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Christian Theology: The Basics by Alister McGrath

Christian Theology Made Easy?

Theology: The Foundation of the Christian Life

Karl Barth, the famous twentieth-century Swiss theologian, once wrote that Christian theology “is not a private subject for theologians only. Nor is it a private subject for professors…Theology is a matter for the Church”. Too many people hear the word ‘theology’ and run the other way. They think it’s nothing more than vague, theoretical ideas with no bearing on everyday life. They turn their noses up at the very thought of it as impractical. And then they ask, “Doesn’t theology just distract us from the more important work of evangelism? Or service? Or any number of other far more important things?”

But they could not be more wrong.

Theology is the foundation of our evangelism and service. It undergirds the entire Christian life. And whether you realize it or not, you are a theologian.

Everyone is a Theologian

You may be shaking your head. “I’m no theologian,” you may say, “I don’t care about all of that stuff.” But every time you say, “God answers prayers!” or “Why didn’t God act sooner?” you are engaging in the work of theology. Your beliefs about God, the Bible, and salvation (among many other things) are all theological beliefs. In fact, even if you declare, “There is no God!” you are making a theological statement.

Whether we like it or not (and whether we want to admit it or not), we are all theologians. Keep in mind though, this doesn’t mean we’re all good theologians. Some of us are horrible theologians. For too many people, their theologies are a hodge-podge of random beliefs they’ve picked up from a book here, a sermon there, and sporadic Bible reading.

Perhaps you’ve never given serious thought to what you believe or why. Maybe you’ve never even considered that you should give it thought.

If that’s the case, I want to encourage you to not only realize that you already are a theologian – but also to commit to becoming a better one. You shouldn’t be satisfied with a theology that is thrown together and held up with duct-tape. The beliefs that make up our theologies are too important for that. They deserve deep thought and reflection.

Unfortunately, (in my experience) most churches do a poor job of teaching Christians how to think theologically. So we’re left with an important question: how can we learn?

Today, I want to recommend two books that work together to help the average Christian think more seriously about his theology. Each book is less than 200 pages and they would be perfect for either private or group study.

Theology: The Basics

One of the first theology books I picked up after becoming a Christian was Christian Theology by Alister McGrath. I’ve always  been fascinated by McGrath’s story because, like me, he was an atheist who eventually saw the truth of Christianity. But unlike me, McGrath has a background in science. He received a DPhil in molecular biophysics from Oxford. Though this isn’t what he’s known for today. These days, McGrath works as a professor of Historical Theology at Oxford.

Since McGrath specializes in historical theology, he writes about the theology of Christendom at large. Too often, we can find ourselves cocooned in our own little theological bubbles. We only read authors who agree with us. We only listen to pastors who preach what we already believe. And as time passes, we become more and more confident that we’re right and everyone else is wrong. And if we’re not careful we may start to think that they aren’t just wrong – they’re heretics, or worse.

What’s the cure for this kind of thinking? We need to read and listen widely. If what we believe is true, it will hold up.

If this is the case – and it is – then there’s no need to be afraid of hearing other viewpoints.

This is one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed McGrath’s work so much (it would be remiss of me if I didn’t also mention Roger Olson’s The Mosaic of Christian Belief in this context). McGrath will challenge you to think through your beliefs in light of scripture, reason, tradition, and experience. And I believe that’s always a good thing.

The Apostles’ Creed: An Outline of Doctrine

So, how is the book set up?

McGrath uses the Apostles’ Creed as an outline for his discussion of Christian theology. If you’re unfamiliar with this creed, it’s one of the oldest statements of Christian belief that we have (dating to the 4th century) and it covers all of the major bases (faith, God, creation, Jesus, salvation, the Trinity, the Church, sacraments, and Heaven). After a brief introductory chapter that describes the basic task of theology, McGrath digs right in.

Asking the ‘Big Questions’

Each chapter includes headings that ask the ‘big questions’ pertaining to that specific topic. For example, the chapter on ‘Faith’ includes headings such as ‘What is faith?’, ‘Can God’s existence be proved?’, ‘Are these proofs of any use?’, ‘Faith and doubt: the problem of suffering’, as well as several others. Within each heading, McGrath discusses how Christians have historically dealt with that particular problem or issue. And as I already intimated, he draws from various Christian traditions. He quotes voices as diverse as Augustine, John Wesley, Emil Brunner, Jurgen Moltmann, Paul Tilich, Ignatius, and a host of others.

