Book Review: Christianity’s Dangerous Idea

Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution—A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First By Alister McGrath, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007, 560 pp, $15.99 paperback.

Christianity's Dangerous Idea CoverNearly 500 years after the initial events took place, the Protestant Reformation continues to be approached from a variety of angles and perspectives. In his book, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution—A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First, Alister McGrath presents a new study, interpreting the movement, its founders, and its currents through its unique doctrine of the priesthood of all believers (i.e., the idea that all individuals have the ability and responsibility to interpret and teach Scripture). He attempts to retell the history of Protestantism, from its origins to the present day, through this lens, while also examining how this past can help anticipate the future. In painting with such broad brushstrokes, it is inevitable that McGrath overlooks or overgeneralizes some aspects of the Reformation and its effects, but the overall result is a refreshing glance at a frequently and copiously addressed topic and a warning to Protestants about unintended effects of one of the doctrines they hold most dear.

Christianity’s Dangerous Idea is divided into three main sections: Origination, Manifestation, and Transformation. Part I deals with the history of Protestantism, from the events that caused the revolution through its worldwide expansion in the 19th century. McGrath looks not only at the events and people behind them, but how they were influenced by and expanded this idea that each individual can and should interpret Scripture.

Martin Luther was born into a cultural context that was prepared for a reformation, and he became the voice and drive behind the early days of the movement. As his interpretation of Scripture, and especially his doctrine of justification by faith, began to diverge from the Church’s teachings, he increasingly emphasized the importance of the Bible in the Christian life and the life of the Church.

Luther’s version of Protestantism was soon rivaled by other interpretations of Scripture and the true Christian life. Whereas Luther interpreted the Bible as emphasizing God’s free grace, Zwingli’s interpretation was very moralist in nature. The Anabaptists presented yet another alternative, and a radical one at that, while Calvin’s Institutes presented the Reformed version. Even in England, where the Reformation was essentially founded on the whim of Henry VIII rather than on any doctrinal disputes, a key question was how one interpreted Biblical teachings on divorce and church leadership.

Soon interpretation of Scripture became a local matter, with each area choosing which viewpoint they would hold to, a policy that was eventually codified in various treaties following religious wars. As Protestantism spread to the American colonies, the Great Awakening, which focused on individual conversion, reignited many of the Reformation ideals, especially that of the importance of the individual in the midst of the church. This movement in many ways led to the worldwide expansion of Protestantism in the nineteenth century as Christians reinterpreted the Great Commission to be a commandment for the individual and not for Christian nations, sparking the modern missions movement.

After dealing with the history of Protestantism in Part I, McGrath moves to an examination of how this history, and particularly this view of the individual’s role, have influenced Protestant beliefs in key areas (the Church, worship, culture, etc.). Protestantism, he writes, at its heart, “represents a constant return to the Bible to revalidate and where necessary restate its beliefs and values, refusing to allow any one generation or individual to determine what is definitive for Protestantism as a whole.”[1]

This emphasis on Sola Scriptura has kept the Bible at the forefront of all debates within Protestantism, as even issues in today’s world such as Creationism vs. Evolutionism and gay marriage boil down to how one views and interprets portions of Scripture. It has also led to uniquely Protestant values, like the Bible commentator and preacher being elevated above the traditional theologian, the emphasis on the free gift of salvation and personal conversion, and the importance of eschatology. Even when these emphases have downsides, like the consumerist feel of many contemporary churches, Protestantism insists on stressing the importance of the Bible over church tradition and structures. This also leads to the variety of church structures and polities within Protestantism, as well as the various ways Protestants choose to interact with the surrounding culture and contemporary issues (e.g., the role of women in the church).

Part III of Christianity’s Dangerous Idea examines the recent history of Protestantism, especially the rise of Pentecostalism, and attempts to predict how the emphasis on the Bible and the individual interpretations of it will impact the future of Protestantism. McGrath sees the lack of centralized authority, particularly within Pentecostalism, as being an impetus for continued growth, yet notes that the lack of historical grounding has led some Protestants to return to more traditional, liturgical churches. He also notes the trend of Protestantism to the global South, and ultimately concludes that the “future of Protestantism lies precisely in Protestantism being what Protestantism actually is.”[2]

Overall, McGrath does a fine job of reinterpreting the history and emphases of Protestantism through its emphasis on the Scripture and interpreting it properly. From 16th-century German Lutheranism to 21st-century Latin American Pentecostalism, each step in the progress of the Reformation is proficiently analyzed through this prism, and often this new way of looking at things provides insight into why Protestants do the things they do and believe what they believe. He adeptly pinpoints a common theme running throughout the history of Protestantism and shines a light on the effects that emphasis has had. Whether he intended to or not, he also provides a warning for conservative Protestants in America of what exaggerated individualism can do to unity and doctrinal purity if it is allowed to go unchecked.

