McGrath’s Faith

Chapter 1: Introduction

See my series reviewing
The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith
by James F. McGrath

James McGrath

James McGrath

McGrath spends 7 short pages showing us his liberal Christian stances by:

  • Declaring the Bible must be studied objectively:
    We must study the Bible with the same agreed upon tool that we study the Qur’an or the Book of Mormon.  This is part of what former apologist turned atheist John Loftus calls “The Outsider Test for Faith” in his book “Why I became an Atheist“.  It is also what is meant by the famous atheist quote on Luke’s website Common Sense Atheism: “When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” – Stephen Roberts.  In this way McGrath is showing agreement on common methods and tools.  He is pro-science and pro-historical objective research.
  • Objecting to blind-faith in the Bible:
    He does this by defining the various meanings of “faith” as I have also done here.  Like me, McGrath feels that clarifying the meanings of this word will help inter-religious dialogue.  And McGrath’s book is such a dialogue being largely aimed at conservative Christians (perhaps those in his classes).  He emphasize the “Trust” meaning of faith and tells Christians that the “trust-faith” in their scriptures means to trust in God, not to blindly “trust” the bible which he calls idolatry.  Atheists can only applaud the influence that such in-house conversations can have.

Likewise McGrath rightly chastises what I have called “hyper-rationalists”.  He reassures his conservative readers that he does not agree with the  “blind-faith” in reason they hear from some Atheists.  These “hyper-rationalists” believe that “our rational capacities, our senses, our knowledge and understanding are not only adequate, but the only legitimate source of knowledge.”  I agree with his objections.  So far, so good.

My Objection to his Faith:

I am reviewing this book while I slowly read it.  So I am not sure if he will answer this objection in coming pages.  McGrath feels comforted distinguishing between trust of God and trust of the Bible.  But in the end, any trust of the Christian God (for salvation through Jesus and all things working for the better) can only come by trusting that Bible is accurate on these things.  For without the specifics, what exactly is a Christian trusting?  Christians trust that a god exists like the one described in their scriptures, thus the only way they really know the list of things they should trust of their god comes from the Bible.  Some Christians believe God speaks to them personally in a quiet voice or in tongues or through the prophecies of others, but I don’t think McGrath is speaking in trust of such revelation.  Thus I think that conservative Christians have good reason to be leering of where McGrath is going with all this.  And I am leery too. because the liberal Christians burden is to tell us how to sort out what sort of God they believe in and why.  Stay tuned.



Filed under Philosophy & Religion

18 responses to “McGrath’s Faith

  1. I’ve not heard of this book, so I look forward to your continuing distillations.

    I wonder about this statement: “Any trust of God can only come by trusting the Bible.” I’m not so sure this is always the case. Perhaps he, or you, will elaborate on what is meant by “trust”. For surely, the Bible is not the only means by which one can come to understand God . . .

  2. Thanx tysdaddy — I tried to clarify the sentence a little bit. I can understand how someone can say, “I perceive God” or “I commune with God” without the Bible. Heck, all sorts of other religions make this claim and even the non-religious. But to say “I trust God” is a whole other thing — for with “trust”, their has to be some sort of proposition that you trust such as, “I trust God will Save Me like he promised”, “I trust God will take care of me like he promised”. But the only way to know those is either by hearing voices (supposedly this is what believers think the Bible writers did) or reading/hearing what other say they heard God say. There has to be content. Or at least this the “Trust-faith” in the Bible that Paul speaks of is content loaded — his content. (Does that make my opionion more clear?)

  3. Curiouser and curiouser said Alice. 😉

  4. I agree with Sabio in that McGrath’s differentiation of trust between God and Scripture leaves him in a awkward position. In which god does he trust? What is it about this god that makes trusting him a good idea or makes what this god has done for McGrath good news for anyone else?

    The Bible is not the ONLY means of knowing God, the itself bible says so. But Christianity has traditionally claimed it to be the most complete and accurate. Why would a person who has access to this resource reject it’s revelation about God. On what does such a person base and defend their view of God?

    Sabio hits on another important point when he says, “Heck, all sorts of other religions make this claim and even the non-religious.” McGrath (and liberal Christianity in general) discards what is either most unique or most offensive (depending our your POV) about Christianity—it’s claim to reveal the ONLY way to God—which turns it into just another indistinguishable voice in the crowded marketplace of spirituality.

  5. …the itself bible says so… ???