And in all of this, McGrath isn’t afraid to lay out opposing views. In fact, I believe this is one of the greatest strengths of this book. If we’re going to do theology well, we need to be willing to listen to voices that don’t sound like our own. These kind of voices can help temper our own beliefs. And even if – at the end of the day – we still believe what we began with, hearing other perspectives will help us understand why we believe what we do and not something else.

Listening to the Voices of the Church

Each chapter ends with a section called ‘Engaging with a text.’ Here, McGrath includes a quote from a Christian theologian that pertains to the chapter’s topic. These quotes not only come from a variety of sources, they also come in several different forms. For instance, in the chapter on ‘Heaven’, McGrath quotes a poem by John Donne – “Death, be not proud.” In the ‘Church’ chapter, he includes one of Isaac Watts’ hymns. And in the chapter that focuses on the ‘Trinity’, he quotes from Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics.

Along with these readings, McGrath includes some brief remarks on the historical context of the quote as well as some questions for reflection. Although I read through this book on my own, I can imagine that it would be highly profitable to go through it with a group or class. And most of the quotes are short and easy enough that you don’t have to be a genius to reflect on them – and get something out of them.

Throughout the book, McGrath calls us to reflect deeply on what we believe. And as we reflect on our beliefs, we’ll be compelled to also think about how those beliefs impact our lives. What we believe matters. Our doctrine of God has a direct impact on how we pray, evangelize, and interact with others. The same is true of all doctrine – to one degree or another.

This is why theological reflection is so vital for Christian people. It’s not just theoretical. It’s immensely practical.

My Only Complaint…

The only real complaint that I have with McGrath’s book is that it’s too short. But that, I suppose, is the nature of an introduction. It isn’t meant to cover all of the bases – just the most basic ones. Unfortunately, because of the way that the Apostles’ Creed is written (and McGrath’s choice to use it as an outline for the book), he leaves out discussions on a number of important topics. For example, he doesn’t discuss the nature of humanity at all. And he only briefly touches on the nature of revelation.

But this book isn’t meant to be exhaustive. Instead, it’s like wading into a kiddy pool on a hot summer afternoon. It’ll get your feet wet. And it just might make you want to go over to the deep-end and do a cannonball.

Theology: The Basic Readings

A Valuable Theology Companion

If you’re interested in really digging into Christian theology, I’d recommend that you pick Theology: The Basic Readings up along with Theology: The Basics. They’re companion volumes and they fit hand in glove together. Although I suppose you could read Theology: The Basic Readings on its own, I wouldn’t really recommend it. It’s set up in the same format as Theology: The Basics and it helps to have read the chapter in that book before you come to this one.

That’s the way I worked through these books. I would read a chapter in Theology: The Basics and then I’d move over into the Basic Readings and work through the corresponding chapter. Unfortunately, I was on a bit of a time-crunch and I didn’t get the chance to work through the readings like I would have liked to.

Hearing More Voices from the Church

As I said regarding Theology: The BasicsTheology: The Basic Readings is a hodge-podge of excerpts from Christians throughout history. Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, Wesleyans, Anglicans, and more are all included. Though I think that in both books, the Orthodox church gets short shrift. And this is unfortunate because Orthodoxy has much to teach Western Christendom – if we’d listen.

The excerpts included in this book are largely excellent with only a handful that I would have replaced. Each reading begins with some basic notes about the context of the author and ends with questions for reflection. The questions really guide the reader through the reading and they’re helpful for teasing out the meaning and implications of each author’s message.

Don’t Be Afraid to be Challenged

With that said, there are some really challenging readings here. There were more than a couple that I had to re-read twice (and even three times) to really follow the arguments being made. This is where the questions at the end come in especially helpful. It’s also where I could imagine that working through this in a group would be incredibly profitable. And honestly, the readings are advanced enough that I could see these books being used at both a collegiate level as well as within the local church (in a theologically-minded small group perhaps?).

Be warned, if you don’t like theological diversity, you’ll find yourself getting angry as you work through this book. It includes readings from authors as diverse as N.T. Wright, Karl Barth, Dorothy Sayers, Huldrych Zwingli, and Pope Benedict XVI. You will not agree with everyone. But nearly everyone will challenge you – at one time or another – to think more deeply about your own beliefs.

And that’s what theology is all about. Ever more faithfully thinking Christ’s thoughts after him.

Along with the Bible, these two books will get you on the path to doing just that.

You can pick up both Theology: The Basics and Theology: The Basic Readings on Amazon.com.

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