Review: Mark A. McIntosh, Divine Teaching: An Introduction to Christian Theology

Tony Sig

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (December 4, 2007)
  • ISBN-10: 1405102713
  • ISBN-13: 978-1405102711

My thanks to Blackwell for the review copy.

Very often times it feels like the very last thing the world needs is another introduction to Topic X. Not least to theology. Aren’t intro’s just the easy way for a teacher to get published with very little work or creativity? And it’s not like there aren’t good ones out there. Alister McGrath is now into the 5th ed of his (mostly historical) Christian Theology: An Introduction (with a simpler version of it, as well as a Reader 4th ed, and an intro to historical theology). Christopher Morse’s famous Not Every Spirit: A Dogmatics of Christian Disbelief is also a great intro. (My thanks to David Congdon for the recommendation).

 Yet even in such a world, Mark A. McIntosh’s Divine Teaching: An Introduction to Christian Theology offers something unique and irresistible. I found myself learning much more from this intro than I do often times from “academic” pieces. There were so many places to pause and reflect, to soak in a rich theological wisdom. And at a shy 252 total pages, it was really quite astonishing what he was able to fit in.

This brevity, among other things, makes this book a standout from a pedagogical standpoint. Being as short as it is, there is a significant amount of free room that a teacher could take to supplement and expand the book in whatever way is deemed necessary for the kind of school or class that they are teaching. Are you at a Pentecostal school? Feel free to throw some readings in on pneumatology. Are you at a Catholic school? Take the time and compare McIntosh’s readings of Saints Augustine and Thomas on Sin or the Trinity. Are you Anglican? Throw some Herbert in there… anywhere could do as the whole book revolves around the contemplative life of prayer as being taught by the actions of the Holy Trinity.

And this life of prayer as participation in and learning from the Trinity is the broad outline of the book, hence the title. McIntosh has much experience in this. His PhD work was in Balthasar and he has written several works on “mystical theology” (see here and here) and even a little book for teaching in Church on the Mysteries of Faith. He is an Episcopal priest and is now teaching at Durham (in England). He is also an Anglican representative at this latest ARCIC meeting between Anglicans and Roman Catholics.

The beginning of the book functions as a sort of prologue for those led to be skeptical of theology as mere irrational nonsense. Can one understand theology and not be a believer?, he asks. His answer is, surprisingly, no, not really. One can come to acquire knowledge of a tradition and this can be taught, but McIntosh says to be truly taught by God, one’s own inner life must be made ready to receive this knowledge as a gift. To show how this is so, he introduces a method that he uses several times throughout the book. On the left third of the page, he has a text, here it is Romans 6.3-11 but he does this for several other Scriptural passages and also works like the Nicene Creed; and on the right he comments on it. It’s really quite helpful. Nevertheless he does address the relationship of reason and faith by way of an exposition of Cardinal Newman’s Oxford Sermons.

From this first part of the book, “How God Makes Theologians,” McIntosh moves onto the larger more constructive part “Theology’s Search for Understanding,” in which he begins with the Mystery of Salvation, to the Divine Life, and finally to Creaturely Life. This movement, he believes, represents the kind of shape that Christians have experienced from the beginning. Trinitarian reflection came from a deep meditation and struggle with what had happened to them in Christ and Pentecost. He would no doubt agree with David Bentley Hart that early Christian trinitarian thought was a kind of phenomenology of salvation. Among his teaching methods, at the end of each chapter, McIntosh pauses for “Landmarks” and “Pathfinding.” In this section on salvation he includes Irenaeus, Augustine and Anselm. While recognizing that there are exaggerated critiques of Anselm available, he ultimately agrees with Lossky that Anselm (and much subsequent Western reflection) focuses on the Cross to the exclusion of the entire movement of the mysteries of faith. In the “Pathfinding” section, he brings in Orthodox, Feminist and Girardian contributions to soteriology.

But this critical thought about salvation itself gives way to a deeper movement from how God revealed God in Christ, to how God has always been if this is the one God. This middle section on the Trinity takes up the bulk of the book and includes a comprehensive walk through St. Augustine’s entire book de Trinitate! These 20 pages alone are worth the price of the book. But he also includes Karl Barth on the “God Who Loves in Freedom.”