    Coming soon to your local christian bookstore, The Itself Bible! 1,200 pages full of context-free quotes to support any argument!

    Of course I meant the bible itself.

  6. I have been interested in the book but have not read it yet, glad to see you blogging along.

    But in the end, any trust of the Christian God (for salvation through Jesus and all things working for the better) can only come by trusting that Bible is accurate on these things.

    Well yes and no (maybe, I think). :^) Yes, I agree with you and feel the same way, if the bible cannot be trusted for the details, what kind of religion is it other than making stuff up. But no, because if a person trusts in a certain God, supposedly they can have do that apart from a book, right? Christians pray using the bible, but also just pray what they want to say, without quoting the words of the bible, right? So maybe for liberal Christians the bible is an impetus towards God but doesn’t need to be the complete picture? I am guessing a bit because that is not my faith, but I am trying to understand.

    Also, Christians believed in Jesus before the bible was written, then before it was assembled into many parts, and before it was canonized. And lots have believed in Jesus before, say the printing press, or maybe in nations where bibles are not commonly accessable. Or maybe they were written in Latin or something. So Laughing Boy’s comment, “The Bible is not the ONLY means of knowing God, the itself bible says so. ” doesn’t seem to me to be on solid ground historically or empirically. I am just not sure liberal Christianity can be that easily dismissed, whether or not it makes a compelling case to believe to the unbeliever.

  7. @ ATR
    There is a universal desire to yell out to the spirit(s) and have them magically help us (get well, get good grade, save our kids, not die, get a job ….). So of course without a book anyone can, and does do this sort of thing.

    But to believe in original sin, atonement salvation, resurrections and such, one needs stories — either in oral tradition (early church) or written (Bible in later church).

    So it is the Christian God I speak of when I say you need a Bible to know. Sure, the wishing-well god anyone can “know”/feel without a book. But that is not what McGrath’s book is addressing.

    So anything else that Liberal Christians have added on to the wishing-well god has come from some snippets of their Bible — or, they are starting a new sect (Mormons, 7th Day Adventists, Jehovah Witness etc…)

    So, anything beyond the generic wishing-well god that a liberal Christian believes has to come from the Bible because where else are they getting it? (remember, I am leaving Pentecostals who believe God still gives them prophecy and Joseph Smith kind of Christians out of the story). I wager that the Christians you know don’t feel God talks to them outside of their Bible in any more of a way than just warming their hearts and giving them peace — not in propositional truths.

    Does that make sense?

  8. I think that makes sense. Re-reading my comment, I think I took Laughing Boy’s comment to be exactly the opposite of what he meant it to be, and it looks like you are agreeing with him.

    But oh no, the Christians I know receive direct words from God, and sometimes consider them propositional truths, as long as they are in keeping with what the bible teaches. :^)

  9. Like tysdaddy, I look forward to the review but I find both Sabio’s original comment and revisions perplexing.

    “But in the end, any trust of the Christian God (for salvation through Jesus and all things working for the better) can only come by trusting that Bible is accurate on these things. ”

    Says who? The atheist?

    “For without the specifics, what exactly is a Christian trusting?”

    This presumes scripture as the sole authority?

    “Christians trust that a god exists like the one described in their scriptures, thus the only way they really know the list of things they should trust of their god comes from the Bible.”

    Another (false) assumption.

    Taken together I think I have a better understanding of why I find most of the posts to date so unconvincing; the total of Christianity considered appears to be a 20th century fundamentalist version of Calvinism, and thus the arguments offered against are unconvincing to anyone who does not hold to the strawman.

  10. @Mark
    (1) You state that my criticisms are only directed at 20th C Calvinist fundies — can you list 5-6 qualities these sorts of Christians have that make you feel it does not describe you?
    (2) What percent of present believers do you feel I am describing? None?
    (3) Can you tell us 5 things you trust of your Christian God that you did not learn through the Bible (or indirectly via the Bible) and which not are something that any believer in any faith who has a wish-granting deity has?

  11. 1. It’s not a question of what describes me or what I believe, but whether your strategy is to claim for Christianity a caricature which you pretend is Christianity, and then knock it down. I could be an atheist and recognize the logical fallacy. I could be a Jew-not accepting any of Calvin’s claims-and reject the implications of your Christian caricature for thesists simply because they are fallacious.

