Thursday, May 29, 2008

Christianity's Dangerous Idea by Alister McGrath

Christianity's Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution,
a history from the sixteenth century to the twenty-first,
by Alister McGrath, Harper Collins (USA) and SPCK (UK), 2007.
In this book Alister McGrath attempts to tell the story of Protestantism from its beginnings in the sixteenth century right up to the present day. The author does this with his customary verve, wit and style. Although readers may disagree with McGrath's analysis at some important points, it is difficult not to admire the sheer scope of this ambitious project. Not content with giving us a gripping narrative of Protestant history, the writer also dons the mantle of prophet to suggest the possible future of Protestantism.
So, what is "Christianity's dangerous idea"? It is the Protestant insistence that each individual believer has the right to interpret the Bible. This enabled early Reformation thinkers to critically examine the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church in the light of Scripture. Take sacramental theology. For Protestants, it was not enough that the institutional Church held that there are seven sacraments. If the Bible acknowledged only two, namely the Lord's Supper and Baptism, then that was it. The other supposed sacraments such as penance and extreme unction were bogus and had to be abandoned. Who gave the Pope the authority to add to the plain teaching of Scripture anyway?

In many ways "Christianity's dangerous idea" was empowering and liberating. The Bible was wrested from the ecclesiastical authorities and given back to the ordinary Christian. But having rejected the authority of the Pope, Protestants were faced with a new problem. Who would now decide which interpretations of Scripture were right? Protestantism very quickly mutated into several Protestantisms. Many sided with Luther's original vision, others were won over by the more developed theology of John Calvin. Some argued for an even more radical Reformation. They rejected infant baptism as unbiblical and questioned the value of the historic Creeds of the Church. For them Scripture alone, meant the rejection of the past in favour of contemporary readings of the Bible. The situation was complicated by the fact that the Reformation tended to spread territorially. Local princelings expected their subjects to adopt their chosen brand of Protestantism. The Reformation movement was soon fragmented both theologically and territorially. Protestants could be relied upon to unite against their common enemy, Roman Catholicism. But they also eyed one another with suspicion. At Marburg Colloquy Protestants from the Lutheran and Reformed wings met to settle their differences. But any hopes of pan-Reformation unity were dashed by Luther's intransigence. He demanded that all parties accept his doctrine of Christ's bodily presence in the sacraments or consubstantiation.
The Protestant commitment to the right of all Christians to interpret Scripture was both its best asset and potentially its biggest liability. On the plus side, Protestants have been willing to test their own beliefs by the standard of Scripture. The Reformers tended to view the "Great Commission" of Matthew 28 as limited to the ministry of the apostles. Calvin sent many missionaries into his native France. But the Reformers seemed to show of little interest in cross-cultural mission. That view was challenged by William Carey and others in the 18th century. They taught that the "Great Commission" applied for all time. This fresh understanding of Scripture led to a flowering of interest in world wide mission. On the minus side, the Protestant insistence on the right of every believer to interpret the Bible has proved to be highly divisive. Protestantism has often been guilty of needless schism. Believers have separated from each other over matters of biblical interpretation that do not affect the integrity of the gospel.
However, the Protestant insistence on the right of private interpretation, the "dangerous idea" was not, as McGrath seems to suggest, a recipe for anything goes. There were safeguards. The Reformers insisted that the Bible be read responsibly in accordance with its plain and obvious meaning. Calvin was a master of the art of grammatico-historical exegesis. Mainline Protestants accepted the ancient Creeds of the Church as embodiments of accurate interpretation of Scripture. Reformed theologians taught that witness of the Spirit enables believers to rightly understand God's Word. This was not taken to mean that all believers will agree on everything. Bullinger wisely urged Protestants to be modest and cautious when it came to disputed areas of biblical interpretation.
If the formal principle of Reformation theology was "Scripture alone", the material principle was the gospel. There was wide agreement that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. While not all Scripture is equally clear, gospel of saving grace in Christ is perfectly plain. The same basic doctrine of salvation by grace alone is expressed in all the great confessional documents of the Reformation. While the Reformation movement had its lunatic fringe, the "dangerous idea", when rightly understood did not lead to theological entropy. A shared vision of the biblical gospel saw to that.
McGrath offers an instructive and engaging account of the first three centuries of Protestant history. But I found his analysis of Protestantism from 19th century to present less satisfactory. He suggests that Holiness movements, of the 19th century and the revivalism of Charles Finney were legitimate adaptations of the Protestant faith. In reality, they were aberrations. Iain Murray gives a much more cogent analysis in his, Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750-1858, Banner of Truth Trust, 1994. Finneyism entailed a rejection of the historic Calvinistic faith of the Reformation in favour of can-do Pelagianism. This may have suited the enterprising spirit of the age, but it left the evangelical movement theologically emaciated. McGrath rightly notes that Willow Creek-style "seeker sensitive" Churches stand in the Finney tradition, but he thinks that their approach is to be welcomed. This is doubtful. As David F. Wells has shown in his Above All Earthy Pow'rs: Christ in a Postmodern World, Eerdmans/IVP, 2005, the "seeker sensitive" movement has allowed the spirit of the age to mold the church to such a degree that the supremacy of Christ is undermined. Protestantism needs Reformed, that is Calvinistic theology to give it backbone and direction.
On another recent development, McGrath writes approvingly of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together movement and its attempt to bring the old enemies closer together. But this project is misguided. The great issues that divided Protestant from Catholic in the 16th century remain largely unresolved.
The book charts the origins and development of Pentecostalism. Pentecostalism was set alight by the dying embers of the 19th century Holiness and revivalist movements. With its beginnings in the Azusa Street revival, Pentecostalism, insisted that the New Testament gifts such as speaking in tongues were available to contemporary believers. This apparently supernatural mutation of Protestantism laid great stress on the immediate presence of God among his people. The Pentecostal message spread very rapidly and is now a global phenomenon. Statistics show that it is now the largest Protestant group. Such is the growth of Pentecostalism that McGrath speculates that Latin America and the Philippines might soon become predominantly Protestant. For McGrath, Pentecostalism is the bright hope for the future of Protestantism. But he virtually ignores growing, world-wide recovery of Reformed Christianity associated with the influential ministries of men like Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Jim Packer and Don Carson. Some Pentecostals or Charismatics are beginning to draw upon the riches of Reformed theology to give the movement added depth and theological clarity.
One theme that runs through the book is that Protestantism gave impetus to atheism. With its focus on meeting God through the Word and its absence of images in church buildings, the Reformed faith helped to "disenchant the world". Thomas Hobbes suggested that the Protestant God might as well not exist as he made very little difference to the world. That is one reason why McGrath sees such potential in Pentecostalism with its emphasis on the living, supernatural presence of God. This reminds us that Protestantism needs much more than a recovery of Reformed theology. If Reformed theology does not lead to encounter with the God of the Gospel, then is has become deformed. We need to rediscover the deeply experimental Calvinism of the Puritans and Calvinistic Methodists. At its best, Reformed Protestantism was always a movement of the Spirit as well as the Word.
With McGrath's concerns about Protestantism and atheism in mind, it is ironic that in this book he more or less adopts the approach of secular historiography. He makes no pretence of objectivity or neutrality, writing very much as as a Protestant historian. But God is strangely banished from his interpretative framework. The Reformation is analysed in terms of social forces, leading actors and key ideas. But there is no hint that the providence of God might have been at work in all this. Similarly, the 18th century Great Awakening is described in terms that would hardly disturb the most secular historian. The work of the Spirit in revival does not get a mention. In McGrath's account, God as an actor in history has virtually been omitted from "public space" of historical discourse.
Now to the question with which McGrath closes his book. Does Protestantism have a future? The writer thinks so. He points to the movement's potential for endless renewal and adaptation. There is something in that. But more is needed if Protestantism is to have a future as a movement that is faithful to the gospel. Protestantism needs to be rooted in the Calvinistic theology of the Reformation. We must hold that the triune God of the Gospel is still mighty to save sinners by his sovereign grace. In addition, Protestants must to be able to respond meaningfully to the fresh challenges of the 21st century world. Above all else we need the God of the Reformation to visit us and revive us afresh by his Spirit. The future of Protestantism is in God's hands. "Revive your work, O Lord in the midst of the years!"


