As I read Alister McGrath’s Christian Theology (2011), I was struck by many thoughts. But one theme that kept rising again and again was the notion that we cannot forget those who came before us. This is especially true for people of faith. We Christians often think of our faith as being personal, but it is, in reality, a communal faith. It is not my faith; it is OUR faith. And the theology that defines the Christian faith has been painstakingly developed through ions of time by great cost. Thus, our Christian faith is incredibly valuable, and it belongs to many. Like the icons that hang in Eastern Orthodox churches that are “windows into heaven,” the study of Christian theology should cause us to remember those many men and women who came before us – thinking, sacrificing, believing, living, and dying. The book of Hebrews reminds us to remember an important Christian imperative: “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses [italics mine], let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us. Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds.” And so, we are admonished to remember – and we are admonished to look unto Jesus in faith. Good theology, then, is more than just empty ideas.
The other thought that grabbed me by reading McGrath is that Christian theologians do not all agree. This might sound obvious, but to me it was a profound reminder. My Christian heritage did not allow for options, neither did my Biblical and theological studies. I was told what I should believe and was not allowed to think through the issues myself. This is what a Christian is and this is what a Christian believes about God, about Christ, about the Holy Spirit, and (especially) about the end times. McGrath doesn’t do this. His approach is to trust his readers to make up their own minds on historical, theological, and doctrinal issues. McGrath covers doctrinal controversies by introducing his readers to the many dissimilar theologians who have grappled with the complicated issues of faith. After reading the text (and I will admit here that I did not read every word), I found myself thinking that this author left no stone unturned! A goal that I have for myself is to read this text more carefully in the future.
Because of time and space, I would now like to comment on one particular area of theology that has caused me to dig and think deeply for the past several years. This particularity has to do with the doctrine of salvation in Christ and the scope of that salvation. I would first like to talk about my own struggle with this area of theological understanding and then to give a brief synopsis of how our author deals with these issues.
I have struggled for many years with the idea that if people have the “right beliefs,” they are saved and will not go to hell. However, if a person does not have all the “right beliefs” but lives a godly, “Christian” life, he or she will go to hell. The beginning of this struggle with evangelical orthodoxy began the day I met my mother-in-law. I was raised in a Christian family. They believed all the right doctrines and had all the Christian answers (they still do). The problem was that these were mean people – really mean people. They were also judgmental, self-righteous, and hypocritical. I should know; I was one of them! And we knew who would be saved and who would not be saved. We knew who was filled with the Holy Spirit and who was not. Actually, we had all the theological answers. However, all of this thinking was challenged the day I met my girlfriend’s mother Dorothy. Dorothy loved me, accepted me, encouraged me, and drank wine with me (I would call this communion). She listened to me, loved everyone, and endured life’s difficulties with a calm assurance that “everything would always work out.” Besides her daughter (who became my wife and has retained that title for 32 years) this was the finest human being I had ever met. But there was a major problem; she was going to hell, as were all the others loving members of my wife’s family. What? They were not believers; they just lived like believers. What the… My theological views went into a major tailspin at that point. And on this point of Christian doctrine and personal salvation, I have been asking questions ever since. By the way, my Christian family has grown in its meanness and fundamentalism. Ironically, all my wife’s family members are now believers in Christ.
In Chapter 13, McGrath discusses the doctrine of salvation found in Christ. In Christian understanding, salvation is linked with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Salvation is also shaped by Jesus Christ, which means that for a Christian, the Christian life has a lot to do with imitating the life of Christ as well as with the believer’s life being “brought into line with the inward relationship to Christ, established through faith.” Mcgrath then discusses the eschatological dimension of salvation that includes a brief explanation of justification and sanctification. He then lays down various views on the meaning of the cross as related to salvation and discusses classical and contemporary models of salvation in Christ. Lastly, he expounds on the topic of the appropriation of salvation in Christ. Is salvation found in the Church or is it more private and personal? In relation to views of personal faith, McGrath explains the Pietist movement and its impact on Western Christianity, using Nikolaus Ludwig Graf von Zinzendorf and the Wesley brothers as examples of those who emphasized the importance of personal conversion and holy living. Finally, McGrath comes to the issue of the scope of salvation in Christ: What is the extent of salvation made available and possible in Christ? He introduces two central affirmations to inform this discussion that are both found in the New Testament:
- God wishes all people to be saved.
- Salvation is possible only in and through Christ.
Clearly, this is a biblical paradox that has caused much debate among Christian theologians and believers through the centuries. Who will finally be saved? Universalism claims that all will ultimately receive salvation. Other views claim that only believers will be saved or that only “the elect” will be saved. What about other religions?
So where am I on these issues? I am open – open to saying that I don’t know – I don’t have the answers. But like theologians throughout history, for whom I am eternally grateful, I am in a process of theological discovery. And, McGrath’s book has given me fodder for reflection – and some beautiful windows into heaven.