Monday, May 23, 2016

Christianity's Dangerous Idea by Alistair McGrath

  I bought this book a couple of years ago and have already read McGrath's The Passionate Intellect and his biography of C.S. Lewis.  McGrath is a historian, biochemist and Christian theologian from Belfast, Northern Ireland.  A one time atheist and  professor at Oxford University, he is now a Christian and holds the Chair in theology, ministry, and education at the University of London.

I like reading his books because he is committed to challenging Christians to use their minds and intellects to explore and affirm their faith.  While I don't agree with him in all areas, such as his stance on evolution and certain Biblical truths he seems vague on, his work is well-researched and reflects his own commitment to making reasonable and intelligent arguments concerning the Christian faith.

Christianity's Dangerous Idea is a historical account of the origins of Protestantism, its spread throughout Europe, America and eventually the world, its development and adaptation to change and its current cultural face as it exists today.

He starts with the Reformation with Luther and Calvin and meticulously traces their beliefs, comparing and contrasting it with the prevalent Catholic theology and its turbulent spread across Europe, including heretical break offs.  He also explains the separate but contemporary development of the Anglican church under Henry VIII in England and its own struggles between the state church and Puritanism, Puritanism being the branch of Reformed theology that traveled from Geneva under Calvin to Scotland via John Knox.

We travel with the Puritans to America where they were committed to setting up their own churches, free from established state churches and building our great educational institutions today such as Harvard and Princeton.  They also incorporated laws that protected citizens' rights to worship as they believed not as a state controlled religion would impose on them.  

Somehow the Puritan's laws have been twisted today to mean that citizens no longer have a right to worship as they please if it comes into conflict with state-imposed secularism.  Hence wedding caterers and bakers are forced into bankruptcy for "hate crimes" because their beliefs don't conform to state-ordained statutes of what constitutes right and wrong.  Nuns and other businesses have to go to court to defend their personal religious beliefs about birth control and abortifacients. New definitions have been created to determine what discrimination means and freedom of religious expression is being sacrificed at this alter.

Protestant movements saw this as a danger in the 17th century and came to America to freely practice their beliefs and legally protect all people's beliefs.

An interesting phenomenon occurred within the Protestant denominations and McGrath asserts that the very nature of Protestantism produced it.  Because an overhead authority in the form of the Roman church  came between the individual and the Word of God, there was unity in belief and worship.  People did not try to interpret the Bible for themselves, but rather allowed the Holy See to interpret Scripture for them.  This produced a uniformity of worship and doctrine.  Protestants said that their only authority was scripture "Sola Scriptura" and that they needed no human intermediary.

What this produced was many variants of Scripture interpretation and a fractured church as Protestants broke into many denominations, each interpreting the Bible according to their own understanding.

Or so McGrath says and this is where I disagree with him.  He seems to discount an essential phenomena to the Christian walk.  Namely, that when a person becomes a believer in Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Trinity comes to dwell with him, the Holy Spirit.  Jesus promised this in John 16:13:

But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come.

and also:

1 John 2:27:

As for you, the anointing which you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you; but as His anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you abide in Him. 

 Consequently, even though there are many Protestant denominations who worship in a variety of ways the differences are secondary.  Each Protestant church will claim the same truths concerning salvation and evidence of that salvation.

The difference lies between churches who believe in the inerrant truth of the Bible and those who claim the Bible is not inerrant.  

McGrath shows the pattern of almost every denomination and how each one eventually splits into two groups:  Liberal and Conservative.  I find these names ironic because the "liberal" churches believe the Bible says whatever you want it to say and any scripture that contradicts modern culture and morals must be wrong.  Conservatives believe one of the attributes of God is that He is immutable.

Malachi 3:6
For I, the LORD, do not change

James 1:17
Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.  

Hebrews 13:8
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. 

McGrath makes the argument that people misunderstand the truths of the Bible therefore, the "meaning" of Scripture can change as Christians gain greater understanding of it, but again this belies the power of God and His ability to impart truth to even the simplest of people.

He uses the argument of Christians justifying slavery using the Bible.  I counter that argument by saying that the people who use the Bible to justify slavery are the same people who would twist the meaning of Scripture today to justify acts of immorality.  They didn't rely on the truth of the Scripture but manipulated it to mean what they wanted.  This is a sure sign someone does not have the Holy Spirit with them.

One of the most interesting topics McGrath writes about is the missionary work and its consequent spread throughout the world that the majority of Christians now live in the "Global South" as it is called.  The biggest Protestant church in the world is in South Korea with a significant underground church in North Korea and China.  Africa and South America also have fertile population growths of Protestant churches.

