Saturday, October 19, 2013

Faith and Creeds: A Guide for Study and Devotion

Faith and Creeds: A Guide for Study and DevotionFaith and Creeds: A Guide for Study and Devotion by Alister E. McGrath
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In Faith and Creeds, McGrath sets out to provide the reader with the "panorama" of the Christian faith, arguing (quite convincingly) that "in order to appreciate individual beliefs, you need to see the big picture of which they are a part." Writing on a more common level, McGrath invites three of the great "lay theologians of the 20th century; C.S. Lewis, Dortothy Sayers, and G.K. Chesterton. He also follows the leading of Lewis in expounding a "Mere Christianity", that is the common faith to which all Christians hold.

But before he goes into the creed of the Christian faith, McGrath begins by examing the creed of atheism and where it falls short. While being a lover of science, he rightly points out that the truths of empiricism might show themselves to be factually correct and verifiable, they also show themselves to be existentially insignificant. And that which is truly existentially significant is more than often not empirically verifiable. Science, at its best, can explain the how of the universe but can offer nothing for the why. "The deepest truths of life lie beyond ultimate confirmation. The simple fact is that none of us, whether religious or secular, can prove any of the great truths we live by. That's just the way life is."

Everyone lives by a "big picture", the overarching narrative of what is true. The rationalists big picture is just not that big, culminating in reason and empircal evidence. McGrath urges the reader to expand our vision and see the true "big picture", the coral reef that lies beneath the surface of water that the empiricist and rationalist is bound to only see.

To see this big picture McGrath says we are in need of a map. The map to the Christian faith he proposes is found in the creeds of Christendom.

"The map we find in the creed is there to help us explore the landscape of faith and to find our way back home. It's a map that distils the core themes of the Bible, disclosing a glorious, loving, and righteous God, who creates a world that goes wrong, and then acts graciously and wondrously in order to renew and redirect it, before finally bringing it to its fulfillment. And we ourselves are an integral part of this story that reveals our true purpose, meaning and value--who we are, what is wrong, wht God proposes to do about this, and what we must do in response. "

For someone like myself who came to faith in a culture of "no creed but Christ" and spent many years unaware of the shortcomings of this attitude (including the fact that Christ is a person, not a creed and the fact that the statement "no creed but Christ” is a ...creed), this idea of the creeds as a map(and later a lens and a light) can be quite off-setting. However, as I explored the rich history of the church, I was overwhelmed with the benefit and blessing of the creeds throughout the centuries. Recognizing the communion of saints throughout history, I have been ministered to greatly by the creeds. Beyond that, I am constantly being shaped in an ecumenical (in a good way) manner. I want to join hand with my brothers and sisters as much as I can, to celebrate the "Mere Christianity" that we communally hold. The creeds not only allow for this, but seem to breed it.

Some will balk at this because they feel this is the role of Scripture. They are right in that, that the Scriptures are the true light and lens and map. What that does not take into account is the fact the the Scriptures are always interpreted by the reader. The attitude of "no creed but Christ" often leads to an individualism that manifests itself as "to me this means..." The creeds, as a faithful presentation of how the church as a whole has interpreted Scripture, are not in a position of authority over the Scriptures. The creeds are, however, in a position of authority over how one interprets Scripture and thus serves as a map, lens, and light of the Christian faith.  McGrath is correct when he calls them “verbal vessels containing the treasure of the gospel”, “a window to look through…a lens to bring things into focus”.

McGrath is brilliant at mixing literary thought, history, and theology together to tell a masterful story, this story about the history, validity and benefit of the Christian Creeds in the life of a believer.  This book is a prolegomena of sorts to a series of books, a series that Christians will surely benefit from for some time to come.

I received a review copy of this book to provide my honest thoughts.

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