Tolle Lege: Narrative Apologetics by Alister McGrath

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This is a story about a book.  It’s not just a review because that wouldn’t be quite winsome enough.  So a story it is.  Once upon a time I was a philosophy major and really caught up in the Christian apologetics scene.  It’s still a pool I like to dip my toe in now and again, so I was pretty excited to hear what Alister McGrath had to say about the subject.

The book (published by Baker, 2019) arrived after a summer spent contemplating two contrary viewpoints.  The first was espoused by a speaker who made the following assertion, “The entire Bible can be summed up in the statement, “What ever you are doing that’s right, keep doing it.  What ever you are doing that’s wrong, cut it out.”  The second viewpoint was from an Instagram video of a pastor catechizing his own grandkids with the question “What is the Bible about?”  To which they responded in unison, “Kill the Dragon. Get the Girl.”  Wow. What a stark contrast!  The first synopsis is purely moralistic and works oriented.  Most other religions out there could offer a similar summary of their own teachings.  The second is what McGrath would define as a narrative approach and focuses on the eternal gospel story.   I’m definitely on the same page as McGrath in that regard.  In adopting the religion of moralistic therapeutic deism, Christians have lost sight of the great drama of redemption which God ordained from eternity past, Christ accomplished on the cross and the Holy Spirit will complete in the church, Christ’s Bride.

Nothing gets me more excited than Christians– be they apologists, evangelists, pastors, conference speakers, authors, tweeters, teachers, parents, neighbors, or buyers and sellers in the market place– proclaiming the gospel to a hell-bound world.  In my lifetime there has been so much emphasis on means and methodology that the actual urgency of getting the message out there seems to have been lost.  I even heard a speaker say that 1 Peter 3:15 meant that we were ONLY to share OUR story with people who asked us about the hope we have.  Further, he claimed that Jesus Himself modeled this methodology by only teaching or healing those who came to Him first.  Not only is that patently false, it’s the poorest excuse for ignoring the Great Commission I’ve ever heard.  Will we really be able to say in our own defense of all our acquaintances sentenced to eternal damnation, “Well, they never asked. Sooo…”?

My concern with McGrath’s book is that his focus falls too heavily on the means and takes too lightly the urgency of the message. He really does offer a winsome approach to sharing the Gospel story, not failing to live up in any way to the promises of his sub-title, “Sharing the Relevance, Joy, and Wonder of the Christian Faith.”  He states his purpose in the very first sentence as aiming “to introduce and commend… an approach to affirming, defending, and explaining the Christian faith by telling stories (7).”  Bravo for “affirming, defending, and explaining the Christian faith!”  That puts him right in line with some of my other favorite apologists out there today (i.e. James White, Jeff Durbin, Ray Comfort, Mark Spence, Eric Hovind, Neil Shenvi, Sye Ten Bruggenicate, Alisa Childers and the rest of the Mama Bears).  I think several from the above list would also appreciate McGrath’s self-described “winsome and welcome” approach while several others would be encouraged by mainstream evangelicals to give said approach a try, rather than the “clinically rational approaches … [which] lack imaginative depth and emotional intelligence (8).”  In other words, there are winsome, story-telling apologists and there are apologists.

McGrath argues that “A narrative approach to Christian apologetics does not displace other approaches” but rather “is best seen as supplementing other approaches (8).”  I might be able to buy that except for that he argues later that “Narrative acts as both the medium and the message in Christian apologetics (15).”  That makes for a rather exclusionary statement.  One that he follows with the claim that “demonstrating the reasonableness or truth of Christianity does not always lead people to embrace it (15).”  This is true and is clearly supported by numerous Scriptural texts (such as these found just thumbing through the first half of the Gospel of John– 3:11,12, 5:36-39, 8:45-47, 10:24-26, 12:39) none of which are cited by McGrath. His next statement however,  lacks the same force.  “Truth is no guarantor of relevance. Veracity is one thing–indeed, a good thing.  Existential traction, however, is something very different (16).”  Where McGrath errs is in citing as an example 3 true statements involving measured rainfall, the weight of gold, and a certain Nobel Prize nomination.  These, he argues, “may be true yet possess little, if any, relevance for human existence… while they might be interesting, none of them probably makes the slightest difference to anyone (15).”