McGrath claims that two characteristics of Protestantism is responsible:  changing the face of Christianity so that it no longer is entrenched in a European culture and the spread of the Pentecostal movement.

Because of Protestantism's ability to remain malleable, it is able to adhere to Biblical truth while embracing cultural norms of other societies.  Therefore, Africans, South Americans etc. can incorporate their own culture and worship God inside a familiar context.

Ironically, because so many American and European churches have become liberal, those churches are fast losing populations (why go to church if I can believe whatever I want?) while their Global southern counterparts are conservative in Biblical practice and are growing by leaps and bounds. 

The other phenomenon is the rapid spread of the Charismatic movement.  McGrath argues that this particular brand of Protestantism more closely adheres to African, Asian and South American beliefs in spiritualism, faith healing and casting out of demons.

He notes that in America the Pentecostal movement started on Azuza street in 1906 (although many other factors led to that movement) by Charles Parnham Fox and spread throughout America, largely through the poor underclass.  Interestingly, similar movements started in Korea, India, Chile, Venezuela and other countries, even in Norway, around the same time.  For those who are unfamiliar with Pentecostalism, it is the belief that when one becomes saved, one is "baptized" by the Holy Spirit and receives a special "prayer language" that enables the believer to speak in tongues.  This can be while praying to God or in an assembly where an interpreter will reveal to the congregation what was said, usually a message from God for the edification of the people.

There is division among conservative Protestant groups as to the validity of this belief, however, it is a secondary difference.  Pentecostals and other conservative denominations are unified in the essential core beliefs of Christianity:  saved through faith in Jesus Christ, inerrancy of the Bible et al.

Pentecostalism is one of the fastest spreading branches of Protestantism and it is estimated that around 300 million Pentecostals exist world wide (Pew Forum).

I personally found this book fascinating because I love to trace historical roots of our present culture and connect the past to the present.  It gives me a greater understanding as to the cultural context in which I live my life.  I also love to approach belief systems and how they fit in globally.   As a Christian I feel connected to my fellow believers worldwide.  McGrath's Christianity's Dangerous Idea helped me connect our Christian past to its present and value it all the more.


  1. As I think you know I find this type of philosophy and theology fascinating. I try to approach it with an open mind even when I disagree.

    The malleability of Protestantism is interesting and I think that there is something to it.

    The social issues involving religion are really contentious and go beyond

    Though I often disagree with religious folks on a lot of issues. I have a libertarian streak and I agree that folks not wanting to provide services for marriages that they philosophically disagree with probably should not involve government intervention.

    Benefits provided to employees or how a publicly funded institution provides services do, in my opinion, require government regulation. But every case is different.

    The benefits that

    1. Hi Brian. I wasn't sure you'd read my post since I figured it wasn't your cup of tea. I find how thinkers of all stripes act and how history transpires fascinating. It's important to know our roots if we're to make intelligent decisions and conclusions in our own lives.
      Take care!

    2. I am really interested in religion and I try to approach religious ideas respectfully. I am aware of how important religion has been to our history and culture. I think that I have also shown in my commentary that I do, fairly often praise and give credit to religious ideas and ideals that I agree with as I criticize those I do not agree with.

      In the end I love discussing this sort of thing:)

      Takse care!

    3. Hi Brian! That is how I would describe your posts and comments: very respectful. It's refreshing, because some people can become emotional and vitriolic when confronted with differing beliefs. Your blog gives me a lot to think about and think through why I believe the way I do. I appreciate that. Have a wonderful Memorial Day!

  2. Sharon, I especially enjoyed your comments and quotes from the Bible. Nothing as refreshing as truth, spoken or read!!

    1. H Phyllis! You are so right. When you're a truth seeker, the truth is like a drink a cool water.

  3. Very thought-provoking review, Sharon. McGrath seems to make some perhaps debatable conclusions, so I hope he has evidence to back up what he says. He's bothered me ever since I read his C.S. Lewis biography. I found it too speculative, in that he would say, "this circumstance would certainly affect the majority of the people in such-in-such way, therefore Lewis must have felt XYZ." Unless you have reasonably good evidence to make such a statement, you are speculating and McGrath did too much of it. I have heard good things about him so I should try something else by him. Perhaps The Dawkins Delusion.

    1. Hi Cleopatra. I agree with you about his Lewis biography. Here's my review, if you'd like to read it:

      I felt he dwelt to much on Lewis' pre-chrisitan proclivities or what "really happened" between him and Mrs. Moore.

      In this book, there were a few things I disagreed with, as his apparent attitude that individuals interpreting scripture without a higher church authority reduced understanding of the Bible to personal opinion.

      However, I would like to read more of his work and listen to him on youtube. The Dawkins Delusion sounds good.

