begins: “we need to ensure the message of the cross is proclaimed as effectively as possible,” rather than “the message of creation, the incarnation, the cross, the resurrection, and the Church”, for instance.

There is no doubt that the newcomer to the idea of apologetics will find a clear and concise introduction here. But Bridge-Building offers stronger meat.


The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, and the editor of Imaginative Apologetics (SCM Press, 2011).

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