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on 13 April 2016
I bought this book mainly because I’m a history geek and I wanted to know more about Christian theology and the role it played in the making of the modern Western world: actually I would argue that you can extend this beyond the West and say that Christian thought has impacted in a very fundamental way in every corner of the planet. As a history geek I can tell anyone who will listen all about the fall of the Roman Empire, the renaissance and the wars that were fought as Western civilisation emerged and spread. In particular I can bore at length about the 30 year war and its associated conflicts. If the listener is particularly unlucky I might even give them a long lecture on why there is (in my ‘humble’ opinion) an unbroken narrative linking Thermopylae to the Cold War via the peace of Westphalia. Of course my truths will not be everyone’s truth and in reality my firmly held convictions today may be blown away by better arguments tomorrow. Nevertheless, I am content that most of my ‘facts’ are credible. Many of these ‘facts’ relate to why people did what they did – my interpretation of their motivation – and having reached the common era (anno domini as we of a certain age would call it) these motivations are often related to Christian theology. If pressed on this subject I have often proved woefully ignorant. Fortunately, most of my listeners (willing or unwilling) have proved as ignorant as me and surprisingly most have taken great pride in this ignorance.

Although some level of ignorance is an inevitable feature of the human condition, there are few areas in which people will glorify in that ignorance. For example, I teach genetics and have the privilege of witnessing veils of ignorance dropping away as students progress through their studies, i.e. I meet a lot of ignorant students. Yet I have never heard a student say ‘this argument between Lamarck and Darwin was ridiculous – they just had a hang up about the length of a giraffe’s neck’. However, I have frequently heard variations on the theme that ‘all this fuss during the reformation was ridiculous, fancy getting so het up about what constitutes a wafer’.

I suspect this pride in ignorance stems from a fear of being pigeon holed as some sort of religious fanatic. A position akin to that I once heard lampooned by a Muslim comedian in a sketch; she said “I’ve become an alcoholic recently, I don’t like drinking I just don’t want the police to think I’m a suicide bomber”. A fear of being too knowledgeable about Christianity does not necessarily imply atheism. The most acceptable form of Christianity in secular societies seems to be pietism and It is totally acceptable to have a heartfelt belief in God as long as you are not indoctrinated: learning about Christian ideas is widely considered to be equivalent to signing up for brain washing.

It is fine to know a few of the stories; I was brought up knowing all about shepherds, magi and Pontius Pilate washing his hands. I was even aware that I was supposed to be a Protestant as opposed to a Catholic, meaning I was allowed to use a condom. It is OK to know all these things as long as you never ask what it all means, the moment you start asking why is the moment you start looking a bit suspicious.

I started looking suspicious quite a few years ago now, but I was able to mask my unnatural curiosity by making it clear that this curiosity was based on an interest in history and not theology. I can also show an item of evidence that I am not religious which most people are happy to accept – I have an Anglican baptism certificate. I was lucky enough to stumble across the excellent books of Diarmaid McCulloch in my search for a better understanding of Christianity (e.g. A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years,Reformation : Europe's House Divided 1490-1700,Thomas Cranmer: A Life): lucky on two accounts, firstly MacCulloch is an excellent writer and secondly because his books are fairly obviously safe history rather than dangerous theology. However, the MacCulloch’s description of the ideas underlying orthodoxy, heresy and the reformation only served to whet my appetite for a deeper discussion. My first excursion into the heavier side of the subject was a book called ‘Christian Theology’ by Millard Erickson (Christian Theology) and it was not at all a happy experience.

Millard Erickson is a very learned man and his writing has a lot to recommend it. If you want to learn to be a particular type of Christian he may well be the perfect author for you. If on the other hand you want to learn about the full spectrum of Christian thought his somewhat blinkered approach may be a little off putting – it certainly put me off. This is of course only my opinion and if you search down Professor Millard’s books on Amazon and read the reviews you might get a different impression. There are a number of reviewers who praise him for his ‘even handed approach’. I can only assume that this means even handedly discussing the faults in all positions apart from those of his own doctrine and making a fair contrast between these faults and the self-evident virtues of his own position (which inevitably has been ‘proved’ to be correct).

For me the doctrinal certainties of Erickson are a strong impetus towards atheism, counteracted perhaps by the strong force in the other direction provided by the equally doctrinaire writings of Richard Dawkins. Neither Erickson nor Dawkins actually provide what I really wanted, i.e. a reasonably presented account of a full range of Christian ideas. I just want to know what people thought and why, I can make up my own mind about whether they were right, wrong or (more likely) somewhere in the grey zone.