    2. I read your review and thought it impeccably observant! :-) I thought McGrath showed a lack of respect for Lewis in the bio; of course, if there is evidence of issues, they can be examined but don't make things up from speculation.

      "his apparent attitude that individuals interpreting scripture without a higher church authority reduced understanding of the Bible to personal opinion."

      This I could perhaps understand. I don't know about Catholicism, but Orthodox Christians have a very deep respect for the Church Fathers and what they have said. The Fathers have devoted their lives to a deep knowledge and experience with God, and their lives were profoundly spiritual. They are like mentors, and to me it makes sense to take such wisdom seriously. With my very limited knowledge of the Reformation, sometimes I think that we've (Protestants) thrown the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. But I don't think that you can only get to God through someone else, although I don't want to say to much about it because I haven't really investigated how the Catholics see this aspect of their faith. In any case, I'm interested now to find out how Orthodoxy differs from Catholicism and Protestantism in this area. My husband is reading an historical book on Catholicism now and he says that he wouldn't say that the Catholics would say the priests interpret Scripture, more that the Church interprets scripture. Interesting ......

    3. It's interesting, Cleopatra. I've read that sola scriptura means that individuals can read and understand scripture for themselves but that does not mean that they discount tradition or other Christian authorities. SOLO scriptura means that only the Bible is to be read to know God.

      I agree with SOLA scriptura. The Bible is our ultimate and final authority by which all other sources are measured, but that doesn't mean we can't enhance our understanding with the rich tradition and extra-Biblical sources of theologians and apologists from throughout history.

      When you say Orthodox do you mean the Eastern Orthodox church? or Orthodox Christianity as opposed to liberal churches?

      From what I've learned from the Catholic church I do believe they have a mystical understanding about what the Church is and that a Catholic's identity is through the Church rather than a personal relationship with Christ, although I'm sure there are exceptions. This is really just an observation from personal experience with Catholic friends and what I heard a priest once say when I attending Mass with a Catholic friend.

    4. Re: Sola Scriptura, that makes sense.

      I meant the Eastern Orthodox church. I believe they also have a type of mystical understanding, but they certainly do not believe there needs to be an intermediary between a person and God. My friend, who was a Catholic but converted to Orthodoxy, asked the Orthodox bishop who was the head of the Orthodox church (she was so used to having a head/pope in the Catholic church). He looked at her like she was crazy and said, "Why Jesus Christ, of course!" :-D I thought Eastern Orthodoxy was similar to Catholicism, but as I learn more I find that I'm completely wrong.

      While I realize some of the differences between Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox, as Protestants I find it strange that we don't study the other two. After all, even if we've broken away for various reasons, it's what we came out of. Understanding their practices and beliefs, it seems to me, would only help us understand ourselves better.

    5. Hi Cleopatra. Two really good books that I highly recommend is The Gospel According to Rome by James G. McCarthy and The Lutheran Difference: An Explanation and Comparison of Christian Beliefs by Edward Engelbrecht.

      The first book goes into detail about Roman Catholic doctrine and the second is an excellent study of Christian beliefs, from a Conservative Lutheran standpoint even though I didn't see much difference between their doctrines and other conservative denominations. At the end of each chapter which each deals with a particular Christian belief (baptism, creeds of the church, Trinity inerrancy of scripture etc) they list a comparison with Orthodox, Roman, Presbyterian, Baptist etc..and also liberal Christians. It is worth reading.

      I do remember that when it came to salvation there were stark differences between the Protestant and Catholic concerning justification and sanctification.

      Protestants believe we are only justified through Christ's death on the cross but we contribute to our sanctification through obedience (as Christ completes a good work in us).

      Catholics believe that they must contribute to their justification. Jesus' death only paid for original sin and believers must contribute to their salvation through merit. Hence, we need purgatory to finish the job since no one will die perfect. Because they also believe that sins accumulate through the week and sinning causes you to lose your salvation, they must hold a mass to "re-crucify Christ" in order to become "resaved".

      My brother-in-law is from Cyprus and grew up in the Orthodox church. The only thing I really know is that they believe in the mediation of saints through the visible presence of icons. They will not say they are worshiping the icons but they do pray to them and believe they can receive help and power from them. I have some books about the history of icons that I haven't read yet but am looking forward to doing so.

      You're right, it's a fascinating subject and I believe that Christians should study other denominations in order to better appreciate their own beliefs as well as others. It can only lead to greater discernment.

    6. Ha! One more thing, Cleopatra. You should read The Forged Coupon by Tolstoy. It is a harrowing tale that may leave you in tears but it is an excellent commentary on Roman vs. Orthodox beliefs. I won't say more so I won't prejudice you one way or the other. It's not very long, you can read it in one setting.


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.