Alister McGrath’s seminal work, Christian Theology: An Introduction seemed a daunting read. Covering some 2000 years of Christian thought, key figures, various doctrines, and debates, McGrath exhaustively explores the world of Christian theology and makes it reasonably accessible to the modern reader. Given the vastness of material, McGrath proverbially “eats the elephant one bite at a time.”
Trying to encapsulate key points within a book this large can be finding a needle in a haystack, so I will focus on one section of McGrath’s book which I believe sets the stage for understanding theology. McGrath mentions that theology comes largely from 4 primary sources: scripture, tradition, reason and religious experience. Not all sources are equal in importance according to McGrath, but each contributes to the discipline of theology (p.120).
Scripture is the primary source to Christian theology. It is the authority for the Christian to gain an understanding of the God they serve. Tradition refers to the teachings of the Apostles and how those were passed from generation to generation. We see this illustrated when Paul tells his young protégé Timothy to “guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you.” Reason is yet another anchor to theology. McGrath points out that, “Reason for Christian theology has always been recognized, it is assumed an especial importance in the time of the enlightenment (p. 142).” While reason has its issues, it does have a place to play in theology. Finally, there is religious experience. As defined by McGrath, religious experience “comes to refer to the inner life of individuals, in which those individuals become aware of their own subjective feelings and emotions (p.146).” This source too is frail and must be viewed closely.
McGrath’s key sources are primary in understanding the theological approach. It seems that any of the major sources left in isolation can bring a flurry of confusion to the theological mind. For instance, if we were to isolate reason as the chief of all theological endeavors, then it would seem that we would have a theology that is rigorous, unapproachable, less godly and possibly more academic as Olson and Grentz might suggest.
The same would be true of experience. It would not be vital and life giving on its own but would more than likely drive the student of this source into a version of folk religion. Truly, there is one source that stands out alone and that would be scripture, but the others add value to scripture and enrich the theological process.
It is obvious that theology carries a certain tension to it. This is obvious when one explores the process throughout history. Theological battles have raged and are still raging. Theology is not perfect. For the common man, theology is not something that should intimidate, but rather the theological pursuit is aimed at gaining understanding to the God you serve. Theology must be approachable if it is to have any use for the average congregant hustling to handle their vocation, family, spiritual life, and host of other activities. If theology is seen merely as academic, then people will never explore the richness of their God. While exhaustive, McGrath distills Christian theological pursuits in an easily understandable way and invites the reader to engage in the process.