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The Landscape of Faith by Alister McGrath

11 May 2018

Mark Smith considers an introduction to Christian orthodoxy

FROM the ever-flowing pen of Alister McGrath comes this accessible introduction to the Christian faith. Over 17 chapters, McGrath takes the reader through the main doctrinal affirmations of the Catholic creeds. This involves, naturally, a consideration of the identity of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as well as themes of incarnation, atonement, and eschatology — but McGrath also finds space to reflect on wider concerns, such as the troubling reality of suffering in God’s world.

McGrath maintains a lively and warm tone throughout, which, when combined with his concern to eschew denominational disputes in favour of a “mere” credal Christianity, makes this book ideal as a confirmation gift, or as the basis for a parish catechetical course. The opening section, on the historical purpose and continuing utility of the creeds, is particularly helpful — even if the metaphors (creeds are like a map, a lens, a light, and a tapestry, apparently) pile up one upon another.

There is a similarly accumulative, magpie-like quality to McGrath’s frequent references to great writers, philosophers, artists, and poets — St Augustine, G. K. Chesterton, and C. S. Lewis taking pride of place. Indeed, one feels at times as if one is reading a condensed and edited version of McGrath’s popular textbooks (such as Christian Theology and The Christian Theology Reader) — and, in fact, the short concluding bibliography explicitly points the reader in their direction.

Though adding to the book’s richness of insight, this relentless breadth of citation can, in places, make it a slightly safe — even anodyne — read, since one theological perspective is often simply set alongside another, and no clear authorial judgement is given. The discussion of the atonement, for example, trots through well-known “images” for the saving work of Christ, without ever really grappling with what makes contemporary arguments about this doctrine so passionate and so divisive.

Similarly, McGrath is clearly sensitive to modern questions about the “fatherhood” of God, but he doesn’t really nail his colours to the mast either in defence or critique of the Church’s traditional language. Moreover, the absence of a chapter on Christ’s resurrection (despite its prominence in both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds) seems like an odd lacuna; and the account of the part played by the Holy Spirit in the Christian life is a little tepid.

A bland book, however, is ultimately not the same as a bad book — and McGrath should be commended for giving us, in large part, a winsome account of Christian orthodoxy, which consistently seeks to point the reader to the revelation of God in Christ, and to the importance of a living and active faith. His volume forms a rather nice diptych with its most recent comparable competitor: Rowan Williams’s Tokens of Trust. Where McGrath is clear, Williams is allusive; where Williams is distinctive, McGrath is dependable. In the end, you pay your money and you take your choice.

The Revd Dr Mark Smith is Chaplain of Christ’s College, Cambridge.

The Landscape of Faith: An explorer’s guide to the Christian creeds
Alister McGrath
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