Alister McGrath begins his book Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution-A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First with trying to provide an explanation of the essence of Protestantism. He states that Protestantism is not just a collection of doctrines, but a method in which the church operates and a particular way of cognition of the Holy Scripture. For this reason the widespread idea that every Christian can read the Bible, interpret it, reformulate it, and adapt the text of the Scripture according to his/her own understanding is one of the most dangerous ideas of the Protestant revolution (McGrath 2007, 2). In the current essay, an attempt to review the ways in which McGrath analyzes the history of this dangerous idea of self-interpretation of the Bible from the beginning of the sixteenth century to the modern days will be made.
Alister McGrath is a historian, scientist, theologian, and author of numerous books. He got a doctoral degree in natural sciences in Oxford, where he majored in molecular biophysics and chemistry. McGrath also became the PHD in Divinity for his research in systematic theology and history.
The book consists of three parts. In the first part, McGrath investigates the history of Protestantism, starting from the reformers like Calvin and Luther (McGrath 2007, 11). In the “Origination” section, he depicts the religious, political, and social atmosphere that was dominant during Luther's Reformation. The historical survey features the ideas of Swiss, French, German, and English reformers.
The author continues his research with the “Manifestation” chapter, where he writes about the Bible as the highest authority in the Protestant canon. It is based on the sola Scriptura principle, which means that the Bible is everything an average Christian needs to worship God (McGrath 2007, 199). The relationship between a believer and God is explained with the sola Fide principle, which is translated as by faith only (McGrath 2007, 247). There is a detailed investigation into the political, cultural, and social issues that influenced the Protestant Reformation. Among the most dangerous ones, the author mentions Darwin's theory of evolution (McGrath 2007, 381).
The last part of the book is called “Transformation”, and it investigates mainly the development of Pentecostalism and its rise in the Southern hemisphere (McGrath 2007, 415-430). McGrath ends the research with his prognosis about further development of Protestantism. He concludes that Protestantism is the method that determines the way the faithful use the Holy Scripture, pray, and believe in God. However, the individualization of faith often leads to adjusting the religious norms to the convenient reality, and it is the main danger for Protestantism. People often compromise with the Bible, and as the result, their motivation and life rules change for the worse. McGrath (2007) thinks that it is not wise to believe that every person without clerical guidance and classical education can understand all shades of the meaning that are present in the Holy Scripture (208). The history of the development of the Protestant thought, which is analyzed in the book, support this idea of dangerous individualism in Christianity.
The goals of the author become evident from the beginning of the book. He wants to show that Protestantism is the reaction of Christians to the state of the Catholic Church, and it led to the Reformation in a short period of time. Then, he emphasizes why it is not right to unite Protestantism and the Reformation. McGrath calls Protestantism a reaction to the reforming processes in the Catholic Church. The author also wants to analyze the ideas of the Protestant spiritual leaders and discuss the misunderstanding that is widespread nowadays. The last goal of the book is to provide a detailed scholarly and systematic research of the Protestant movement.
McGrath creates a logical narration of the history of Reformation and begins it with the question who has the authority to define what the faith is (McGrath 2007, 3). A peculiar thing is that the author uses his knowledge in biology to explain the development of Protestantism. For example, he uses many analogies that compare faith to a living organism, which makes the narration vivid.
McGrath introduces in interesting idea in his book that the Protestant innovation that icons are not among the indispensable parts of praying and the material objects cannot have spiritual significance, which has led to the overall desacralization. The development of atheism and natural sciences followed this disenchantment in the world, in lives and, in the end, in the Bible. However, it is difficult to correlate such things like the reformation of the Christian Church and the fact that atheism started to gain popularity. McGrath emphasizes that it is the Protestantism that has allowed the so-called dangerous idea to appear, and its influence can be found throughout all history.
The book features an interesting theme of the connection between the theory of evolution and the Protestant Reformation. According to McGrath (2007), it is the Protestant religion that constantly re-evaluates the existing theories about the Holy Scripture (381). Four theories of creation are mentioned in the book: the evolutionary theism, the intelligent design, the old-Earth creationism, and the young-Earth creationism (McGrath 2007, 383-385).
Much attention is also paid to the development of Pentecostalism. The Protestantism moved to the South and became popular among the dispossessed and poor layers of society, who were not interested in the high theological discussions and politics (McGrath 2007, 436). The author claims that the Protestantism has managed to become a global religion that is not based on extreme Eurocentrism and that has an ability to adapt to every cultural setting. It is difficult to argue with this statement, because the popularity of the Protestantism in Latin America and in Africa supports this idea with vivid examples.
McGrath succeeds in proving his point of view. He analyzes the issue from all possible perspectives and gives logical arguments to support his claims that are often contrasted to other arguments. Such an ability to systematize, construct the information logically are among his most important strengths. In addition, McGrath is not afraid to combine the scientific and the theological points of view on reality, which is a serious step to make.
It is possible to find numerous reviews on this book. It is possible to claim that the majority of them are of descriptive character rather than of the analytical one. The reviewers do not argue with the ideas, expressed by McGrath, because Christianity’s Dangerous Idea can be called the systematic manual in the Protestant history, and it does not feature very provocative themes for discussions. Among the examples of such reviews is the one written by John Battle (n.d.), a professor of theology from Western Reformed Seminary. Rollin Shoemaker (2012) has also published a review in the International Journal for Pastors. The review of David van Houten (n.d.) can be found on the website of the Reformed Institute of Metropolitan Washington.
It is possible to state that the book The Story of Christianity Volume Two: The Reformation to the Present Day (2010) by Justo L. Gonzalez can be compared to McGrath’s research. Both of them write about history in a broad sense, emphasizing the importance of the historical context in the development of religion. Both authors create a systematic review of the development from the beginning to the modern days. The only difference is that Gonzalez writes about Christianity in general, while McGrath focuses on the Protestantism. However, the messages of both books are quite similar: they assert that the influence of religion on society is great and without it, the norms become vaguer and the morality is in decay.
McGrath helps his readers to understand better the essence of the Protestantism and systematize the knowledge about its development. As a theologian and a Christian, I can recommend this book to everyone who wants improve the understanding of the history of Protestantism or even to learn about it from the very beginning. The style of the writing, the content, and the abundance of vivid example make the book perfect for people with different level of knowledge on this theme. It is also necessary to mention the structure of the book, which makes the narration pleasant to read. The author asks questions and then answers them, so that it creates the atmosphere of talking with a pastor.
It is difficult to underestimate the impact the Protestantism had on the development of history. It changed societies, reformed the church, and even led to wars among the countries for almost five hundred years. The book by McGrath shows the way the Protestantism made from Luther to the Pentecostalism movement. Christianity’s Dangerous Idea combines scientific and theological points of view, which makes the narration vivid. It is possible to state that McGrath has achieved all the goals he set in the beginning of the book. He asserts that without the strict religious guidance, the world is attacked by sins. The theory of evolution became one of the results of the dangerous ideas of Protestant revolution. McGrath’s book can become a comprehensive manual of the Protestant history both for the Christians who do not know much about the subject and a systematic guide to refresh and structuralize one more time the main points of the Protestant history for the theologians and scholars.