A review of Alister McGrath’s Christianity’s Dangerous Idea. (Harper One 2007)
Alister McGrath can’t be faulted for lack of ambition with his book Christianity’s Dangerous Idea. In about 500 pages McGrath attempts a history of Protestantism unlimited by geography or denomination from the pre-reformation humanists to the modern day. In addition McGrath gives a rendering of the primary debates and divisions within Protestantism. Then he speculates on the future of the Protestant church(es) particularly via Pentecostalism.
The consequence is that much of McGraths book has to skim detail. Unlike a 2000 page biography of Calvin where a reader can be led through events to draw their own conclusions McGrath has to summarise. He does this with great care and takes pains to make the reader aware how historians’ perceptions also have their own histories. There are inevitable disappointments for the adherents of minority philosophies or fans of particular figures of history. Theistic existentialists like Kierkegaard don’t make the cut. Liberation theology gets one sentence. I was saddened to see that Dickens’ A Christmas Carol wasn’t given a mention (whilst The Chronicles of Narnia briefly was).
In my opinion the only truly grievous oversight is McGrath’s far too superficial treatment of women’s status in the church. I am probably influenced here by how large this issue looms in Australian Protestantism. The church leaders of Australia’s wealthiest and arguably most powerful Anglican diocese in Sydney consider feminism a deeply anti-Christian philosophy with “biblical” gender roles connected to the doctrine of the trinity, part of the created order and a core component of God’s plan. There are alliances with Australian Presbyterians in this regard and threats of schism over the ordination of women. Around Adelaide a very different Anglo-Catholic grouping in the Anglican church are making overtures to rejoin the Catholic church with a concern over women’s ordination also one motivation. In this context the close link between feminism and protestant Christianity’s priesthood of all believers (the first feminists were overwhelmingly Christian) would have been very interesting to read more about. Instead McGrath spends more time on hymnody than gender struggles in the church.
McGrath knows defining Protestantism is a dangerous decision itself. For McGrath this is Protestantism; a belief in the supremacy of the Bible to which all doctrines must apply for authority. The consequence of this is the dangerous idea that no other authority can absolutely mediate the believers’ interpretations and access to the Word.
Others may wish McGrath defined Protestantism more narrowly. Lutheran and Calvinist theology share an anti-pelagianist emphasis. Pelagianism is the name given to any belief that suggests human salvation can be earned. Luther was so adamantly opposed to Pelagianism that he questioned the inclusion of the letter of James in the canon. (James is often used to challenge the doctrine of “justification by faith alone”.) Calvin argued that even the suggestion that people could accept or reject unmerited salvation was a kind of Pelagianism. For both these church fathers and their descendants Sola fide (Faith alone) is as important as Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). Understandably some readers will be uncomfortable with a definition of Protestantism that isn’t faithful to either of its most famous heroes.
McGrath however makes his case well that Protestantism can’t reasonably exclude leaders and churches who didn’t and don’t accept Sola Fide. In fact the forefather of Protestantism is generally considered to be Erasmus who had no significant doctrinal disagreements with Catholicism but who believed in a need for general access to Scripture and moral purity. From the very beginning of the Reformation Zwingli and the Ana-baptists felt that moral reform of the church was crucial for its restoration as a Christian church. Both Lutherans and Calvinists considered this emphasis on moral reform to be pelagianist. Wesleyans and some Pentecostalists would also be excluded by a strict requirement for Sola Fide. In fact Sola Fide is less well understood than Sola Scriptura even in Lutheran and Presbyterian churches. It’s not impossible to imagine these churches moving away from Sola Fide while still remaining Protestant. It’s much harder to imagine a movement away from Sola Scriptura.
McGrath recognises that Sola Scriptura faces challenges in application. If there is no authority above Scripture then how is there to be any adjudication about the various interpretations of Scripture (such as in the issue of Sola Fide or even more critical issues such as the Trinity). Any naive hopes about the clarity of scripture in its plain language were shattered by early disagreements about the real presence of God in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. To resolve this (albeit with different conclusions) Lutherans and Calvinists accepted the creeds of the early churches as divinely inspired formulations (though under scripture) and paid attention to the writings of Augustine in particular. The Ana-baptists did not. For the Ana-Baptists scripture alone meant exactly that and they subsequently took a Congregationalist approach with individual congregations drawing their doctrinal conclusions from scripture by God’s grace. If disagreement arose, such as over the biblical basis of the trinity, Congregationalists would either leave to establish a new church or tolerate difference. Whereas Lutherans and Calvinists were able to produce confessional documents which have been resistant to change Ana-baptists and their descendants have been remarkably adaptable.
This adaptability eventually even raises difficulties for McGrath’s schema. It is only a difference by degree to say that the Holy Spirit ensures true interpretation of scripture to saying that the Holy Spirit can provide additional new revelation. After all one persons new interpretation if radical enough looks like a new revelation to others. Pentecostalism fits this bill and McGraths claim that it may be the future of Protestantism is a contentious one. Is a God as present as the Pentecostalists’ one, a Holy spirit who provides the gift of prophecy amongst others, consistent with Sola Scriptura? Even if there isn’t any new teaching wouldn’t a documenting of the workings of this spirit at least form another book of Acts?
