from the Christian Research Journal, Winter 1991, page 36. The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research Journal is Elliot Miller.
A Summary Critique
Understanding the Trinity
Alister E. McGrath
(Zondervan Publishing House -- Academie Books, 1987, 1988)
Alister McGrath has emerged in the past five years as a prolific and competent theologian. His numerous books include both scholarly treatises and popular works on theology for the layperson. He has graduate degrees in both molecular biology and theology from Oxford, and is a lecturer on theology at Wycliffe Hall at Oxford.
Although a great deal has been written in the areas of Christology (doctrine concerning Christ) and the Trinity, precious little has been written specifically to help laypeople understand these doctrines. This is McGrath's aim in these books, and in many ways the books are very helpful.
DOCTRINE MADE INTERESTING!
The most positive feature of McGrath's books is his able use of illustrations. An excellent writer, McGrath presents one vivid and entertaining illustration after another throughout both books. Many of these illustrations draw on his expertise in science, but others are drawn from mathematics, history, literature (including poetry), the arts, and everyday life. McGrath also has a penchant for quoting Christian hymns, including Christmas carols, often with great effect.
Although occasionally McGrath tells us when he uses someone else's illustration, usually he does not. I noticed especially his use of Oscar Cullmann's comparison (in Christ and Time) of the first and second comings of Christ to D-day and VE-day in World War II (Jesus, pp. 157-58). In any case McGrath has a good feel for which illustrations are helpful, and he has a lot of them at his disposal. His books are already especially popular with preachers for this reason.
McGrath's books bear a striking resemblance to C. S. Lewis's popular works on Christian doctrine. The main difference is that McGrath's professional training in theology enables him to be more precise theologically than Lewis could be. It is perhaps no accident that Lewis is cited in these two books more than any other nonbiblical author (Jesus, pp. 156-57; Trinity, pp. 32, 108).
McGrath has an uncanny ability to quote from an incredibly wide range of thinkers to illustrate and reinforce his arguments. Thus, he is able to draw effectively on philosophers such as Wittgenstein, Pascal, and Buber; theologians such as Bultmann and Pannenberg; and literary luminaries such as Eliot, Carlyle, Doyle, Sayers, Donne, Blake, and Carroll. He quotes from these individuals in seemingly effortless manner in support of the orthodox Christian faith. The fact that many of these writers were themselves unorthodox never detains McGrath, who evidently trusts that his readers will not assume that he agrees on other matters with those he quotes approvingly.
As effectively as McGrath quotes from others, however, his own writing can stand on its own. His manner of expression is always interesting and often humorous in a very British, understated way -- as when he explains why Christianity's centering on Christ cannot be put down to His having been a good teacher: "Good teachers, after all, are not that difficult to find. People who are crucified, only to be raised from the dead, are somewhat thinner on the ground, and command attention for that very reason" (Jesus, p. 37). C. S. Lewis could not have said it more delightfully.
The substance of the two books under review is nearly as pleasing as the style. McGrath repeatedly sets forth persuasive arguments against many of the radical and liberal distortions and denials of the Christian faith. He strongly insists that Christianity is centered on Christ (Jesus, pp. 15-18). He argues for the necessity and propriety of formulating doctrines about Jesus (Jesus, pp. 29-36; Trinity, pp. 113-18). As has already been noted, he delivers withering criticisms of the notion that Jesus was simply a great teacher (Jesus, pp. 36-40). He stoutly maintains against liberal scholarship that either the Gospels must be accepted as a faithful portrayal of Jesus or else any pretense to knowledge of or faith in Jesus must be abandoned (Jesus, pp. 48-51). He also presents standard arguments (in a very nonstandard, entertaining fashion) for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus (Jesus, pp. 63-76).
The heart of McGrath's argument in both books, however, concerns the incarnation of God in Jesus. Defining "incarnation" as "God taking on flesh" (Jesus, p. 91), McGrath explicates and defends the New Testament "Christology" (doctrine about Christ) which presents Jesus as God humbling Himself to become one of us. He rightly argues that in the New Testament there is no tension between what theologians call a functional and an ontological Christology. A "functional" Christology is a doctrine about Christ which understands Jesus to be performing functions in which God is seen to be at work -- so that Jesus is seen as acting "as God and for God." An "ontological" Christology is one which says that Jesus is God "ontologically," that is, God in His very being and essence -- in short, a doctrine which asserts that Jesus "is God" (Jesus, p. 93). While many modern theologians try to argue that Jesus can be God "functionally" without being God "ontologically," McGrath rightly argues that it is only because Jesus is God that He can perform the functions of salvation that only God can do.
