Did Protestantism Kill God?

I’m just reading through “The Twilight of Atheism” by Alister McGrath. It’s a very good book – I’m only 3/4 of the way through it, but I would definitely recommend it! One thing which he said that I found very interesting is that protestantism indirectly created circumstances in which atheism was able to thrive. I thought this was strange at first, but it actually makes a lot of sense:

One of the things which early protestantism did was to remove the focus on images and so on (not without reason – images can lead to idolatry, i.e. the focus being on the created rather than the creator). What became the focus instead was the pulpit – people would learn about God through the word. Churches became places where you would go to hear the word, and there would be nothing there to distract you from that (no statues, paintings, etc – the walls would be whitewashed). In doing so, protestantism inadvertantly turned Christianity into a dry set of doctrines which people would accept cerebrally – but take the “experience” of God out of the equation. McGrath calls this the “imaginative failure of protestantism”. Before, in the medieval ages, God was just an ordinary part of everyone’s lives – people would see the divine in everything. Not without reason the protestant movement sought to reduce that to what we could know about God through the Bible, what was taught at Church…. it just seemed that in doing so this contributed to taking the experience of God out of people’s every day lives.

In other words, it turned people into pragmatic atheists – living as though God did not exist. From this, it was a short step to actually becoming ‘proper’ atheists – people not believing in God at all.

At this point McGrath mentioned the global pentecostal movement: this movement focuses a lot on the experience of God, rather than dry preaching. It’s gained enormous popularity over the world, partially because of its ability to mould itself to fit in with cultural circumstances.

Now, I don’t know whether protestantism in general has made our experience too ‘dry’, or whether we’ve taken the experience of God out of the equation. I suspect my answer to those questions would be “maybe” and “I don’t think so”, but it’s difficult to tell. What may be one person’s experience of God may not be the same as another’s.

However I think it’s definitely worth thinking about… I can’t pretend to know what the right answer to this is at the moment, but I do believe that this is a serious issue and one which is worth thinking about at length. If we’re doing something wrong, surely we should do something about it!

Note: I don’t think that the protestant church of the present necessarily is repeating the same mistakes as the protestant church of the past. But a lot of what McGrath said seemed to ring true for me, to a certain degree. I think it’s still an issue, even if it’s not as big an issue as it was…


6 responses to “Did Protestantism Kill God?”

  1. Hmm, that’s an interesting idea. On the one hand I might suggest that the way society has developed it wouldn’t have matter whether protestantism happened or not, but then again if you look at countries that are predominantly catholic today you can see that the churches are well-attended and quite alive, in contrast to many (but certainly not all) protestant churches in the UK. One of the worst things you can do as a believer is let your faith become ordinary and mundane, just a part of life that you put on and put off like a coat. God calls us to be passionate and active, and from what I’ve seen it’s often the more pentecostal style communities that encourage this the most. Of course, then you have to get the right balance between experiencial and intellectual faith – head knowledge without action is useless, and spiritualism without teaching is dangerous.

    Which leaves us with that unanswerable question – which denomination is right? I’d probably go with “none of them” and “all of them”, which kind of contradict each other, but kind of not. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses, and I don’t think it would be right to assume that you can get everything from just one church – I personally can quite easily see myself in the future flitting between Anglican and Baptist churches, receiving different things in different ways from each, and giving to each in different ways too.

  2. …I’ve heard that there is no such thing as atheism, but rather that so called ‘atheists’ are in fact simply “weak agnostics” since a total lack of faith/belief is inherantly self-destructive and cannot be carried into the present across generations as strongly as the notion of atheism has…

  3. Timothy Edwards avatar
    Timothy Edwards

    Hi, Phil, thanks for the thought-provoking post.

    I think that there may be a sense in which it is right to say that Protestantism made atheism possible. Although I would suggest that this is in a very different way to what McGrath seems to be suggesting.

    The move away from images, which he pick up on, is not a rejection of images per se. Rather it is a rejection of the use of images in the context of worship. Indeed the Reformed tradition (as distinct from, say the Lutheran branch of Protestant Christianity) would characteristically want to say not that the use of images in worship “can lead to idolatry” (as you put it), but that the use of images to worship God is idolatry – because it is worshipping God in a way that does not fit with what He has revealed.

