I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
The Apostles Creed. What does it mean?
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers. Today I review “The Spirit of Grace” by Alister McGrath. 128 pages. Published by SPCK Publishing in Dec 2014. Available in Amazon Kindle for USD9.99 and for free in Logos in January.
Scientist and Theologian
McGrath graduated with a first class honours in Chemistry at Oxford, then a doctorate in molecular biophysics, a first class honours in theology, and just to make the rest of us feel small and tiny, he went on to two more doctorates in theology, and intellectual history.
I see here he has a long history as a Professor of Theology in Oxford, London, then back to Oxford as the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion in 2014. In 2022, he stepped down from this endowed chair, and is now the Senior Research Fellow at the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion at Oxford.
McGrath has written many books. There are many interesting titles here that I want more time to talk about them. So I’ll do that at the end of this review. Let’s look at today’s book, “The Spirit of Grace”.
The Title Under-Promises (Or The Book Over-Delivers)
When I picked up this book, I thought I knew what it would be about. The title says, “The Spirit of Grace”, so the book must be all about… the Holy Spirit. To my surprise, it was not.
This is actually the fourth book in a series. The series is designed to explain Christian creeds and Book 4 covers this part of the Apostles Creed:
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
The rest of it: “the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.” will be covered in Book 5, “The Christian Life and Hope.”
This is great. I don’t mind reading another book on the Holy Spirit but I haven’t read a book on the Apostles Creed. But McGrath surprises me once again by giving more than expected.
Let me read the chapter headings and we’ll see if you were paying attention.
- Chapter 1: The Holy Spirit: The giver of life
- Chapter 2: Humanity: the climax of God’s creation
- Chapter 3: Grace: the gift of a courteous God
- Chapter 4: Church: the communion of saints
- Chapter 5: One holy catholic and apostolic Church
The Apostles Creed doesn’t say anything about humanity. Yet, McGrath wisely notes:
If we are to understand the important place of spirituality in the Christian faith, we need to grasp both the idea that humanity has been created in order to relate to God and the role of the Holy Spirit in enabling and sustaining that relationship.
If I was assigned to write a book on the Apostles Creed, I would just do what I was told. There are four lines for this book? Then I’ll have four chapters.
But McGrath has a higher level objective. He wants to explain the Christian belief to everyone, to describe the heart of the faith. If we need biblical anthropology, if we need to know what the Bible says about us, to understand Christianity he gives it to us.
Before we delve into a few chapters as examples, I just want to say that this book provoked many thoughts. Which at first I thought was strange because it’s not as if I am encountering something new, a new concept. I know the Apostles Creed. When I go back to my hometown, the church I go to would in every Sunday service flash up the Apostles Creed for the congregation to read together.
I know the theology behind the Apostles Creed, having read books on the different elements of it: the Holy Spirit, forgiveness, the church. So why has McGrath’s book been so stimulating?
And I concluded it’s because the truth he speaks of is timely and timeless, it applies to what is important in our lives. When I’m guided by an able guide as McGrath, my latent thoughts, my worries and concerns, hopes and dreams, engage with the truth.
Let me share what I mean.
Holy Tensions Resolved
In Chapter 1 on the Holy Spirit, McGrath describes the experiential approach emphasised within the Charismatic and Pentecostal movements. He writes:
An emphasis on the experience of the Spirit can be argued to represent a welcome move away from very bookish or intellectual ways of thinking about the Christian faith. Why should those who cannot read, or who find abstract reasoning difficult, be disadvantaged in matters of faith? The Holy Spirit is the great leveller, making the rich experience of the living God available to all.
Then before one can accuse McGrath of being a Charismatic, he writes:
But not everyone feels so positively about experiential approaches to faith. Dorothy L. Sayers wrote to C. S. Lewis on 5 August 1946, making clear they made no sense to her. ‘All spiritual experience is a closed book to me; in that respect I have been tone-deaf from birth.’ Sayers relied on reason and imagination to generate and sustain her faith, and saw no cause to appeal to the vagueness of religious experience to express or defend it. Others are wary of a ‘touchy-feely’ faith, which they consider may open them to the charge of emotionalism or subjectivism—that is, making what they feel the basis of what they believe.
