Alistair McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea – The Protestant Revolution from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First (New York, HarperOne, 2007) 552pp.
History has the unique capacity to both inform and to transform the present. It is informative in that we learn the stories of our past, enjoying the narratives of peoples, places, events, failures and accomplishments of those who have traveled before us. It is transformative in that we can better understand who we are as people in light of the roads traveled to the ever present now. Additionally, the wise learn from both the mistakes and teachings left for us in the literary trails of our ancestors. Of course, when not well written, history can be a bore. I recently finished a book that was both engagingly written, informative and in some way gave great peace and understanding to my journey as a Christian convert living in the twenty first century. The book that has so helped me is Alistair McGrath’s excellent treatment of the Protestant Reformation, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea. I know this introduction colors this review a bit, but I simply loved the book…so now that I have stated this front and center…on to the review.
McGrath’s thesis in the book is that the formal principle of the Protestant reformation, that each person has the right and duty to interpret Holy Scripture for himself, was and remains a dangerous idea. It is dangerous in that it placed the Bible in the hands of all people and removed an authoritative interpretation from the magisterial control of the Roman Catholic Church. This of course is dangerous because it has and will continue to provoke all sorts of interpretations of Scripture, all claiming to be “biblical”, which has splintered the church into many small factions and denominations. It is also revolutionary in that it set free the Bible from the control of Rome so that it could speak to all people as the very Word of God.
McGrath and his publishers did a great job with the title and branding of the book. The reformation is called a revolution here and the cover design has a picture of Luther holding the book with a red tint covering the view (see above). The cover almost looks like a communist piece striking the radical nature of revolutions in the hearts of modern readers. To be honest, McGrath does an equally good job in conveying the radical nature of the European Reformations in this 550 page volume.
The book consists of three major parts or subdivisions. Part I, entitled Origination focuses on the history involved with the reformation and the origins of reform on the continent, then later in England and finally on American soils. McGrath’s approach here does have the focus on the great men and leaders but he uniquely focuses on the sociological realities in the local communities where reform movements began. His treatment of the reformation is to view it not as one monolithic movement, but rather as small reform movements which emerged in different contexts with quite differing foci, though still uniting against the common ideological opponent – the halls of Rome. Part II deals with the major realities in which the Protestant faiths express both unity and diversity. In this section, entitled Manifestations, several topic of importance to Protestantism(s) are covered. The Bible, Doctrines, ecclesiastical structures, culture and the arts are all covered in this section. Part III deals with the malleability and transformation of Protestantism(s) in the 20th century focusing heavily on the Pentecostal arrival and the rapid growth and expansion of Protestant movements in the global south.
The work is somewhat lengthy as it, but McGrath managed to keep his treatment concise. He achieved an amazing balance of rigorous treatment without overwhelming the reader with minutia or making it a one thousand page tome. There were many strengths to the book which I will touch below as well as a few obligatory drawbacks I felt while reading. To these we turn.
Part I – Origination
In McGrath’s treatment of the continental history of Protestantism he covered the various movements and men of import. As expected, Luther, Calvin, Swingli and the latter Anabaptists are all central figures in the work. I found two particular things interesting about McGrath’s treatment of nascent Protestantism. First, he discusses the sociological settings in which each of these early reform movements emerged and how each touched a certain cultural reality in their application. Second, his focus on the commonality of these movements is expected, but I really liked his emphasis on how each of these local reformations was very different in scope and goals. His point was that there was never one monolithic, big “P” Protestantism, but rather a myriad of reform movements who each desired various degrees of change based upon their particular reading of the Bible. What united them all was a formal principle of deriving theology directly from Scripture and the constant threats from Catholic armies and princes.
The focus on the reformers ability to adapt Scripture to context and local need emerges latter in McGrath’s touching on the Protestant ability to morph, adapt and contextualize to reach out to new generations and completely new cultures. From day one the Protestants walked into dangerous waters in putting the Scriptures in the hands of the people. It produced overreactions and misreading of that book, as in the apocalyptic flavors of the Anabaptist movement, but it also returned the church to its very source of life; the very word of God.
I found this look at the early days of Protestant faith refreshing as it makes sense of the continued fragmentary nature of the movement based on various readings of Scripture. Much of my frustration about Protestantism is I expect a unity which really never existed from the beginning. In fact, any look at church history shows that there has never been 100% lock step agreement on all things. I have found great peace in knowing that there is certainty in the Scripture about certain matters and the church has been clear on these issues. The triune nature of God, the full deity and humanity of Jesus, salvation through the cross of Christ, a call to holiness and new life, the second coming of Jesus and God’s judgment all come to mind. Understanding our history has not made me discouraged to be separated from Rome (or the Eastern communion) but rather confirmed my commitment to the basic principle that Scirpture is the proper source for our theology. It may be abused by some, but the Word of God is clear and must remain central. Even if formal, visible unity is never realized.
One note of caution. There are some who may take hermeneutical difficulties and differences and run with them towards an ideology that there is no one clear meaning in Scripture. To acknowledge our history is one thing, to abandon the view that the Scriptures can be understood is quite another. Yes, we may differ at times in our understanding of the Bible, but our duty is to hear, head and obey…even when others may disagree. We submit to the text, we do not tell it what to say. Unfortunately the latter is far too common for those who desire to stand over the Bible, not under it.
