The Great Quest, by Os Guinness. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2022, 132 pages, $11.90, paper; and Signals of Transcendence, by Os Guinness. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2023, 128 pages, $15.36, paper.

By now Os Guinness is a household name to many Christians. He is a popular speaker, has written scores of books, and is a sought-after public intellectual. While best known for his works of popular theology, such as The Call (Nelson, 2003) and Last Call for Liberty (IVP, 2018),[1] it must not be forgotten that one of his greatest concerns is to reach outsiders for the Christian faith.

Guinness is co-founder of the Trinity Forum, whose stated mission is “to provide leaders a space and resources to engage life’s greatest questions, in the context of faith.” If this sounds a bit vague, a deeper look shows the concern to bring cultural influencers to the Christian faith. It does this through book launches, quarterly readings, and forums to explore the great ideas, leading to Christian commitment.

No doubt the center of Guinness’s interests is apologetics, the defense and commendation of the Christian faith. Many of his lectures and writings are about persuasion, encouraging people to think through issues and become convinced that the Christian faith is valid. From a family of missionaries to China, he came to robust ways of explicating the truth at L'Abri, the remarkable community in the Swiss Alps, led by Francis Schaeffer, arguably the twentieth century’s very effective evangelists. A turning point came when he went to earn a doctorate at Oxford University, under the guidance of David Martin, the preeminent architect of secularization theory. Guinness’s dissertation examined the implications of sociologist Peter L. Berger’s views for Christian apologetics. We might call this the sociological turn in the art of commending the gospel.

Berger, not exactly an evangelical, stressed the social and psychological dimensions of worldview thinking. While truth and ideas matter, so do what Berger calls “structures of plausibility,” the social conditions for knowledge (known as the sociology of knowledge). Guinness argued for recognizing the wider context for belief and unbelief. Apologetics hitherto had been too limited to logical proofs and attestations. While these may be helpful, most people do not develop convictions solely in abstract fashion.

Signals of Transcendence recognizes this wider view of belief. It is an extraordinary book, based on Berger’s approach to intrusions into a closed world. The book simply lists cases of people who have built worldviews that are secular and then had a divine intervention which has jarred their assurance.

A couple of examples. First, the great poet W. H. Auden had become a typical liberal who believed man was basically good, and that if only we could change people’s circumstances, we could climb out of our problems. Until—he went to a cinema in New York and saw a news report of Hitler invading Warsaw. To his utter astonishment, he heard people in the largely German audience shouting, “kill them; kill the Poles!” This profoundly shook his liberalism and forced him to ask how he could be so upset. It drove him to a sovereign God who could define good and evil above human convention.

A second example is G. K. Chesterton in art school. Surrounded by practiced pessimists, he began to feel these fellow artists, who were close to the most beautiful objects, were ungrateful, lacking humility. It was (oddly) the contemplation of the dandelion that changed him from a typical secularist to a theist.

No one except possibly Francis Schaeffer has exploited this kind of tension as well as Berger. In my own conversations with unbelievers, this kind of conflict between a held position and the impossibility of living with it has most often led to an awareness of sin (the law) leading to salvation (grace). These signals are not natural theology, but “revelations,” as J. H. Bavinck would suggest in The Church Between Temple and Mosque.[2]

Very different is Guinness’s second book, The Great Quest. It is almost hard to believe it is by the same author as Signals. The concern to reach unbelievers is still very much there. But instead of (often somewhat diffident) presentations of various signals, it is a step-by-step argument for faith in Christ. There are four “phases” beginning with questions asked by seekers and ending with the Gospel. I feel conflicted about this. The Calvinist in me says there are no honest seekers. Guinness partly anticipates this by attempting to describe reasons why some people do not seem to care or want to go on the quest. They include being distracted (Pascal’s “diversion”), bargaining (“I’ll get to these things later”), or just noise (obstacles from our problems crowding in).

Still, these do not fully account for the apparent irrelevance of the big question for many people. My father was a decent man, even a good man. He had fought in World War II, survived the Great Depression and married a lovely woman from Wilmington, North Carolina, where I was born. He worked for a multinational corporation and retired comfortably. As I would discover, he was impervious to the big questions. He and my mother developed the fine art of diverting dangerous conversations that might have raised the larger questions, to safer ones: they could turn any exchange to innocuous issues, such as the children, travels, issues with neighbors, and so forth. As I read these two extraordinary books by Guinness, I kept asking myself how they would respond. The answer: with studied indifference.

To be generous, I must acknowledge The Great Quest is full of rich illustrations and persuasive arguments meant to unsettle anyone from indifference. Many of them can be found in the readings and discussion questions from The Trinity Forum.[3] They are arresting and challenging. But it is hard to get over the fact that so many people simply do not care, and no amount of logical persuasion is likely to get through.

May God use these two books to awaken people to the big questions and then to the big answers.


[1] Os Guinness, The Call: Finding and Fulfilling God's Purpose For Your Life (Nashville: Nelson, 1998); and Last Call for Liberty: How America's Genius for Freedom Has Become Its Greatest Threat (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2018)

[2] J. H. Bavinck, The Church Between Temple and Mosque (Chestnut Hill, PA: Westminster Seminary Press, 2023).

[3] https://www.ttf.org.

William Edgar is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and emeritus professor of apologetics and ethics at Westminster Theological Seminary, Glenside, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, August/September, 2023.

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Ordained Servant: August–September 2023

The Second Century Church

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Real Differences: The Danger of Radical Individualism: A Review Article

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