McGrath is correct in his appraisal but wrong in his application.  The examples he uses are indeed true, but they are not what one would call Gospel Truths, or doctrine, which is exactly why they lack any “existential traction,” not because they are set outside the context of a winsome narrative, as McGrath suggests.  If McGrath is correct in his definition of apologetics as “depicting its world of beauty, goodness, and truth faithfully and vividly, so that people will be drawn by the richness and depth of its vision of things,” rather than the traditional definition of “persuading people that a certain set of ideas is right (18),” then I can see why his winsome narrative approach is so crucial.

The problem is, though I agree on one hand that the Bible itself is made up of said narrative, and that we actually are but players in this great drama of redemption, I disagree that the manner in which the story is relayed has the power in and of itself to produce transformation in one’s life.  Romans 1:16 tells us that the Gospel itself IS the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes.  But effectual saving faith is a gift of God, not a natural response to a well told story (see Romans 10:20).  McGrath solves this difficulty by arguing that we need to “move away from the traditional believers-nonbelievers paradigm to a new seekers-dwellers paradigm (99).”  The book of Romans again proves problematic here for in the 11th verse of the third chapter we read, “no one understands; no one seeks for God.”  Which is why we have to be super careful in distinguishing an intellectual acquiescence to the truth, and true saving faith.

McGrath is honest enough to acknowledge this danger, pointing first to his own conversion, which he describes as “an intellectual conversion, lacking any emotional or affective dimension (28) and later Dorothy Sayers’ self-criticism.  “She at times wondered if she had fallen in love with the intellectual pattern that Christianity disclosed, rather than with the central character of that narrative (115).”  These two testimonials are almost reminiscent of that of the demons in James 2:19.  One has to applaud McGrath for pointing out this pitfall in any approach to Christian apologetics.

Since we’re already applauding, I might as well wrap things up.  The end of the story is this:  I was excited about reading this narrative approach to apologetics because I thought it would be an effective counter to the pragmatic, therapeutic, moralistic nonsense which has so weakened the church in my lifetime.  But in the end I was disappointed by the emphasis on seeker-sensitive methodology and lack of urgency for the bold proclamation of the Gospel to a hell-bound world.  That’s my narrative and here’s my rating:

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Shelf it. At least till I run out of space in the M’s.

Even though I was sent a free copy of this book from the publisher, I obviously wasn’t obligated to write a favorable review.

Devo 23: repost

“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”  Isaiah 55:9

Have you ever heard verses like the one above used to explain why we can’t understand hard texts in scripture?  Or how about this one?

“The secret things belong to the Lord our God.” Deuteronomy 29:29

What about the statement that we are too much influenced by the Enlightenment and that we need to read scripture with a Jewish mindset which was more accepting of mystery?

We might call it an acceptance of mystery.  Jesus called it spiritual blindness and rejection of what the prophets clearly foretold.

Just look at how that Deuteronomy text continues.  

BUT the things that are REVEALED belong to us and to our children forever, THAT WE MAY DO ALL THE WORDS OF THIS LAW.”  Moses then reiterates to the Israelites the blessing that would be theirs if they called to mind the commandments and the “statutes that are written in this Book of the Law” and the curse that would be theirs if they did not.  And then he makes this stunning statement in Deuteronomy 30:11-14,

“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off.  It is NOT IN HEAVEN, that you should say, ‘who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it  to us, that we may hear it and do it?’  NEITHER IS IT BEYOND THE SEA, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hearit and do it?’  But the word is very near you.   It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do It.”  

Is Moses not saying that what the Lord has revealed in His word, He has not made unattainable to the understanding of His people? 

If the first 5 books of the Bible were meant to be understood by God’s people so that they would obey them, why are we so quick to dismiss other portions as too mysterious for human comprehension?

Now just listen to the rest of Isaiah 55:9!  The very next verses read,

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth  and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, SO SHALL MY  WORD BE THAT GOES OUT FROM MY MOUTH;  IT SHALL NOT RETURN TO ME EMPTY,  BUT IT SHALL ACCOMPLISH  THAT WHICH I PURPOSE, AND  SHALL SUCCEED IN THE THING FOR WHICH I SENT IT.

God has sent us much more than a mystery.  He has sent us a manna -filled, purpose-succeeding Divine REVELATION!  Do you know why?

So that we would recognize in that revelation the life-giving glory of His Son, Jesus Christ.

AND SO THAT WE WOULD RENDER HIM THE WORSHIP HE IS DUE!