McGrath immediately makes this practical for us by explaining its significance: because Jesus is God, He saves us, is to be worshipped by us, and reveals and represents God to us (Jesus, pp. 93-97). He also explains why the doctrine that Jesus is both God and man is not contradictory (Jesus, pp. 98-104; Trinity, pp. 98-99). Finally, he argues that the Incarnation is essential to Christianity (Trinity, pp. 99-108). His arguments here, as throughout his books, will be fresh, interesting and illuminating to both layperson and theologian alike.
In Understanding the Trinity, McGrath explains how the doctrine of Jesus as God and man led the church to the doctrine of the Trinity. The purpose of the doctrine, as of all doctrine, is to provide a theoretical structure protecting the integrity of the Christian proclamation (pp. 113-18). Now, the Bible teaches most emphatically that there is only one God (pp. 120-21). This would be simple enough, except that in one sense the Bible distinguishes Jesus from God while in another sense it affirms that Jesus is God (pp. 121-22). Likewise "the Holy Spirit is somehow involved in our experience of both God and Jesus, without being identical to either of them" (p. 122). The doctrine of the Trinity summarizes the biblical story that the Father sent His Son Jesus, as God incarnate, to enable us to encounter and experience God; and then the Father and the Son sent the Holy Spirit to enable us to encounter and experience Jesus (pp. 126-29).
POINTS NEEDING CLARIFICATION
I hope I have made it clear that McGrath deserves enormous respect from orthodox Christians. His books are filled with good insights into the Christian faith, and on a number of crucial issues he admirably challenges the liberal establishment. For these reasons I have recommended McGrath's books in the past, and still do.
Unfortunately, despite his wonderful clarity on most points, there are two matters on which his statements will appear unorthodox to most theologically informed evangelicals -- misleadingly, as it turns out. In the rest of this review I wish to point these out, so that his readers (of whom I hope there will be many) will not be led astray or become confused.
First, McGrath sometimes speaks critically of what he calls "classical theism," and since the orthodox view of God is sometimes identified as classical theism, there is potential for misunderstanding. Thus, he describes the view he criticizes as one "which thinks of God as the immortal, invisible, omnipotent and omniscient being who brought this world into existence but is not part of it" (Trinity, p. 134). This sentence is misleading because actually McGrath agrees that God is immortal, invisible, omnipotent, and omniscient! His focus here is strictly on the notion that God "is not part of" the world. Thus, he goes on to say,
This sort of idea of God underlies much classical Greek and Roman thinking, and also some modern ways of thinking about God (such as Deism and Unitarianism). It will be obvious that this view of God presents no real intellectual problems -- it is easy to grasp, and involves no difficult ideas such as the divinity of Christ or the doctrine of the Trinity... It implies a God who is outside space and time, and cannot become involved with it (Trinity, p. 134).
McGrath admitted to me in a telephone conversation (November 28, 1990) that he could have been clearer on this point, and confessed his agreement with the classical Christian doctrine of God as unchangeable, eternal, omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent.
Second and more important, when McGrath actually gets down to the task of explaining the doctrine of the Trinity his explanation is quite misleading. To explain in what sense God is three, he states that the three "persons" are comparable to three "roles" which God plays in redemption, or three "models of God" which are important for understanding the Christian experience of God (Trinity, pp. 130-31, 136-38). McGrath tries to distinguish this understanding from Sabellianism, which he describes as holding that God plays these three roles only temporarily and successively (p. 136).
Unfortunately, this is not enough. As it stands his explanation still seems more monarchian (the third-century heresy which regarded God as a lone person playing three roles) than trinitarian. At best his explanation seems to imply what theologians call an economic Trinity (i.e., the belief that God acts in three distinctly personal ways or roles) grounded in an ontological unitarianism (i.e., the belief that behind God's many roles or ways of acting God is really only one person). There seems to be no room in his explanation for an ontological Trinity (one God existing eternally as three really distinct persons) -- no room for a preexistent Son and Holy Spirit co-existing eternally with the Father.