I am sure that Alister McGrath is as capable as Erickson or Dawkins at arguing his position, in fact I suspect he is a more gifted advocate than either of them (with no disrespect to either of the other two writers who are both in my opinion brilliant theologians), but ‘Christian Theology: An Introduction’ is not about that. The story of Christian ideas is presented in this book in such a way that for most of its considerable length it is difficult to know what McGrath’s personal views are at all. I am sure given McGrath’s list of other publications that he is not sympathetic to the views of Feuerbach or Karl Popper, but these views are presented with such scrupulous fairness that it would be quite easy to believe McGrath was a radical atheist. More complex is the way in which McGrath addresses the views of Karl Barth, a major theme of the book… having read right to the end I am still not sure if Barth is one of McGrath’s theological heroes or if he is an irritant that has got under McGrath’s skin. I suspect that Alister McGrath is more sympathetic to Liberal Protestant views, but to be honest Schleiermacher and Tillich probably come in for at least as much critical analysis as any conservative Roman Catholic theologian.

One area where McGrath’s biases do shine through is in his consideration of the Enlightenment, but I find it very easy to forgive this. The treatment of the Enlightenment in so much popular philosophy and history is uncritical so it is actually refreshing to see a forensic light shone on some of its underlying concepts.

One last point - finishing at the beginning: the prologue to McGrath’s ‘Introduction’ is a very long discussion on the best way to read the book. I would like to add one extra piece of advice on this subject, the best way to read this book is without reading the prologue. The rest of the book is brilliant.
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on 8 June 2015
Very good book thank you
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on 5 April 2017
good
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on 8 April 2017
All good
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on 2 March 2017
Excellent book
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on 4 March 2002
This is a key text for those wishing to have a clear academic introduction to Theology. I found it especially useful whilst studying A-level theology. Its depth of information contained was sufficient to what I needed to write essays etc. At degree level, it is a little on the basic side, but yet it still provides an initial overview of subjects to be covered at depth. For this reason, it might be helpful for those considering commencing academic study in theology, to see what they are letting themselves in for!
The questions at the end of the chapters provide a useful means to consolidate information read.
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HALL OF FAMEon 1 February 2004
This is one of the best single-volume broad-scope introductions to Christian theology available today. Currently in its second edition, it will most likely have more editions, and there are frequent reprintings of the edition as it continues to be a field-specific best seller in the English speaking academic and seminary communities.
One of the things that makes this book such a useful text for teaching, reference and study is that is contains three primary sections that deal with the foundation issues of all subsequent Christian theology: one must be aware of the history and what has been done before; one must know the how, where and why of theology; and one must have a basic outline, pattern or understanding from which to begin.
Landmarks: Periods, Themes, and Personalities
The pattern of historical development on Christianity is presented in a fairly objective manner by McGrath. He deals with a broad overview of the major periods, looking at key theological developments as well as key persons, events and geographic groupings and distinctions. Most chapters follow the same pattern of setting out a clarification of terms, a brief overview historically, a presentation of key theologians, an examination of key theological developments, a section on key names, word and phrases, and a section of questions and further suggested readings.
The Patristic Period is the time of the Church Fathers, post-apostolic but while 'the world' was still a Roman world. Key in this period is the fixing of creedal formulations of doctrine, the establishment of the biblical canon, and various issues of church, grace, and tradition. Key figures McGrath highlights are Justin Martyr, Ireneaus of Lyon, Origen, Tertullian, Athanasius, and Augustine. If there is one criticism of this section and the book as a whole, it is that it pays far too little attention to those parts of the Christian tradition that were not mainstream and historically victorious. One could easily be fooled into thinking controversies such as the Arian beliefs were fairly minor.
In the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods, McGrath highlights Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, and Erasmus. Key theological issues include a re-examination of grace (one will notice that certain issues remain in the forefront of Christian consideration and are constantly re-appraised), sacramental theology, patristics, formal theological systematics, and the issue of biblical translation.
In the Reformation and Post-Reformation section, McGrath highlights Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, and looks at the issues of the various Reformations, including the Counter-Reformation of the Roman Catholic church. The Modern Period section looks at the Enlightenment and its influence on Protestant and Catholic development, but much moreso the former. Various theological schools highlighted include Romanticism, Neo-Orthodoxy, Postmodernism, Liberation theology, Postliberalism, Evangelicalism, Pentecostal and charismatic movements, and the influence of various political developments such as Marxism on theological thought.
This is a rather sweeping examination of the history of Christian Theology, done in a mere 130 pages. It is good for an introduction, and one would do well to take McGrath's recommended readings lists to heart, as so much is glossed over with barely a mention in much of this treatment, by necessity. This is a theology text, not a history text.
Sources and Methods
McGrath in this section addresses the tools and methodologies, as well as the primary and secondary sources of theology. He shows the architecture of Christian theology to be comprised of biblical studies, historical theology, pastoral theology, philosophical theology, and systematic theology. These work together to form a broad framework of support; no one will be complete without addressing elements of the others.
In examining Sources of Theology more directly, McGrath looks at the issues of revelation. How precisely is revelation to be defined, and how does it work? He looks at issues of natural theology, scriptural revelation and authority, the importance and limitation of reason as a source of theology, the various ways in which tradition gets used as source material, and the issues and controversies surrounding direct religious experience as a valid source of theology. The reader will be introduced to some key debates in these topics, such as the Barth-Brunner debate over natural theology, and Feuerbach's critique of religious experience as a basis for theology.
Christian Theology
The third part of McGrath's text is the longest, dealing with all of the key issues of a systematic theology. First perhaps a definition is in order. Systematic theology is not a type of theology per se, but rather it is a type of types of theology. For instance, a Liberation theology work can be systematic or not; a Process theology work can be systematic or not. The various 'doctrines' set out are not set pieces of a creed here, but rather areas for examination. In looking at the Doctrine of God, the issues of gender, relationship, creativity, omnipotence and the like are all examined. McGrath gives the picture of God portrayed in the writings of theologians through history; for instance, in examining the issue of evil, McGrath highlights the work of Irenaeus, Augustine and Barth in particular, with a nod to more recent contributions.
Conclusions
The book can be easily adapted for use in an order other than what is presented here; however, McGrath recommends for the self-taught that the book be followed in the order of the Table of Contents, and I would tend to agree with that recommendation. There is a glossary, a good section on sources of citations, a handy reference section for theology resources on the internet, and a well-developed index.
The text is a broad-based approach. It is rather Protestant in its developmental approach and the subtle bias is always in that direction, but it is not so apparent or intrusive as to detract from the true value of this text as a major guide toward theological investigation.
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on 20 March 2013
What I like about this clear and concise introduction to Christian theology is the way it is structured so that themes and ideas get repeated in a way that helps the reader grasp and absorb them yet with a definite sense of continuity and progression throughout.
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on 21 August 2012
This book looks very promising, but having purchased the kindle version I was disappointed to find that the book has internal cross-references to page numbers but no page numbers! I obtained a refund and ordered the paperback.
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on 14 November 2014
Alister McGrath's introduction to Christian Theology feels like a history of theology. He expertly guides you through centuries of Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox thinking about theology. Don't confuse this with a systemic theology, like Wayne Grudem's. Before even addressing the doctrine of God, there are two lengthy sections of the book (194 pages!) with useful background information and history to theology in general which are well worth reading. Also, don't expect to find copious bible references. The author's primary concern seems to be to present theological ideas as they emerged and developed in history (with the necessary context given to shed more light on them) rather than how we can derive theology from the scriptures. That is not to say there is no reference made to the scriptures, and at times McGrath helps the reader critique a particular theological statement in the light of clear biblical revelation.

