Christianity's Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution--A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First

Overview

A New Interpretation of Protestantism and Its Impact on the World

The radical idea that individuals could interpret the Bible for themselves spawned a revolution that is still being played out on the world stage today. This innovation lies at the heart of Protestantism's remarkable instability and adaptability. World-renowned scholar Alister McGrath sheds new light on the fascinating figures and movements that continue to inspire debate and division across the full spectrum of...

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Christianity's Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution--A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First

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Overview

A New Interpretation of Protestantism and Its Impact on the World

The radical idea that individuals could interpret the Bible for themselves spawned a revolution that is still being played out on the world stage today. This innovation lies at the heart of Protestantism's remarkable instability and adaptability. World-renowned scholar Alister McGrath sheds new light on the fascinating figures and movements that continue to inspire debate and division across the full spectrum of Protestant churches and communities worldwide.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

This is McGrath's third book title borrowed from his atheist bête noir Richard Dawkins. But don't let the titular borrowings fool you: this is an original and important book. Someone had to imitate the long, popular works of history being written on secular subjects from Lewis & Clark to FDR, and McGrath has the theological and historical expertise necessary to tell a story stretching from the Reformation's origins in the 16th century to today. The "dangerous idea" was Martin Luther's: that individual believers could and should read the Bible for themselves. The result was occasionally violent (as in the peasants' revolt and the English Civil War), occasionally brilliant (musicians like Bach, theologians like Calvin and Jonathan Edwards, poets like Milton) and certainly world altering (the Calvinist Reformation clearing space for the rise of secular science and capitalism). McGrath concludes not with the faith practices of present-day England or America, but with the increasingly Pentecostal global south. The book occasionally falls into the dry tone of a textbook and assumes points that historians would want to debate, but is still the most readable introduction to the history, theology and present-day practices of Protestantism. (Oct.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

McGrath (Univ. of Oxford; The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World) calls his latest book not a documentary but an intellectual history of the Protestant idea that all Christians have the right to interpret the Bible for themselves. (Note that he equates Christianity with Protestantism.) Roman Catholics have often complained about the Protestant principle of individualism, arguing there could conceivably be as many interpretations of the Bible as there are Protestants. To his credit, McGrath recognizes that the Protestant revolution unleashed chaos in the Christian church. But do we need yet another history of Protestantism? The book's major contribution is that it helps describe the shift currently taking place in the Protestant world with the decline of churches in Europe and North America and the growth of the movement in Africa and Asia. What began as a revolt against international Christianity in favor of nationalism and individualism is today a cultural revolution. Eventually, Protestantism will be redefined by the churches in the so-called Third World. Recommended.
—James A. Overbeck

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061436864
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 11/4/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 560
  • Sales rank: 441,390
  • Product dimensions: 8.02 (w) x 5.26 (h) x 0.99 (d)

Meet the Author

Alister E. McGrath is a historian, biochemist, and Christian theologian born in Belfast, Northern Ireland. A longtime professor at Oxford University, he now holds the chair in theology, ministry, and education at the University of London. He is the author of several books on theology and history, including Christianity's Dangerous Idea, In the Beginning, and The Twilight of Atheism. He lives in Oxford, England, and lectures regularly in the United States.

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Read an Excerpt

Christianity's Dangerous Idea
The Protestant Revolution—A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First

Chapter One

The Gathering Storm

The ability to see beyond the horizon of one's own location in history is given to few. Who could have imagined, in the gently sunlit heyday of Edwardian England, that the grimmest and most devastating war ever to afflict the human race lay less than a decade away? There was little sense at the time of a gathering storm, of standing close to the edge of a cataclysmic precipice. Hindsight is invariably infallible, allowing later observers to discern the fault lines, the tensions, the shifting in the tectonic plates of history that presaged the tidal waves that would engulf nations and cultures. Yet at the time these often passed unnoticed, their significance not appreciated until after the deluge.

Could the turmoil of the Reformation have been predicted? Could it have been deferred, perhaps even deflected, by some skillful footwork on the part of the church hierarchy? What would have happened if the son of Hans and Margarette Luther had died shortly after his birth on November 10, 1483? These questions, though illuminating and not a little provocative, cannot be answered with any confidence. The historian, however, can hope to achieve at least some degree of understanding and appreciation of what actually happened, and above all to discern why a seemingly trivial protest by an unknown German academic at one of Europe's most insignificant universities proved to be the spark that ignited a conflagration that engulfed much of the Western church.

The Church and the social fabric ofWestern Europe

The social, cultural, and intellectual impact of the Protestant Reformation can be fully grasped only through an appreciation of the place of the church in late medieval Europe. The church was a major player in international politics and the internal affairs of regions, and it fostered a sense of identity at the level of local communities and gave individuals a sense of location and purpose within a greater scheme of things.1

The church had always played an important international role in European society. Medieval Europe bore little relation to its modern counterpart composed of individual, well-defined nation-states.2 In the Middle Ages, Europe consisted of an aggregate of generally small principalities, city-states, and regions, often defined and given a shared sense of identity more by language and historical factors than by any sense of common political identity. At the start of the fourteenth century, for example, Italy was little more than a patchwork of independent city-states and petty principalities. These were consolidated into six major political units during the fifteenth century: the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily, the Papal States, and the three major city-states of Florence, Venice, and Milan. The modern nation-state of Italy was a nineteenth-century invention. In much the same way, Germany, destined to play a particularly significant role in the events of the age, consisted of a myriad of tiny territories.3 Even as late as the nineteenth century, there were still thirty-two German states and territories, which were only finally united into the German empire under Otto von Bismarck (1815-98).

