Alister McGrath: several caveats...
(Note from Tim: On another thread, someone asked about Alister McGrath. I asked my dear brother, Rev. David Wegener, to provide the answer. David serves on the faculty of the Theological College of Central Africa and is a missionary of Mission to the World, the PCA's sending agency. David, his wife Terrianne, and their four children are supported by both Christ the Word and Church of the Good Shepherd. For her senior year of high school, Mary Lee and I have the privilege of having David and Terrianne's eldest child, Elizabeth, living with us and keeping our daughter, Hannah, company in the basement.)
I was asked to write a bit on Alister McGrath since he is a prolific author and is publicly identified with the evangelical movement. For a while, at least one of his publishers was puffing him as the next C.S. Lewis, working the Oxford angle. Mercifully, that kind of nonsense has stopped. While there is some value in McGrath’s works, let me make a few comments and give several caveats.
1. An Irishman by birth McGrath took an undergraduate degree in chemistry from Oxford University and later received a Ph.D. from the same institution in molecular biophysics. He was converted from atheism while at university and did an undergraduate degree in theology while getting his doctorate in science. Most folks would have trouble doing one of those, so, clearly, McGrath is very bright.
After graduation, he studied theology at Cambridge for two years, served two years as an assistant pastor (during which time he was ordained to the Anglican priesthood) and then embarked on a teaching and writing career. He began teaching at Oxford in 1983 (when he was 28) and has been there ever since, in various professorships, holding different administrative posts and interrupted by visiting lectureships in the U.S. and Canada.
2. McGrath is indeed a very prolific author and most of his writing is on historical theology (much of it Reformation history), the whole range of systematic theology, and the relationship of science and Christianity. But, don’t be intimidated by the sheer volume of his books. There is a fair bit of cutting and pasting going on...
For example, a summary of his book on the intellectual origins of the Reformation makes up about half of his book on Reformation thought. A good part of his introductory systematic theology is also found in his survey of historical theology. So there is a good deal of overlap between several of his works. Computers are great, aren’t they?
3. Much of his work is popularization. He must read very quickly and gives accurate summaries of what he reads. Yet he is living off the research of others and that causes problems. I was living in Geneva, Switzerland in 1990-91 and heard that McGrath was giving a seminar at the Institute for Reformation Studies. His topic was “John Calvin and Economics,” and it was mainly a re-hash of a chapter from his (then) recent biography of Calvin (cf. cut and paste reference above). Well, he didn’t know what he was getting himself into.
The Institute in Geneva is filled with experts on the Reformation who are doing careful primary source research, often on documents in archives that have never been studied before. They challenged McGrath’s generalizations time after time (“what about this incident … what about this policy … or this … or this …”) and the Professor quickly realized he was out of his league. Clearly his treatment of the topic was shown to be wanting and was more a summary of secondary research, some of which was wide of the mark.
4. McGrath consistently speaks out against Reformed theology. In his published works dealing with Post-Reformation theology, he has championed the position that the Calvinists who followed Calvin betrayed their mentor’s theology and came up with doctrine not in line with his. Well, this is bunk, even if it was articulated by theologians like Karl Barth and a whole host of others who have tried to tell us that Calvin was not a Calvinist. Richard Muller and others have shown, time and again, that there are clear lines of continuity between Calvin and the later Calvinists and any minor changes that occurred are merely in the packaging as the Calvinists sought to pass on the faith to their children. Yet McGrath continues to maintain a perspective that has been shown to be false and one used to dismiss the relevance of Puritan and Reformed thinking for today.
5. It is surprisingly difficult to find out what McGrath actually believes. His systematic theology text is really historical theology. There is no Scripture index and very little discussion of the meaning of actual Bible verses and how they speak to the normal loci of systematic theology. Even after a long historical presentation, he rarely if ever says, “these are the range of views presented in the history of the church, but I am persuaded that the Scriptures teach this because …” So, for example, in the chapter on “The Doctrines of Human Nature, Sin and Grace,” McGrath first discusses, “The Place of Humanity within Creation.” Genesis 1:27 is quoted and its meaning is explored by quoting and summarizing from Tertulliian, Origen, Augustine, Lactantius, Athanasius, the Cappadocians, Cyril of Jerusalem, and then back to Augustine. At the end, we’re never told what McGrath believes or even how he evaluates what these theologians have taught. The questions at the end of each chapter sometimes require answers more personal than the preceding exposition of views.
6. While McGrath is identified with the evangelical movement in England, such a designation has problems. The label “evangelical” used to have meaning in the English context but it seems to me that it has less and less today. An evangelical used to refer to an orthodox Protestant who believed the gospel, aimed to share it with the whole world, and found it at the center of an inerrant and infallible Bible. Today the term is used as a self-designation by so many who believe none of this. The difference between someone who calls himself a left-wing evangelical and a liberal who reads the Bible and accepts some of what it says is non-existent. Though it is hard to tell (see above), McGrath does not hold to inerrancy (it’s a recent American innovation), and he seems open to salvation outside of explicit faith in Christ. Yet he insists on using the term “evangelical” to refer to himself, and so he is contributing to the loss of meaning for the term.
7. He is an Anglican, come what may. McGrath wrote a shameful piece just as Rowan Williams was being named the archbishop of Canterbury (and thus the head of the Anglican communion of churches). The liberal views of Williams were well known, including his approval of the ordination of homosexuals. McGrath’s piece was a “down on his knees” plea for Bible-believers not to leave the Anglican church. It calls to mind the question Lloyd-Jones put to evangelical Anglicans (and he asked it when the term still had meaning): Is there any position that, if the Anglican church took it, would cause you to leave the church? MLJ was answered with a resounding silence. There is no line in the sand and McGrath’s article helps to prove it. Nothing will cause him to do a Popeye: “that’s all I can ‘stanz,’ I can’t ‘stanz’ no more”. He is an Anglican and the phrase, “evangelical Anglican” has been voided of content.
8. His wife, Joanna Collicutt McGrath, is an ordained Anglican priestess, so we know where he stands on that one. She does research in psychology and religion, writes on brain injury and teaches at Heythrop College in London. No mention of any children.
Thus, most of us can safely give McGrath’s works a pass.