Saturday, February 08, 2014

Book Review: Doubting: Growing Through the Uncertainties of Faith by Alister McGrath

It is often understood that defending the faith is not just for the sake of evangelism, but it is also useful to strengthen the Christian's faith during the tough times of life. These tough times often cause doubt. But this reviewer has found that simply giving a logical answer is not always the way to help someone with doubt. The book Doubting: Growing Through The Uncertainties of Faith by Alister McGrath was recommended as a good resource on dealing with the other aspects of doubt that this reviewer was looking to be able to address. It is a shorter book at only 151 pages divided into eleven chapters. This review will provide a short chapter-by-chapter summary to introduce the reader to the content, then it will conclude with the reviewer's thoughts.

Chapter 1: Doubt: What It Is - And What It Isn't
McGrath begins by clearing up a common misconception about doubt: that it is synonymous with skepticism (disbelief of everything) and unbelief (not believing in God); rather it is distinct. Doubt is composed of two interacting characteristics of humanity. Man is sinful; which causes him to want to distance himself from God; and man is not omniscient, which appears to give him a valid reason to realize that sinful desire. Since Christians will struggle with sin until death or the return of Christ, the Christian life will be a constant struggle with doubt. However, that doubt should not be seen as something to be feared (because it is sourced in sin), but an opportunity to learn more about our Savior and Creator (because it is sourced in a lack of knowledge) that will bring us into a closer relationship to Him.

Chapter 2: Doubt and the Vain Search For Certainty
Since man has a lack of knowledge, it means that man cannot be certain of all things. McGrath explains that certainty of a relatively small number of truths is accessible to man, but none of those are facts that tend to alter a person's worldview and life. Rather the facts about ultimate issues -such as God's existence- are the ones that we cannot know with complete certainty, yet have the power to change our lives because they are worldview-changers. He explains that no one can get away from the fact that a commitment to any position on any of these issues requires faith. Since certain does not exist one way or the other, faith must be exercised. McGrath emphasizes that faith, though, is not devoid of knowledge or the intellect. In fact, a fact that is grounded in more knowledge and intelligence has a stronger foundation and can withstand tough questions that may cause a more superficial, emotion-driven faith to waiver- doubt. Doubt is directly connected to a lack of a solid foundation for our faith.

Chapter 3: Doubt In Other Worldviews: The Case of Atheism
It is commonly purported by atheists that their worldview contains no faith, and it is implied that science has proven atheism without a doubt. McGrath addresses this claim by pointing to the fact that by the nature of the lack of omniscience, all worldviews involve faith. He explains that science, as suggestive as its evidence may be for or against God, it cannot settle the matter without a doubt because God is not part of the natural world, and science only directly observes the natural world. So any claim that science has proven one way or the other should be rejected.

Chapter 4: The Personal Aspects of Doubt
Doubt is not the same for everyone. Because of the different histories, experiences, and personalities of people, addressing it cannot be done in a single way. McGrath sets up the rest of the book by pointing out that two kinds of doubt exist: doubt of propositions and doubt of persons. The doubt of God's existence or the resurrection of Jesus would be examples of the first. The doubt that God does love people and desires a personal relationship with them represents the second. The two can exist individually or together. The first is more intellectual, while the second is more relational. Recognizing this distinction and the personal aspects of doubt will help in dealing with it.

Chapter 5: Doubt In The Bible: Analogies and Images
No Christian understanding of doubt would be complete without exploring the model of doubt presented in scripture. McGrath goes to several passages that explain important aspects of doubt. Doubt is characterized by hesitation and indecision which lead to little progress in believing that which is doubted. Further, scripture implies that doubt is a posture of the mind, a continuous activity that needs to be changed. McGrath also shows where scripture paints vivid images of the experiences of doubt- being tossed around by a turbulent sea and navigating in the dark with only enough light to illuminate the immediate area. Though doubt will never disappear because it is useful for the Christian to grow, throughout the life of the Christian it should become less and less the default position.

Chapter 6: Doubts About The Gospel
In a world of things that constantly change and go out of date, people are reluctant to commit themselves to anything long-term. It is seen through history that political theories and worldviews have come and gone because they may have answered questions of the time, but did not have any lasting value and were shown to be ultimately false. McGrath addresses this fear both in two points: by demonstrating that Christianity recognizes an innate problem of man, that will be around as long as man exists (sin) and offers a solution to this problem (Jesus Christ), and the worldview is not merely an idea of man to deal with a specific problem of a specific culture and/or time period, but it is from the Creator of the universe, who knows the problem of His creation and the Solution to it. McGrath continues by explaining that through reason and scripture a doubter may understand that it is not by the appearance of success of communicating the Gospel that they should judge its truth, but by the fact that it explains and is rooted in ultimate reality.

