Culture At Large

Christianity's Dangerous Idea

Paul Vander Klay

I find the fall to be a good time to pick up a book on the Reformation. This year my book is Alister McGrath's "Christianity's Dangerous Idea". This is the second book I've read by McGrath and am finding him to be a new favorite author.

"The dangerous new idea, firmly embodied at the heart of the Protestant revolution, was that all Christians have the right to interpret the Bible for themselves. However, it ultimately proved uncontrollable, spawning developments that few at the time could have envisaged or predicted."

I used to think that the heart of the reformation was "justification by faith alone" but now I have my doubts. When I was a missionary in the Dominican Republic a fun exercise was asking the Haitian pastors whether we were saved by faith or by works. Despite a dozen years of missionaries pounding "the correct answer" to this catechism question in every conceivable way the near universal response given by the national pastors was either "works" or "both", never "faith alone".

Are these Haitian pastors heirs of the Protestant Reformation? You bet. In addition to Luther's assertion that "justification by faith" is the core message of the Bible came another stream that understood fidelity to the Bible through explicit moral application of its directives. Haitian women showed themselves to be Protestants and not Roman Catholics by not wearing pants, lipstick and wearing a baseball cap or a scarf in the worship service. They will know we are Christians by our clothes. A good many Protestants in North America too can testify that you may be saved the day go respond to the altar call but the church has a pretty firm set of expectations for your life if you wish to remain a member in good standing and there's a proof-texts for that.

The history of Protestantism since the Reformation is a study on how much diversity can be achieved from a group that can seem to agree on just this one dangerous idea but not much beyond it. It also seems clear that this idea not only reshaped the church but also reshaped western culture. Our commitment to individualistic free thinking is so thoroughly assumed we find it difficult to comprehend any other way of being human.

OK, so we can agree that the Bible is the place to start, but how do we understand the Bible? Is the core message of the Bible "justification by faith" or "creation-fall-redemption-restoration" or "if you love me you will keep my commandments" or "do good and you'll be rewarded, do bad and you'll be punished"? Does the primary commitment to the Bible have value if the secondary interpretations are continually locked in endless disputes?

Peter Enns notes that one of his doctoral professor Jon Levenson observed that "for Jews the Bible is a problem to be solved; for Christians it is a message to be proclaimed." Is the result of Christianity's dangerous idea as it worked out in the diversity of Protestant churches the validation of this observation?

Mcgrath goes on to make this observation: “'the Reformation' introduced into the history of Christianity a dangerous new idea that gave rise to an unparalleled degree of creativity and growth, on the one hand, while on the other causing new tensions and debates that, by their very nature, probably lie beyond resolution. The development of Protestantism as a major religious force in the world has been shaped decisively by the creative tensions emerging from this principle." He's right. The versions of Christianity sweeping Asia and Africa today are direct heirs to this dangerous idea. It's difficult to imagine where Christianity would be today without it.

My question for you on Luther's Wittenburg posting is whether in your opinion the dangerous idea is worth the mess?

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith, Evangelism