Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

A Journey of Mystery

Written by: on October 25, 2013

Where does one begin an honest journey of exploration? McGrath, in his work Christian Theology: An Introduction, [i] starts at the beginning. Sort of. He starts at the beginning of Christianity as a forming religion. McGrath provides a crash course through the history of Christianity (post Christ) and its formative ideas, then quickly moves through the sources and tools which guide Christian theology. He addresses key aspects of Christian theology. McGrath presents a thorough, if at times necessarily brief, history of ideological origins, conflicts, and perspectives. It is a whirlwind course. But does he start at the beginning? What would be the beginning? The beginning of Christianity? The beginning of Judaism? The beginning of time?

As I read, I found myself comparing and contrasting McGrath’s work to the previous books that we have read in our quest to expand our understanding of theology. At times these three books seem quite disparate in their approach. Consider three definitions of theology and/or Christian theology:

Grenz and Olson: “Christian theology is reflecting on and articulating the God centered life and beliefs that Christians share as followers of Jesus Christ, and it is done so in order that God may be glorified in all Christians are and do.”[ii]

Ford: “Theology deals with the questions of meaning, truth, beauty, and practice raised in relation to religions and pursued through a range of academic disciplines.”[iii]

McGrath: “Christian theology is therefore generally understood to mean the systematic study of the ideas of the Christian faith including the following issues: Sources… Development… Relationships… Applications.”[iv]

Grenz and Olson suggest a reflective and practical approach, while Ford raises questions and McGrath presents systematic study. Each in its own manner a valid approach, but uniquely different.  Each addressed similar key doctrinal issues, but again, in a different manner.

And then McGrath hit the core point for me. McGrath was beginning the daunting task of evaluating the doctrine of the Trinity, and presenting some of the challenges of doing so. While his comments were intended to address the difficulty of the Trinity, he summarized the challenge of theology in general. McGrath asserts that human language is inadequate. Human language cannot begin to describe the transcendent. Man tries to use every day images and objects to describe a God who is anything but every day. “The Christian understanding of both divine and human natures is such that – if it is right – we are unable to grasp the full reality of God. Can the human mind ever hope to comprehend something which must ultimately lie beyond its ability to enfold?”[v]

Or as McGrath quotes and then interprets Augustine, “’Si comprehendis non est Deus’. If you can get your mind around it, it cannot be God.”[vi]

How frustrating and beautiful!

And that, for me, is the journey. It is too big, and yet we seek and pursue God anyway. We don’t all agree, yet we seek a growing understanding of God anyway. The point is not that we agree, but that we keep pursuing. We keep asking questions – at times very hard questions. We are drawn into this quest, perhaps compelled, in spite of our lack of ability to fully get it right. Why? Because if God is real, and if He is who I think He says He is, there is no one more worthy of pursuing. Of course, we could argue as to whether I am pursuing Him, or He is drawing me, and I would say that for this moment, I don’t care. I am happy to be on the journey. I am happy not knowing all of the answers – though I will keep pursuing them – because if I knew all of the answers, God would not be very big.

For me, this is a fine stance. I am comfortable with ambiguity, messiness, and not knowing. But I find that far too many of the people I know, serve and love, really want some answers. And therein is the rub. Again, I am happy to help people explore. I am happy to share what I have come to understand based on the history before me and God’s revelation. But I will not say that I know absolutely more than a few things. I know that God is. I know that I can describe Him, and that I cannot. And I know something in my heart that words do not adequately express that all that I am, I am in Christ. I know in my being a love, a presence that my mind cannot grasp. That knowing, I suppose, is faith, and something more than faith.

Thus I land on McGrath’s final definition of Christian theology: “taking rational trouble over a mystery.”[vii] I kind of love that.It’s the right kind of trouble.

[i] Alistair McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction (5th Edition), West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

[ii] Grenz, Stanley J, and Olson, Roger.E. Who Needs Theology? Downers Grove, Il: IVP Academic. 1996, p. 49.

[iii] David F. Ford. Theology: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 16.

[iv] McGrath, pp. 101-102.

[v] Ibid, p 234.

[vi] Ibid, p. 235.

[vii] Ibid, p. 235.

About the Author

Julie Dodge

Julie loves coffee and warm summer days. She is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at Concordia University, Portland, a consultant for non-profit organizations, and a leader at The Trinity Project.

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