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Protestantism's big idea.


Noted Oxford professor of historical theology Alister McGrath has undertaken the daunting task of telling the story of Protestantism, including all its denominations from Anglicans to anti-Trinitarian Socinians, from the beginning up to the present day.

The result is a lucidly written, stimulating and sometimes brilliant synthesis that is accessible to the educated public as well as to scholars. It is, to be sure, as the author tells us, an interpretative history that concentrates on those elements of Protestantism that play a significant role in its ongoing development and especially on its "big" idea.


For Dr. McGrath, Protestantism's "dangerous" idea consists in the right of each community, indeed of each individual, to interpret the Bible for himself. This right constitutes the fundamental identity of Protestantism. It is not content as much as a method, which continually rethinks and revises the understanding of the Bible in order to meet changing circumstances. Opposition to Catholicism then has served as a secondary yet important feature of Protestant identity, often uniting its diverse denominations.

The author divides the book into three main sections: "Origination," a narrative of Protestantism's historical development; "Manifestation," an examination of its fundamental ideas and institutions and its impact on culture; and "Transformation," a look at its radical change in the 20th century, especially its expansion in Latin America, Africa and Asia, and along with this the emergence of Pentecostalism as the most prominent expression of Protestantism in the world today.

The first section examines the rise of the principal Protestant churches in the 16th century: Lutheranism, Calvinism, Anglicanism and Anabaptism. The author emphasizes here the crucial importance of the early Protestant formula sola scriptura, which asserted that the Bible constituted the only source of Christian revelation and rejected the many "human" additions of the medieval church. The right then of individual interpretation of the Bible followed from Luther's forceful insistence on the democratic principle of "the priesthood of all believers."


Dr. McGrath recognizes as a weakness of Protestantism its lack of a principle of authority but sees this as a source of creativity and democracy. Here one must note, however, that neither Luther nor Calvin recognized a right of individual interpretation of scripture. At one point, Luther seems to have thought that if we all just sat down and read the Bible carefully, we would agree at least on the essentials. But he was quickly disabused of this by the "Zwickau prophets" who challenged him on the biblical basis for infant baptism.

Dr. McGrath underestimates the importance of the various Protestant confessions of faith, such as the 1530 Confession of Augsburg, as authoritative statements. His narrative thins out after 1560 and is increasingly dominated by Calvinism and its derivatives, while Lutheranism recedes into the background.


The Pietist movement in Germany in the later 17th century and Methodism in Britain in the next century contributed to a renewal at the same time .that Protestantism struggled with the currents of the Enlightenment. Only with its advance into North America and its association with the British Empire in the 19th century did Protestantism become a genuinely global movement.

In the United States, Dr. McGrath notes, religion did not play a notable role in the revolutionary generation, but Protestantism then grew dramatically after the turn into the 19th century as a result of the "Second Great Awakening," the situation on the frontier, and especially opposition to the tide of Catholic immigrants. Indeed, opposition to Catholicism served to unite Protestants in America from 1750 to 1960.

A number of topics come up for discussion in Part Two, including the Protestant position on "justification by faith alone" and Protestantism's relationship with modern science, especially Darwinism.

In the final section, Dr. McGrath describes the changing shape of American Protestantism as it confronted the nation's growing secularism. The fundamentalist movement failed because of its advocacy of withdrawal from contemporary society, but neo-Evangelicalism, associated with Billy Graham and others, urged engagement in the world and helped to revitalize Protestantism even as it divided the major denominations.

But above all Pentecostalism has revived Protestantism in the United States and greatly expanded it In Latin America, Africa and areas of Asia, in particular Korea. For Dr. McGrath, it represents the wave of the future. He reports that the 500 million Pentecostals now outnumber all other Protestant denominations combined throughout the world.

With their emphasis on the manifestation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and especially the gift of tongues well beyond the apostolic age, they represent another example of creative Protestant reinterpretation of the Bible. The success of Pentecostalism Dr. McGrath attributes to its emphasis on the emotions, its democratic egalitarianism and its organization in small congregations without the bureaucracy of the major denominations. He has little to say about the ecumenical movement except to remark that opposition to Catholicism no longer characterizes Protestantism.

What might Catholics take from Dr. McGrath's account, especially of the rise of Pentecostalism? First, the need for an emotional as well as an intellectual element in evangelization and catechesis, without losing sight of the role of reason that Pope Benedict has accentuated; second, recognition of the importance of the local Christian community or parish, without neglect of the diocese or universal church; third, awareness of the necessity for regular adaptation to changing circumstances along with gratitude for the authority that keeps adaptation within acceptable bounds.

[Jesuit Fr. Robert Bireley teaches history at Loyola University in Chicago.]
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Title Annotation:Christianity's Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution - A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First
Author:Bireley, Robert
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book review
Date:Feb 8, 2008
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