Review: Faith and Creeds

July 18th, 2013

Faith and Creeds: A Guide for Study and Devotion, (Westminster/John Knox, 2013) by British theologian and author, Alister McGrath, is the first in a projected five-volume series called “The Heart of Christian Faith,” short guides designed to explore core Christian principles. The need for the series arose from McGrath’s conversations with person both inside and outside the church who describe themselves as wrestling with their faith and puzzling over the traditional language used to articulate foundational beliefs. This first volume explores the opening words of the creed: “I believe.” Future volumes will examine the Christian understanding of the nature of God and the identity and significance of Jesus of Nazareth.

While himself an academic, McGrath does not set out to talk his way into explication and clarity. He seeks to explore and illuminate experience, both within as well as that which is experienced in the world. This is a book intended for what he calls “ordinary Christians” rather than for theologians or clergy. However, his choice three lay theologians of the twentieth century—G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and Dorothy L. Sayers—reveal the particular and limited cultural scope of this volume, and presumably of the remaining volumes in the series.

Although McGrath posits that these three writers express the essence of Christianity and connect it to everyday life in ways that are compelling to both believers and non-believers, the homogeneity of their perspective and approach limit the impact of his stated goal, perhaps to the world of west Oxfordshire where he has pastured village churches over the past five years. Citing additional writers such as Sartre, Agatha Christie, Iris Murdoch, W.H.Auden, Proust, Evelyn Waugh, and so forth, underscores the context and era from which McGrath writes. There is much to be learned and gleaned here, but it will be a cultural stretch for younger generations and those with a more global and diverse experience. For these younger, broader audiences, the world is an exciting and compelling arena, often in contrast to their perception of the life of church and faith. McGrath’s description of bleak modern secularism may in fact not ring true to them.

With that caveat stated, Faith and Creeds nonetheless offers a view of faith as providing the ‘big picture’ to the meaning of life and God. Faith, McGrath argues, is about ‘discovering the big picture laid out in the Bible and the creeds, realizing how good it is, how much sense it makes,’ (p. 101) and gradually seeing the world in a completely different way through eyes of faith. This connects one with the millions who have gone before and found this path to offer direction, sustenance, and strength. For McGrath, this realization leads to trust in God.

Moreover, McGrath posits, faith is about positioning one’s life in alignment with this larger picture. This, then, leads to a refusal to accept things as they are in the world, but rather, through the trustworthiness and graciousness of God, to proclaim possibilities of personal and societal transformation.

The final product of faith involves this engagement with the world in ways that are apprehended and appreciated by others. For McGrath, citing the work of John Alexander Makay, this require obedience on the part of the Christian in living out the Christian faith amidst the journey of life.

For those with a classical educational training and a literary bent, this little volume provides a lovely refresher course in the basics of all that is contained in the first two little words of the Creed: “I believe.”

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