Christianity's Dangerous Idea

On a busy Tuesday, here's Pastor Bob Cornwall's review of Alister McGrath, Christianity's Dangerous Idea: The Protestant REvolution, a History. Click here for the full review from Bob Cornwall's blog Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

Christianity's Dangerous Idea -- Review

Alister McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution – A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2007. 552 pages.

What is Protestantism? That’s the question Oxford University historian/theologian and noted Evangelical author Alister McGrath seeks to answer. McGrath is nothing if not prolific. He has written textbooks for the study of theology, historical theology, and other elements of the life of faith. He has been an affective apologist for the faith and respondent to the likes of Richard Dawkins. He has taught in Canada and in England, holds doctorates in biology and in theology. His writing is lucid and light.

It should not be surprising that this book, like many published by HarperOne, is addressed to a broad Christian audience and not just to religious specialists. The information found here isn’t especially new or unique, but the thesis is compelling. One might look elsewhere for a complete history of the Protestant movement, but the idea that Protestantism is not just dangerous but unpredictable as well should be thought provoking. That McGrath is an Evangelical (a British one not an American) might suggest a different tactic, but he’s not interested in defending a “faith once delivered” and defined, but one that is continuously changing and growing as it encounters new cultures and situations.

This is in part a history book. McGrath takes the reader on a journey through the history of this movement born in 16th Century Europe that was just on the cusp of significant political and social change, on through its transplantation to the American context, and beyond to the global south. While history is a component of this book, this isn’t just a history book. In a section entitled “Manifestation,” McGrath explores doctrines and practices of Protestantism (including its interpretation and usage of the Bible), the forms of worship and structures of the churches, its encounter with the sciences and with Western Culture (among others). There is a strong Anglo-American component as well – McGrath seems to know that his primary audience is Anglo-American. The third and final section is entitled “Transformation,” and it is devoted to exploring the trajectories flowing out of the present situation. He writes about the changes in American Protestantism, the developments and implications of global Pentecostalism, the new frontiers of a global south (reminding us that the greatest strength numerically is to be found outside the Anglo-Euro-American axis. With a final look at what might be in the coming generations of Protestantism.

Any book with the title “Christianity’s Dangerous Idea” ought to attract attention. In an age of religious unrest the word dangerous is eye-catching. As already noted, McGrath isn’t just interested in retelling the history of Protestantism; he wants us to understand its purpose. For McGrath, Protestantism is concerned not with a preconceived outcome, but with a method. That method is rooted in the freedom accorded the individual to read and apply Scripture as he or she sees fit. As Luther and Zwingli quickly found out such freedom can easily get out of hand, and so having no Pope they turned to the state to rein in what might be called rogue elements – if you want to call the Radical Reformation a rogue movement. The implication though of this idea is that diversity of practice and perspective is the hallmark of Protestantism.

If one were to ask what the foundational idea within Protestantism is, it’s likely many would answer “justification by faith.” But to answer in this way would be to assume a largely Lutheran perspective. The Radical Reformers would not agree to this, nor likely would Zwingli or Calvin. And so instead, the dangerously foundational principle is that already mentioned freedom to read and apply Scripture. Once the cat is out of the bag, it’s hard to put it back, and the history of Protestantism is the history of what happened once the cat got out of the bag. Nothing would ever be the same again. Because Protestantism doesn’t have an authoritative religious magisterium, the propensity for change and diversity is in the very DNA of the movement.

It’s always helpful to have a couple of foundational principles to define a movement, but as the history of this movement that begins here with Luther and moves on to Zwingli and the more radical reformations of Switzerland, and from there to Calvin and to the English Church, we realize that there is no was no prime root for the movement. Indeed, the movements of Luther and Zwingli were not only quite different but almost simultaneous. Even as their life experiences were considerably different, so were their reform movements. To borrow a biological term (fitting for the author), this could be called a “polygenesis” event. But there a few things held in common. One was the conviction that the Roman Catholic Church needed reforming and that Scripture would be the foundation of that reform. The Radicals might wish to jettison more of the tradition than would Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and Cranmer, but it would be Scripture that guided the reforms. And without a magisterium to decide what is right, a complex set of interpretations of scripture would be driving the bus.

In the closing chapter we discern what is truly present within Protestantism (and it’s important to note McGrath’s background in the biological sciences) is a Darwinian identity. That is, built into Protestantism is the ability to mutate and adapt to the surrounding times and situations. McGrath speaks of the “Darwinian restlessness” of Protestantism. There is no fixed identity, dogma, purpose. It is evolving, renewing and reforming as it goes along. For much of its history the one thing holding Protestantism together was its opposition to Roman Catholicism – which the Catholic Church has significantly changed over recent years (as have the times), this defining purpose has begun to lose its usefulness. Secularism and radical Islam are more significant threats than Catholicism. But while context will influence both practice and look, it is going too far to say that there is no continuity between what is and what was. But, there isn’t an “absolute identity” to be found (p. 461).

This is a lucid and readable book – the educated Christian will find it useful and challenging. It is a book that will raise questions needing further attention. It is also a book with its own set of issues. The Anglo-American angle is one. But so is the focus on more Evangelical movements. That a book would deal with the revolutionary nature of Protestantism but not engage Paul Tillich’s Protestant Principle is interesting. Indeed, while Liberalism is discussed on occasion, there is little depth or even sympathy (for the American story -- try
Gary Dorrien's triology). Indeed, while Barth and Niebuhr appear on occasion, Schleiermacher is notable for his absence.

Nonetheless, this is a book to be reckoned with. If for no other reason than the closing chapter, which suggests that the future of Protestantism can’t be predicted but also that it will look different in the future. For it to survive it must and it will mutate and adapt. Change is not just likely it’s required. What drives Protestantism is “its capacity for innovation, renewal, and reform” – a capacity that is “based on its own internal resources” (478). There you have it a Darwinian interpretation of Protestantism laid out by an Evangelical.


John Turner said…
Once in a while, I simply groan at the number of wonderful-sounding books that are released on a weekly basis.

By the time I'm done with the NYT Book Review and have read about 5 or 10 books on this blog, I know I'd have to be reading 25 hours a day to get through them all! And great books are to be enjoyed, not rushed through.
Tim Lacy said…
After waiting forever to read this post, I finally got around to it today. Thanks for reposting the review here. While I doubt I'll read the book, I know many who will be interested. - TL