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The Basics

Alister E. McGrath

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eBook - ePub


The Basics

Alister E. McGrath

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About This Book

This fourth edition of the international bestseller is the ideal introduction for those who are new to Christian theology. In this revised and expanded edition, the author introduces readers to the central ideas and beliefs, the key debates and the leading thinkers of Christianity. Throughout, the aim is to bring clarity and brevity to the central ideas of theology, both traditional and contemporary.

The text comprehensively covers the individual doctrines that form the Christian belief system, weaving together these doctrines, their history, and the intellectual nuance behind them into an inter-connected web. All major Christian denominations are explored, as are their differences and shared customs and beliefs. This rich tapestry results in a clear view of Christianity, providing a coherent vision of the religion in its main forms.

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“I believe in God.” This opening phrase of the Creeds leads us directly into our first theological topic. What does it mean to talk about “believing in God”? What are we to understand by words such as “belief” and “faith”? Christian theologians have never seen faith simply in terms of intellectual assent to Christian belief. It is a matter of the heart, not simply the mind, involving personal commitment. As the English theologian William Temple (1881–1944) once pointed out: “Faith is not only the assent of our minds to doctrinal propositions: it is the commitment of our whole selves into the hands of a faithful Creator and merciful Redeemer.”

What is faith?

So what are we to understand by these basic theological terms “belief” and “faith”? Let's begin by noting two different senses of the word “faith.” Christian theologians have traditionally made a distinction between faith as a set of beliefs, and faith as an act of believing. Two Latin phrases are often used in the theological literature to express this difference between the content of faith, and the human act of faith.
  1. Fides quae creditur (which can be loosely translated as “the faith we believe”). This refers to an objective set of beliefs, such as those set out in the Apostles' Creed or the Nicene Creed. These are understood to provide an outline of the basic beliefs of the Christian faith.
  2. Fides qua creditur (which can be loosely translated as “the faith by which we believe”). This refers to a subjective act of trust or assent, by which individual believers accept and appropriate the basic ideas of the Christian faith.
The relationship between these objective and subjective aspects of faith is regularly discussed in works of theology. There is a general consensus within Christian theology, transcending denominational divisions, that both these elements are part of a proper understanding of faith. Faith affects the human mind, heart, and will. Consider, for example, this statement from an early twentieth-century Anglican theologian:
[Faith] affects the whole of [human] nature. It commences with the conviction of the mind based on adequate evidence; it continues in the confidence of the heart or emotions based on conviction, and it is crowned in the consent of the will, by means of which the conviction and confidence are expressed in conduct.
This definition of faith would command wide support across Christian theology, weaving together the core elements of the characteristic Christian understanding of faith. Note how it links together intellectual conviction, trusting confidence, and informed conduct.
One of the core elements of faith is an attitude of informed trust in God, which stands at the heart of the Old Testament account of the calling of Abraham (Genesis 15:1–6). This tells of how God promised to give Abraham countless descendants, as numerous as the stars of the night sky. Abraham believed God – that is, he trusted the promise that was made to him. Similarly, the crowds around Jesus Christ are often described as having “faith” – meaning that they believed that he had some special status, identity, or authority, and would be able to heal them from their illnesses, or deal with their concerns (e.g., Luke 5:20; 17:19). Here again the basic idea is trust, in this case mingled with discernment that there is something about Jesus which merits such an attitude of trust.
In everyday language, words like “faith” and “belief” have come to mean something like “a weak form of knowledge.” I know that the chemical formula for water is H2O, or that the earth rotates around the sun. When I say “I know” that “the capital of the United States of America is Washington, DC,” I mean that this statement can be verified. But when I say “I believe in God,” I would be understood to mean something like “I think that there is a God, but I cannot demonstrate this with any degree of certainty.”
This everyday use of the terms “faith” and “belief” is misleading, however, as it does not do justice to the complexity of the theological notion of “faith.” In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, western philosophy widely believed that anything worth believing could be proved – whether by logical reasoning or by scientific experimentation. For example, the nineteenth-century mathematician W. K. Clifford (1845–79) argued that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” This “positivism” had a deep impact on western culture, and its influence still lingers. The idea of “faith in God” was ridiculed by some rationalist writers, who argued that unless God's existence could be proved, it was an utterly irrelevant notion.
Yet with the passing of time, the credibility of this position has been severely weakened. It has become increasingly clear that many of the fundamental beliefs of western culture lie beyond proof. The philosopher of science Michael Polanyi (1886–1964) argued that certain unprovable beliefs lay behind the working methods of the natural sciences. As Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–92) pointed out in his poem The Ancient Sage, nothing that was actually worth believing could be proved in the way that people like Clifford demanded:
For nothing worthy proving can be proven,
Nor yet disproven: wherefore thou be wise,
Cleave ever to the sunnier side of doubt,
And cling to Faith beyond the forms of Faith.
Since then, philosophers have become much more realistic about things. Some things can indeed be proved; but some, by their very nature, lie beyond proof. God is one of these.

Can God's existence be proved?