In fact, however, McGrath does affirm an orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. Besides making that clear to me in my conversation with him, he leaves some indicators in his book of his orthodox view of the Trinity. For one thing, earlier in the same book McGrath strongly affirms that the Father sent the Son and that the Father and Son then sent the Holy Spirit (pp. 126-29). Further, even in offering his monarchian-sounding explanation McGrath warns, "The following is a simplified account of the idea of 'person' which may be helpful, although the reader must appreciate that simplifications are potentially dangerous" (p. 130, emphasis added). He most clearly distances himself from monarchianism and shows himself truly trinitarian just a few pages later, when he offers some additional analogies of the Trinity: "A similar analogy is provided by a triangle, with its three sides, or by a family of two parents and their child. The individual persons of the Trinity -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit -- combine to create a whole in which their individualities are transcended to give a higher unity" (p. 140). Here, if anything, the analogy of the family might be taken to overemphasize the personal distinctions within the Trinity. As McGrath himself recognizes, though, that is the problem with analogies applied to God -- pressed too hard they can lead to misunderstandings.
In conclusion, McGrath's books are extremely helpful and are highly recommended, with the above problems noted. Understanding Jesus is especially recommended as a book well worth giving to liberal Christians or others having difficulty appreciating the orthodox understanding of Jesus.
1 McGrath's most significant scholarly work is Iustitia Dei: A History of the Doctrine of Justification, 2 Vols. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986). His popular works include Justification by Faith: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988); The Mystery of the Cross (Zondervan, 1988); and Explaining Your Faith (Zondervan, 1989).
Your Child and the New Age
(Victor Books, 1990)
The problem of New Agers attempting to proselytize or influence children has become so rampant that it is no longer sufficient for authors to devote sections or chapters of books to it -- entire books are needed on this subject alone. The first respectable book to appear on this comes from Berit Kjos, a Norwegian-American author and speaker at Christian women's gatherings.
Your Child and the New Age is by no means limited to the New Age per se, unless we mean by "new age" the new, unchristian cultural situation into which we are rapidly moving. Along with the New Age movement Kjos deals with secular humanism, hedonism, and the non-New Age, "dark" sides of occultism (e.g., Satanism).
Kjos covers all the bases in terms of areas in which the young are being profoundly affected by unchristian values: the schools, films, television, books, music, even the local toy store.
Although her research is generally accurate, sources often are not cited fully enough, and on a few occasions facts appear to be skewed -- such as her using Humanist Manifesto II to represent the beliefs and goals of the National Education Association (NEA) (p. 40), even though the NEA was not a signatory of the document.
Kjos's approach to these issues of discernment can at times be simplistic (e.g., p. 44, where she warns that values clarification in the schools often uses names such as "decision-making" and "interpersonal relation skills" without clarifying that legitimate, nonhumanistic programs could also go by the same names). Some will find her views too politically conservative and reactionary (e.g., pp. 74-75). Some will find them overly apocalyptic (e.g., p. 121).
On the other hand, several of her warnings that many would label "narrow" or "reactionary" are actually quite legitimate. She clearly demonstrates, for instance, the dangers involved in several of the fantasy gamebooks found in toy stores (pp. 142-43).
The flaws noted above are easy to forgive because, to her credit, Kjos never really succumbs to sensationalism and tries hard to remain balanced. This is not a sophisticated scholar writing, but a concerned mother who is also a committed disciple of Jesus Christ. These two qualifications are what make the book eminently practical and useful -- far more so than what most scholars would be capable of producing.
For every chapter of information, there is a chapter of practical strategies, advice, and Scripture references on the same subject: "What Can Parents Do About...?" Kjos's vast experience and wisdom in the things of which she writes will prove immensely profitable to bewildered parents. Her strategies incorporate a sound grasp of child psychology and effective parent-child communication (see, e.g., p. 31).
Those looking for simple or instant solutions to the problem of unchristian influences on their children will be disappointed; since no such solutions exist, this book cannot provide them. The challenge of raising godly children in this age is extremely formidable, requiring huge investments of time and effort on the part of parents, and even then with no guarantee of success. But for those whose love for their children motivates them to accept this challenge, Your Child and the New Age provides more-than-adequate direction and resources.
The Origins and Teachings of Freemasonry
Dr. Robert A. Morey
(Crowne Publications, 1990)
Recently, the CHRISTIAN RESEARCH JOURNAL featured a survey which asked readers to list those topics they most wanted to see covered in future issues. Surprisingly, of all the write-in requests (i.e., not including such major topics as the New Age movement and Mormonism), Freemasonry was number one. No doubt, one reason for this is that quality evangelical works on this subject have been relatively sparse. Most literature penned by Christian authors on Masonic belief and practice has been sensationalistic and/or beset by inadequate research.
In response to this vacuum, Robert A. Morey has written a book entitled The Origins and Teachings of Freemasonry in which he endeavors to "write an objective hard-hitting book which tells it like it is...[and] does not spare the 'sacred cows' of Freemasonry in its search for truth" (p. ii).
