Mystery of the Cross By Alister E. McGrath. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1990. 190 pp. Paper, $8.99.
This book’s purpose is to stimulate, or even irritate, the readers “to reflect further on the enigma of the cross” (p. 188). McGrath fulfills his purpose by providing a well-written, challenging, and thought-provoking consideration of the Cross of Christ. But his presentation is not merely an academic exercise. Instead, it reveals McGrath’s central thesis: that the Cross embraces “every aspect of our existence as Christians,” and this book is meant “to bring out the importance of the cross for the whole of existence, the life and doctrine of the Christian church” (p. 187).
The Cross is presented as a mystery-“To be a ‘theologian of the cross’ is to recognise the resistance of the cross to interpretation, and to concede that we will never plumb the full depth of its meaning” (p. 79). The Cross is also the basis of Christianity. It is the Cross, claims McGrath, that presents us with a true picture of God, though in an opaque fashion. If we want to understand God, we must look at what He did through the Cross, and when we study it, we realize that it presents the power of God in and through weakness and provides total relevance for the life of every believer.
There is an excellent discussion on theodicy-the relationship of God to pain, suffering, and evil. The author meets, headlong, the question, “How can I believe in God in a world of pain and suffering?” And in the context of that argument, McGrath provides a superb presentation of God’s omnipotence in light of the reality of logical contradictions. (“God is free to do anything, provided logical contradiction doesn’t result. Thus the fact that God can’t make a three-sided square is not seen as a threat to his omnipotence” [p. 122]. The discussion which ensues deals with the fact that if God is omnipotent, He must have the freedom to set aside His omnipotence. Thus, He “places limitations upon his course of action” [p. 123].)
Another strength of this work is that it presents the Cross as highly relevant to believers. We are shown that the Cross demands our faithfulness; that although suffering is part of the Christian life, God is with us in our suffering and pain; and that experience is an unreliable guide for faith and practice. (“Experience declared that God was absent from Calvary, only to have its verdict humiliatingly overturned on the third day” [p.159].) The Cross also teaches us the importance of humility by showing that God works through the powerless, and by warning us that it was the religiously proud who crucified our Lord Jesus Christ and were rejected by God.
This reviewer, however, does see some weaknesses in this work. First, the author emphasizes ecclesiastical tradition for determining truth, rather than resting solely on Scripture. Ultimately, the trustworthiness of the tradition of men must be gauged by the Word of God.
Second, the author holds to presuppositional apologetics-the view that certain tenets (such as the existence of God and the reliability and authority of the Bible as God’s inerrant Word) cannot really be demonstrated by reason, and must simply be accepted as true (p. 54). His approach is to start with the assumption that the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ did take place, and that the only way Christianity might be shown to be wrong is by demonstrating that those events never actually occurred (p. 55). One problem with this view is that it becomes very difficult to convince someone with an unbiblical view of God and life that his view is incorrect. McGrath seems to answer this by writing that our work is not to persuade men, but to point them to the Cross of Christ (see p. 135). A second problem with this view is that it leads to a mystical notion of faith, for in this view “faith comes before understanding” (p. 48). Faith is seen more as a risk (p. 54) than the assurance that something is true. This could lead people to accept as true whatever they want-even if it could not be substantiated.
Third, in a book on the Cross, one would expect to find teaching on how man is to respond to it. And though this reviewer was not disappointed in finding that the author believes that the proper response is faith and faith alone, the reviewer is disappointed that no clear definition appears of what faith is.
Finally, the author appears to muddy the waters in his discussion of reason in relationship to the Cross. In mentioning that the Cross appears, on the surface, to be contradictory to God’s nature, McGrath basically informs the readers that any apparent contradiction is simply due to our human inability to understand the fullness of truth. That is fine, but he provides no help in determining the difference between an apparent contradiction and a real contradiction when he rejects the notion that the beliefs of Christianity can be defended rationally, and then quotes Augustine as claiming, “If you can understand it, it’s not God.” This puts the author in a potentially awkward position when he encounters a real contradiction, such as when an individual propagates the belief that Christians are eternally secure, but they can lose eternal life. (This reviewer has actually encountered people who believe that very contradiction.) How does he handle that? Does he simply say that this is a mystery which we cannot understand?
Even with its weaknesses, I found McGrath’s book to be very helpful reading. His discussion on theodicy and God’s omnipotence are, alone, worth the price of the book. And his treatment of the relevance of the Cross for believers is excellent. For those who wish to be encouraged and challenged in a deeper way by the Cross of Christ, obtain this book and enjoy!
Candlelight Bible Church