4 min read

Seeing the world through different eyes

Can 'dull words' signpost to something beyond? Explore how creeds help imagine life.

Alister McGrath retired as Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University in 2022.

A set of low concrere blocks in the shape of a map's viewpoint symbol sit beside a lake.
'Viewpoint': a sculpture near Needs Hill on the north side of Kielder Water.
Oliver Dixon, via Wikimedia Commons.

Why are the Creeds so dull?  To many, they have the intellectual depth and emotional appeal of hastily written shopping lists. Their leaden and impenetrable statements seemed to point to a cold, dead orthodoxy which has nothing to say to a fast-changing world. During my own phase as an atheist, I saw the creeds as top-down authoritarian attempts to trap people within a narrow and restrictive view of the world. I objected to being told what to think; I wanted to find things out for myself. 

My outlook on life changed while I was a student at Oxford University in the early 1970s, as I began to appreciate for the first time the intellectual and imaginative appeal of Christianity. The Creeds themselves had nothing to do with this transition, which came about through conversations with intelligent and reflective Christians. This helped me grasp the vision of what lay at the heart of Christianity – something that could not be reduced to words or slogans, but which gave birth to a new way of living and acting. This seemed to be a million miles away from the arcane declarations of the Creeds. But as time passed, I began to see the Creeds in a new way. Let me explain.

The way we imagine the world – whether socially, morally, politically or religiously – needs to be expressed.

Back in the 1980s, the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor introduced his idea of “articulation”. Every attempt to live a good life or develop a viable moral system depends on a set of background assumptions which need to be identified and put into words. “Articulation” is about the “bringing to light of that which is unspoken but presupposed”. Taylor’s point is that we need to put into words the grander vision of reality which shapes the way we think and live, despite the obvious inability of words to do justice or fully express this vision. The way we imagine the world – whether socially, morally, politically or religiously – needs to be expressed; yet that very act of expression both diminishes and restricts that vision, precisely because it is a rich imaginative reality that cannot be reduced to words.

It is this vision of faith which engages, inspires and motivates believers, not its verbal articulation in the Creeds.

The Creeds are thus an articulation of the core vision of faith. (The Apostles’ Creed is thought to have emerged gradually within Christian communities, particularly in Rome, apparently in response to the need for brief personal articulations of faith at baptism.) It is this vision of faith which engages, inspires and motivates believers, not its verbal articulation in the Creeds. If this vision is to be effectively expressed in words, it will use the language of poetry, capable of engaging the imagination and emotions. Perhaps this helps us understand why some of the Church’s best-loved theologians were poets (think of John Donne, or George Herbert). We need verbal articulations of faith, yet too easily misunderstand these as defining the essence of faith when they are actually signposts to its core vision.

Thinking of Creeds in this way allows us to see them as expressing frameworks of exploration and discovery. Rather than presenting us with a set of verbal formulae as “givens”, the Creeds point to a rich landscape that we can explore, identifying its landmarks that deserve our attention. They are like guidebooks, telling us what to look out for – and thus countering our natural tendency to limit ourselves to the familiar by pointing out what we have yet to discover.

Yet the Creeds are not themselves the agents of discovery. If the Christian faith can be compared to a landscape, then its best guides are those who live there, having internalized its features and incorporated them into their lives. There is a necessary and proper synergy between the statements of the Creeds and the personal experiences of Christians. The Creeds map the landscape of faith; yet individual Christian believers are best placed to explain and unpack its features, and the difference that this makes to their lives. The primary witnesses to the vitality of faith are thus ordinary Christians, who can connect the landmarks of faith with their personal journeys of discovery and living out their faith.

At times, those personal narratives may express the excitement of a new way of seeing the world; at others, they may concern how faith enables individuals to cope with uncertainty, trauma, loneliness, and death. The Creeds cannot (and do not) make those connections; they can, however, provide a framework for exploring and understanding how faith changes lives and shapes personal worlds, in dialogue with those who have made those discoveries, and can express them in their own words and ways. The Creeds cannot tell anyone what it means – or feels like – to believe in God. Yet they make room for individual believers to tell their stories, amplifying and embodying the terse and otherwise opaque creedal statements.

The Creeds, at first sight, at least, may indeed be dull – but their significance lies in the landscape to which they point. Far from trying to limit us, they are seeking to expand our vision by pointing to a greater reality that lies behind and beneath them.

6 min read

The rest is Luther

Can popular podcasts really do justice? The expert’s verdict is in.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Two podcast hosts in different rooms appear on a split screen talking to each other
Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook rank Luther's influence.

I’m not one of those who listens to every episode of The Rest is History - does anyone do that with the sheer volume of material they produce? Yet when I see something that interests me – 1970s Britain, the Lost Library of Alexandria, the Easter Rising of 1916, I’m in. So, when I saw they were doing a series on Martin Luther, I just had to listen.  