Having brought up the tension of the two positions, McGrath then tells us in no uncertain terms: “Divergence within Christianity really reflects a strength.”
Later he concludes:
There is only one Holy Spirit, but our experience and appreciation of that Spirit differs and reflects our individual identity. We are not forced into a template! Each of us is special, with something unique to offer God, who takes the threads of our lives and weaves them into a greater pattern.
What strikes me is how much we need good theologians. We give credit to the tireless pastor, preacher and missionaries but we must not forget the teachers, especially those who have dedicated a lifetime to study the Bible and to describe reality.
Most of us don’t have the time to reflect on the theological issues of the day so we need some of us to do what is needed, to do theology.
Too many Christians think that ‘theology’ is a bad word for it leads to divisions. That is a failure to see how theology unites.
When there are divisions between intellectuals and believers who are more experiential, we unite in truth presented through theological analysis: Hey! Many gifts, many types of personalities but one Holy Spirit.
Reading the whole book we see unity in our common humanity, in our common need for forgiveness and once we accept Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, in our common belonging within the Church.
And if you read the whole series which explores the Christian creeds, including the Apostles Creed, you can see how it is our theology, our understanding of God, that unites us in our faith.
Pelagian Controversy Nicely Said
If you subscribe to this podcast, you will know that I recently reviewed Augustine’s Four Anti-Pelagian Writings.
I didn’t expect to see Pelagius again so soon. In McGrath’s chapter on humanity, McGrath gives a clear and concise summary of the Pelagian controversy.
In just a few pages, he tells us the history between the men, the theological debate and its implications, clearly siding with Augustine’s interpretation without villainising Pelagius.
Let me read his conclusion:
The debate between Augustine and Pelagius is often revisited by Christians. On the one hand, Pelagius’ emphasis on the importance of trying to do our best is welcomed. On the other, Augustine’s emphasis on human frailty fits in far better with the New Testament’s stress on God’s graciousness towards us. For Augustine, human beings are damaged, wounded and seriously ill. There is no point in demanding that we improve ourselves when the essence of our condition is that we are trapped in our predicament. Pelagius seems to be in denial about the human situation. His naïve approach, although unquestionably well intentioned, could be compared to ordering a blind man to see things properly. Spiritual healing, not simply moral direction, is required.
This is the calm even-handed way McGrath deals with one of the most recognised and pernicious of heresies. This calm examination of ideas in simple non-technical language allows us to weigh the merits without the outrage. I don’t know about you but I think we could do with less outrage nowadays.
Catholic is Understood Universal
One of my favourite chapters in the book is Chapter 5 which contains his systematic unpacking of the words from the Nicene Creed, “One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church”.
Catholic here does not refer to the Roman Catholic Church. Catholic means universal. To explain this, McGrath quotes Cyril of Jerusalem:
The Church is called ‘catholic’ because it extends through all the world, from one end of the earth to the other; and because it teaches completely, and without any omissions, all the doctrines that ought to be known to humanity concerning both things that are visible and invisible and things that are earthly and heavenly; and because it brings all kinds of people—whether rulers or subjects, learned or ignorant—under the influence of true piety; and because it universally treats and cures every kind of sin, whether committed by the soul or the body; and possesses in itself every kind of virtue which can be named relating to words, deeds or spiritual gifts of every kind.
McGrath then explains why understanding the church as catholic is important to Christians today:
The Church is the depository and transmitter of the whole Christian faith, not simply those parts of it that are thought to be relevant to its own situation.
As someone who has studied the history of the Church, I have often noticed the tendency of one generation to regard some aspect of the Christian tradition as being of little interest, only for a later generation to rediscover its importance. The survival of the Christian faith depends upon the full richness of its intellectual, spiritual and ethical teachings being preserved and transmitted. We simply do not know what challenges we may face in the future, and which of the many resources of our faith may come into their own in meeting them. Christianity doesn’t always need to develop new ideas; it can reach back into its past, and rediscover ideas and approaches that have a new relevance in today’s context.
McGrath speaks of creeds, tradition and resources. Resources like books.
I started Reading and Readers because I wanted to do something about Christians not reading and not thinking deeply. They are missing out on the best things in life: The devotion and reflections of the faithful.