The basic Christian attitude to proofs for the existence of God can be set out as follows.
  1. The existence of God is something that reason cannot prove conclusively. Yet the fact that the existence of God lies beyond reason does not mean that the existence of God is contrary to reason.
  2. Certain excellent reasons may be put forward for suggesting that God exists; these do not, however, count as “proofs” in the sense of “rigorous logical demonstrations” or “conclusive scientific experiments.”
  3. Faith is about trust in God, rather than just accepting that God exists.
In what follows, we shall explore this aspect of Christian theology in a little more detail, focusing on Thomas Aquinas, probably the most famous and influential theologian of the Middle Ages. Born in Italy, he achieved his fame through his teaching and writing at the University of Paris and other northern universities. His fame rests chiefly on his Summa Theologiae, composed towards the end of his life and not totally finished at the time of his death. However, he also wrote many other significant works, particularly the Summa contra Gentiles, which represents a classic statement of the rationality of the Christian faith, and especially the existence of God.
Aquinas believed that it was entirely proper to identify pointers towards the existence of God, drawn from general human experience of the world. His “Five Ways” represent five lines of argument in support of the existence of God, each of which draws on some aspect of the world which “points” to the existence of its creator.
So what kind of pointers does Aquinas have in mind? The basic line of thought guiding Aquinas is that the world mirrors God, as its creator – an idea which is given more formal expression in his doctrine of the “analogy of being.” Just as an artist might sign a painting to identify it as his handiwork, so God has stamped a divine “signature” upon the creation. What we observe in the world – for example, its signs of ordering – can be explained if God was its creator. If God both brought the world into existence, and impressed the divine image and likeness upon it, then something of God's nature can be known from the creation.
So where might we look in creation to find evidence for the existence of God? Aquinas argues that the ordering of the world is the most convincing evidence of God's existence and wisdom. This basic assumption underlies each of the “Five Ways,” although it is of particular importance in the case of the argument often referred to as the “argument from design” or the “teleological argument.” We shall consider the first and last of these five “ways” to illustrate the issues.
The first way begins from the observation that things in the world are in motion or change. The world is not static, but is dynamic. Examples of this are easy to list. Rain falls from the sky. Stones roll down valleys. The earth revolves around the sun (a fact, incidentally, unknown to Aquinas). This, the first of Aquinas's arguments, is normally referred to as the “argument from motion”; however, it is clear that the “movement” in question is actually understood in more general terms, so that the term “change” is more appropriate as a translation of the Latin term motus.
So how did nature come to be in motion? Why is it changing? Why isn't it static? Aquinas argues that everything which moves is moved by something else. For every motion, there is a cause. Things don't just move; they are moved by something else. Now each cause of motion must itself have a cause. And that cause must have a cause as well. And so Aquinas argues that there is a whole series of causes of motion lying behind the world as we know it. Now unless there is an infinite number of these causes, Aquinas argues, there must be a single cause right at the origin of the series. From this original cause of motion, all other motion is ultimately derived. This is the origin of the great chain of causality which we see reflected in the way the world behaves. From the fact that things are in motion, Aquinas thus argues for the existence of a single original cause of all this motion. This, Aquinas insists, is none other than God.
In more recent times, this argument has been restated in terms of God as the one who brought the universe into existence. For this reason, it is often referred to as the “cosmological” argument (from the Greek word kosmos, meaning “universe”). The most commonly encountered statement of the argument runs along the following lines:
  1. Everything within the universe depends on something else for its existence;
  2. What is true of its individual parts is also true of the universe itself;
  3. The universe thus depends on something else for its existence for as long as it has existed or will exist;
  4. The universe thus depends on God for its existence.
The argument basically assumes that the existence of the universe is something that requires explanation. It will be clear that this type of argument relates directly to modern cosmological research, particularly the “big bang” theory of the origins of the cosmos.
The fifth and final way is known as the teleological argument, which derives its name from the Greek word telos, meaning “purpose” or “goal.” Aquinas notes that the world shows obvious traces of intelligent design. Natural processes and objects seem to be adapted with certain definite objectives in mind. They seem to have a purpose. They seem to have been designed. But things don't design themselves: they are caused and designed by someone or something else. Arguing from this observation, Aquinas concludes that the source of this natural ordering must be conceded to be God.
This argument was developed by the English popular theologian William Paley (1743–1805), best k...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Title Page
  3. Copyright Page
  4. List of Illustrations
  5. Preface
  6. The Development of Christian Theology: A Short Historical Overview
  7. The Apostles' Creed
  8. Getting Started
  9. 1 Faith
  10. 2 God
  11. 3 Creation
  12. 4 Jesus
  13. 5 Salvation
  14. 6 Spirit
  15. 7 Trinity
  16. 8 Church
  17. 9 Sacraments
  18. 10 Heaven
  19. Moving On
  20. Audio and Video Resources for This Textbook
  21. Brief Glossary of Theological Terms
  22. Details of Theologians Cited
  23. Sources of Citations
  24. Index
  25. EULA
Citation styles for Theology

APA 6 Citation

McGrath, A. (2017). Theology (4th ed.). Wiley. Retrieved from (Original work published 2017)

Chicago Citation

McGrath, Alister. (2017) 2017. Theology. 4th ed. Wiley.

Harvard Citation

McGrath, A. (2017) Theology. 4th edn. Wiley. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

McGrath, Alister. Theology. 4th ed. Wiley, 2017. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.