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A Scientific Theology, Volume I: Nature by Alister E. McGrath


(book review to be published in the Canadian Evangelical Review)

A Scientific Theology, Volume I: Nature (Alister E. McGrath. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001. Pp. xx + 325. ISBN: 0 0028 3925 8


McGrath established his reputation two decades ago with Iustitia Dei, his landmark study of justification. Subsequently he published much on Reformation themes, then attempted popularizing (e.g., Studies in Doctrine), and now appears to have returned to what seems to be his m├ętier: rigorous reflection that comprehends his twin areas of expertise, historical/systematic theology and natural science. Readers of McGrath’s recent T.F. Torrance: An Intellectual Biography (1999) will recognize in A Scientific Theology his debt to Torrance’s notion of “theological science” (which McGrath prefers to call “scientific theology”), as well as the fruit his immersion in Torrance has borne and promises to bear yet.

While working towards his Oxford doctorate in molecular biology McGrath found himself “commissioned” to explore the relation between Christian theology and natural science, in conversation with history and philosophy. The subordination is crucial for his agenda. He advances natural science as the fitting ancilla or “maidservant” of theology in that science and theology alike are intrinsically realist. Both are “scientific” in the sense of the German wissenschaftlich; i.e., the method of investigating any subject is mandated by the essence and structure of the subject under discussion. Both attempt to give an ordered account of a reality that lies beyond them. Philosophy, on the other hand, has customarily brought to theology metaphysical presuppositions and implicates that have controlled the theological enterprise, effectively denaturing it. History, on the other hand, can be allowed to “converse with” theology but ought not to be its ancilla in that history lacks the realist base found in natural science. In addition, in the hands of social scientists, history becomes historicist; the social sciences move illegitimately from the truism that all knowledge is historically located to the totalitarianism that all knowledge is historically determined. In this regard the social sciences are committed to a naturalist worldview in which theology is disdained; natural scientists, however, more profoundly (and more humbly) recognize the boundaries of their discipline, pronouncing no a priori disqualification.

McGrath has subtitled Volume I Nature. He insists that “nature” isn’t synonymous with “the universe” or “the created order,” in that “nature” is a socially mediated concept, highly interpreted. (One need only think of depictions of nature that vary from “moral educator” to “book of God” to “red in tooth and claw” where only the fittest survive to a “machine” akin to those of the industrial era.) Volume II, Reality, will be a critique of non-realist positions in theology, together with an examination of why theology must be an a posteriori, non-Idealist, discipline in its account of reality. Volume III, Theory, will address parallels between theological doctrines and scientific theories.

In the book’s first chapter, “The Legitimacy of A Scientific Theology,” McGrath maintains that since the Word or logos that became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth is the ground of creation, the selfsame logos or rationality must be embedded in the creation, thereby giving rise to that intelligibility inhering the contingent realm which renders science possible. Foundational to McGrath’s programme, then, is his conviction that the doctrine of creation grounds the necessity (not merely the legitimacy) of a positive working relationship between Christian theology and natural science. McGrath’s convictions here contrast his critique of process theology’s provincialism, the latter being “a transitory phase in the development of Protestant English-language theology after the Second World War.” Utterly damning, from McGrath’s standpoint, is the fact that while process theology “may be of interest to some, it is implausible to most, especially in the intellectually hard-nosed scientific community.” In other words, process theology is useless in view of McGrath’s exploration of the methodological parallels between Christian theology (which for him entails the Chalcedonian definition of Christ) and natural science.

While upholding genuine science McGrath always remains aware of the danger of an ersatz “scientism.” He recognizes scientific conclusions to be provisional. What is crucial for theology isn’t the ever-shifting “conclusions” but rather the constant methods and assumptions by which scientific investigation proceeds. For this reason theology must always be engaged with science but must never ground itself in science. The church must revisit Scripture continually in order to ensure that scientific assumptions of earlier eras haven’t been incorporated into the teaching of the church.

Returning to his critique of “nature” McGrath maintains that the notion is helpful only if it is given ontological foundation by the Christian doctrine of creation. Naturalists, unaware of the social construction of “nature,” paradoxically remain unaware that “nature” isn’t natural, and therefore remain unaware that the notion is virtually useless in critical intellectual discourse. While deconstructionists have readily pointed out the mere construct, they are unable to deconstruct the natural sciences, since these are inherently impervious to the postmodern agenda.

Having exposed “nature” McGrath proceeds to probe the Christian doctrine of creation. He distinguishes among the understandings of creation found in Genesis (the creaturely is ontologically distinct from the divine), the Prophets (creation is an aspect of God’s lordship of history, therein attesting the subjugation of chaos and the imposition of order), and the Writings (patterns may be discerned in the creaturely realm, which discernment profits the wise.) In turn the New Testament yields the notion of creation ex nihilo, its twofold significance being an affirmation of the Christological determination of the creation and a negation of the world’s eternity and also of Gnostic dualism. Thanks to its having been fashioned at the hand of God, the creation possesses a goodness, a rationality and an orderedness, all of which are essential if scientific probing of contingent being is to occur. In other words, science flourishes in a world understood from the perspective of the gospel.

“Implications of a Doctrine of Creation”, the second last chapter, discusses principally the negative effect of the Fall on God’s knowability, the inversion of Feuerbach’s notion that because we long for God thereforeGod can be no more than human projection, and the role of mathematics as the “language” of the universe.

All of these are germane to McGrath’s final chapter, “The Purpose and Place of Natural Theology.” Following Torrance’s essay, “The Problem of Natural Theology in the Thought of Karl Barth,” McGrath deems illegitimate any natural theology that is a rival of revealed theology or an alternative to it. Agreeing with Torrance and Barth in all respects here he concludes that natural theology “lacks the epistemic autonomy required to permit it to be, or become, a theological resource in its own right.” He agrees with Barth that natural theology is ineradicable, and with Torrance that it is fitting as long as operates within the knowledge of God that grace-wrought faith alone yields. Admitting that natural theology’s conclusion of “Being-in-general” pales alongside the gospel’s disclosure of God as Father, Son and Spirit consubstantially, McGrath insists vigorously that a natural theology that “knows its place” (i.e., resists legitimating humankind’s craving for self-justification and domestication of the gospel) has a crucial role in demonstrating the consonance between revelation and the structures of the world. In light of his accomplishments in both natural science and theology, McGrath’s purpose in preparing this book (along with the two subsequent volumes) looms hugely in the last few pages of the book: “The recovery of a properly configured natural theology can serve as the basis for a critical theological engagement with both the world and the sciences which seek to give an account of it.”

Is this the role of such a reconfigured natural theology? Will it function as a bridge helping to end the isolation of faculties of theology? Is McGrath’s seemingly uncritical, end-of-book co-opting of Wolfhart Pannenberg in the service of his agenda aware of the reservations other theologians have expressed concerning Pannenberg? Need natural science exclude philosophy from philosophy’s customary conversation with theology?

Perhaps we should await the appearance of Volumes II and III before making an assessment. Notwithstanding what he proposes concerning the role of natural theology, McGrath’s book thoroughly acquaints readers with “scientific theology” in the context of creation.

Victor Shepherd, Tyndale Seminary