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Book review: The Nature of Christian Doctrine: Its Origins, development, and function by Alister E. McGrath

03 May 2024

Edward Dowler reads a doctrinal discussion by a former scientist

MANY of us owe a debt of gratitude to Alister McGrath for his many writings. His trademark clarity of thought and expression ensure that I am always happy to start reading one of his books, because I know that I will understand what he is saying, and that I will learn new things.

This volume, in the tradition of the Oxford University Press, is in McGrath’s scholarly rather than popular register, but that does not mean that he loses any of his trademark clarity: just occasionally, his extreme conscientiousness about attributing every single idea to those who have expounded them can become a little irksome. The 45-page bibliography is testament to his vast reading, as ever immaculately crystallised for his readers. It is one quarter of the total length of the book, out of which an entire page is taken up with citations of that other one-man Anglican publishing industry, Rowan Williams.

Others will have documented this more closely, but over the years when I have benefited from McGrath’s prodigious output, I feel that there has been something of a development in his approach. The style of earlier works, which would, for example, pull out five memorable bullet points on the doctrine of the atonement which could be easily memorised and trotted out in an exam, have in later years given way to an approach that, while no less lucid, is perhaps humbler, more reserved, and more apophatic.

The key word in this book is theoria. As McGrath makes clear, this is not just an abstract formulation of an idea, but something far broader: “an affective, not merely an intellectual, manner of beholding the world”. While orthodox Christian doctrine has an authoritative and revealed status, it also always has a strong sense of provisionality; of its own inadequacy to describe the divine mystery to which it points; of the need for contemplation as we wait for the fuller dimensions of the mystery that will be revealed to us. In the words of Karl Barth, “every theological statement is an inadequate expression of its object.”

As so often, McGrath brings his understanding of the natural sciences into creative dialogue with theology. Although the subject matter may seem to be very different, he carefully notes the ways in which theologians and scientists share similar patterns of thought. Among the most important of these is that doctrines, like scientific theorems, are never disengaged, unquestionable abstractions that sort out all our problems for us. Rather, in both fields, the search is for the best explanation that allows for complex and sometimes competing perspectives to remain in view; for a map which draws disparate but interdependent elements into unity without eliding their individual complexity.

The highlight of the book is perhaps the final chapter in which these insights crystallise around a discussion of the doctrine of salvation, which functions as a case study for the approach of the work as a whole. McGrath concentrates on four metaphors for salvation: cultic sacrifice, restoration of wholeness, liberation from bondage, and adoption into a family. There is no single univocal theory of salvation; far less is it an intellectual puzzle. Rather, the New Testament gives us a diversity of images, which, none the less, can helpfully be mapped and woven together, as they are in the author’s expert hands.

The Ven. Dr Edward Dowler is Archdeacon of Hastings, and Priest-in-Charge of St John the Evangelist, Crowborough, in the diocese of Chichester.

The Nature of Christian Doctrine: Its Origins, development, and function
Alister E. McGrath
OUP £30
Church Times Bookshop £27

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