I was very encouraged.
Three Annoying Aspects (That Are Not The Writer’s Fault)
As I am sure you can tell, I like the book. I recommend it. However, there are three annoying features which intrude on the reading experience.
First, he makes regular reference to the previous books in the series. That’s good because he shows how what was taught previously connects to the present topic. It’s good because we learn better when we can connect ideas together, it reinforces memory and also comprehension. Which is great, unless you did not, like me, read the previous books, making it a bit harder to fully appreciate the references.
Second, I think the title could be reworked. McGrath did explain how the title “The Spirit of Grace” connects all the elements together but it’s not obvious that a book titled “The Spirit of Grace” will contain chapters on Humanity and the Church. Or that the book is part of a series on the Apostles Creed.
Which brings me to my third annoyance. This is a series but it doesn’t show up as a series in Amazon. Amazon doesn’t put all the books in the series together in one convenient link. So you would have to search for the title of each book in the series. This is not McGrath’s problem, it’s Amazon’s. To save your time, I have put all five Amazon links in the episodes description below.
Just a quick note, the series was published by two publishers. I read and reviewed the UK’s publisher edition, with the series titled “Christian Beliefs for Everyone”. This is the free book in Logos. In the US, the publisher is Westminster John Knox Press, with the series titled “The Heart of Christian Faith”.
Can I Have More Please?
As far as I am concerned, every church that flashes up the Apostles Creed on the screen or gets their members to read the creed in every service should buy boxes of these books, put them on display and get members to read them.
If you read all the books in the series, you would have read 600 pages but you won’t feel it because each book is only 120 pages. Time will just zip by.
However, if you want a shorter commitment, McGrath has another book, titled: “I Believe: Exploring the Apostles’ Creed”. Only 126 pages and it promises to cover the Apostles Creed in six week study plan.
You could spend the rest of the year just reading McGrath books. He has many interesting titles. If you love C.S. Lewis, you probably already know Alister McGrath because he is well-known for his biography: “C.S. Lewis: A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet”.
If you don’t know Lewis maybe you should read this book: “Deep Magic, Dragons and Talking Mice: How Reading C.S. Can Change Your Life”.
It must have changed McGrath’s life because after reading Lewis’ “Mere Christianity”, McGrath went to to write “Mere Theology”, “Mere Apologetics” and “Mere Discipleship”.
If you are looking for heavier reading material, McGrath together with J.I. Packer is the editor for the Crossway ClassicCommentaries series. The series has commentaries by long dead guys like John Calvin, Martin Luther, R.C. Ryle, Charles Hodge, and Charles Spurgeon. In fact, I reviewed one of the books in Episode 27, a commentary on Hebrews by John Owen.
If I could just read one book out of McGrath’s long list of writings, I would pick up, “Richard Dawkins, C.S. Lewis and the Meaning of Life”. McGrath is both a scientist and theologian so this should be a good read. It’s only 80 pages! If Logos makes it free I will definitely review it.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then wanting to read more books by the same author must be the sincerest form of a book recommendation.
This is a Reading and Reader’s review of “The Spirit of Grace” by Alister McGrath. 128 pages, published by SPCK Publishing in December 2014. Available in Amazon Kindle for USD9.99 and free in Logos.
The next book I review is Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer’s “Critical Dilemma: The Rise of Critical Theories and Social Justice Ideology – Implications for the Church and Society”. I have finished the book and I was in a dilemma whether to rush the review or do a proper one. Then I thought this could be one of the most important book for Christians to read today so I should not rush it. “Critical Dilemma” is available in Amazon for USD21.99 and it is discounted to USD6.99 in Logos for January. Get it and all that is happening around you suddenly makes sense.
- Faith and Creeds (Book 1) by Alister McGrath. Amazon.
- The Living God (Book 2) by Alister McGrath. Amazon.
- Jesus Christ (Book 3) by Alister McGrath. Amazon.
- The Spirit of Grace (Book 4) by Alister McGrath. Amazon.
- The Christian Life and Hope (Book 5) by Alister McGrath. Amazon.
- “Critical Dilemma: The Rise of Critical Theories and Social Justice Ideology – Implications for the Church and Society” by Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer. Amazon. Logos.