A recent issue of Christianity Today (Jan.-Feb. 2015) magazine has the story of two conversions. I think conversion stories have a lot to teach us, and I cherish reading those of people who want to go public with their personal journeys.
One of the two conversion stories is that of Gregory Alan Thornbury, president of King’s College and an authority on mid-century evangelical theologian Carl Henry, of whom more in a moment. Thornbury grew up in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, home of Bucknell University. He was the son of a Baptist pastor and a kind of preacher’s Wunderkind in his teenage years. Then he went away to college, where he was exposed to what used to be called ‘higher criticism.”
Higher criticism was (and still is) the application of literary analysis to the Bible that had the effect of reducing the scriptures to a compilation of a variety of texts and traditions. Today you encounter an extreme form of this method in the Jesus Seminar and in the books by Bart Ehrman. I remember my own first brush with a particular strain of higher criticism called by the German name Formgeschichte while a student at Princeton Seminary in the 1970s. For me it was disorienting; for Gregory Alan Thornbury, it was nearly lethal. “Any sense that the Bible was divinely inspired and trustworthy,” he writes, “or that the creeds had metaphysical gravitas, started to seem implausible.”
Discouraged, he called his father one evening. The wise pastor counseled his son to turn to the works of a new theologian by the name of Carl Henry. Henry’s systematic theology, God, Revelation and Authority, had recently appeared, and was having a deep impact on evangelical scholars. Young Thornbury went to the library and found the work. “I kept reading for days on end. I cried and kept searching, and genuine faith began to awaken… Because Henry was a philosopher defending biblical authority, I rallied.”
Carl Henry “combined head and heart,” Thornbury writes. The young man had had plenty of heart in his boyhood religion, but he lacked the intellectual equipage to deal with the skepticism that met him in the academy and in a world that is increasingly secular.
God brings great theologians and Christian thinkers along at critical times in the world’s history. Perhaps no theologian of our time has had such a salutary impression on evangelical Christians as Alister McGrath, professor of science and religion at Oxford University. McGrath’s small book of essays, The Passionate Intellect has been a great help to me, and I look forward to reading his recent biography of C. S. Lewis. He is the author of many other important books. McGrath combines a deep grasp of modern science with classic Christian theology.
And it is to McGrath’s conversion story that we turn next from the pages of Christianity Today.
McGrath’s “first conversion” in college was largely an intellectual persuasion that Christ was Redeemer and Lord. He had previously been, in his words, “an aggressive atheist, utterly convinced of the godless worldview.” That first spiritual experience was in 1971. Yet over the next two years as a Christian, he sensed that something was missing. One day he went off to a hillside with his Bible and read carefully the book of Philippians. The magnificent portrait of Christ that is found in that short work of St. Paul completely reinvigorated McGrath’s faith.
“I grasped the importance of ‘spirituality’ for nourishing my relationship with God,” he writes. “And the great ‘Christ hymn’ (Philippians 2:5-11) helped me see my need to focus on Jesus’ life and death, and not approach him through a depersonalizing framework of abstract ideas. Previously I had tended to see my faith as something I needed to sustain; now I realized it could sustain me.”
Two men, two conversions, one convergence.
Young Thornbury had imbibed a childhood faith that was largely emotional but lacked a robust dimension of the mind. Young McGrath had an intellectual understanding of Christ, a knowledge about Jesus Christ, but he needed a personal knowledge of Christ. Each came from a different end of the mind-heart continuum and met in the middle, the vital middle, where true, mature faith in Christ is found.
We should not be surprised. Jesus told us to love God with all our heart, mind and soul.
I sense that today it is much more the case that Christians need to develop their minds (Romans 12:1-2) than their hearts. We have a strong affective faith, and our churches are full of praise music, but most Christians are ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of an aggressively secular culture. We could do worse than to go to the library and pick up a book by–who else?–Alister McGrath.