Christian Theology
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Christian Theology

An Introduction

Alister E. McGrath

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eBook - ePub

Christian Theology

An Introduction

Alister E. McGrath

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About This Book


"The genius of Alister E. McGrath is his remarkable ability to write in a clear, concise, and lucid manner that draws both teachers and students to participate with the great thinkers of the Christian tradition, past and present. Education and illumination are the abundant fruits of this massive, well-organized text, which is sure to appeal to a wide range of Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox audiences. For this we are indebted to the author."
Dennis Ngien, Professor of Systematic Theology, Tyndale University College and Seminary, Toronto, Canada

"For sheer comprehensiveness, clarity, and coherence, Alister McGrath has produced the definitive textbook. Always accurate and engaging, students are gently introduced to the gift of Theology in a memorable way."
Ian S. Markham, Dean and President of Virginia Theological Seminary

Praise for the fifth edition

"Alister McGrath has proven himself a master at engagingly and simply introducing Christian theology in all of its contested complexity. All who work at the critical appropriation of the theological tradition stand in debt to McGrath."
M. Douglas Meeks, Cal Turner Chancellor Professor of Theology and Wesleyan Studies, Vanderbilt University Divinity School

Now celebrating its 25th year of publication, Christian Theology is one of the most internationally acclaimed textbooks in this area today. Completely rewritten for the sixth edition, it remains the ideal introduction to the beliefs and interpretation of Christianity. It is specifically designed for students with no prior knowledge, presenting the primary themes and debates of Christian theology with clarity and historical context.

This new edition retains all the elements that have made it so successful while also including significant additions and developments. There is an increased discussion of contemporary theology to complement the excellent coverage of historical material. Important new information has also been added, in areas such as the Holy Spirit, contemporary non-Western theologies, and feminist voices in Christian theology. The text is rich in pedagogy to encourage student learning, featuring a two colour design, glossary, end-of-chapter discussion questions, and much more. Written by renowned theologian Alister E. McGrath, this classic text is a clear, lively and concise introduction that provides instructors with the tools they need to engage with their students on Christian theology.

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Part I
Periods, Themes, and Personalities of Christian Theology

  1. Introduction
  2. 1 The Patristic Period, c.100–c.700
  3. 2 The Middle Ages and the Renaissance, c.700–c.1500
  4. 3 The Age of Reformation, c.1500–c.1750
  5. 4 The Modern Period, c.1750 to the Present


Anyone who thinks about the great questions of Christian theology soon finds out that a lot of them have already been addressed. It is virtually impossible to do theology as if it had never been done before. There is always an element of looking back over one's shoulder to see how things were done in the past, and what answers were then given. Part of the notion of “tradition” is a willingness to take seriously the theological heritage of the past. Although this emphasis on taking the past seriously is mainly associated with Catholic and Orthodox theologians, many Protestant writers would concur. The great Protestant theologian Karl Barth (1886–1968) is one of many to note and affirm the continued importance of the great theological luminaries of the past in today's theological debates:
With regard to theology, we cannot be in the church without taking responsibility as much for the theology of the past as for the theology of our own present day. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Schleiermacher and all the others are not dead but living. They still speak and demand a hearing as living voices, as surely as we know that they and we belong together in the church.
Most works of Christian theology – whether Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox – engage with major writers from the past, simply because those writers remain such an important resource for Christian theological reflection today. It is therefore important to become familiar with the main voices and conversations of the Christian past, which are interesting in themselves and also provide vital reference points for the debates of our own time.
In practice, there is widespread agreement over the broad division of the history of Christian theology for teaching purposes. In this brief (but important) survey of the development of Christian theology, we shall consider four periods of thought, as follows:
  • the patristic period, c.100–c.700 (chapter 1);
  • the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, c.700–c.1500 (chapter 2);
  • the Reformation and post-Reformation periods, c.1500–c.1750 (chapter 3);
  • the modern period, c.1750 to the present day (chapter 4).
There is always going to be debate about these divisions, which may seem a little arbitrary. When did the patristic age end? Or the Middle Ages begin? The great Cambridge historian George Macaulay Trevelyan (1876–1962) wisely reminds us that historical “periods” are best seen simply as helpful constructions, rather than as well-defined realities. “Unlike dates, periods are not facts. They are retrospective conceptions that we form about past events, useful to focus discussion, but very often leading historical thought astray.” Trevelyan's point is well taken. Nevertheless, we still need to try to organize the material into workable blocks or sections, rather than rambling aimlessly through the vast amount of theological discussion of the past two thousand years.
This opening section of this textbook provides an introductory panorama of some landmarks in theological reflection. It surveys some of the most important developments associated with these four eras, including:
  • the geographical location of centers of Christian thought;
  • the main theological issues under debate;
  • the schools of thought associated with theological issues;
  • the leading theologians of the period, and their particular concerns.
So let's get started. The first major era of Christian thought is often referred to as the “patristic period.” So what is meant by this? And what happened during this period? Let's find out.

The Patristic Period, c.100–c.700

Christianity has its origins in Palestine – more specifically, the region of Judea, especially the city of Jerusalem – in the first century. Christianity saw itself as a continuation and development of Judaism, and initially flourished in regions with which Judaism was traditionally associated, supremely Palestine itself. However, it rapidly spread to neighboring regions, partially through the efforts of early Christian evangelists such as Paul of Tarsus.