Chapter 7: Doubts About Yourself
Another common object of doubt is the individual. The individual can doubt their worthiness to be forgiven and used by God. The individual can doubt whether God is actually present because of a lack of feeling His presence. McGrath explains that these doubts about one's self are often rooted in incorrect understandings of grace, humility, the functions and identification of gifts, and the focus on relative feelings rather than God's objective promises. He puts forth the proper understanding of each of these, and while he affirms that the believer will continue to discover a deeper necessity for God's grace in their lives, God is still there and will use them to further the Kingdom.

Chapter 8: Doubts About Jesus Christ
It is often that people doubt Jesus Christ. Books and documentaries are constantly produced that claim to have new information about the "true" historical Jesus. Claims range everywhere from Jesus' resurrection not taking place to his not even existing. McGrath provides a short summary of the key evidences that lead to the conclusion that Jesus not only lived, but died and resurrected. But even after seeing the evidence, people may still doubt that Jesus has any applicability to the contemporary man. McGrath also addresses that concern.

Chapter 9: Doubts About God
Life is full of "ups" and "downs." In the "down" times, God can seem so far away that people doubt that he's even there. In this chapter, McGrath expands on his earlier comments about the Christian faith being grounded in God and not in a feeling of God. McGrath explains that the promise and provision of the Messiah is the greatest evidence of God's faithfulness. He notes that the Messiah came even after a period of time when it was recognized that God had stopped speaking, and some had feared that God had left. When God seems distant, it reminds us of the doubt of ourselves- our sinfulness, and that leads to the doubt that God even loves us. McGrath reminds the reader of the purpose of the promised Messiah: to die so the believer could spend eternity with the God who loves them.

Chapter 10: Doubt: How to Handle It
With the vulnerability to doubt quite high throughout life, it is important to know how to handle it. McGrath explains the importance of a continued prayer life and study of scripture. He also explains how life can get in the way of these. He encourages the reader to make personal time with God part of a daily routine that is not done just for the sake of doing it, but to bring the person closer to God and prepare them for times of life when God will seem distant. McGrath also warns against the temptation to avoid corporate worship and fellowship with Christian friends and family. These people can be a great support during times of doubt or struggle. If the Christian wishes to prepare for unforeseen circumstances that may cause doubt, they will not neglect these disciplines.

Chapter 11: Doubt: Putting It In Perspective
In the concluding chapter McGrath reminds the reader of two instances in history when God seemed distant, but was not: the exodus of Israel from Egypt and on the first Good Friday. He explains that in light of the how it appeared that God had withdrawn, in the end he comes through. If God was still there even when no one thought he was, and everything seemed to say that he wasn't, then the Christian can trust that God is still present even when they do not experience him. Finally, McGrath offers one more way to help overcome doubt- the discipline of the mind of apologetics. He emphasizes that defending the faith is not just for evangelism but also to reassure the Christian and place them on a firm, objective foundation when times come that God does not feel "there." Doubt can be a valuable thing, if seen with the right perspective and used as an opportunity to build the reasonable foundation of faith.

Reviewer's Thoughts
Doubting: Growing Through The Uncertainties of Faith was a quite encouraging read. McGrath writes as a pastor who is counseling a Christian authentically struggling with doubt. He offers much insight that can alleviate the fears of doubt; but also explains why and how to deal with it. This book is not an apologetics book per se, but it lays the foundation for the reader to enter into the discipline of apologetics. The benefit to the apologist of reading this book is, at least, two-fold: ministerial and personal. First, the foundation that it sets will help the apologist defend the need for apologetics in the life of the Christian. It prepares them to be able to deal with doubting brothers and sisters, not just through the mind, but also through the heart- to connect and enter into the struggle with the person. Second, it reminds the apologist that our Christianity cannot be focused solely on the mind, but it must compel us to action and relating with the Creator and Savior. McGrath encourages and shows the necessity of the connection between the head and the heart for the apologist in their practice of defending the faith and in their own Christian walk.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Luke Nix is a Computer Systems Administrator in Oklahoma, USA. He has a beautiful and supportive wife, but no kids yet. In his spare time he enjoys studying theology, philosophy, biology, astronomy, psychology and apologetics. If you liked this review, more of his writing can be enjoyed at


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