    2. Of Christians, maybe 10%. Of all thesists, maybe 1%.

    3. In each of my responses to your previous posts you have ignored or otherwise refused to address my questions, but you want me to play Q&A now. The post here, and my response, was not about what other theists ‘trust’ in their God, but whether your caricature is accurate and your presumptions are any more sound than those you are judging. How is your process any different than the fundamentalist if your own premise is above reproach and you see in your opponent’s assertion only what you wish to? Is ‘Triangulations’ about a search for truth or just self-affirmation?

  12. But in the end, any trust of the Christian God (for salvation through Jesus and all things working for the better) can only come by trusting that Bible is accurate on these things.

    I’m not familiar enough with James Mcgrath’s theology to know if he believes in “salvation through Jesus and all things working for the better”), but you will certainly find liberal Christians who are religious pluralists and for whom the Bible serves as no more than a conduit through which they choose to mediate their contact with the sacred, without suggesting or claiming that their approach is the only way or the best way. To say that the Bible is a means through which “the” Christian God is arrived at (as if there were simply one understanding of God among Christians, which there is not) misses the point, since many liberal Christians do not see the Bible as some sort of truth handed down from above or as a conduit to an absolute truth, but rather as a poetic and mythic means of orienting themselves towards something greater than themselves. Either you appreciate poetry and myth or you don’t–and neither you nor many conservative Christians seem to get this.

    I actually think that these words are telling: “Thus I think that conservative Christians have good reason to be leering of where McGrath is going with all this. And I am leery too.” I have found time and time again that many atheists have much in common with conservative Christians in defining what they think religion means, or for that matter what Christianity means. I think it is not to the credit of many atheists that they share assumptions and patterns of thinking with conservative Christians. McGrath may or may not view religion as I do, but in general anything that conservative Christians are “leery” of can be taken with a grain of salt, because in their rigid, dogmatic, an simplistic understanding of religious faith, anything that steps outside the bounds of their orthodoxy makes them “leery”. To the extent that atheists share this simplistic understanding of religious faith, they fall into the same trap.

  13. @ Mark
    I am trying not to make general statements about Christianity. I am sorry if I implied a generalization, I actually try hard not to do that. I actually don’t even think there is such an animal as “Christianity” to generalize about, no more than there is such an animal as “Buddhism” since these are general terms which believers themselves fight over. Instead there are many, many sects of Christianity (and Buddhism) with widely different beliefs. So, I hope I did not generalize.

    @ Mystical Seeker
    I absolutely agree with you on many of your points. I totally get using Christian myth as a vehicle while being a pluralist or even universalist.
    I think you misunderstand me (probably my fault). I think if you read other posts of mine, you might see I am not the critter you imagine.

  14. i like McGrath and your review thus far. good questions and insights. i like the distinction away from conservative beliefism and general idolatry as well as the idolatry of the intellect and reasoning capabilities. we’re not as smart as many of us think we are… we’re not as dumb either. either the book or the brain held up as the answer still has a lot of questions and problems. there’s my 2 cents. looking forward to more.

  15. Sabio, my apologies for misunderstanding you.

  16. Bible Believer

    Laughing Boy wrote
    “The Bible is not the ONLY means of knowing God, the itself bible says so.

    That is indeed so —

    “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.”
    Romans ch1 v20

    “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.”
    James ch2 v19

    But the critical point is that there is an infinite difference between knowing [about] God and having a knowledge of God which is a “saving” knowledge viz a knowledge which is built on the forgiveness of sins and personal salvation through the atoning work of Christ on the cross, and a resulting personal relationship with God.

    So what is necessary to receive a saving knowledge of God?

    Romans ch10 v14
    How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?

    Romans ch10 v17
    So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.

    What is the basis of preaching? What is word of Christ? The answer to that is the Bible —

    1st Peter ch1 v23
    “for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God.

    And that is why true, saving knowledge of God is impossible without the Bible (in oral, written, printed or whatever faithfully reproduced and communicated form).

  17. Bible Believer

    Addendum: in the text above “necessary” but not sufficient! Without the eyes of the sinner being opened through new life being instilled into the spiritually dead sinner by the Holy Spirit, the words of the Bible will just remain mere words which my seem clever or even wise, but are effectively mere foolishness.

  18. Yes, yes, Bible Believer, Of course, of course. And Hindus would say it about their works, Marxists about theirs , Muslims about theirs. Yes, nothing makes a sacred text more believable than believing it before you read it. Oh, right, you call it “Holy Spirit”, but we all know what is really happening.

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