One major downside, however, is that McGrath often views Protestantism solely through the traditional denominations. Especially as he enters into the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, his view of what Protestantism is centers around the major, liberal denominations. The exception to this is when he patronizes American Protestants who still insist on a literal interpretation of Scripture. He notes the importance of Calvin throughout the early stages of the book, yet almost completely ignores him the rest of the way other than a discussion of predestination in Chapter 10. He identifies the origins of Protestantism as lying in “an uncontrollable burst of energy directed toward the intellectual and spiritual renewal and institutional reform of the church,”[3] something which fits in with his extensive look at Pentecostalism in past century, yet ignores the resurgence of Calvinism evident in the past few decades, especially in the American church. If the Pentecostal movement has pursued the spiritual renewal of the church, it can be argued that neo-Calvinism has ignited an intellectual renewal that has brought the Protestant church back to its roots.

This introduces yet another flaw in McGrath’s argument. He views Protestantism, and especially its call back to a fresh interpretation of Scripture, as a progressive freight train hurtling down the tracks at breakneck speed. This causes him to portray Protestants who believe in evolution, gay marriage, and women priests as the rightful heirs to the Reformation ideals of Sola Scriptura and the priesthood of all believers. Because interpretation belongs to no one group or generation, the newest interpretation is best, progress rules, and liberalism is the ultimate goal. Even though he acknowledges the Protestant (and humanist) desire to read Scripture in the original language in order to understand the original intent, he divorces that ideal from one that allows each individual to read Scripture for himself. Whereas the Reformers believed they were returning to a previous interpretation that the church had since lost and believed in interpreting Scripture (at least to some extent) in light of history, tradition, and church leadership, McGrath would have his readers believe that the Reformation ideal is that each person, each church, each generation should interpret Scripture however they see fit in their own individual context. It is doubtful that Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and other Reformers intended their emphasis on Scripture to be taken to the extremes that McGrath seems to condone, and even celebrate, later in the book. It is one thing to identify trends today as logical, if unintended, conclusions of Protestant emphases, but it is another thing altogether to portray those who hold such extremes as the Reformers’ true heirs.

Another weakness to McGrath’s argument is the constant comparisons he makes between Protestantism and fundamentalist Islam. He devotes three pages to the comparison late in the book, but there are inferences to it throughout, often in order to depict Protestantism in a negative light. The key comparison for McGrath is that Islam, like Protestantism, is a text-based religion, whose Scriptures have been interpreted by individuals and groups rather than a “pope-like” figure as in Catholicism. This, of course, has resulted in a variety of interpretations, ranging from more liberal ones that take the text less seriously to more fundamentalist ones that interpret it and obey it literally. He goes so far as to question whether Islam is currently undergoing the type of reformation that Christianity went through in the 16th century. It is a stretch, however, to draw too many comparisons between the two faiths and their views of Scripture. While Sola Scriptura and the priesthood of believers are key aspects to Protestantism, most Protestants see Scripture as a means to discover God, and particularly Jesus. The character and construct of the two sets of scriptures also stand in contrast to one another, as the Quran bears little resemblance to the Bible in terms of accuracy, agreement, or form.

However, despite these weaknesses, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea is well worth reading for Protestants living in the 21st century. It looks at the faith and history of Protestantism from an angle not usually considered, and in doing so, it shines a light on areas that might otherwise be overlooked. As a people who do place significant emphasis, it is valuable to see how previous generations interpreted and communicated some of the same passages and issues that are at the forefront in today’s world, and it is also helpful to see what the positive and negative effects of their efforts were. McGrath states in his introduction that a new study of the Reformation was needed both because of the recent scholarship in the area and because of the recent change in emphases when studying history. While not a perfect representation of the Reformers and their legacy, McGrath’s work illuminates an area on which spotlights have repeatedly been shined.

[1]p. 199.

[2]p. 478.

[3]p. 463.

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