The church was the only international agency to possess any significant credibility or influence throughout the Middle Ages, and into the era of the Renaissance. It played a decisive role in the settling of international disputes.4 Under Innocent III (pope from 1198 to 1216), the medieval papacy reached a hitherto unprecedented level of political authority in western Europe.5 This was given theological justification in the decree Sicut universitatis conditor, issued in October 1198, in which Innocent III set out the principle of the subordination of the state to the church. His argument? Just as God established "greater" and "lesser" lights in the heavens to rule the day and night—a reference to the sun and moon—so God ordained that the power of the pope exceeded that of any monarch. "Just as the moon derives her light from the sun, and is inferior to the sun in terms of its size and its quality, so the power of the king derives from the authority of the pope." That authority was often recognized with great reluctance; there was, however, no other institution in western Europe with anything remotely approaching its influence.

Power tends to corrupt, as Lord Acton remarked. There were many within the church at the time who were troubled by the soaring power and influence of the papacy and who sought to prevent it getting out of control. The Conciliarist movement argued that ecclesiastical power should be decentralized: instead of being concentrated in the hands of a single individual, it should be dispersed within the body of the church as a whole and entrusted to a more representative and accountable group—namely, "general Councils."6 This movement reached the height of its influence in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Its moment seemed to have arrived when a crisis emerged in the papacy during the fourteenth century.

Those who believed that the identity of the church was safeguarded by the authority of the pope found themselves in a dilemma toward the end of the fourteenth century. Irritated by the tensions arising from the factionalism and infighting between some of the great Roman families, Clement V decided to move the papal court away from Rome to the southern French city of Avignon. From 1309 to 1378, the papacy endured this self-imposed exile from Rome—a period the great poet Petrarch referred to as the "Babylonian Captivity" of the papacy.7 Yet a number of factors—including growing French political interference in papal affairs and tensions within Italy as a result of the papal absence—led Gregory XI to decide to return to Rome in 1377.

Yet Gregory died shortly afterward. His successor, Urban VI (1378-89), was unpopular with the French cardinals, who returned to Avignon and elected a rival pope, Clement VII. For a period of more than forty years, there were two claimants to the title of the papacy in Europe, a state of affairs that caused confusion and seriously weakened the authority of the church. England, Germany, Hungary, most of Italy, Poland, and the Scandinavian countries supported Urban VI at Rome; France, Scotland, Spain, and southern Italy supported the "anti-pope," Clement VII, at Avignon.

Christianity's Dangerous Idea
The Protestant Revolution—A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First
. Copyright © by Alister McGrath. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 6 of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 30, 2009

    Eye Opening

    The title is a bit misleading. The contents of the book, however, explain it and it's a bit different than what you might expect. To me, it gives a better understanding of protestantism and what it lacks as opposed to catholic christianity. But then maybe I'm a bit biased? In any event, even though it's more of a textbook, it's quite readable for a non-student. It can be read at a more leisurely pace than the usual "blockbuster" types of popular books, thus helping one get imbued with more insight into one's fellow travellers in this life.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 31, 2008

    Individual Interpretation

    In response to a rather misleading review¿<BR/>January 23: Apparently you have not read the book, and are simply misinterpreting the overview on this page. McGrath is not saying we shouldn¿t read the Bible on our own, but instead should listen to some hierarchical church authority.<BR/> In fact he argues just the opposite, that the dangerous, powerful, vital strength of the Protestant movement is that it embraces the idea that all believers have the right to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. This is a right McGrath defends and celebrates, even as he points to certain dangers from an in-house perspective.<BR/><BR/>That aside, I would highly recommend this brilliant work. McGrath writes in a way that is deep and extremely well informed, but at the same time accessible and engaging. Its 560 pages flew by as the narrative of the book will grab a hold of anyone with even the slightest interest in the formation and history of the Protestant movement, as well as challenging thoughts about its future.<BR/><BR/>Buy it, read it, you will not regret a moment of the time or a cent of the cost.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 31, 2008

    Let's stick to the subject

    For heaven's sake, this was supposed to be a review of a book, not an excuse for another anti-Catholic rant. Since you must, please note: The first English translation of the Bible was (gasp!) Catholic. Catholics have always been encouraged to read the Bible. The Catholic Church does, however, insist on actually following the Biblical maxim (see St. Paul) that 'Scripture is of no private interpretation.' Now, can we get back to the premise of the book? Please?

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 23, 2008

    Ridiculous

    Arguing against the idea that everyone should read the Bible is basically stating that we should all just nod and bow to whatever spews forth from the Catholic Church, which has been shown to be filled with man-made rules and decadency that has nothing to do with the Word. Power by controlling the ignorant is this book's message? Did God really give us his Word so that only a select few may understand it? The Roman Catholic Church is not quite as corrupt as it was back then, so the 'movement' this book refers to has little consequence. If making others angry is the goal of this book in order to make sales with controversy, it may succeed.

    0 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 2, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 3, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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