The Passionate Intellect in Review

Derek Ouellette —  September 1, 2010

The Passionate Intellect
Alister McGrath
4.5 Stars

Confession time: this is my first encounter with Alister McGrath. Some would say I was in for a treat. I was. The Passionate Intellect is essentially a series of related essays by McGrath which have been reworked to accommodate a book format. Because this work first existed as a set of separate essays, the theme seems, at first, to be rather broad; beginning with a discussion of theology, moving into Darwinian science, and finishing (not rounding) things off with a rebuttal of Dawkins and Hitchens New Atheism.

As someone who is most interested in theology, I found myself most captivated in the first third of The Passionate Intellect. There McGrath warns against the dangers of theoretical theology which remains in the head and halls of academia, but fails to have an impact on society. He argues that in order for theology to be good theology it must have a positive, or at least engaging, effect on culture and cultural trends.

With this in mind – almost as a case in point – McGrath turns his attention to the relationship science and religions have had over the years and graciously suggest a way forward. It is in this second third of The Passionate Intellect that McGrath has written an interesting article on Augustine and Evolution. He shows that Augustine’s approach to the first three chapters of Genesis made way for a reading of creation which accommodates theistic evolution. In is clear that this chapter is not written with the New Atheist in mind, but to the conservative evangelical who insists that Genesis 1-3 must be read through the literal six-day creation paradigm.

Finally McGrath turns his attention to the arguments of New Atheism and, bit by bit, shows the flawed assumptions and true roots which lay behind the arguments of Dawkins, Hitchens and others. There can be little doubt, says McGrath, that there are no “new” arguments or evidence against religions by the New Atheist. The only new feature brought to the table is an almost religiously vehement hatred for any other religion – save their own.

My only real criticism of this work goes back to – interesting enough – his essay on Augustine. There seems to be an assumption McGrath makes which – frustratingly – is made repeatedly by theistic evolutionists or intelligent design defendants (Scot McKnight, Hugh Ross, Karl Giberson, Francis Collins et cetera). These authors attempt to (however gently sometimes) wrestle the so-called science reading of Genesis out of the anti-intellectual hands of Fundamentalists, as if the only concern someone might have for reading Genesis 1-3 literally were to preserve a literal reading of the account.

My own approach is to follow Henri Blocher’s literary reading which, in itself, does not rule out many literal elements.  But my primary concern for continuing to read Genesis in such a way as to believe – for example – in an original primeval couple, appropriately named Adam and Eve, and in an actual place called Eden, rests, not in an insistence of squaring natural science with the Biblical creation account. My primary concern is theological and cross centered. With such emphasis placed on theology as the catalyst to discussing such things as evolution and the New Atheism, I am disappointed that McGrath takes the turn that he does in his essay on Augustine without so much as to suggestion how an evolutionary worldview may square with a theology of the cross.

All and all I highly recommend this read.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Dan Valade

    thanks for the review! Although I haven’t read the book I agree with your conclusions regarding holding to a cross centred theology. I find the theology of any people I know is derived from their feelings or experiences and sadly not the cross. Keep up the good work and I’ll keep reading!

  • Derek Ouellette

    Dan, thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment!

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  • http://irishanglican Fr. Robert (Anglican)


    As much as I like McGrath, (I have read almost everything he has written, back to his work on Luther, etc.).. I am a few years older than Alister also. I too would follow something more of Blocher as to Genesis (1-3). I am myself a creationist (Old Earth). But, I am still open to the Young Earth also. Funny, but I would see Augustine’s view as creational, as his own position states, but within a “framework” expression.

    With MacGrath, I think because of his past scientific life (atheist, etc.) and education, he moves toward a theistic evolution position. And Alister is not really a scripture scholar, per-say.

    But he is a great Christian thinker-theolog, one of the best certainly! And he is also a good historian. Note he uses the historical approach in his writing. Which makes his approach to Genesis that much more perplexing? Until one sees his personal background, etc.

    My thoughts at least.

  • http://irishanglican Fr. Robert (Anglican)


  • Derek Ouellette

    Thanks Fr. Robert,

    It seems to me – I’m waiting for someone to prove me wrong – that scholars like McGrath (note: I have developed lots of respect for him) and others I’ve mentioned make no attempted – biblically/theologically – of reconciling theistic evolution with a theology of the cross. I believe I understand why, perhaps they don’t see it as something they have to reconcile. But for me it is. I just wish someone (like McGrath or McKnight) would make an effort. I’ll listen.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  • Matt Kellon Robinson

    How can theistic evolution possibly be reconciled to the Bible? If one holds to Darwinism, how is he to explain the soul? Did the soul suddenly immerge within the process when God saw fit? There are way too many inconsistencies in theistic evolution to even consider. It saddens me to she Christian thinkers who so easily compromise to suit the academic status quo.