Guy Davies said...


I hope I haven't misrepresented McGrath's basic thesis. In his own words,

"Protestantism took its stand on the right of individuals to interpret the Bible for themselves rather than be forced to submit to "official" interpretations handed down by popes or other centralized authorities." (p. 3).

In the review I take issue with the suggestion that this means "anything goes".

Guy Davies said...

McGrath is not unsympathetic to what he regards as "Christianity's Dangerous Idea", namely,

"The dangerous new idea firmly embodied at the heart of the Protestant revolution , was that all Christians have the right to interpret the Bible for themselves." (p. 2).

He sees this as a good thing because it enabled the Reformers to identify and expose abuses in the Catholic Church in the light of Scripture. Also the "dangerous idea" enables Protestants to reflect critically on their own teachings. But the "dangerous idea" when taken on its own had opened Pandora's box,

"If every individual was able to interpret the Bible as he pleased, the outcome could only be anarchy and radical religious individualism." (p. 3).

McGrath takes Luther's alarm at the Peasant's Revolt as a case in point.

But as you say, I'm not sure that the Reformers understood the the "dangerous idea" in exactly the way McGrath suggests. Yes, all believers have the right to interpret the Bible, but that does not mean all interpretations are equally valid. That is why the Reformers drew up confessions of faith, to safeguard the right interpretation of Scripture.

I'm not sure why McGrath specifies "CHRISIANITY'S Dangerous Idea" other than the suggestion the Protestantism, based on that principle led to a radical reshaping of the Christian faith. He draws some parallels between Protestantism and Islam and wonders whether Islam might succumb to a kind of reformation based on fresh reading of the Koran.

Plohawk said...

I found your analysis excellent. I remember reading the book years ago and feeling disturbed after I finished. I felt as if ... well, it was more or less a demonstration of the results of "Christianity's dangerous Idea." However, you are correct on two fronts, (1) McGrath does ignore the reformed resurgence. Whatever anyone makes of it, the reformed movement is undeniably sweeping the evangelical landscape. (2) McGrath does approach history from more or less a secular perspective (at least in method). Don't get me wrong, I like McGrath. However, I think he is guilty of not always being discerning. He sadly does not pass judgment on things he ought to, and praises some things he probably should be more critical of. Thanks