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.

Joannacollicutt 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.

Comments

>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.

This used to be true of American evangelicals as well. I would agree though, having lived and worshipped in the UK for six years, that they are a bit further down that road, as a whole. We're not in a position to feel superior though and they are less rent by the pre-millenial dispensational errors that we see in American evangelicalism.

I heard Mr. McGrath speak at the CS Lewis Institute in Washingtong DC in 2000. The only thing I remember him saying was that the world needs more CS Lewises and Francis Schaeffers. And he shocked our conservative American ears with a good British "damn" in the middle of his talk.

It is sad to hear that he has no foundation.

I had the misfortune to use McGrath's Christian Theology Reader together with a book which he calls "systematic theology"

The Reader is a mishmash of short excepts from a collection of writers. McGrath "cuts and pastes" these selections, for instance taking a sentence from Calvin's Institutes, leaving out a considerable part of Calvin's argument and then quoting a second sentence. There are references at the bottom of the selection which give this technique away, but I suspect, that most of the readers do not notice this.

I figured it out only because I actually have an edition of the Institutes (2 volumes with notes) and did not remember Calvin's arguments going the way that McGrath's selection did. I actually went through my complete copy, and discovered this "technique"

This jigsaw approach to a text can make it say anything and is fundamentally unfair to the text itself.

McGrath's Reader is a collection of "scraps". He makes no effort at all to place any of the persons he quotes in historical context, or to evaluate them.

Instead, he attempts to play down the importance of the theological questions raised by the reformers. Instead, he occasionally makes categorical assertions which are demonstrably false.

For instance, he states that Martin Luther was the only reformer who had a forensic view of justification. Clearly not so--Luther was plainer than some of his contemporaries, but a great many theologians of Luther's day argued and wrote about justification, and a good many of these discussed the matter in a forensic fashion.

The issues raised by the Reformers are serious, then and now, but I fear that McGrath does not really think that they matter much.

I am curious about Pastor Wegener’s views on McGrath’s two-volume study of the history of the doctrine of justification, Iusticia Dei, which asserts that justification by faith alone was unknown to the church prior to the Reformation. Many seem to consider McGrath’s work the seminal modern study of the doctrine.

Very insightful.

I taught a "religion & science" course at UAH and Wheaton College (thereby sealing my fate http://rbs.rbsp.info/P494/) where I used McGrath's book, "Science & Religion: an Introduction". I remember thinking how "watered-down" it was, each chapter a grocery-list without much content. At the time, I thought a grocery list was a good summary for the students, though I do not recall a single student question from this reading. The only thing that sticks in my mind from his book was his definition of evangelicals, as "people who believe that one must have a personal relationship to Jesus to be saved". Strangely, it wasn't high on my list when I was going to Sunday School, and I rarely meet any evangelicals who describe their faith that way. It seemed, well, such an "outsider" view from a self-professed evangelical.

Now you have explained the mystery.

Thanks.

Having read his biography of Packer, and the accont he gives of the Lloyd-Jones/John Stott clash in 1966 I suspect that a fair amount of cutting and pasting went on. He only deals with part of Lloyd-Jones address (published by the Banner) and curiously that seems to be the section used in Iain Murray's splendid biography of Lloyd-Jones. Disappointing handling of the issue it has to be said.

Thank you for posting this. A few years back I read his book "Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought" and found it to be intolerably boring. It was impossible to read without falling into a coma. I think perhaps the reason was because he did not express his opinions or say "here's a false belief" or "there's a heresy". It was more or less a statement of things in a bland biographical sort of way. When it got into the German theologians I fell asleep far more often and was far more confused. Thankfully there is coffee.

In Anglicanism, "evangelical" has a 19th-century meaning that has continued to the present-day which seems to me roughly: "serious Christians who oppose the ritual and romanism of the Anglo-Catholics and the benign indifference to God of the Broad Church". Apparently liberals are now to be found in all 3 wings of the Church now, though I think "evangelical" is still an unappealing label to them, as connoting someone who takes his religion too seriously.

