Here’s an audio interview with Alister McGrath on the book. It will set you up for a great read.
How’s your knowledge of the history of Protestantism? Are you intimidated by the scholarly tomes that give the history and theology of various reforms and traditions? Do you understand what it means to be a Protestant and what makes the various Protestant traditions unique as compared to one other and not just to Roman Catholicism?
Many of us need a scholar to step out of the academy and into the street to explain Protestant history and theology in a way we can understand without a graduate degree in history. Personally, I long for someone who is not advocating Team Calvin to help me understand Protestantism across the board, with a non-polemic, objective approach.
Enter one of the best books of the year and a must-read for the Internet Monk web site audience: Alistair McGrath’s Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, a blue collar history and analysis of Protestantism. Impeccably researched, compellingly narrated and extremely relevant, this is one of Christianity’s best scholars making important history and analysis available to a non-academic audience.
Some time ago, my friend Josh S blogged about his praise for McGrath as the one non-Lutheran writer who truly understood the theological ethos and content of the period preceding and encompassing the Reformation. Josh recommended McGrath’s book Reformation Thought: An Introduction as the best volume available for understanding Luther’s theological environment, heritage and influences.
Christianity’s Dangerous Idea draws on this depth of understanding, but translates it into a street-level course on Protestantism that is simultaneously comprehensive, deeply analytical and prophetic. McGrath knows all the questions that Protestants must answer from Roman Catholic apologists, but he also knows and asks many of the questions that Protestants need to ask one another. This is a book free of argumentation, but deeply committed to a critical, knowledgeable Protestantism for the twenty-first century.
I am especially impressed with two aspects of the book. First, McGrath goes into considerable detail on the failure of the majority of the Reformation churches to develop any theology of mission. This is rooted, of course, in the magisterial nature of the Lutheran, Calvinist and English Reformations, but it goes beyond that history. There is something in the ethos and attitude of many Reformation traditions that can easily become adverse to the healthy, vital missionary spirit that we see in the New Testament. The Reformation produced theologically defensive traditions- for good reason- but it also created traditions that were often suspicious and even resistant to zealous missionary evangelism.
McGrath honestly describes the view of the Great Commission texts that dominated most Reformation traditions. In what would seem a remarkable exegetical gymnastic to most evangelicals today, the Reformers saw the Great Commission as directions to the Apostles and not a directive to the church itself. While I believe the modern church growth movement often turns evangelism and church growth into a kind of “wretched urgency,” there is never any question in my faith that Christianity is a cross-cultural, church planting movement. Mission as a command from Jesus is at the heart of how every church understands its reason for existence. Every Christian who comes to understand God’s redemptive plan in history will become an ally of a “world Christian” movement.
It wasn’t until later developments and generations in evangelical Protestantism that the missionary movement took root and flight in men like Carey and Wesley. But the Reformation traditions were ambiguous about pietism, and it was largely pietists and activists who were wanting to take the gospel to the nations and who organized societies outside of the church toward that end.
It would do many new and younger Reformation Christians an immense amount of good to admit and understand this less than commendable aspect of our heritage, and to make correcting this imbalance in our confessions and practice a priority. There are reformed Christians that are fully embracing church planting and there is an emphasis among some Reformation Christians -such as John Piper- to recover the connection between Reformation theology and bold efforts at evangelism, church planting and missionary service.
In my own Southern Baptist tradition there is a stirring in the Founder’s movement to correct the historic prejudice against Calvinism based on its supposed “opposition to missions and evangelism” by emphasizing new church planting and creating supportive networks for church planters. SBC Fundamentalists, who hardly can be accused of wanting to be Reformation Christians also need to read McGrath’s book, but for the second reason I appreciate it.
McGrath’s entire premise is that Protestantism’s strength comes from its ability to reshape itself around its understanding of scripture, but its weakness comes from its inability to control the diverse understandings of scripture that proliferate in its churches. From the early history of the radical Reformation to the latest Paula White prosperity sermon on TBN, Protestantism puts forward a frightening myriad of “Biblical Christianities.” (Of course, some scholars would suggest that such diversities may have been the reality in Christianity all the way back to the first centuries and even within the Bible itself.)
Watching SBC fundamentalists invent new ways to stop missionaries from being appointed and churches from being planted by way of various kinds of legalism and enforced conformity on non-essentials, I can’t help but think that many fundamentalists have little appreciation for how dangerous it is to define any form of Protestantism by less than clear Biblical priorities. Protestantism contains the “dangerous idea” that any person can interpret God’s word authoritatively for himself and those whom they can influence. Various forms of Protestantism have organized themselves in order to control this “dangerous idea” and keep Protestantism evangelical, catholic, apostolic and orderly. While all Protestants rightly resist giving any credence to infallibility anywhere other than scripture, they have not been universally vigilantly to keep Gospel essentials central as compared to secondary issues. (Interestingly, I would suggest that non-Protestant traditions have the same problems. The obscuring of the essentials of the Gospel is hardly the exclusive province of Protestants.)
Following his look backward, McGrath looks at Protestantism’s relationship to Biblical authority and how it operates in various aspects of the life of the church. This section of the book is an excellent overview of Protestant Biblical interpretation, historical surveys of Protestant controversies and an excellent summary of options in Protestant belief. McGrath then turns to the shaping of culture by Protestants, with excellent discussions of the arts. I was especially glad to see some attention paid to the Protestant opposition to poetry at some points in history. In this section of the book, idealized, one-sided, team cheer versions of Protestantism come in for a much needed reality check, including the tendencies of some Protestant traditions to believe their latest pronouncements or personalities have solved perennial Protestant problems.
McGrath then takes a look at the present and future prospects of Protestantism, particularly as it evolves into a more Pentecostal, globally south religion. Will Protestantism’s dangerous idea fuel this future or will it undermine it? Will the ominous morphing of Pentecostalism into the prosperity gospel and gnostic mysticism be checked by Protestantism’s doctrine of Biblical authority, or is the answer for Protestantism a kind of confessionalism or authority structure that will curtail its on innovative energy?
Anyone interested in the nature, history and future of evangelicalism should read this book. Anyone who has been part of Protestant-Catholic/Orthodox conversations will benefit from McGrath’s serious and accessible scholarship. McGrath’s work can make Protestants more informed about who they are and more humble about what they do every time they use the Bible.
Throughout the book, McGrath writes as a scholar and a committed Protestant who appreciates the problems inherent in this tradition, but also the possibilities. At one point he deftly points out that it is Protestantism’s rejection of papal-style authority structures that has allowed it to change with cultures, adapt to the needs of it members and appeal to those outside of it with the Gospel. He points out that it is Darwinian in its adaptation process. The churches that have stifled the “dangerous idea” through structures and strictures may have a rhetorical point to score, but the condition of many of those formerly dominant churches in highly changing cultures should be noted. In Asia, the Americas and Africa, where state churches have been abandoned and authoritative church hierarchies increasingly left behind in the previous century, Protestantism- in its frighteningly entrepreneurial forms- is booming.
I am a better Protestant for having read Christianity’s Dangerous Idea. More informed. More humble. More prayerful. A five star read that you’ll want to share with others. A real bargain at $20. That this book isn’t on all the usual Reformation bookstalls is a sad shame.
[Just a note: I did not receive this book as a review copy. I bought it with my own money and I'm under no obligation to give it an endorsement. It's a superb and helpful book and I recommend it wholeheartedly.]