The Passionate Intellect 90

Pursuing a generous orthodoxy

The Passionate Intellect: Christian Faith and the Discipleship of the Mind
Author: Alister McGrath
Publisher: IVP Books (
Pages: 210

“I hate theology!” my misguided acquaintance exclaimed as we walked down a corridor of the Bayshore Mall. Immediately, I rose to the defense, “Theology is the study of God!” My words did not register in a mind that suffers from mental illness.

It’s ironic that this mall-walking friend addressed his disdain to me. Though theology can be complicated, even frustrating, I treasure it. Though it can harm when distorted or misused, and be a source of contention, it can also be a means of knowing God and His ways more perfectly. It serves as a guide to walking with Him.

My love for truth caused me to respond with joy to the prospect of reading The Passionate Intellect by Alister McGrath. This former atheist has a scientific/naturalist background, which makes this volume all the more remarkable. He employs his keen intellect and research skills to show that faith in God is not only rationale but capable of meeting the challenges of our day.

Comprised of previously published lectures and addresses given between late 2007 and late 2009 in various European locations, the first six chapters make a case for the relevance of Christian theology. The common theme is the intellectual credibility of the faith. It not only makes sense in itself; it “has the capacity to make sense of other aspects of reality” (12).

The last five chapters deal with cultural engagement; specifically, the natural sciences, Darwinism, and the new atheism. The summary critique of the latter will help anyone that wants to gain a quick grasp of the claims of the new atheists and McGrath’s informed responses.

Throughout the book, there is a great deal of depth stated in summary form. The writing is accessible but college level.

What makes it especially rewarding is the winsomeness with which the author makes his arguments. He does not resort to demonizing those with contrary views. He is the opposite of what well-respected Christian leader J. I. Packer calls “entrenched intellectualists—rigid, argumentative, critical Christians, champions of God’s truth for whom orthodoxy is all” (20).

His is a voice of reason as he goes on to write, “I think we all know people who seem to have an obsession with what Packer calls ‘winning the battle for moral correctness’ and little interest in any other aspect of the Christian faith. They may love God, but they seem to have problems loving other people—especially when they disagree with them. It’s not always easy to discern how this fixation on theological correctness links up with the Gospel accounts of the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Surely the better way is to pursue a generous orthodoxy, seeing disagreements in the context of the greater agreements which bind us together?” (20).

This broadmindedness permeates this volume while holding firmly to the faith entrusted through the Scriptures. I imagine that C. S. Lewis would look kindly at McGrath’s mere theology.

It’s also noteworthy that an entire chapter is devoted to George Hebert’s “Elixir.” In recent years there has been a surge of interest and recognition of the theological richness of the poetry of Herbert (1593-1633). “Underlying Herbert’s poetry is an understanding of the role of words to bridge the gap between heaven and earth, between the believer and Christ. Herbert’s use of evocative figures of speech (tropes) allowed him to establish significant links between the secular and profane world and the core themes of the Christian faith. His genius was to offer a way of expressing these themes that was powerful and imaginative compared to the learned biblical commentaries and dense tomes of systematic theology of his age” (47).  The words of a poet can express truth in a way that captures the imagination. The hymns of John and Charles Wesley are more remembered than their sermons.

One application McGrath makes from “Elixir,” regarded as Herbert’s most beautiful work, summarizes McGrath’s view of the importance of theology: “Theology makes possible a new way of seeing things, throwing open the shutters on a world that cannot be known, experienced or encountered through human wisdom and strength alone. Christian doctrine offers us a subject worth studying in its own right; yet its supreme importance lies in its capacity to allow us to pass through its prism and behold our world in a new way” (52).

My friend who walks the mall does not hate God. He freely acknowledges Him. The disconnect in his mind carries over into his thinking about God and theology. In his right mind, I believe he would view the latter as a gateway to seeing reality as God intends. 

Michael Dalton