by John A. Battle
What, exactly, is the essence of Protestantism? Alister McGrath, professor of historical theology at the University of Oxford, concludes this large work with his definition, Protestantism is more than a set of doctrines; it is a method of doing theology and the work of the church. It is the dangerous idea that every individual Christian may go back to the original (Christ and the Bible) and reformulate, revise, and adapt the historic faith to fit his own culture and setting, to his own understanding. Thus he titles his book Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution—A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First.
This pattern is observed in the original Protestant reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Rather than a single united Protestant movement, it was a conglomeration of several different “Protestantisms” growing in various places, adapting patterns and thinking from those places.
While some Protestant traditions currently have “frozen” the positions of former generations, others have kept the method more open, and have adapted quickly to their settings. This second group more consistently reflects the genius of Protestantism, according to McGrath.
The book is divided into three major sections. The first section, “Origination,” traces the history of the Protestant movement from the early German, Swiss, French, and English Reformers, especially Luther and Calvin, through the challenges of European culture and history, to its expansion into America and the world up through the nineteenth century. Necessarily, the survey is quick and often superficial.
The second section, “Manifestation,” surveys the primary beliefs and positions taken by Protestants. Various chapters deal with theological views of the Bible, major teachings regarding man and salvation, the church and sacraments, the Christian’s relation to culture, politics, and society, and the way Protestantism has interacted with science and the arts. Again, the book quickly summarizes these important and detailed points. I think his discussion of Protestantism and science was especially helpful. Since Protestants include such a wide variety views on these subjects, it is hard to determine a center for each. McGrath sees unity more in the idea of the method of theology (individual judgment from Scripture) than in the results in each of these areas.
The final section, “Transformation,” emphasizes the more recent history of Protestantism in America and in the “Global South,” that is, the Southern Hemisphere. Especially important is the development and tremendous growth of Pentecostalism, whose adherents now outnumber all other Protestants put together. McGrath sees this development as a natural outcome of the genius of Protestantism—the reinterpretation of Scripture by each generation, adapted to its own time and place. He sees a bright future for Protestantism, viewed as a method with a very narrow agreed-upon base of doctrine, even if the older denominations decrease and fade away. Not only is Protestantism able to adapt doctrinally to new situations, but, perhaps even more helpfully, is able to adapt the structure and worship of the church to different times and cultures. This capability, he believes, makes the future of Protestantism impossible to describe, but it makes its future existence and growth more probable.
McGrath writes well, and in spite of the book’s length and subject matter, it becomes a real page-turner. The area he covers is vast, and even with his expertise as a historical theologian, he is not able to cover many details in a more than cursory fashion. I believe his statements regarding the history of conservative Reformed theology (the area I work in) sometimes show a lack of deep understanding. Some of his criticisms seem unjust. Likewise, he often fails to distinguish what I would consider to be orthodox from heterodox ideas. He includes all parts of the spectrum—liberal and conservative—as Protestantism, and treats all as equally authentic versions. In my view this detracts from the usefulness of the book. Of course, he views this historically, without making judgments on the rightness or wrongness of the various positions, only their pragmatic successes or failures.
Perhaps the greatest strength of the book is its wideness, and the abundance of references to more detailed works in the extensive endnotes. Also important is his defense of the methodology of Protestantism, as an answer to the Catholic criticism that there is no central authoritative magisterium.
Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution—A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First, by Alister E. McGrath (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007). Pp. 552.