Alister E. McGrath: Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution—A History From the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First, New York, HarperOne, 2007. (478 pages + 78 pages of notes, references and index.)

This is a large book and a big read, but, for anyone interested in the history of non-Catholic Christianity it is profoundly interesting. McGrath is a meticulous scholar and his research has taken him all over the world. It is a book of scholarship but not written for scholars but rather an attempt to identify the inner principles and dynamic that have driven the vast array of non-Catholic ministries since the Reformation.

The dangerous new  idea is of course the principle that all Christians have the right to interpret the Bible for themselves. This was the idea that drove first Luther in Germany, then Tyndale in England to translate the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible into German and English respectively. Their labours were based on Erasmus’ early C16th ground breaking production of an accurate version of the earliest available Greek New Testament and the best Hebrew manuscripts available for the Old Testament. But who now had the authority to interpret the Scripture as they read it their own language and who had authority to define the faith of the church? Institutions or individuals? Who has the right to interpret its foundational document, the Bible? (p3) Uncharted and dangerous waters lay ahead.

McGrath’s model for the growth of Protestantism is a biological one rather than seeing Protestantism as an expanding historical development. He sees Protestantism as a micro-organism, capable of rapid mutation and adaptation in response to changing environments, while still maintaining continuity with its earlier forms. (p4) While no model is perfect, “mutation” seems an apt description. Political, literary,  economic, geographic, scientific and sociological changes inevitably impacted both Catholic and Protestant religious communities following the Reformation.

The pre-Reformation church already had an appetite for reform and it is increasingly clear that attempts to depict the late mediaeval church as morally and theologically corrupt, unpopular, and in near-terminal decline cannot be sustained on the basis of the evidence available. (p8). McGrath establishes early in his narrative that the Reformation itself was no straight line historical process. The Benedictine priest Zwingli, captivated by the simplicity and vitality of the apostolic age, came to Zurich in East Switzerland  in 1519 to commence a new and liberating way of reading the Bible directly without reference to papal or churchly authorities. He seems not to have even heard of Luther at this time.

Calvin’s situation in France, then Geneva was different again. He was first a scholar and second a clear-headed leader and organiser. He had no particular interest in Luther’s powerful mantra of ‘justification by faith alone’. On the more radical side Anabaptists of various kinds were seeking a far more thoroughgoing local detachment from a traditional top down authoritarian structure of church leadership. Thus Protestantism never has had a singly unifying theology or leadership other than being “against” Roman Catholicism. In the C21st as theologians and church leaders from Catholic and other denominations draw closer together Protestantism has had to look elsewhere to a degree for something to be ‘against’.

Some of the most useful material covered by McGrath is his account of the ultimate failure of the English Puritan rebellion against Anglicanism followed by the foundations of American Protestantism; the debates within Protestantism about predestination and Arminianism; the impact of Protestantism on culture including  the development of the Arts and Sport; and Protestantism’s C19th missionary explosion and the C20th recognition of the need for indigenisation.

McGrath’s defence of the rationale for a new history of Protestantism is based on radical developments in Protestantism following the cataclysm of two world wars in the C20th. Protestantism itself has changed, decisively and possibly irreversibly, in the last fifty years, in ways that would have astonished an earlier generation of scholars and historians. (p9) McGrath identifies in particular, the rise of Pentecostalism within Protestantism. Nigeria alone, today boasts more Protestant believers than the combined total of Protestants in the USA, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand combined. Thus the centre of Protestantism has shifted to the South with over 500 million adherents in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

When the Pentecostal phenomenon is combined with the non-denominational megachurch movement sweeping through Western Protestantism and the subsequent decline and struggle of traditional authoritarian based denominational structures, the arrival of a rejuvenated and aggressive Islam,  and the constant incoming tide of political secularism in the West there is certainly a place for a new history of Protestantism.  

McGrath has produced an exciting book that in the end encourages rather than dismays. He cannot, even in 500 pages, cover everything. One looks in vain for references to P T Forsyth, Schaeffer and L’Abri, Ridley and Moore Colleges, the Keswick movement, Leon Morris and the mid C20th explosion of brilliant Biblical commentaries, James Barr’s critique of Fundamentalism, the rise and fall of evangelical television spruikers/Crystal Cathedral etc, the C20th assault on secular philosophy (Alvin Plantinga, Roger Scruton, Herman Dooyeweerd and Nancey Murphy et al), Hillsong, the Stendhal/Sanders/Crossan/Borg/Wright debate about C1st Judaism/Paul to name a few. But this is nitpicking. McGrath’s book is worth reading for the vast reference list alone.

Christianity’s Dangerous Idea closes with two memorable quotations:

Western theology has some excellent answers — but they are answers to questions that no-one else seems to be asking.  (Desmond Tutu)

Times are changing and we change with them. (Ovid).

An exceptional book. 5 stars and rising.