This author intends to discuss the highs and lows of Dr. Alister McGrath’s book Christianity’s Dangerous Idea. This work is a very heavy on the protestant movement that has taken place since the sixteenth century, while covering most aspects of the reformation down to the Catholic counter-reformation. Dr. McGrath’s work fills a void that was in place on solid historical fact about the protestant movement as a whole. Dr. McGrath is from Northern Ireland, and is a historian, biochemist and Christian theologian, who is the chair of theology, ministry and education at the University of London. He has written numerous books on theology and several different biographies such as one on C. S. Lewis.
McGrath in this text covers a very large range of time. He goes all the way from the time of the reformation to the present day. He not only covers the major portions of evangelical Protestantism, he covers things such as the new global south. This book is a rather sizeable work for a book that covers such an amount of time as it does; it is roughly 470+ pages and breaks it down into three major sections. In the first section called origination, he spends the first portion of the book speaking about the things of the reformation be it the beginning, or those who play the biggest roles such as Martin Luther and John Calvin.
Another area he spends significant amount of time on is the growth of Anglicanism throughout England during the time of Henry VIII. He continues to follow the growth of Protestantism throughout Europe from the sixteenth century to the nineteen century. While he is in Europe, he focuses on the English Civil War and later on the French Revolution. He also focuses on the work of Protestantism throughout America, paying special attention to the Great Awakenings, and the men who helped shape them like Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney. He focuses on the nineteenth century for a whole chapter, and rounds out the first section of this book with the closing of this chapter. He moves on to a new section called manifestation where he starts with the Bible’s role in shaping Protestantism. He also covers the differing beliefs that we hold as Protestants, along with the way we chose to worship. He goes on to show how Protestantism shaped the western world through art, and the natural sciences.
The final section that McGrath covers is transformation, where he speaks on the changes that take place in American Protestantism. One of the biggest changes that will take place is the growth of the Pentecostal movement, McGrath says, “Pentecostalism began to become respectable and accepted in white middle-class America through the neo-charismatic renewal of the 1960’s” He rounds out the book by focusing on the Global South (what used to be known as third world countries), and the next generation of Protestant Christians.
While this author understands the need to lay foundation, he is not quite sure why McGrath felt it necessary to randomly speak about the make up of Germany, when he says, “Even as late as the nineteenth century, there were still thirty-two German states and territories, which were only finally united into the German empire under Otto von Bismarck (1815-98).” It is important to note, “As levels of lay literacy soared in the late fifteenth century, the laity became increasingly critical of their clergy.” Why does McGrath feel the need to show that the clergy were becoming more disparaging, at a time when Catholicism was the “king” of Christianity. Could it be to show the need for the peoples understanding of Scripture and the beginning of the protestant movement? According to McGrath, “Without the advent of printing, there would have been no Reformation, and there might well have been no Protestantism either.” This seems like a rather harsh statement to be made and almost sounds like it wants to deny the sovereignty of God. Because it seems as though he is asserting that without the printing press, God’s plan for the Reformation and Protestantism would not have made moves forward.
One often has to wonder does McGrath believe everything he writes? For instance he says, “Without humanism, there would have been no Reformation.”’ This oft-repeated slogan makes the critical point that the rise of humanism forced a more radical program of reform on the church than any had anticipated.” This does not mean that he is not correct in his assertion; it just makes one wonder. He goes on to make another profound statement when he speaks about Martin Luther, “Although the importance of the Bible had always been recognized in Christian theology, Luther began to accentuate it in a manner that would ultimately lead into dangerous new theological territory.” This quote makes the reader wonder what dangers were really brought out into the light and this work does a good job in explaining Luther’s position and what would come from his dangerous ideas.
Throughout this work McGrath does well to show how anything to do with Reformation was challenged on all fronts whether it came from Rome or England. The right for clergy to marry would become one of the cornerstones that would be a defining characteristic of Protestantism. While to some this may seem like a minor thing McGrath, found it important enough to mention; something else that became a source of contention was the Lord’s Supper. McGrath does a good job in breaking down the in-between men of the movement. What is meant is that Luther is on one end and Calvin is on the other and there were men who were the in-between. “If the Bible had ultimate authority who had the right to interpret the Bible? This was no idle question, and it lay at the heart of Protestantism’s complex relationship with its core text.” During this time this was extremely important to think about, because Rome was trying with all of its might to say that that authority lay with the clergy and not the laity. While men like Luther and Zwingli felt that the laity could determine meaning for themselves.
Something that was very interesting is, “Many Marxist historians of the 1970’s and 1980’s saw in Anabaptism the forerunners of socialism.” On a different yet still interesting note is that Calvin was never ordained in any sense of the term. With that being said would we even allow him to reach the same prominence that he reached in his time during our generation without having been officially ordained? In the PCA the answer would probably be “no” because you usually cannot preach without some form of ordination.
During the rule of Henry VIII the term protestant was not used to refer to the Church of England. However, “On Henry’s death, England changed direction significantly. The word “Protestant” now finally became entirely appropriate to describe the new religious situation.” Something that is hard to comprehend is how “The Church of England would be reformed in its theology yet remain Catholic in its institutions, especially its episcopacy.” How does one do this exactly and what does it look like?
How do you flourish? According to McGrath, “Protestantism has always needed an “other,” an external threat or enemy, imagined or real, to hold itself together as a movement.”
This work was very well written from his Calvinist point of view. He worked very hard to give a well thought out and balanced look at the rise of Protestantism from the time before Luther until the 21 century. He pointed out things that other history books like Gonzalez did not mention. Which made this for a very interesting read, because he wrote with a captivating style. If you are looking for a very solid work on the rise and challenges of Protestantism I would highly recommend this work.