Book Review: A flawed apologetic
A flawed apologetic
The Landscape of Faith : An Explorer’s Guide to the Christian Creeds by Alister McGrath, SPCK, 276pp, £9.94.
reviewed by Stephen Boyle
McGrath gives an apologetic organisedaround the Christian creeds, seeing them as maps of the landscape of faith. Using
other images like the balcony over a road, or the road itself, he conjures up images that truly help put across in an accessible way aspects of the Christian faith.
The fallacy of atheism
He is at his best when he outlines the fallacy of atheism being based on reason: “There are no knock-down arguments that compel us either to believe in God or to believe that there is no God”. Using Bertrand Russell and Dawkins in particular as examples, McGrath sees atheism as not self-evidently true and leads to a belief in a world devoid of meaning. Turning to Christianity he came to a respect for its intellectual vigour and the assurance that there are answers to the ultimate meaning of life. It is in a transforming encounter with God that the world is seen in a deeper and profound way for what it really is. While he does not directly mention Original Sin, in his chapter on suffering he has clear understanding of the coherence of this doctrine of the flaw in man and that it is the Christian message which gives meaning and hope. The commentary of the visit of W.H Aden to an American cinema in 1939 stays in the mind. This theme of the brokenness of man is coherently brought home later in the book in reference to grace when positively referring to St. Augustine in the Pelagian controversy.
There are many other nuggets of gold in the book. However, the flaws are difficult to overcome, and the following comment are not exhaustive. I had to read McGrath’s statement that New Testament writers do not identify God with Jesus Christ a few times before really believing it was written. A Google search of “Is Jesus God in the Bible?” does the trick. He sees heaven as a restoration of the paradise of Eden. Creation is restored to what was intended. However, he quotes with approval C. S Lewis, that we are called to “come to share in the life of Christ ... (and) be sons of God”, surely not on offer to Adam and Eve.
In the preface he says: “I try to explore a basic consensual Christianity without engaging with contentious questions of denominational identity”. You would need to bracket Catholicism out of that equation. Positive comments about Luther and Calvin are fine but give a clue to what unravels later in the book. Using the quote “once for all” from the Letter to Hebrews we are informed that there is “no longer any need for priests, sacrifices or temples in the Christian vision of life”. The sacraments are explained in a Protestant way, and when we read “Christians disagree about whether baptism causes forgiveness or is a public declaration that forgiveness has been received and accepted” he reveals his liberal position on this debate.
What is so incongruous about this is that in his acknowledgement the first four names are Anselm of Canterbury, Thomas Aquinas, Athanasius of Alexandria and Augustine of Hippo. He also quotes positively from St. Augustine, G.K. Chesterton and Joseph Ratzinger among others.
A cosy view of the Creed
One would have thought that, seeing as the creeds are formed at Church councils, the Church might have come up as a topic. This is so, late in the book. Instead near the beginning we have the following: “the creeds are primarily communal Christian confessions of faith”. Having just read Newman’s The Arians of the Fourth Century, I found this rather cosy view of the formation of the Nicene Creed, yes, laughable. While the Council decided against the Arians overwhelmingly (of the estimated 250–318 attendees, all but two agreed to sign the Creed), subsequently we find St. Athanasius exiled from the church five times by four Roman emperors, spending almost half of his 45 years as bishop of Alexandria in exile for his defence of the Creed; and in that period (359) we have the celebrated phrase of St. Jerome, that the whole world woke up one morning, lamenting and marvelling to find itself Arian. I really do suggest he read Newman’s Arians.
Newman and certainty
I also suggest that he read Newman’s Grammar of Assent. He quotes C. S Lewis thus: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because through it I can see everything.” Such clarity with regard to holding the truths of the faith is not continued, however, by McGrath: “But we now know that no conviction that is worth holding can be proved, and we have become willing to grasp the nettle of living with uncertainty.” He compares the act of faith to a trapeze artist in midflight between two bars. This state could be conceived as the Preambula Fidei, the steps before faith, but it cannot be the confirmed faith of a Christian. The martyrs for both the Protestant and Catholic faith would not understand such a view, and indeed uncertainty in faith indicates a crisis in one’s faith. Jesus did not see uncertainty in a positive light: he said to Peter “Why did you doubt?” when Peter lost his nerve walking on the water. For Newman certainty or proof is not to be found by the logic of words but in a virtue which he calls the Illative Sense. He shows that far from being uncertain, one can prove Christianity divine to one’s own satisfaction and to others who start from the same principles.
It is the lack of coherency that flaws this book. If it were to be a Protestant exposé of faith that would be fine, but the trying to be inclusive, and the lack of scholarship indicated, means that the good scholarship and the book’s many insights are clouded.
Fr. Stephen Boyle, MSc, STL, is the parish priest of St. Anselm’s, Dartford, in the Archdiocese of Southwark.