Although it falls short of this worthy goal (for reasons I will soon explain), Morey's book is a breath of fresh air in the arena of apologetic literature for two reasons: First, it is not only concise and readable, but easy to comprehend as well. Second and even more notable, the author takes an approach to his subject which will no doubt induce Freemasons to read rather than be repelled by his work. Thus, appropriately, Morey asks: "Are there any Masons left who just want the truth, plain and simple, without any wild or weird ideas?" (pp. i-ii).
Morey begins by outlining the principles that guided his research on Freemasonry. He briefly touches on such issues as the importance of objectivity, the role of empirical evidence, and the problem of rampant misinformation infesting both Masonic and anti-Masonic literature. Having laid this groundwork, the author proceeds to give an account of what he considers to be the roots of the Masonic Lodge, contending that "from the very beginning, Freemasonry was viewed as a Christian institution and its symbols, degrees and ceremonies were all interpreted according to fundamental Christian doctrines" (p. 17). Morey goes on to argue that the early 1800s witnessed the exodus of evangelical Christians from the Lodge at the prompting of such notable church leaders as D. L. Moody, R. A. Torrey, and Charles Finney. As a result, he concludes, Masonic leadership fell into the hands of non-Christians who "began to re-interpret the Craft according to anti-Christian principles" (p. 20).
Following this, Morey chronicles an even greater turn for the worse: the introduction of Aryan ideologies into the Lodge by noted Mason Albert Pike. He states that "Pike found Freemasonry a Christian institution, but left it a Hindu temple" (p. 49). He then suggests that since the resurgence of Christian membership in the Lodge during the 1920s, "Freemasonry has developed along two different tracks" -- the majority who see Freemasonry simply as a fraternal organization, and the "small vocal minority" who regard it as a revival of ancient paganism.
After devoting an entire chapter in response to multiple theories of Freemasonry's alleged pagan origins, Morey offers what he believes is the true genesis of the Craft: it started as a "gentleman's club" that gathered at an English tavern in 1717. Morey then addresses an assortment of Masonic conspiracy theories, and concludes the book with a discussion of the development of anti-Masonic sentiments within various Christian denominations.
In spite of the strengths previously mentioned (and others), Morey's book is somewhat weakened by a number of factors. For example, though he is to be commended for writing a book devoid of sensationalism and palatable to the Masonic reader, it is both inappropriate and inaccurate to paint a picture of Freemasonry as a Christian social club that was merely overrun by anti-Christian factions.
While one cannot deny that Christian men such as James Anderson and John T. Desaguliers played key roles during the formative years of the Masonic Grand Lodge, it is a gigantic leap to conclude from this (as Morey apparently does) that Freemasonry is Christian because many of its founding members were believers.
Indeed, can we seriously consider clubs "where rich and powerful gentlemen [can] meet to talk, drink, smoke, play cards or just sit and read the paper" (p. 72) as being distinctively Christian? Morey himself acknowledges that Freemasonry began as a club where all agreed not to debate such issues as religion or politics (pp. 80-81). It seems woefully incongruous to affirm that an institution is Christian while in the same breath indicating that it "began as a beer party in a London tavern" (p. 54).
Another weakness of the book is that references are absent in various places where they should have been included. A case in point is Morey's undocumented claim that "millions of conservative Christians flooded back into Freemasonry" during the 1920s (p. 21).
Another factor that may undermine the book's trustworthiness relates to Morey's numerous quotations of noted Masonic historian, Albert Mackey, after his reliability was initially discredited in the book's opening chapter (p. 6). Though this may seem a trite criticism, this incongruity is not likely to escape the unconvinced reader.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the book is Morey's pervasive sentimental overtone toward Freemasonry, which may give the reader cause for considerable concern respecting his objectivity in approaching the subject. One might easily get the impression that Morey did not write this book from the perspective of a detached researcher who painstakingly compiled hard evidence over an extended time. In fact, his constant admonitions for Masons to "clean house" (pp. 81, 84, 99, 108, 110, 114, 115, 116, 117, 125) may lead one to question whether Morey has a personal stake in this issue.
Despite such problems, Morey is nevertheless to be commended for writing an immensely readable survey of Masonic history. Even though, in its present state, the book may not be considered the definitive evangelical volume on Freemasonry, it will undoubtedly be useful for opening the eyes of objective Masons to many of the falsehoods propagated by Freemasonry.
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