A review of the book 'What's the Point of Theology?' by Alistair McGrath

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A review of the book 'What's the Point of Theology?' by Alistair McGrath
Book Review by Alan Mordue

I am reviewing the latest book by the great Christian apologist and populariser of theology, Alister McGrath. I expect many people will ask why we need another book on theology by McGrath or anyone at all for that matter. However, I would argue we are theology ourselves as human beings and the Christian faith is grounded in what Plato, the other philosophers and the fathers of the church termed theologos or theology – loosely translated to ‘speaking of God’. Don’t we all speak of God in our own ways? It’s arguable that theological thinking was transmitted into what became the Christian tradition largely by Paul’s letters, and has made the church what it is. At its best theology is a wonderful device to help us navigate the tricky parts of scripture, the Christian life and many other things. It doesn’t make things easier, but it makes them more understandable.

The amount of ground that McGrath covers in this book is nothing short of a miracle. He looks at a huge number of concepts but also at the general thinking of specific theologians. To be totally honest I am in awe of this book, it’s so rich and deep. There is a light but clear and concise engagement with the doctrine and creeds as well as the interface between the Bible and theology. The book also engages with many of the greatest theologians of the Christian tradition. It also looks at many modern thinkers, such as the Canadian Christian philosopher Charles Taylor, and does a really good job of making his complex thought more understandable. The scope of the book covers the whole gamut of Christian history, looking at people as diverse as Gregory of Nyssa, Dante and many other historical figures, and then to the present day with the Christian novelist Marilynne Robinson. Another good example of the breadth of theological thinking is the way McGrath looks at the development of ideas, for example the debate between Luther and Zwingli on the eucharist, which is done with his customary flair. But for me, one of the central concepts of the book is McGrath’s view of the grace of God in his engagement with St Augustine, where he looks at many of the ideas of Augustine directly and through James K A Smith’s book On the Road with St Augustine. I reviewed that book in Together magazine and McGrath has obviously found it an extremely stimulating read, as did I. He has been studying the book at length and feels it’s got a lot to say to us about Augustine for today. The rediscovery of Augustine is one of the most welcome recent developments, not in some sort of hagiographical way but as a critical engagement that looks at him warts and all, learning from his wisdom but rejecting some of his asceticism.

The book also covers a lot of the ideological diversity within the traditions of Christian theology. I especially like the emphasis on the big picture in theology which he gives throughout the book. Many theology books are too mired in the minutiae of detail and miss the overall story of how theology is liberating for us, as an overall theme. I have to say that I do love this quote by McGrath himself in the book that points out that theology at its best is ‘the human quest for wisdom, wellbeing and wonder’. That is the glory of theology in a nutshell to me. Also, he answers his central question of what the point of theology is very well and succeeds admirably in arguing for embracing theological thinking as a Christian. I think he counters well many of the critiques that are made about theology in the church and the general mistrust towards it that seems to linger. He is influenced both by tradition and scripture in his theological makeup, which is why he is admired by so many different types of Christians. Also, the book isn’t trying to be clever theology, it is simply a ‘crie de coeur’ to accept that theology is essential and not something devoid from reality. This book is unique despite the fact he has written in this area often. He writes in very plain language without dumbing anything down. This is a hugely impressive book, and if I had space I could say a lot more about his treatment of theologians and ideas.

Together Magazine

Together is the Christian resources magazine for the UK, with stories of what God is doing across the church today, book reviews and publishing industry news. Subscribe now at www.togethermagazine.org.

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What's the Point of Theology? (Paperback)
Alister McGrath
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