"Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." - Jerome

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

McGrath's Dangerous Idea?

Alister McGrath's new book "Christianity's Dangerous Idea" on the Reformation has been getting some positive buzz lately (here and here). After listening to a recent interview with McGrath (mp3) McGrath repeats something I first heard him say on a documentary on Luther. McGrath summarizes the "Dangerous Idea" as this: The Reformation was about the right of every individual to interpret the Bible for themselves. Now McGrath is 1000 times smarter than me and has been a Luther scholar for longer than I have been alive, but that summary bothers me. Wouldn't that make Luther the father of Liberalism that says "it is all about what it means to you, rather than an objective meaning."

Paul Althaus, a Lutheran scholar, said: “Luther never understands the priesthood of all believers merely in the sense of the Christian's freedom to stand in a direct relationship to God without a human mediator. Rather he constantly emphasizes the Christian's evangelical authority to come before God on behalf of the brethren and also of the world. The universal priesthood expresses not religious individualism but its exact opposite, the reality of the congregation as a community.”

Has anyone read the book yet? Am I getting the wrong conclusion from McGrath? Or is he right about Luther's individualism?
[I've loved McGrath's contributions to a theology of science and spirituality, where evangelicals are lacking, which is why he is distressing me here!]


Wesley said...

Wow…I'm not so sure he was right about that (although I'd hate to disagree with someone of his caliber as a historical theologian). "The Reformation was about the right of every individual to interpret the Bible for themselves" Sounds like it came from the mouth of the radical reformers! But if Luther said this, then he is wrong. Funny though, Luther did get highly irate when others "just read the Bible" and came to different conclusions form him (the anabaptists), and accused them of not really reading it plainly like he did. But it's cool all they were doing was reading the plain simple Word of God…and came to multiple theological systems…

Aaron said...

Clearly Luther wanted everyone to read the Bible for themselves. Hence his translation and that he usually wrote in German not Latin so everyone could read his work. But he also stressed having respect for those who make it their life's work to study the word. Luther was not so strong on respect for "the fathers" that came before him though. Look to Calvin more to try and reconcile that. Not saying anything you don't know of course.
From the Table Talk:
The discourse turning among the great differences amongst the learned, Luther said: God has very finely distributed his gifts, so that the learned serve the unlearned, and the unlearned humble themselves before the learned, in what is needful for them. If all people were equal, the world could not go on; nobody would serve another, and there would be no peace. The peacock complained because he had not the nightingale's voice. God, with apparent inequality, has instituted the greatest equality; one man, who has greater gifts than another, is proud and haughty, and seeks to rule and domineer over others, and condemns them. God finely illustrates human society in the members of the body, and shows that one member must assist the other, and that none can be without the other.

M. Jay Bennett said...

Hi Jared,

I've just begun the book. I'll let you know what I think when I finish it.

As a preliminary point, I think the idea of individuals having the right to interpret the Bible for themselves needn't be as shocking as it may first seem. It is not an affirmation that everyone is equally able to interpret all of Scripture or that tradition should never be consulted. On the face of it, it is simply an affirmation that each individual has the right to evaluate reality based on his own reading of the Bible. It is the affirmation that one's conscience can only be bound by Scripture. It is a recognition of the fundamental perspicuity of Scripture and the Spirit's work of illumination within both the community and the individual.


Jared Nelson said...

"The apostle Peter has said that the Holy Scriptures are not of private interpretation (2 Peter 1:20), and thus we do not allow all possible interpretations."

Thus the second canon of the Second Helvetic (Swiss Reformed) Confession reads. I realize the importance of having the Scriptures in the people's hands, yet from the interview I linked to, McGrath seems to like the fact that Protestants have multiple interpretations of scriptures that allow Protestantism to mold to new circumstances. But to celebrate this seems to miss the fact that this often has degraded into liberalism and merely adapting to whatever people want it to be. To say this was the great accomplishment of Protestantism (rather than say the gospel of grace) makes me not as happy about Protestantism (unlike what the gospel of grace does for my appreciation of Protestantism)


Aaron said...

I am sure I am missing the nuances of all of this. I think what Luther might say would go something along the lines of truth is found in a book. So it takes individuals to study it to know objectively what it says. Luther did say that if we ever lose the original languages we would lose the gospel. So it takes individuals to study it. Of course individuals studying the Bible ought not to equal “It means what I want it to mean”. As for Protestant vs. Catholic they each have wonderful ways of holding heresy. Catholic drift slowly and can get stuck, Protestants sprint to it but can run back quickly to the truth. So we all suck, but the truth is found in the book, and that does seem very dangerous that it is put in our hands!

Piper’s talk on it is worth a listen:

Luther grasped this powerful fact: God preserves the experience of salvation and holiness from generation to generation by means of a Book of revelation…

Jared Nelson said...

Totally agree Aaron. The problem would be I am siding with Luther and the 2nd Helvetic against what I think McGrath is trying to make Luther say. I agree with you that Luther would say Scripture has an objective meaning (perhaps more than one, but all meanings are not acceptable).

Today, we tend to let most interpretations be acceptable, as long as they are PC. I think I would agree with McGrath if he fleshed it out a bit more in terms of how we finally say what is acceptable. But just saying how great it is that Pentacostalism is going strong in Africa misses the point that some of their reading of Scripture for themselves is wrong and harmful.

I think you are so right too on Catholic vs Protestant. We Protestants can correct ourselves quicker, since we can say we were wrong. Catholics can only correct themselves if they say they were right, but everybody misunderstands what they REALLY said...which was totally different.