For me, it was refreshing to rethink a number of theological ideas in the light of a myriad of comments made by different early church fathers, medieval scholars, reformers and counter-reformers, as well as later theologians up to the modern day. If you feel overwhelmingly daunted by the doctrine of the Trinity, that section is well worth a read. Not only do you quickly realise the common struggle faced by countless theologians in thinking biblically about it over the centuries, but you also begin to sense that the entrenched differences in understanding (say, between the eastern and western churches) may not originally have been as stark as they are now made out to be.

For a weighty book, it is quite readable from cover to cover (if you have enough time to read 464 pages!) with the development of thoughts and understanding arranged largely chronologically in each section. McGrath's writing style is engaging and gives you just enough of each theologian and theological concept to want to go elsewhere to read more. He cites Karl Barth's comparison of Christian Theology to a breathtaking view of Tuscany (pxxii), as well as Etienne Gibson's description of theological systems as "cathedrals of the mind" (p39). I liken reading McGrath's book to taking a drive through that beautiful scenery, or a fascinating guided tour of that cathedral, seeing just enough to want to explore more.

If your only experience of reading theology is a few sections of a systematic theology with strings of biblical references but no sense of how the interpretation and understanding of those verses came about, I would encourage you to get hold of this book. It really does live up to its title as a helpful introduction to Christian Theology.
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