Christianity’s Dangerous Idea

McGrath’s book is a work of historical synthesis, starting with “the big idea that lies at the heart of Protestantism & [tracing] its impact on the unfolding of the movement in the past & its development in years to come.” (p.10) This is a book of interpretive history, beginning in the first of three parts, “Origination,” with a very broad sketch of the many differing movements of reform in the 16th century that made up what we now lump all together and call “the Protestant Reformation.”

McGrath’s main theme here is that the “reformed” elements of Christianity, while multi-form and shaped by widely varying social settings and historical dynamics, all have their genesis in the “dangerous idea” attributed to Martin Luther, “that all Christians have the right to interpret the Bible for themselves” (p.2). McGrath acknowledges that this is not an in-depth look at any specific facet of the Reformation. He tries not to “chronicle everything that happened,” but, with the aid of hindsight, to “identify and interpret what turns out to have been significant” (p.11). For anyone who’s not a specialist this first third of the book is a fine, readable history of the launching of Protestantism. McGrath focuses especially on the Lutheran, Reformed, and Anglican expressions of Protestantism and how they came from Europe to America.

The second major section of the book, “Manifestation,” turns to a description of the main ideas which flowed into the heart of western culture from that simple declaration of individual authority with respect to interpreting the Bible. Again, McGrath gives a broad survey of major issues relating to Protestant attitudes toward the Bible, to church organization, and worship, along with general attitudes toward culture, the arts and the sciences. In particular he outlines how the Protestant method of theology led to a prolonged cultural conversation on the true meaning of the church, the place of work in relation to the life of faith, the place of music in the worship of God, the place of women in society and church, and, of course, the role of slavery in a society of Christians.

In the book’s final third, “Transformation,” McGrath turns to Protestantism’s course in the near present of his readers and on into the Christian future lying out of sight just over the future’s horizon. He surveys Protestant developments in the twentieth century, which of necessity brings him to discuss the mainline churches— their growth, their presumed cultural triumph and now-apparent decline in the American arena.

What’s most intriguing to McGrath, however, is the multiform reinvention of the Protestant church in the last 40 years, especially in its Charismatic, Pentecostal expressions. Here we have developments which, while starting arguably on American soil, have not only blossomed in North America but have found special acceptance and expression in the explosive growth of Charismatic, Pentecostal Christianity in the global south, Latin and Central America, Asia, and Africa. As before, McGrath sees a development of that same originating Protestant faith, built as ever on the dangerous foundational principle of freshly revisiting the Biblical narrative, expecting “the Lord to bring forth more truth from his word.”

In this final section, McGrath offers mainline Protestants a very helpful primer on the American roots of Pentecostal Christianity and suggests that its appeal grows out of the basic adaptability of the Protestant ethos. As with the Reformation itself, McGrath helpfully shows that the dynamic, even explosive growth of the charismatic movement was not the product of any single person or event (William Seymour and the Apostolic Faith Mission on Azusa Street, Los Angeles are most often cited). But rather he discusses it as a global response to the need for Christian faith to be presented in a way more consonant with a variety of culture settings. McGrath sees charismatic Christianity, and its Pentecostal reading of the New Testament as reappropriating an emotional element, a sense of God’s presence and immediate accessibility to worshiping believers in a way often excluded or at least deliberately toned down in most North American expressions of that same faith and worship.

McGrath does not make any bold predictions concerning the Protestant future, save to warn us away from the overly pessimistic judgments that Protestantism has had its day. Instead he leaves us with the hopeful reminder that Protestantism at its heart “possesses a unique and innate capacity for innovation, renewal, and reform based on its own internal resources.” His last chapter, like his last words in this volume, give us a great deal to think about, though I wouldn’t suggest replacing your own mission statement with McGrath’s closing Koan: The future of Protestantism lies precisely in Protestantism being what Protestantism actually is (p. 478).

Mark E. Durrett is pastor of First Church, Sumter, S.C.

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