I've avoided McGrath for a while. I picked up one of his books years ago,and he tried so hard to be "detached"...he probably thinks that makes him more objective or credible, or what not.

Anyways, the same day you posted this, I watched about 20 minutes of an hour long discussion McGrath had with Richard Dawkins...when the residing Pope of Atheism thinks you're a reasonable/rational Christian, you've probably abandoned Christian thinking. I couldn't stomach it.

Check it out here if you'd like: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-6609671681098320091

I think I stopped watching it around the point where he AGREED with Dawkins that we can't be *sure* of God's existence. Apparently,unbelievers do have an excuse when they stand before God.

David,

Thanks for writing all this up. I've heard vague rumblings about McGrath off and on but never anything specific (except for totally forgetting about his endorsement of ++Rowan).

Wycliffe Hall, McGrath's college in Ocford, is supposed to be a haven for the Evangelicals - but one wonders if, indeed, that designation has any meaning worth preserving! They have two female Revs on their factulty and also host Elaine Storkey as a "Senior Reserach Fellow". An interesting note on the bio of one of the female Revs is that she "has a deep and abiding love of all things Tolkien". All, it seems, except for this theology.

If McGrath's scholarship were better, he might be worth engageing on substance. But, as you show, it seems there's little of substance to engage! It looks as if he deserves his reputation as the next CSL about as much as Sartre deserves his reputation as a profound thinker.

Kamilla

Dear Bill R.:

I tried to get to your question for a while, but had to teach in Lusaka over the weekend and then we've been without water for part of this week. So much for excuses.

Anyway, Tim and David have posted my response as a blog post rather than a comment under here.

David

If one looks for original works in McGrath's introductory textbooks like 'Christian Theology: An Introduction", "Christianity: An Introduction", "Christian Theology: A Reader" etc, of course won't find his original ideas in them. Simply, he doesn't meant those works to be that!

If you are looking for McGrath's conception of systematic theology, check out his 3-volumes 'A Scientific Theology' and 'The Orders of Things'.

But Joshua:

No Scripture index in a systematic theology? C'mon. That is making a statement, don't you think?

And the reason there is no index is because it would be so embarrassingly short. Isn't systematic theology founded on the word of God? That's what all our forefathers in the faith believed.

Sure, you don't find an author's ideas in a Reader. But you do expect that in a systematic theology, like, "Christian Theology: An Introduction."

And I'm afraid I must disagree: McGrath's three-volume work, "A Scientific Theology," is not a systematic theology.

DW

Hi Ps. David,

Yes, no scripture index does make a statement.

By the way, why do you think McGrath's 3 volumes is not a systematic theology?

If it is not troublesome, can we correspond through emails?

My email is joshuawoo@gmail.com

Blessings,

JW

The problem with the critique is that it doesn't comprehend McGrath because it doesn't comprehend the historic church. The reformed movement, for example, tries and tries to justify itself as "catholic" more and more simply because one can find nothing of it in the early fathers. An amazing thing if it were so truly biblical. Otherwise, one has to argue that, somehow, a single theologian (building on an neurotic Luther) 1500 years later and when bible scholarship was a a low ebb corrected them all. True, he builds on Augustine but is far more extreme. Anyway, McGrath follows in the historical line by not being overly systematic but truly historical in approach--as were the fathers. Moreover, the fathers didn't condone schism as a way of freeing oneself to be among only the orthodox Christians. In fact, in lieu of Christ's explicit prayer for unity, it was considered among the worst offenses to faith. They stayed and fought it out. Whereas, the reformed tradition can't even maintain itself from fracturing into a million pieces and even when many of the pieces are yet conservative. So, learn a little about the early church and see the reformation itself in historical context. Otherwise, you'll continue to re-imagine reality as a Calvin. It may have its strengths. But in the end, a poor substitute for the finest point in the history of the church, both in character and in doctrine: The Church of the first 500 years.

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