Oh, dear brothers and sisters, can’t you see that every time you relegate a “hard text” to the category of “unattainable mystery,” you are robbing God of the exaltation that He so deserves?

Just go back to the last post and read the texts for this week.  All of them proclaim the infinite “high-ness” of God’s thoughts and ways. 

In fact the whole Bible is the particular REVELATION OF HIS THOUGHTS AND HIS WAYS to ALL mankind concerning His son, Jesus Christ, by which WE MIGHT BE SAVED!  And where else was the magnitude of His high-ness and other-ness more on display than on the cross?

When Psalm 37:5,6 proclaims that God’s steadfast love extends to the heavens, His faithfulness to the clouds, His righteousness like the mountains, and His judgements like the deep.  Where else was the extent of His love, faithfulness, righteousness, and judgement more clearly seen than on the cross?

And again in Psalm 103:11,12 the Psalmist proclaims that not only is God’s steadfast love “as high as the heavens are above the earth” but also that “as far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgressions from us.”  How was that removal of transgressions accomplished but through the cross?

Read 1 Corinthians 2.  Yep.  The whole chapter.  I know this violates every rule in the blogosphere but it really is THAT important.  

“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away.But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”—

10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.

14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. 16 “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.”

Did you catch that?  Yes, there is a secret and hidden wisdom of God which was so misunderstood by those willing to write all the hard stuff off as a mystery that they “crucified the Lord of glory!”  And yes, no-one can comprehend the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God… but we have the Spirit who was from God THAT WE MIGHT UNDERSTAND THESE SPIRITUAL TRUTHS AND INTERPRET THEM!

It is this Spirit that enables Paul in Ephesians to address mystery after mystery with confidence and clarity.  In every instance the mystery itself is accompanied by an assurance that it CAN BE UNDERSTOOD!

God lavished His grace “upon us in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of His will (1:8,9).”  “This mystery was made known to me by revelation…when you read this you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ (3:3,4).”  “It has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs (3:5,6).”  Grace was given to Paul to preach and “bring to light for everyone the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God…so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known (3:9,10).”  About the profound mystery of marriage Paul says confidently that it refers to Christ and the church (5:32).  He closes by asking for prayer that he would proclaim boldly the mystery of the gospel (6:19).  

Now, just listen to Paul’s prayer for the church in the same letter:

“[May] the Father of glory give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which He has called you (1:17,18).”  

Please, I urge you, when you come to a text you don’t understand, dig deeper, pray harder for enlightenment. In those depths you will only find more reason to worship the crucified and risen Christ.  The one who has been made spiritually alive need not settle for mystery.  For WE HAVE THE MIND OF CHRIST!  Let us use it to see Him more clearly, know Him more deeply, and render Him more fervently the glory due His Name!

The Martyrs’ Psalm, part 2

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If the words of Psalm 51 spoken from a condemned girl’s lips, give us a glimpse into the heart of this teenage martyr, consider some of the other recorded words of Lady Jane Grey.  This prayer was dated shortly before her execution:

“O Lord, thou God and Father of my life, hear me, poor and desolate woman, which flieth unto thee only, in all troubles and miseries. Thou, O Lord, art the only defender and deliverer of those that put their trust in thee: and therefore I, being defiled with sin, encumbered with affliction, unquieted with troubles, wrapped in cares, overwhelmed with miseries, vexed with temptations, and grievously tormented with the long imprisonment of this vile mass of clay, my sinful body, do come unto thee, O merciful Savior, craving thy mercy and help, without the which so little hope of deliverance is left that I may utterly despair of any liberty. 

