Christianity’s Dangerous Idea by Alister McGrath, HarperOne, New York, 2007, 552pp; finished 3/22/9; rated 9
Subtitled, “The Protestant Revolution – A History From The Sixteenth Century To The Twenty-First”, McGrath has produced a masterpiece of insight into what makes Protestantism tick. Much more than a mere listing of dates, persons and incidents, this book is a careful look inside the mind and heart of Protestantism.
McGrath, who is an Anglican priest and the professor of Historical Theology at the University of Oxford, and who is himself a Protestant, takes a nevertheless dispassionate approach to the subject and dissects the many moments and methods of history with the finesse of a surgeon with a sharp scalpel. While every page offers insight into understanding what makes the Protestant world go round, one particularly interesting contribution from McGrath is the realization that there really is no such thing as Protestantism. Unlike, say, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism has no head, no central authority, no determinative council. And so the boundaries of Protestantism are not as clearly demarcated as the boundaries of other branches of the Christian Church.
While showing the evolution of the movement over the last 500 years (and while addressing in detail subjects like Protestant views of the Bible, authority, worship, music, organization, arts, missions, politics, and science), perhaps the most significant thing the author shows us is that Protestantism isn’t a movement or an institution at all. It is a method of doing Christianity – method which in its very methodology is evolutionary and consequently always being changed and reapplied to newly emerging places and circumstances.
For example, what the Protestant ethos of missions was in the 18th century is completely different from what it is now, and yet there is a cord of continuity running through andconnecting the two eras. Before the 19th century the Protestant interpretation of Matthew 28.18 (“Go into all the world…and make disciples…”) was seen strictly as a command to the original disciples. Something shifted in the late 18th century and Protestants began reading the text differently – seeing it as spoken to the whole Church, and not just the Apostles. The result was the massive missionary movements of the 19th, 20th, and now 21st centuries. Protestantism has the ability to recreate itself. The most significant current re-creation is the emergence of Pentecostalism as a major expression of Protestantism, particularly in the global south. Where will it all take us? McGrath is careful to say that we don’t know! This thing is alive and no one can say for sure what comes next.