    However, this is hardly a rejection of the visual arts: Rembrandt and the whole Dutch school (Lady with the Pearl Earring etcetera) come from within a society dominated by Reformed Christianity, for example.

    Nor does it necessarily involve a rejection of the use of imagination: Both Milton and Bunyan were puritans who wrote some of the most enduring pieces of literature in the English language (Paradise Lost and Pilgim’s Progress, respectively – not to mention their other works).

    Indeed, I would suggest that when McGrath (from what you seem to say here) suggests that Protestantism led to people not seeing God in all of life, where before they had done so, this gets things entirely backwards. Medieval Catholicism, especially at the popular level (i.e. the level at which the average punter actually lives), drove a wedge between the sacred and the secular spheres, so that the spiritual involved withdrawing from everyday life into special activities (as with monasticism) or special places (as with pilgrimages) or special objects (as with relics) or special words (as with the use of Latin in the liturgy rather than a language understood by the people) or special ways of life not accessible to all (as with the importance of celibacy).

    The Reformation involved a recovery of God’s involvement in, blessing of, and rule over the whole of life. That gets seen, for example, in the Reformed notion of “vocation”, which is simply a way of saying that whatever job one has can be (so long as it is within God’s moral law – so prostitution would be excluded!) an honoured way of serving God that is no less valid in God’s economy than the role of those in “holy orders”. (George Herbert (seventeenth century Anglican minister), for example, speaks in one of his poems about the blessing of sweeping a room for the Lord’s sake).

    And it was the Reformational vision of God’s common grace manifested throughout creation that led in large part to the scientific revolution. (I say “in large part” because there is, of course, more going on that just that). So for people like, Newton and Leibniz, scientific exploration was a way of discovering the mind of God. And it is difficult to imagine that being the case in quite the same way in the medieval era.

    (Interestingly, I think I recall McGrath making both of those last two points in his Roots that Refresh).

    How then did the Reformation make atheism possible? I think in this way: The Reformation involved an unprecedented fracturing of Christendom. Thereafter, Christianity has increasing come to seem a private matter, where there appear to be a thousand competing interpretations (there always has been variety, just not marked by the same kind of visible division), none of which seem to belong in the public square.

    (Apologies for the ridiculously long comment)

    1. Hi Tim, thanks for that comment – really helpful! Don’t worry about the length.

      I definitely need to read some more church history, but what you said made a lot of sense. Perhaps I misunderstood McGrath (quite possible!) but I agree with your reading of the reformation.

      That said, I think the reason it struck a chord with me is that sometimes it strikes me that in evangelical circles we’re a bit too keen to focus on accurate expository preaching and too little on “emotion” or feelings. I was convicted recently hearing about Jonathan Edwards and his appeal to the affections. Our home church in Colchester was very much a gospel preaching church, but I do think sometimes people were suspicious of anything approaching an emotional response through e.g. music, and I just felt perhaps the joy of the gospel was a bit lost.

      I suppose that’s really tangential to the point McGrath was making, maybe I should write something else on that in the light of further reflection!

      Anyway, many thanks for your comment!


  4. Timothy Edwards avatar
    Timothy Edwards


    Talking about the place of emotion in the Christian life touches on a whole lot of other issues.

    It is almost as if one needed to get a thoroughly integrated theological education, that covered doctrine, history, biblical studies, spirituality, and more – know anywhere that does that? ๐Ÿ˜‰

    All I’ll say for now is that if one were to suggest that Reformational Christianity does not have a place for emotional engagement, all that does is show that one has not properly read the Reformers or their heirs (such as the seventeenth century puritans) – as you yourself indicate with your reference to Jonathan Edwards.

    There is more to say, but let’s have coffee sometime.

    1. HI Tim

      Oh, I’m definitely not saying that Reformational Christianity doesn’t have a place for emotional engagement! I’m just saying that in certain circles it seems to be underplayed, which from what you’ve been saying may even be a departure from actual reformational Christianity.

      Yes, coffee would be good sometime ๐Ÿ™‚


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