Christianity’s Dangerous Idea:
The Protestant Revolution—A History From the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First
Alister E. McGrath
Biblical Authority After Babel
Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity
Kevin J. Vanhoozer
Grand Rapids, Brazos, 2016
These are two books which should be read together. First, McGrath: Christianity’s Dangerous Idea 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. 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? Uncharted and dangerous waters lay ahead.
McGrath’s model for the growth of Protestantism is a biological one. 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. 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 21st century, as theologians and church leaders from Catholic and other denominations have drawn 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 19th century missionary explosion and the 20th century recognition of the need for indigenisation.
McGrath’s rationale for a new history of Protestantism is based on radical developments in Protestantism following the cataclysm of two world wars in the 20th century. ‘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.’ (p. 9) 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, Francis Schaeffer and L’Abri, Ridley and Moore Colleges, the Keswick movement, Leon Morris and the mid-20th century explosion of brilliant Biblical commentaries, James Barr’s critique of fundamentalism, the rise and fall of evangelical television spruikers/Crystal Cathedral etc, the 20th century assault on secular philosophy (Alvin Plantinga, Roger Scruton, Herman Dooyeweerd and Nancey Murphy et al), Hillsong, the Stendhal/ Sanders/ Crossan/ Borg/ Wright debate about 1st century Judaism and 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).
Biblical Authority After Babel
Kevin J. Vanhoozer is research professor of systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the USA. He writes prolifically from a reformed position but with a broad sweep covering theologies, theologians and literature from many fields and approaches. His general editorship of Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible is an impressive gift to theological scholarship. Biblical Authority After Babel obviously takes its title from the Genesis 11 story of the Tower of Babel built by mankind to reach up to God. God was not pleased with their arrogance and came down and confused their languages so that they could not complete the tower.
Vanhoozer is responding particularly to Alister McGrath’s claim in his recent book Christianity’s Dangerous Idea that the Protestant Reformation’s emphasis on the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers led directly to the notion that every Christian has the right and authority in the Spirit to interpret the Bible for themselves. Thus according to one way of reading McGrath, the Reformation set loose interpretive anarchy upon the world, a Babel of scepticism and schism which divides, confuses and continually multiplies into the many thousands of denominations and Protestant ideologies in the world today. At the same time Vanhoozer takes issue with other historians who argue that Protestantism, by its removal of any magisterial shared framework for the integration of knowledge, has been responsible for the gradual secularisation of the modern world—see, for example, Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularised Society.
Vanhoozer states early on that ‘there is no merit in giving pat answers to complex questions’ (p9), and this book is certainly no easy read due both to Vanhoozer’s carefully worded and detailed writing but also to the double layered layout of the book found in two over-arching themes. The first is Vanhoozer’s attempt to use retrieval theology to analyse again the fundamental theology and thinking of the 16th century Reformation. Retrieval theology ‘is the name for a mode or style of theological discernment that looks back in order to look forward’ (p23). What Vanhoozer seeks to retrieve are the four classic Reformation Solas and their true intention and meaning. Sola is the Latin for ‘alone’ and Vanhoozer deals with grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone and in Christ alone. He adds his own fifth sola—for the glory of God alone. He has a final chapter in which he attempts to synchronise Protestantism with Evangelicalism and in a sense to retrieve the term Evangelicalism, a term increasingly confused and under fire.
That would be meat enough for one book, but on top of this significant retrieval analysis Vanhoozer details and defends his version of ‘the interpretative practice of ‘mere’ Protestant Christians’ (p62), channelling C. S. Lewis at this point—as Lewis himself channelled Richard Baxter, the 17th century Puritan pastor and scholar. To do this, Vanhoozer propounds twenty theses throughout the book to delineate this Protestant interpretative practice. Sometimes these use philosophical/theological terms—such as material principle, formal principle, the triune economy of light and so on—which are not always clearly enunciated (to me anyway). The result of these two over-arching themes is that the reader is divided between sorting out the five solas at the same time as getting a handle on the twenty theses of Protestant interpretative practice and it takes care and patience to push through to the finish line.
In spite of these difficulties, Biblical Authority after Babel is a far-reaching and worthwhile read and indeed it provides a program for Protestants and Evangelicals to understand what they have in common and to direct their energies towards the unities of Protestant belief and practice rather than concentrating on the relatively minor issues that divide some Protestant believers. On the other hand Vanhoozer has stayed away from any actual issues in this lengthy discussion choosing rather to focus on a theoretical way forward. Much as I admire his attempt it seems to me that the book would have been stronger with at least a chapter on the hard issues. Aside from one indeterminate footnote he has avoided the same-sex attraction issue which—in the Anglican Church at least—has already caused substantial division and heartache and won’t be going away any time soon. Equally the coherent and jaunty writing and podcasting output of Rob Bell’s influential body of work has a vast worldwide following. In calling for a radically different approach to many conservative doctrines, Bell has attracted the ire of the likes of John Piper. Vanhoozer’s model may find a way to deal with issues like these two but it would have been useful to have a chapter with attempts at a practical way forward. Vanhoozer’s very impressive reading guide alone is one major value of the book. There is enough food for thought here for a solid one year course in Biblical and Theological hermeneutics. An impressive and thoughtful book but only for those who are committed to theological analysis and prepared to stay the distance.
Richard Prideaux, Vic.