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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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About 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.
Read an Excerpt
Christianity's Dangerous Idea
The Protestant RevolutionA History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First
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 nighta reference to the sun and moonso 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 groupnamely, "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 Romea period the great poet Petrarch referred to as the "Babylonian Captivity" of the papacy.7 Yet a number of factorsincluding growing French political interference in papal affairs and tensions within Italy as a result of the papal absenceled 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 RevolutionA 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.