Think Theologically: A Review of Alister McGrath's The Passionate Intellect
- Thursday, January 13, 2011
Chapter nine takes readers from Darwin's 19th century back to St. Augustine's 4th century, and demonstrates how Biblical interpretation can be true both to scripture and to the facts of the natural world without simply accommodating a non-Christian worldview. McGrath examines Augustine's The Literal Meaning of Genesis, especially Augustine's explanation that God did not create a static world but one with "the capacity to develop," like a seed (p. 140). McGrath also cites Augustine's warning against tying Biblical interpretation to one particular scientific theory. Augustine wisely realized that by tying Biblical interpretation to a specific theory, Christians would inadvertently challenge the veracity of scripture when that scientific theory was challenged.
Chapters ten and eleven focus on the new atheism. First McGrath answers one of the new atheism's chief charges against religion, and then he considers the Enlightenment's foundations for the new atheism. Chapter ten answers the popular atheist charge that religion promotes violence, using counter-evidence of atheist violence against religion. Violence by adherents to both religious and atheist worldviews simply proves the fallibility of human nature, rather than the superiority of one worldview over another. Yes, religious groups have been responsible for violence, but they have also been responsible for great good.
The final chapter (eleven) returns to McGrath's forte: history. Here McGrath considers the intellectual roots of the new atheism: the Enlightenment. He highlights the term "humanism" - explaining that its original sense was neither secular nor overtly anti-religious, but rather an emphasis on classical Greco-Roman culture and its appreciation for human excellences. The enlightenment especially prized reason, and such an appreciation for reason is not anti-Christian. Where the Enlightenment began to challenge Christian thinking was its emphasis that reason alone provided valid knowledge (thus excluding any possibility for revelation). McGrath concludes the chapter by demonstrating the failures of a worldview based on reason alone, and he chronicles the recent reemergence of appreciating the transcendent.
McGrath's interest in historical theology is the book's greatest strength. He provides numerous examples from Church history that illustrate how a historical understanding of Christianity can help believers with both hermeneutics and apologetics - providing insight into how believers have interpreted scripture and answered objections to Christian faith.
The book can potentially benefit a variety of Christian readers. For readers who have not heard of Christian thinkers like Polkinghorne or Christian poets like Herbert, The Passionate Intellect will provide a helpful introduction. For readers who are familiar with the objections of popular atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins (nicknamed "Darwin's Rottweiler") the book will provide helpful responses.
As a fan of C. S. Lewis, I was delighted to see abundant references to Lewis' work, but I was also disappointed to note that McGrath borrowed some ideas from Lewis without citing the source. One egregious illustration of this can be found in his discussion of illustrating theology as a map (pp. 22ff.). I'm not about to accuse McGrath of plagiarism, but I do find fault with him for not overtly explaining to his readers Lewis' use of this same illustration in Mere Christianity 4.1. As an introductory text to Christian thinking and apologetics, the proper citation of helpful concepts is especially appropriate.
Another curious omission is the larger context of Darwin's role in the development of evolutionary theory. Though McGrath does not explain this, readers should note that the concept of evolution pre-dated Charles Darwin's work. Darwin's contribution to the theory was his explanation of how evolution might work through natural selection. I also wish McGrath would have clearly explained that the anecdote of Darwin's deathbed reconversion to orthodox Christianity is false.
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