The final section on Creaturely life doesn’t disappoint either. He begins with the fact that it is Easter which gives the ultimate shape to creaturely life, drawing generously on James Alison. But the main section rightly revolves around Aquinas, yet he also brings Pascal alive in a way I hadn’t expected. The combination of the two acted as a kind of apophatic trinitarian anthropology, it was quite a surprise and ended the book well. I appreciate that he didn’t feel the need to begin with this section to “ground” theology in epistemology. In this way he followed the general shape of traditional dogmatics so that even a strident Protestant couldn’t protest too much.

The book is not confessional in any denominational sense. And while the book is clearly more on the “catholic” side of things, this lack of polemic or overt sense of identifying with any group means that Divine Teaching can be used profitably by anyone who wants to teach from within the Nicene tradition.

McIntosh’s uncompromisingly Christian and trinitarian approach means that this book might not be ideal for use in a school where there is generally taken the traditional “comparative religion” or “religious studies” approach. Yet, if a school was open to actually teaching Christian theology from a “post-liberal” (in the broadest sense of that word) position, this is precisely the book I would use; not least since approaching Christian thought from the position of prayer and “mystical participation” would likely connect well with my generation of kids. But in order to do this, one would have to supplement the book with something to do with other faiths, as this is one area not really addressed in the book. Graham Ward’s True Religion could fill that void quite nicely I imagine.

I don’t know what it says about the book, but, as I often meditate on how I would teach theology in the future, this book has jumped to the very top of the list. There are so many strengths to the book, many of which I’ve tried to point out. Chief among them is that this book is all about how we might actually learn about God from God, in our inmost being, not as bits of true information, but as an abiding light that will illuminate all other seeing and knowing.

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11 Comments

  1. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I like the idea of approaching theology from the perspective of prayer and participation.

    And I agree with his constrictions against writing theology from outside the circle of belief – at least in a very general sense. For example, I think as a believer in the incarnation I would be able to write critically against the doctrine of the virgin birth as long as I understood how much intwined it is with some later concepts of Christology, and accounted for that.

    Without being able to take a close look, it appears the book cover art is kind of terrible (outside the circle of that amazing tree in the middle anyway). I could be wrong but I’m guessing the artist or editor didn’t have a clue (or a prayer) as to appropriate graphics – so common a problem in the publishing world.

    Reply

      1. Yes that’s the book I referring too. I don’t own a copy and couldn’t remember the title but when I reviewed in seminary I found it a very impressive text.
        APS- if you could get a hold that book I wonder if it would fit your classes and teaching style better.

        Reply

  2. APS, If you are only taking issue with the “No” answer to the question “Can one understand theology and not be a believer?” I think there is enough ambivalence in the word ‘understand’ to make your hatred (i.e. foresworn avoidance) of the book understandable.

    But I thought Tony (in the same paragraph) made it pretty clear that McIntosh allowed that there were two different approaches;

    (1) a straightforward method of teaching by which even a non-believer might “come to acquire knowledge of a tradition.” The principle there is that the whole field is objectively provided from start to finish – the human teacher (living or dead) provides the starting place to the mind of the learner in a mere concept, and everything proceeds apace.

    (2) the method of arranging the inner life for the doing of critical or constructive theology from the standpoint of one’s own belief in God is different. The principle there is that the objective status of the starting place must not depend on human teachers living or dead until after it has been given in a subjective experience of relatedness to a present spiritual reality.

    In both cases, one cannot experience or see ‘more’ of an object that is not at least partially given to begin with.

    Reply

    1. John,

      That seems fairly close to what McIntosh is getting at. Though he would put it in an ‘augustinian’ kind of way, like ‘ordering desire rightly’ or something. It was clear that de Trinitate is of great importance to what he was trying to say.

      Reply

  3. I really enjoyed this book. I had a real “moment” after reading in the early morning. As a pastor I use his treatment of the distinction between person and substance ofter. Thanks for the review.

    Reply

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