Celebrating the value of the Creeds

The Landscape of Faith

Alister McGrath

SPCK, pb, £16.99


In Search of Ancient Roots

Kenneth J Stewart

IVP Apollos, pb, £17.99


Kenneth Stewart is concerned about the number of young evangelicals in America who are converting to Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. Often they do so because they are attracted to traditions that are rooted in the early church.

Stewart’s response is to stress the links between evangelicalism and the early church, stronger he admits in some periods of history than in others, and to encourage evangelicals today to rediscover what he terms ‘an important but elusive link with Christian antiquity’.

Stewart covers an enormous amount of ground and his book can be read with profit by people who, like me, do not share the worry that first prompted him to write. Inevitably there are errors and omissions. Catholic theology does not speak of a ‘bodily presence’ in the Eucharist.

It has often been pointed out that the existence of ‘bleeding hosts’ (sometimes talked about in the Middle Ages) would in fact have contradicted the doctrine of transubstantiation which used the language of Aristotelian philosophy to claim that while there was a change of ‘substance’ in the mass the ‘accidents’ did not change.

It must be said that this is not a polemical work. For example, Stewart, an American Presbyterian, offers a balanced discussion of infant baptism, arguing that while the evidence for infant baptism in the early church is unconvincing this should not lead to its complete abandonment but mean it has a more modest place in the life of the church today.

Although Stewart shows evangelicals in the past arguing for more frequent communion he has little to say about the desire of many Christians today (including evangelicals) for weekly communion.

He admits that evangelical worship lacks objectivity and liturgical depth and often seems designed to create a certain mood but as someone who is probably more often leading worship than sitting in the pew I do not think he really grasps the problem. I have worshipped in a number of well-attended evangelical services in both Sydney and New York in recent years and my reaction has always been the same.

The music has been good but the sermon has been too long and lacking in any interesting content. Sometimes I have been so bored I have had to walk out. The services struck me as good for people who were finding their way into the Christian faith but not offering much for people who wanted to grow in spiritual depth. It is not surprising students are attracted to evangelical worship but how many who do not become ministers stay evangelicals in later life? Any Christian (evangelical or non-evangelical) who wants to grow in understanding of the faith would be well advised to read Alister McGrath’s new book on the Christian creeds.

There are Christians who downplay the need for doctrine or theology. What matters is faith in God, they claim, and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. McGrath shows how among the disciples personal trust in Jesus was enriched and not displaced by a framework of beliefs as they saw how he fitted into the story of Israel. Using an image from Teresa of Avila McGrath sees the Christian faith as like a mansion with many rooms to explore. “Most of us, however, fail to get beyond the entrance hall,” he writes. “The creeds map out this mansion of faith, encouraging us to become familiar with its many rooms, and to learn to live in them.” In another image, McGrath sees the creeds as ‘like maps telling us where to find food and water on an island’.

They give us an outline of the Christian faith and help us to fit our experiences and beliefs into a wider framework. They remind us that we cannot rely solely on our own interpretation of Christianity. We are surrounded by a crowd of witnesses, members of the church and bound to take note of its core beliefs. As William Barclay put it, Christianity is a personal experience but not a private experience. People like me who have read many of McGrath’s other books will find the same refreshingly clear style and readiness to refer to such popular writers as CS Lewis, Dorothy L Sayers and GK Chesterton.

Some of the quotes have been used before; others are new. I like the CS Lewis image of the incarnation being like the action of a diver who wants to rescue something precious in the mud at the bottom of the lake. One of the advantages of the creeds that McGrath does not spell out is that they give us the core beliefs of the Christian faith. Take them seriously and you cannot put the Rapture or End Time prophecy at the core of your belief.

Paul Richardson