Albeit it is expedient, that, seeing our life standeth upon trying, we should be visited sometime with some adversity, whereby we might both be tried whether we be of thy flock or no, and also know thee and ourselves the better, yet thou, that saidst thou wouldst not suffer us to be tempted above our power, be merciful unto me now, a miserable wretch, I beseech thee; which with Solomon (Proverbs 30:7-9) do cry unto thee, humbly desiring thee that i may neither be too much puffed up with prosperity, neither too much pressed down with adversity, lest I, being too full, should deny thee, my God, or being too low brought, should despair and blaspheme thee, my Lord and Savior.
O merciful God, consider my misery, best known unto thee; and be thou now unto me a strong tower of defense, I humbly require thee. Suffer me not to be tempted above my power, but either be thou a deliverer unto me out of this great misery, either else give me grace patiently to bear thy heavy hand and sharp correction. It was thy right hand that delivered the people of Israel out of the hands of Pharoah, which for the space of four hundred years did oppress them and keep them in bondage. Let it, therefore, likewise seem good to thy fatherly goodness to deliver me, sorrowful wretch (for whom thy son Christ shed his precious blood on the cross), out of this miserable captivity and bondage wherein I am now.
How long wilt thou be absent? forever? O Lord, hast thou forgotten to be gracious, and hast thou shut up thy loving-kindness in displeasure? Wilt thou be no more entreated? Is thy mercy clean gone forever, and thy promise come to an end for evermore? Why dost thou make so long tarrying? Shall I despair of thy mercy, O God? Far be that from me. I am thy workmanship, created in Christ Jesu: give me grace, therefore, to tarry thy leisure, and patiently to bear thy works; assuredly knowing that as thou canst, so thou wilt deliver me when it shall please thee, nothing doubting of mistrusting thy goodness towards me; for thou knowest better what is good for me than I do: therefore, do with me in all things what thou wilt, and plague me what way thou wilt. Only in the meantime, arm me, I beseech thee, with thy armor, that i may stand fast, my loins being girded about with verity, having on the breastplate of righteousness and shod with the shoes prepared by the gospel of peace; above all things, taking to me the shield of faith, wherewith I may be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked, and taking the helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit, which is the most holy word: praying always with all manner of prayer and supplecation, that i may refer myself wholly to thy will, abiding thy pleasure and comforting myself in those troubles that it shall please thee to send me; seeing such troubles be profitable for me, and seeing I am assuredly persuaded that it cannot be but well, all that thou doest. 

Hear me, O merciful Father, for His sake whom thou wouldst shoud be a sacrifice for my sins: to whom with thee and the Holy Ghost, be all honor and glory. Amen.” 

What kind of life experience produces that kind of spiritual maturity in the face of persecution?  Consider these events from her history:

1536 (or 37) Lady Jane Grey is born to conniving parents Henry and Frances who in an attempt to gain access to the British throne commenced an unusual method of education with the hopes marrying their daughter off to Henry VIII’s son, Edward.

1542 Providence places Jane under the tutelage of protestant John Aylmer who instructs 6 year old Jane in Greek, Hebrew, Latin, French and Spanish and more importantly the Tyndale English Bible.  She becomes so proficient in languages that she eventually is able to correspond in Latin and Greek with noteworthy Reformers such as Martin Bucer and Heinrich Bullinger.

1545 9-year-old Jane is sent to live permanently at court as maid-of-honor to King Henry VIII’s 6th wife, Catherine Parr, a devout Christian.  There she engages in regular Bible study with other believers and comes to a saving faith in Jesus Christ.  Prince Edward also is surrounded by strong Christian influences at this time including Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, and Thomas Cranmer and develops a deep zeal for the protestant faith.

1547 King Henry VIII dies and 9-year-old Edward becomes King of England but quickly falls victim to scheming Uncle Edward Seymour who assumes custody and thus control of the throne.  Edward Seymour’s brother, Thomas, now married to King Henry VIII’s widow, Catherine Parr, is busy with his own schemes and convinces Jane’s father to sell her to him for 2000 pounds in exchange for a promised union with the young King Edward VI.  11-year-old Jane is now a ward of the Seymour’s and happily back under the Christian influence of Catherine.  Unfortunately, Catherine soon after dies in childbirth just before Thomas himself is beheaded for attempted kidnapping of the king.  Another conniving counselor to young King Edward VI, John Dudley, convinces Jane’s parents to transfer guardianship to himself.

1553 Dudley retains hopes of marrying his ward to King Edward VI until it becomes apparent that the young king is in fact dying of tuberculosis. So 16-year-old Jane is instead forced to marry John Dudley’s own son, Guilford.  But Dudley keeps a foot in the royal door by demanding the marriage be considered unconsummated in case the young king pulls through and an annulment can be made, freeing Jane up to marry him.  King Edward VI doesn’t pull through.  He dies just a month and a half later.  Edwards cousin, Lady Jane Grey, is proclaimed the new Queen of England by John Dudley himself.  Jane responds to her new title with these words:

“The crown is not my right, and pleaseth me not.  The Lady Mary is the rightful heir.”

Lady Jane Grey reluctantly holds the throne just over a week before her cousin Mary arrives with troops to depose her.  Queen Jane gladly hands over the crown and is thenceforth known as the 9-Days-Queen.

To be continued…

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