Part II -Manifestations
I found this section to be a great introduction to Protestant thinking on many theological and ecclesiological issues. I wish many evangelicals today would read Part II alone as I fear that many modern church growth evangelicals do not understand the distinct ways of thinking and methods in which Protestants have historically traveled. As I read Protestant views about the Bible, worship, the church and how Christian thinking connects to all of life, I longed for a revival of some aspects of Protestantism. Far too many of us have such a small view of the church and the reformers maintained a view of her centrality in Christian life. The comparisons between magisterial Protestantism which maintained the tight coupling of church/state with that of reform movements who were suspicious of such ties was also quite helpful. For one I am thankful for those who stood for the separation of church and magistrate. The corruption of the church by the pomp and power of the state has been evident since the time of Constantine.
I also found a few minor appreciations in chapter 13 treating the relationship between Protestantism and the arts and sciences. First, the very brief treatment of Sport and faith was a welcome sighting in the book for one who spent much of his life in athletics and sports ministry. Also, I loved the tone of the discussion of science and faith. For those unfamiliar with McGrath, he holds separate doctorates in science and theology. He was very measured in that section and spoke more like an historian than one pursuing a certain view.
Part III – Transformation
The main strength of this part was its concise and insightful history in of twentieth century movements. The fundamentalist controversies of the 1920s, the evangelical reengagement led by Carl F. Henrys seminal work Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, liberal theological movements which were fully realized in the mainline American denominations, the rise of the non denominational movement and ecumenical reengagements by some with Roman Catholicism are all well covered. Whether or not you agree with the church growth, use market principles to expand the church type stuff, McGrath fairly covers the influence of this on recent North American Protestantism.
Overall I found the work both interesting and informative. However it did drag a bit in the center, perhaps an unavoidable weakness of a work with such ambition. To this weakness we now turn.
The main drawback I find in a book like this is that some of the chapters had huge goals but could not possibly deliver. For instance, chapter 12 had the ambition to try and touch the following topics: Christ and Culture (which took a now standard Nieburian route), social engagement, church and state, economics (which is a good treatment of the history of usury/money lending), the good old Protestant work ethic, education, and women. Looking at that list and realizing that the relationship of Protestants to all these issues was covered in a mere 40 pages makes one realize that the reader will be left wanting to talk about these things more. Thank God for the footnotes and bibliography I suppose. A similar issue could be said about the chapter which dealt with the arts and sciences but it was encouraging to see these as a separate chapter instead of lumping them into the aforementioned chapter 12. Though the page count was not oppressive, it just seemed like too much.
Another weak point in the work for me was the comparison of Protestantism and Islam. The basic premise, found briefly in chapter 17, was that both were logo-centric faiths which are subject to the interpretation of a holy text. In Protestantism this has led to diversity and it is speculated that perhaps Islam might go through a similar transformation and diversification as well. I found it a bit optimistic that this would lead to a more tolerate and free version of Islam. Somehow, the content of these holy books seems to me to matter more than the mere fact that they both have one. But that seems too obvious.
This work helped me greatly know more of whom I am theologically and passionately re-embrace mission to take the gospel to the world. Others have done so before us and we now share the task of applying that book called the Bible to the contexts and issues of our day. With Luther we must keep our consciences chained to the Word of God and stand in the community of church and history to guard against heretical teaching.
I realized in reading this work that I both love and hate some of the realities of Protestantism. There are a bunch of goofy interpretations and spins on the Bible, but yet history teaches us that basing all authority in one sinful man’s ruling is no better path. This is why someone’s belief “ABOUT” the Bible is of great importance. You cannot even debate in council - or on a forum, if someone does not hold to the authority of the text. At least we can wrestle under the text, if the text has authority. If one does not believe in the authority of the text, one will end up saying “it is all hermeneutics, all interpretation” - that there is no definitive meaning to the text. This is why the issue of biblical authority AND hermeneutical outlook are so important for Protestants today. If someone can make up “trajectories” to speak beyond the Bible, they will eventually err far from course. As a Protestant, we have a much higher call and must remain faithful to what the words actually teach.
This struggle to remain faithful within the freedom of protest is our greatest strength and greatest challenge as Christians. McGrath seems to be optimistic about Protestants ability to adapt and flourish. History is indeed on his side and I too remain bullish on the Word of God effecting change in the world until the Lord comes. I’ll close with the concluding paragraph of the book:
Those who are anxious about the future of Protestantism often urge that radical change in its self-understanding is necessary if it is to survive, let alone prosper. Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis (“Times are changing, and we change with them” – Ovid). The historical and theological analysis presented in this book offers a rather different answer. We have seen that Protestantism possesses a unique and innate capacity for innovation, renewal, and reform based on its own internal resources. The future of Protestantism lies precisely in Protestantism being what Protestantism actually is.Christianity’s Dangerous Ideap. 478, empahsis in original..
Semper Fidelus and Semper Reformanda – Always faithful, always reforming - these will remain our call…