It's a rare thing to find a theologian altogether thorough, brief, and satisfying. Irish author, theologian, and former atheist Alister McGrath offers a manageable first-read on addressing a new believer's doubts. Parents of teens and ministry workers who forage for short, relevant material may find a good starting point with this book, like kindling that eventually calls for weightier fuel for a brighter fire.
McGrath, who now heads a research project on natural theology at Oxford, created this book out of a series of talks given to Oxford students at what he calls a "house party" in 1988 (quite a different gathering than what is typically thought of-lots of alcohol and shenanigans among co-eds). He revamped the talks to address postmodern culture and put them in book form. Doubting is meant to be concise and practical, and his second to last chapter offers general strategies for spiritual discipline and growth, including tips on what to pray, reading God's Word regularly, and getting together with other Christians for Bible study, encouragement, and support.
The book starts with a helpful definition of doubt by explaining both what it is and what it is not. In the end, McGrath says, "Faith and doubt aren't mutually exclusive-but faith and unbelief are" (14). Sinfulness, frailty, and being finite all contribute to the lack of what we can know, and these realities feed our doubts. He then points to a variety of biblical images of doubt: Peter's hesitation on the water with Jesus (Matt. 28:17); indecision or arguing out of a sense of distrust (Rom. 4:20); being double-minded and unable to come to a conclusion or action (James 4:8); and doubt as a state of mind or negative questioning that is recurring (John 20:27). He next breaks down our experience of doubt into four categories: doubts about the gospel, ourselves, Jesus, and God.
In looking at the universality of doubt, whether Jewish, Muslim, or atheist, McGrath says all worldviews are "ultimately not capable of being proved in every respect," and people cling to their beliefs "as a matter of faith. And once you see this, we're all in the same boat" (42). Unfortunately, in his attempt to comfort readers with the commonality of faith and doubt, he does so at the expense of what God uniquely offers the Christian-sufficient revelation and certainty of himself in nature, humanity, and the Bible (Rom. 1; Col. 2:2-3; 1 John 5:13).
In the second chapter, "Doubt and the Vain Search for Certainty," McGrath tries to display the inadequacies of rational proofs for any system of belief, including Christianity, and speaks instead of the Trinity's work to persuade us to trust: "God the father makes those promises; God the son confirms them in his words and deeds; and the Holy Spirit reassures us of their reliability and seals those promises within our hearts" (25). While this is certainly true and helpful, I fear McGrath tends to leave "certainty" in the realm of the scientific only and speaks of faith as a "leap," which is the human "resolve to live our lives on the assumption that certain things are true and trustworthy, in the confident assurance that they are true and trustworthy, and that one day we will know with absolute certainty that they are true and trustworthy…" (27).
In chapter 8, McGrath addresses arguments about the historical reliability of Christ's resurrection in the gospels as well as the relevance of Jesus to someone who lives 2,000 years later. Though McGrath highlights the person of Christ as God in man and his atonement at the cross and new life, he speaks of Christ's work as something that makes a new relationship to God "possible," instead of fully accomplished at the cross and undoubtedly applied to every believer. He starts to say this, but then mixes the message with Christ making salvation merely possible for everyone: "Our faith, our hope, all that matters to us-these are all the consequences of what God achieved for us through Jesus. The fact that this new life is a present possibility for others rests on the solid foundation of Jesus Christ" (102).
To combat doubt, McGrath does urge new Christians to beef up their understanding of historic Christian doctrine, but he mentions very few by name. Early in the book, he says Christians will continue to struggle with sin and doubt as part of God's ongoing sanctifying process, thus mentioning justification and sanctification, but when he tells of God's promises and his faithfulness to them, he does not speak of the covenant. McGrath also names the universal human dilemma of "the need to be loved, the need to have hope in the face of death, and the need to break free from sin" (64) but doesn't correlate those with the doctrines of adoption, depravity, and more. Another doctrine, perseverance, is omitted creating a sad but loud silence within a book written particularly for new believers wrestling with doubt about their personal salvation and outcome.
A last critique of the book has less to do with established Reformed doctrine and more to do with views on emotion and reason. "Feelings are subjective; God's promises are objective." The reader is urged to "rely on the promises of God that lay outside of us, independent of our feelings and anxieties" (72). Emotions are repeatedly said to distract and mislead us into further doubt. While they can be misleading, adherence to a rational system of belief can lead to just as unfaithful an end. Contemporary neuroscience as well as theologians like John Frame reveal how reason depends upon emotion for sound judgment. Rationally deciding whether to cross a street or stay at the curb requires a healthy sense of fear of the on-coming truck. When it comes to theological reasoning and emotion, both need to be redeemed, and the former doesn't necessarily trump the latter. If fearing the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, what are we to say to the notion that reason or thinking is the engine that runs the train of Christian certainty while emotions and fear is the fated caboose? To spurn emotion and separate it from reason and faith is not only dated but also inaccurate.
In McGrath's final chapter, he encourages doubters to embrace the biblical narratives and see Israel's story as our story. That way, disappointment and doubt are an expected and necessary part of faith's journey, just as it was for those in the desert, those in exile, and those on Good Friday before resurrection Sunday. It's a worthy endnote for a short treatment on a subject that so often plagues us.