This has been a busy month for me, not least because I have changed jobs. I now work for NICE (www.nice.com). So I haven’t read as much as I normally would (at least on theology – I have read a lot of programming books).
The Science of God (Alister E. McGrath) 3/5
Alister McGrath is undoubtedly one of the most brilliant minds of modern evangelicalism. His three volume “Scientific Theology” is highly acclaimed as a groundbreaking work bringing together theology with other disciplines (especially the natural sciences). “The Science of God” is the introductory work for those who do not have the time to read all three volumes, but don’t expect a simplified approach. McGrath expects his readers to be familiar with a number of philosophical terms and concepts which can make parts of this book inaccessible to non-specialists. What this book needed was a good editor / co-author to make this volume a bit more approachable. In places it appears that the condensation process has been rushed, with repeated phrases or whole sentences in close proximity apparently missed by the proof-readers. This is a shame, because the book itself offers some profound insights.
The book follows the exact same structure as the full work, with sections on “Nature”, “Reality” and “Theory”. In “Nature”, McGrath shows that it is far from universally agreed what “Nature” actually is. He argues that we not only can, but should approach nature from the Christian perspective of it as “creation”, seeing the Triune God as Creator. If indeed God is Creator, then an atheistic approach to nature will of necessity fall short of achieving an accurate picture of reality. Not that we should refuse to enter into meaningful debate with the wider scientific community – quite the opposite – but not to be afraid to offer a coherent system that rests on different presuppositions. Science has a track record of proposing theories that are later rejected (take the theory of light for example) – we just have no way of predicting what current understandings we have will be shortly proved wrong. So a scientific theology does not and should not expect to always exactly correlate with current theories.
In “Reality”, McGrath reviews various failed attempts to come up with one method of determining truth that can be applied across all disciplines. Sometimes mathematicians or natural scientists have claimed that they have a method of inquiry that is self-evidently correct. But this is not so easily translated to ethics, theology, history and so forth as we might have hoped, and recent mathematical discoveries have found that multiple coherent systems can be found completely independent to one another (for example non-Cartesian geometry). In other words, we have failed to agree on which, if any, propositions can be agreed upon by all rational persons.
He defends his own approach of critical realism, affirming that we can discover reality through scientific and theological methods while acknowledging our own participation in gaining that knowledge. Hence “social constructs” are to be considered “real” and valid terms for describing reality. What’s more he argues that different fields of study require differing but equally valid methods of discovering truth, without the need for a reductionist approach that boils all epistemology down to one technique. This is because of the differing ontological nature of different strands of knowledge, and he argues that this is so within theology as much as (for example) medicine.
Finally, in “Theory”, McGrath explains why theory (or in theology, ‘doctrine’) is necessary, as an attempt to explain reality. We cannot and should not attempt an “undogmatic” Christianity. He discusses the roles of analogies and their suitability for describing doctrines. He defends the category of revelation, arguing that “the central ideas of the Christian faith owe their origins directly or indirectly to God, rather than to unaided human reason”.
This book is by no means a systematic theology, but it proposes the basis for one that interacts with the natural sciences, and the historical developments of doctrines in a meaningful way. McGrath closes by indicating the projects he will be working on next, and while these are still a long way off, they will make fascinating reading.
The Message of 1 Timothy & Titus (John Stott) 4/5
Although this commentary does not cover all three pastoral epistles, Stott uses the introduction to discuss the arguments for and against Pauline authorship for the pastorals as a whole. He does not go into exhaustive detail, but the discussion is fuller than normal for the BST series. As he works through the book, Stott makes his usual comments on apostleship, emphasising the differences between Paul’s unique situation with the church of today. His discussion of gender issues is sensitively handled, and he argues for a creation principle of male “headship” which has varying cultural expressions. He then categorises women teaching alongside men raising their hands and women plaiting their hair – practises that will be appropriate or not in different cultures as expressions of this principle.
As he moves through the letter, Stott draws out the principles for Christian leadership Paul gives both for Timothy specifically and for all leaders in church life. The treatment of the subject of money in chapter six is particularly insightful, discussing simplicity and destitution. The book of Titus brings up many of the same themes again, and Stott describes the book as being about “doctrine and duty” – in the church, the home and the world. He brings out lots of practical application without simply repeating what he said in the commentary on 1 Timothy.