Alister McGrath, part II: his work on justification...

Note from Tim: Under Pastor David Wegener's prior post concerning Rev. Dr. Alister McGrath, Bill R. asked Pastor Wegener for an evaluation of McGrath's $80 volume titled, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification. Did I mention this work lists for $80?

Rather than bury Pastor Wegener's response in the comments under his post, it seemed good to put it here on the main page with the hope that many more will read it than otherwise might.

Dear Bill R.: Sorry for the delay in responding to your question about McGrath’s book on justification. I have a copy of Iustitia Dei and have studied parts of it. It is one of the few treatments of the history of the doctrine of justification, so maybe that is why people regard it as seminal.

It is a pretty accurate truism of historical theology that justification by faith alone was one doctrine the Reformers recovered from the Scriptures. Yes, you can find comments in a number of earlier authors that would line up with Protestant doctrine, but by and large, it was a key truth that the patristic (including Augustine) and medieval theologians got wrong.

However, I’m not convinced that McGrath is correct on the Reformed teaching on this topic. He tries to pry apart the unity of the Reformers on justification (p. 188). It is easy to do that with Zwingli and Bucer. Neither were so reliable as theologians. But it is more difficult to do that with Calvin and Luther and the evidence McGrath presents can be used against his attempts to pry them apart.

McGrath’s conclusion to the book is much more troubling...

He says that most histories of doctrine serve as a mere “prolegomenon” to a presentation of the author’s personal views. Well, McGrath wants to make it clear that he is far above such egocentric book writing. He is a professional historian and, as such, he gives a dispassionate presentation of the facts. I won’t be giving my views here, he claims, to the accompanying sound of someone thumping his historical chest.

Then he comments, “the real purpose of the work has been, quite simply and unashamedly, to allow its author to spend ten years of his life researching a fascinating subject, in the hope that it will encourage others to do the same” (p. 395).

Well. That couldn’t be clearer, could it? Nothing about serving the church here. He is a priest, remember? And pastors can serve the church by teaching true doctrine and refuting the false. But McGrath isn’t doing that in Iustitia Dei. Instead, his goals are self-focused (doing this research is fun), with a tip of the hat to fellow researchers (maybe it will be fun for you too). And he just presents the results of his research, without comment and evaluation. Again this is not the work a pastor serving the church for which Christ died; these are the scribblings of one who is far removed from the church.

Isn’t it ironic that as we’re “talking” about this, the Anglican Church is self-destructing? Articles on a number of web sites this morning (26 September 2007) were about The Episcopal Church issuing a statement on backing off on ordaining practicing homosexual bishops and not performing blessings at same-sex unions. Some articles said this was a break-through that would keep the Anglican communion together. Most conservatives, including African conservatives, were not taken in by this deception. This is the same old, same old, business as usual Episcopal Church. They are going to keep doing what they have been doing. No repentance here. Read Revelation 2-3 and then try to imagine what Christ would say to The Episcopal Church.

Why are the Anglicans in this shape? Because “evangelical” priests like McGrath have failed to instruct in sound doctrine and to rebuke those who contradict it (Titus 1:9). Instead they’ve been doing fun, dispassionate research. They haven’t been correcting opponents with gentleness (2 Timothy 2:25). How do I put this one gently: does McGrath think he has any opponents? Anglicans find themselves in this mess because they refused to discipline those who do not follow the pattern of sound words (2 Timothy 1:13).

Will Christ remove the lampstand (Rev. 2:5) of the Anglican Church? Maybe it was removed some time ago.

Comments

This post and the previous one on McGrath have been fascinating. Thank you.

David,

I was with you until that last sentence. Unless you want to qualify it and limit it the Anglican communion as it exists officially in England and The United States?