With much of what they cover, take the Lost Library of Alexandria for example, I wouldn’t really know whether they were telling the truth or not, having a passing interest and only a vague knowledge of the topic. Yet this one was different, because, without wanting to blow any trumpets, I do know a fair bit about Luther. I’ve written a doctorate, a biography and a couple of other books on him, lectured on Luther at Oxford University for many years, and spent a lot of time in libraries, poring over his commentaries and treatises, wading my way through dense books by German scholars picking apart the most minute aspects of his theology. 

 Very often when you hear something on the TV or radio that you know something about, you realise the journalists are winging it. They get away with it because no-one knows any better. So, I wondered this time, would I see through the boys on the podcast, and realise they were winging it too?  

They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was. 

Well, my admiration for Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland went up massively. I once asked Tom whether they had an army of researchers doing their work for them and he told me they didn’t - they read most of the stuff themselves.  So, to have them do five episodes on a topic that is not necessarily their specialist subject and get pretty much all of the story not just right, but really interesting, is quite an achievement. They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was.  

They normally recount history with a good dose of humour, drama and colour. That is taken for granted. They know how to tell a good story. However, they also really know their stuff. Tom led the way, and I must say, told the story with a level of detail, accuracy and sympathy that was quite remarkable. They clearly enjoyed it too – they loved his earthiness, his preoccupation with the devil and excrement that is so distinctively Luther. 

Martin Luther, as they said at the end, was no saint. He was a man of extremes. He could inspire devoted loyalty from his friends, and fury from his enemies in equal measure. He was never dull. He always said his besetting sin was anger – he claimed to write best when he was cross. That explains the vituperative language, the skill at invective, his genius for insults. He said terrible things about the peasants and even worse things about the Jews. Yet he launched a movement that brought fresh dignity and purpose to countless people across Europe and beyond – he can be said to have touched the lives of the one billion Protestants in the world today. He literally changed the world. And Tom and Dominic helped us understand why. 

Definitely a nine out of ten.  

But why not ten? 

Well, I did have one small quibble. Luther was portrayed as someone who struggled to know that God loved him. So far, so good. His great breakthrough was described by the excellent Holland as “a personal experience of God”, whereby Luther found “a feeling of being washed in the love of God.” Luther’s new discovery was that “If God loves you, you exist in a state of grace… which is a feeling that Christ is present in you, in your secretmost heart, and the certainty of that grace gives you a peace of conscience.”  

Now there is something of that in Luther, and it was close, but it’s not quite the way he would have put it.  

Luther is really not that interested in experiences of God. In fact, he distrusts them. in 1521, a group of prophets arrived in Wittenberg from a small town called Zwickau claiming experiences of God, but Luther was having none of it. He asked about their experience – but not whether they had experienced the love of God, but whether they had experienced his absence. Had they experienced what Luther called Anfechtung – the experience of feeling God is against you, when you struggle with temptation, are driven to despair, when God doesn’t answer your prayers, and when all you know is your own shame, sin, and disgrace? What do you do then?  

And that’s why the Bible was important to him – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

The reason he asked about this was that such experiences so often are the things that help bring faith to birth, because they press the question of who you trust in such times – your own feelings of inadequacy? Or God’s word that tells you something different? 

Luther found peace of conscience, not in some unmediated experience of the love of God for him, but in hearing afresh the Word which God had spoken to the human race in Jesus Christ. Against all the odds, and despite his frequent experience of God’s absence rather than his presence, God had sent his Son, as a pledge once and for all, that God’s heart was full of love and kindness. In sending Christ, God had given himself (or technical language, his ‘righteousness’) to us in Christ, and the only fitting response, is simply to believe and trust that this is true, whereby that ‘righteousness’ becomes ours. We are therefore, in Luther’s classic and paradoxical phrase, ‘both righteous and sinful’ at the same time 

He once put it like this: “God achieves his purposes through suffering, pain and anxiety. Yet of course these are not the things in which you expect to find God. As a result, most people do not recognise this as God’s work, because they expect God only to be revealed in glory, grandeur and splendour. The way God works confounds human expectations and so, faith is needed to see past the appearance of things to their true reality.” 

This was the doctrine of justification by faith – not trying to be extra religious or having ecstatic experiences of God but simply trusting your life on the notion that Jesus is God’s great gift the the world, a gift that tells us he is, despite everything that may point in the other direction, full of love and goodness – and not just to the human race in general, but to you, to me. And that’s why the Bible was so important to Luther – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

This is what gave Luther joy. It was not that an experience gave birth to faith, but it was the other way round: trusting God’s promise in Christ gave birth to the joy that comes from faith.  

Tom and Dominic did a fantastic job in their series on Luther. I really recommend you listen to it – you won’t regret it. But just remember Luther was more interested in faith than feeling:

“Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favour that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God's grace makes you happy, joyful and bold.”  


The Rest is History on YouTube. Martin Luther: The Man Who Changed The World, Part 1.