The Early Centers of Theological Activity

By the end of the first century AD, Christianity had become established throughout the eastern Mediterranean world and had even gained a significant presence in the city of Rome, the capital of the Roman empire. As the church at Rome became increasingly powerful, tensions began to develop between the Christian leadership at Rome and at the great cities of the eastern Roman empire, such as Alexandria and Antioch. By the fourth century, the Roman empire had effectively split in two. The western empire was now ruled from Rome, and the eastern from the great new imperial city of Constantinople. This foreshadowed the later schism between the western and eastern churches, centered on these respective seats of power.
In the course of this expansion, a number of regions emerged as significant centers of theological debate. Three may be singled out as having especial importance, the first two of which were Greek-speaking and the third Latin-speaking.
  1. The city of Alexandria, in modern-day Egypt, which emerged as a center of Christian theological education. A distinctive style of theology came to be associated with this city, reflecting its long-standing association with the Platonic tradition. The student will find reference to “Alexandrian” approaches in areas such as Christology (the area of theology dealing with the identity and significance of Jesus Christ) and biblical interpretation (see pp. 115–16, 220–1), reflecting both the importance and the distinctiveness of the style of Christianity associated with the area.
  2. The city of Antioch and the surrounding region of Cappadocia, in modern-day Turkey. A strong Christian presence came to be established in this northern region of the eastern Mediterranean at an early stage. Some of Paul's missionary journeys took him into this region, and Antioch features significantly at several points in the history of the very early church, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. Antioch itself soon became a leading center of Christian thought. Like Alexandria, it became associated with particular approaches to Christology and biblical interpretation. The term “Antiochene” is often used to designate this distinct theological style (see pp. 115–16, 200–1). The “Cappadocian fathers” were also an important theological presence in this region in the fourth century, notable especially for their contribution to the doctrine of the Trinity.
  3. Western North Africa, especially the areas of modern-day Algeria and Tunisia. In the classical period, this was the site of Carthage, a major Mediterranean city and at one time a political rival to Rome for dominance in the region. During the period when Christianity expanded in this region, it was a Roman colony. Major writers of the region include Tertullian (c.160–c.220), Cyprian of Carthage (died 258), and Augustine of Hippo (354–430).
Map depicting the Roman empire and the church in the fourth century.
Map 1.1 The Roman empire and the church in the fourth century.
A photograph of the ancient city of Carthage.
Figure 1.1 The ancient city of Carthage.
Source: photo © WitR / Shutterstock.
With the passing of time, some other cities around the Mediterranean – such as Rome, Constantinople, Milan, and Jerusalem – also became significant centers of Christian life and thought.

An Overview of the Patristic Period

The patristic period was one of the most exciting and creative periods in the history of Christian thought. This period is also of importance for theological reasons. Every mainstream Christian body – including the Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, and Reformed churches – regards the patristic period as a definitive landmark in the development of Christian doctrine. Each of these churches regards itself as continuing, extending, and, where necessary, criticizing the views of the early church writers. For example, the leading seventeenth-century Anglican writer Lancelot Andrewes (1555–1626) declared that mainstream Christianity was based upon one canon, two testaments, three creeds, four “general councils,” and the first five centuries of Christian history.

A Clarification of Terms

The term “patristic” comes from the Latin word pater, “father,” and designates both the period of the church fathers and the distinctive ideas that came to develop within this period. The term is noninclusive; no generally acceptable inclusive term has yet to emerge in the literature. For this reason, some prefer to talk about “early church theologians” rather than “patristic theologians.” We shall retain the term “patristic” in this work, as it is still widely used to refer to the theology of this formative period. The following related terms are still frequently encountered, and should be noted.
  • The patristic period: This is a vaguely defined entity, often taken to be the period from the closing of the New Testament writings (c.100) to the definitive Council of Chalcedon (451).
  • Patristics: This term is usually understood to mean the branch of theological study which deals with the study of “the fathers” (patres).
  • Patrology: This term once literally meant “the study of the fathers,” in much the same way as “theology” meant “the study of God” (theos). In recent years, however, the word has shifted its meaning. It now refers to a manual of patristic literature, such as that of the noted German scholar Johannes Quasten (1900–87), which allows its readers easy access to the leading ideas of patristic writers and to some of the problems of interpretation associated with them.

The Theological Agenda of the Period

The patristic period was of major importance in clarifying a number of issues. One issue that had to be sorted out at an early stage was the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. The letters of Paul in the New Testament point to the importance of this question in the first century of Christian history, as a series of doctrinal and practical issues came under consideration. Since circumcision was obligatory for Jews, should Gentile (that is, non-Jewish) Christians be obliged to be circumcised? Did Christians have to observe Jewish food laws? And how was the Old Testament to be correctly interpreted?
However, other issues soon came to the fore. One which was of especial importance in the second century was that of apologetics – the reasoned defense and justification of the Christian faith against its critics. During the first period o...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Christian Theology

APA 6 Citation

McGrath, A. (2016). Christian Theology (6th ed.). Wiley. Retrieved from (Original work published 2016)

Chicago Citation

McGrath, Alister. (2016) 2016. Christian Theology. 6th ed. Wiley.

Harvard Citation

McGrath, A. (2016) Christian Theology. 6th edn. Wiley. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

McGrath, Alister. Christian Theology. 6th ed. Wiley, 2016. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.