Kamilla

I agree very much with David Wegener when he writes:

[BOQ]

Why are the Anglicans in this shape? Because “evangelical” priests like McGrath have failed to instruct in sound doctrine and to rebuke those who contradict it (Titus 1:9). Instead they’ve been doing fun, dispassionate research. They haven’t been correcting opponents with gentleness (2 Timothy 2:25). How do I put this one gently: does McGrath think he has any opponents? Anglicans find themselves in this mess because they refused to discipline those who do not follow the pattern of sound words (2 Timothy 1:13).

[EOQ]

As a pastor and shepherd and elder in Christ's Church, may I learn from this, both today and for as long as Christ gives me breath!

I grew up in this milieu in the Episcopal Church in this country. My great-grandfather, John Gardner Murray, was the Presiding Bishop of the ECUSA in the 1920's. As good a man as he was (he was a wonderful husband and father), as personally evangelical in his convictions as he was (he oversaw the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, which retained Cranmerian Reformed theology), and as thankful for him as I am (I wouldn't be here without him), I have read sermons and addresses where he EXPLICITELY endorsed the "big tent" approach to theology within the church.

He personally denounced liberal doctrines within the church (those who were denying the deity of Christ and/or denying the inspiration of Scripture) in one sentence, and then in the next preached the importance of "allowing for" such views within the broad stream of the church.

A big part of the explanation for his "big tent" approach was that he took over a church in financial crisis, and, bringing the business sense he had learned in the coal mines of Kentucky, helped to stabilize it financially. But this was a Pyrrhic victory, to be sure, because what does it profit a church to gain the whole world, and lose its soul?

It is NOT the "liberals" who turn the tide, it is the good-hearted evangelicals who mistake the gospel call to show charity to all men when considering their persons and characters, with the gospel call to be DEMANDING AND STRICT AND UNYIELDING towards men--and especially those who would presume to be teachers of the gospel--when considering their beliefs and TEACHINGS. When evangelicals refuse to hold men accountable for their teaching, and refuse to bring the discipline of the church to bear on teaching that contradicts the church's own confession, the battle is lost.

I praise the Lord that in such a scenario the battle is only lost in the near term, and only lost for that particular expression of Christ's one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church; but lost it is.

Thank you, again, David (Wegener), for your insightful words, and for the benefits of your research and scholarship. May the Lord richly bless your ministry of the gospel in Africa!

Dear Pastor Wegener,

Thank you for the time you took to answer my question. I’ve found McGrath’s work a bit frustrating for the reasons you’ve stated. I’ve noted that some Roman Catholic apologists have used this book to reinforce their claim that justification by faith was “utterly unknown” to the church before Luther. McGrath may have intended his work solely as an historical inquiry, but his failure (as it seems) to show where the church fathers went wrong makes the book dangerous in the wrong hands. I understand that the book is essentially McGrath’s doctoral thesis, but it would have been more useful if he had expanded it to serve the church in its public edition in the manner you suggest.

By the way, Tim, I bought my paperback edition of Iustitia Dei for much less than $80, but I’m not sure if that edition is still in print! A quick anecdote: a few years ago my daughter was attending a Christian conference at Princeton, and during lunch she was seated next to Dr. McGrath. She found him quite charming, and emailed me later to ask: “Dad, is this someone I should know?”

Dear Bill,

Funny, funny, funny. And hearing it's his doctoral dissertation makes some things a little more understandable.

Thanks, dear brother,

So the big criticism is that McGrath cares nothing for the state of the church because he didn't pay any attention to what justification means today? I think that was more the topic of his other book on justification, called (obviously enough) _Justification by faith: What it means for us today _ (Zondervan, 1988). This came out about the same time as the 1st edition of _Iustitia Dei_, at a time when there was not nearly as much attention being paid to justification as there is currently.

Thanks, Russ. I was unaware of that volume. You may be right. I'll have to look into it.

http://www.virtueonline.org/portal/modules/news/article.php?storyid=6868

Seems there's a spot of bother over at McGrath's academic home.

Kamilla

Hmm. I wasn't impressed with this analysis. I thought it bad form to smear McGrath (questioning his motives and credibility to be evangelical using scare quotes) and to blame him for the sad state of the Anglican Church. 

Add new comment