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Coping with Protestantism’s Dangerous Idea: A Rubric for Evaluating Competing Interpretations

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by Paige Britton


The title of this essay echoes the title of Alister McGrath’s newly published primer on the origins, influence, and implications of Protestantism, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea (HarperCollins, 2007). In his book, McGrath identifies this “dangerous idea” as the right of every Christian to read the Bible for him- or herself, quite independent of priest or pope or council. From the time of the Reformation, such liberty has produced inevitably complicated results. As McGrath explains,


since every Protestant has the right to interpret the Bible, a wide range of interpretations cannot be avoided. And since there is no centralized authority within Protestantism, this proliferation of options cannot be controlled. Who has the right to decide what is orthodox and what is heretical?


In other words, as a popular assessment of the situation goes, “People can make the Bible say anything they like. So who’s to say that one person’s interpretation is better than another’s?”


Protestants could answer the question with a defeatist shrug, overwhelmed by the “proliferation of options” available to us. Or we could bow to postmodernism, accepting all interpretations indiscriminately and ignoring the logical contradictions that result. Or perhaps we should appeal to the democratic spirit within the Protestant movement and assess the majority opinion: surely so many believers cannot be wrong! We might even take a stance of firm conviction and state with R. C. Sproul that


the differences we see in interpretation are due to sin or an unwillingness to understand Scripture in its original context…Otherwise, we embrace a Christian irrationalism and relativism which says that our God speaks to His people in conflicting ways.


This last assessment may be true, much of the time; but I would gently suggest that even Dr. Sproul has respected colleagues whose interpretations occasionally differ from his, whom he would hesitate to accuse of irrational relativism.


The fact remains that Christians are faced with a multiplicity of messages, contemporary and historical, from the popular Christian press and speaking circuit to the pulpit and the commentary. Sometimes we need assistance to identify and evaluate what we have heard or read or concocted in our own minds. Of course, as Protestants, we may not appeal to any higher human authority for this evaluation; we must make our judgments according to the standard of the Bible itself. From part to whole, Holy Scripture is the measuring stick by which we must test the teaching we receive, whether at the level of sermons and books or at the level...



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