I feel more ambivalent than McGrath about seeing Pentecostalism as a continuation of the protestant reformation. To me it has the look of a new reformation. In fact I think there are more parallels between early Christianity and Pentecostalism than between early Christianity and Protestantism. Early Christianity like Pentecostalism was a religion of the poor, largely shared orally and uncontained by geography which astonished the establishment of their time by its rapid growth. Protestantism was immediately attractive to merchants and princes wanting relief from church control and often blind to the needs of the poor (in England the destruction of the monasteries equated to the removal of a welfare and hospital system for the poor), extremely literary and scholastic and rapidly organised by geography (coinciding as it did with the emergence of the nation state).
In fact this dissonance with the early church raises a fascinating contradiction. Sola Scriptura is itself not particularly scriptural. For example it is often said that Christ only instituted two sacraments – baptism and the Eucharist or communion. McGrath mentions how in the Reformed tradition (excluding Lutherans) the place of the Eucharist as the central focus of the architecture and worship service was supplanted by the gospel reading and sermon. An alien observer would have to consider that this reading of the gospel was a more important element of Christian tradition, a sacrament in itself.
Another subtle shift in the early reformation is a move away from emulating Christ to understanding his message. To express it imperfectly, the medieval spiritual ideal was the saint while the protestant spiritual ideal was the theologian. This is certainly too simplistic - Luther’s courage and piety are celebrated and Aquinis is a theologian of high regard in the pre-reformation church - however there is some shift in the mean between ideas and example. It may be that Sola Fide rather than Sola Scripture is the real cause here however increased access to the bible aids the shift. In a world order with the bible at the centre it is natural that the biblical scholar is king. Ultimately the institutionalised practice of Sola Scriptura ironically resembles the biblical representation of the Pharisees with their scriptural trap-setting. In it’s extreme form the behaviour of Jesus (such as generosity, non-prejudice, forgiveness and self-sacrifice) are seen entirely as messages about what God is like and nothing mere humans should try and repeat. I think this creates a spiritual vacuum which we see filled in Protestantism by Pietism and their bold question “What would Jesus Do?” amongst many others.
I had a great time reading the first half of McGrath’s book. Calvin and Luther often dominate histories of the early reformation merely because Calvinists and Lutherans as creedal movements are more interested in their origins. McGrath’s book helped to fill major gaps in my knowledge about Zwigli and the Ana-Baptists. McGrath has also served to remind me how much I really need to read a decent biography of John Wesley and a history of the Methodists.
One very interesting section of McGrath’s book was his discussion of the role of missionaries under colonialism. McGrath gives solid evidence that they were often defenders of indigenous culture and language, against state and commercial interests. Sponsoring churches were not always understanding of the virtue of protecting what they saw as heathen ways of life so some missionaries stood against their own faith communities as well. Certainly there is the famous case of David Livingstone who sought to open up Africa for Christianity and commerce, but less well known is Hiram Bingham who in the 1820s refused to teach Hawaiian islanders English believing this would destroy their culture or Silas T. Rand who advocated for the Micmac people of the Canadian Maritimes in land rights disputes. Our Australian history of missionary interaction with indigenous peoples is a similarly complex and contradictory one.
I found the latter half of Christianity’s Dangerous Idea a lot harder going. Partly this is due to the missing detail on women’s status in Protestantism. Partly this was due to my uncertainty that Pentecostalism belonged in this history. Also I think McGrath excels at compiling and combining the work of other historians. McGrath has not only read and comprehended broadly but he is sensitive to ongoing debates as well as clever with his choice of examples. As McGrath moves into areas which haven’t been so extensively explored his book becomes weaker merely because he has less to work with.
I not sure how good a history can be when it tries to do as much as this one in so few words. Still there is definitely a place for trying to tie everything together which a more specific history couldn’t do. Subsequently I’d make a qualified recommendation of Christianity’s Dangerous Idea. At least the first half serves as an excellent springboard to further reading.
As an interesting aside while reading this book I attended a talk on “New Monasticism”. This movement is friendly with another called the Emerging Church and together they put forward a very intriguing vision for the future of Protestantism. These small home church movements and devotional communities emphasise living and evidencing the Gospel rather than doctrinal exactitude. They are a reaction against the logocentricism of Sola scriptura as well as the emotionalism (and lack of relationalism) of the Pentecostal mega-church. McGrath discusses this movement briefly as “the church of cells” which he relates to origins in Asian Pentecostalism. The talk I went to connected the movement to medieval monastic movements like the Franciscans and Benedictines. I’m not sure they are talking about the same thing. Indeed given the “dangerous” idea of direct access to the scriptures it’s perfectly possible that McGrath’s book has become outdated since publication in 2007. The future of Protestantism remains fundamentally up-for-grabs with Neo-Calvinism, Pentecostalism, reconciliation with the Catholic church and New Monasticism all likely to play some part.