Christianity’s Dangerous Idea
I’ve already dropped a few quotes from this book as I read along: about the birth of proof-texting, about the origins of the KJV and the Enlightenment, and concluded recently with 2 different approaches to Protestantism. Let’s wrap it up with a full review, shall we?
The “dangerous idea” of Christianity that McGrath is really more accurately the dangerous idea of Protestantism (that Catholicism has adopted to some degree since the Reformation era). It’s the crazy idea that individuals can interpret Scripture, and thus formulate a conception of faith, for themselves. Of course this is successfully lived out to varying degrees – those in power will always try to push their understanding as better than other understandings – but I am not sure of other major religions that even proclaim this as a theory.
The first section of the book is more or less strictly historical fact. It covers a basic overview of each Protestant branch of the Reformation, in approximately chronological order: Lutherans, Zwinglian/Reformed, Radical (Anabaptists and other), and Anglican. For those who aren’t familiar, Catholics also had their own Reformation in the same era, but this is a book about Protestantism so that was barely touched on. McGrath spends several pages on what ties Protestants together as well as on what separated them on a variety of topics. For the most part I felt like Anabaptists were left out of these discussions, but I can’t really blame him for that as they were a smaller group and outside of the mainstream even though he does consider us Protestants. He also proceeds past the Reformation to some further changes, particularly in England and the United States as they emerged as world powers with movements such as those of the Puritans, Baptists, Congregationalists, and Methodists.
The second section looked at how Protestants have dealt with a variety of different things over its 500 year history. Perhaps most importantly is changes in how we have understand the Bible, but it also goes through how we have approached our relationship with culture (e.g. fundamentalism was initially a very separatist segment of Christianity), how we’ve related to the arts, to social sciences and hard sciences (evolution and other questions), and so on. Generally very interesting things, but the details were not nearly as important to me as the core themes running through it all: Protestants are by nature open to re-evaluate our understandings of Scripture in new contexts, although we also can be very harsh toward those who conclude something very differently from their evaluation.
The third section is essentially the 20th Century forward, which earns its own section because it has seen some radical changes. The big ones are the rise of Pentecostalism which has revived a faith that otherwise has tended to be dead and intellectual, and its corollary the rise of the Global South as the new seat of Christianity. He touches on postmodernism a little, but doesn’t explicitly deal with any movement of “emerging church” or whatever else you want to call it. Protestantism has been, for the past 110 years or so, undergoing some radical changes, changes which I think will most likely be more settled than not in the next 20 or 30 years, as evidenced by how much of an exodus we’ve seen from traditional liberal or conservative Protestantism and toward other understandings.
This is where the interpretative element really comes in and I am glad that it does. The central claim of this is that Protestantism’s DNA is one which is always open to re-assessment. Protestants are those, he claims, who are defined by their method of being always reforming, always looking to Scripture to see how it applies to their current context. Others would disagree, of course, and try to define in terms of doctrines or practices, but since those doctrines and practices are not consistent across all of Protestantism, I think that this ethos is a better definition. This gives us a huge tension of course, which is what I discussed in my last quote from the book on the 2 different approaches to Protestantism.
I’m clearly a proponent of using a definition like McGrath’s. Protestantism, including Anabaptism, has the flexibility built into it, at least in theory, to be able to proclaim the Gospel of the Kingdom in radically changing contexts. This is a beautiful thing, just as it was a beautiful thing that the all-powerful God of the universe could adapt to take on the fullness of human life and death in order to inaugurate that Kingdom. We don’t discard our history and in fact I, like McGrath, would like to see us reclaiming and re-emphasizing this core piece of our identity even if in the process it means changing some of the peripheral details.