Mere Discipleship: An Interview with Alister McGrath

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Alister McGrathHow should Christian discipleship affect the way you think, imagine, and act? How can you best hold on to hope while journeying through darkness and live meaningfully in a world in which things don’t always seem to make sense?

Bible Gateway interviewed Oxford professor Dr. Alister McGrath (@alisteremcgrath) about his book, Mere Discipleship: Growing in Wisdom and Hope (Baker Books, 2019).

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Why do you use the word “mere” in the title?

Dr. Alister McGrath: This book draws on the ideas of C. S. Lewis at many points. For a start, I endorse Lewis’ notion of a generous consensual Christian orthodoxy, famously set out in his classic work Mere Christianity (1952)—hence the use of the word “mere.”

Lewis here emphasizes the core ideas which Christians share in common, without advocating any specific denominational agenda. Christian discipleship transcends denominational boundaries, even though it can be enriched by the spiritual traditions of individual denominations.

And second, I frequently use Lewis himself as point of reference in this work, not least on account of his idea of Christianity as offering a ‘big picture’ of reality, which helps us to see ourselves and our world in a new way.

[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, If I Had Lunch with C. S. Lewis: An Interview with Alister McGrath]

Explain the biblical theme of discipleship.

Dr. Alister McGrath: Discipleship is about allowing our hearts, hands, and minds to be transformed by God’s grace, as we grow in our faith and aim to become more like Christ in our thoughts and actions. While discipleship depends from start to finish on God’s grace, it also rests on a principled intention on our part to contribute to this process. As the New Testament reminds us, we’re like athletes preparing for a race. We’re in training for the tasks that God has in mind for us.

[See all books by Alister McGrath in the Bible Gateway Store]

What do you mean when you write about the discipleship of the mind?

Dr. Alister McGrath: For me, Christian discipleship is the quest to go beyond a superficial grasp of our faith, allowing us to discover its depths and riches, and be refreshed and transformed by them. I’ve taken to heart those famous words of Christ: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength’ (Mark 12:30).

We’re called to love God with all of our minds; to think about our faith. It’s about our quest for spiritual wisdom, rather than simply knowledge, rooted in a secure and reflective grasp of the Christian gospel. This kind of wisdom arises partly from a deep and prolonged personal reflection on the Christian faith over an extended period of time.

How are Christian beliefs often assumed by Christians to be individual, unrelated ideas and why is that not acceptable?

Dr. Alister McGrath: For me, one of the most exciting things about the Christian faith is that it offers a ‘big picture’ of reality. I find this idea expressed especially in the writings of C. S. Lewis—such as this quotation from a lecture he once gave in Oxford: ‘I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.’

A ‘discipleship of the mind’ is about grasping and appreciating the rich and rewarding ‘big picture’ of reality that lies at the heart of the Christian faith. But if we focus on individual aspects or doctrines of the Christian faith, we miss this ‘big picture.’ We need to weave together the individual biblical threads, and discover and value the pattern that results from this. Christianity is a coherent view of reality, not an accumulation of disconnected ideas!

The gospel provides us with a web of meaning, a deep belief in the fundamental interconnectedness of things. It’s like standing on top of a mountain and looking down at a patchwork of villages, fields, streams, and forests. We can take snapshots of everything we see. Yet what we really need is a panoramic shot that holds the snapshots together—that lets us see that there’s a ‘big picture,’ and that each of these little pictures has its place within that greater whole.

What is the place of the Bible in mere discipleship?

Dr. Alister McGrath: The Bible is central to this process of discipleship, providing us with both the motivation and the means to go deeper into our faith.

The New Testament reminds us of our need to have our minds transformed by the Christian gospel. Think of Paul’s great injunction to his readers to be actively ‘transformed by the renewal of your minds,’ rather than being passively ‘conformed to the world’ (Romans 12:2).

Yet the Bible also provides us with the building blocks of our faith, inviting us to put these together and discover the bigger picture that they disclose.

How should a Christian go about developing (strengthening) his or her discipleship?

Dr. Alister McGrath: There are lots of ways. The best advice I can give is to realize how important other Christians can be in helping us to grow in our faith.

C. S. Lewis, reflecting on his own experience of spiritual growth and theological reflection, remarked that ‘the one really adequate instrument for learning about God is the Christian community.’ What he meant by that is that Christians can share with each other helpful ways of understanding a biblical passage, or of thinking about a core Christian doctrine. We can help each other to grow in faith.

Yet we don’t need to rely on people we know! I use C. S. Lewis a lot in this book, mainly because I’ve come to understand him and trust him.

Books are part of the way in which we can grow in our faith. Writers like Lewis can help us think things through, and encourage us to go deeper into the gospel. Biblical commentaries are really helpful as we navigate our way through the riches of Scripture, helping us to gain more from our encounter with God’s word.

[See all books by C. S. Lewis in the Bible Gateway Store]

What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?

Dr. Alister McGrath: One of my favorite Bible passages is (1 John 4:8-10). ‘God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.‘

So why do I like this so much? The passage tells us that God is love—and then shows us what form that love takes. It tells us what God did to demonstrate his love for each of us. It calls to mind the Gospel accounts of the suffering of Christ, which both highlight the reality of that suffering, and the reason for Christ’s willingness to bear it: his obedience to God and his love for us. It invites us to turn over in our minds and savor elements of that narrative, seeing in our mind’s eye the shocking scene of Christ’s crucifixion. Christ did this for each of us. He didn’t have to. He chose to. And he chose to because each of us matters profoundly. I find that really helpful, especially when reading the Gospel passion stories.

What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway?

Dr. Alister McGrath: I love the way Bible Gateway brings together tools to help us get more out of reading the Bible and interviews with people who can help us go deeper in our faith and enrich our engagement with Scripture.


Bio: Alister McGrath is the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University and director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion. He holds Oxford doctorates in the natural sciences, intellectual history, and Christian theology. McGrath has written extensively on the interaction of science and Christian theology and is the author of many books, including the international bestseller The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine (SPCK, 2007) and the market-leading textbook Christian Theology: An Introduction (Wiley, 2016). McGrath also serves as the Gresham Professor of Divinity, a public professorship in the City of London, established in 1597, that promotes the public engagement of theology with the leading issues of the day.

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