White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

An Interview With Alister McGrath

Published Monday, March 2, 1992 By

Professor of Theology, Wycliffe Hall, Oxford and member of the Oxford University Faculty of Theology. Dr. McGrath has been hailed as “one of the very best scholars and teachers of the Reformation” (London Times) with numerous books for both academic and lay audiences.

MR: Has the Reformation produced more than its fair share of cultural products?
Dr. Alister McGrath: It sure has. The Reformation was a period of enormous vitality and creativity, in which men and women sought to apply their faith to every area of culture. Liberated from the monastic outlook of the Middle Ages, they set out, confident in the resources the gospel and related doctrines had to offer, to transform not only individuals, but an entire culture.

MR: Can you offer some examples?
Dr. McGrath: A new and positive attitude to work developed. God has placed Christians in his world, and they could glorify him by their ordinary everyday labors. By doing things well, and doing them for God, Christians were enabled to make work into an act of praise. This new commitment to work led to those countries which embraced the Reformation—such as Switzerland, Germany and England—forging ahead industrially, on account of what has come to be known as “the Protestant work ethic.”

Second, a new attitude to public worship developed, with music being seen as a way in which—at one and the same time—God could be glorified and his people edified. Luther was an outstanding musician and blazed the trail to be followed by folk such as Charles Wesley. Music involved the whole congregation in the praise of God—using words and tunes they could identify with. This gave a new stimulus to hymn writing and a new awareness of how the music and words of hymns could aid Christian devotion, praise, and evangelism. That’s a major (and very welcome!) cultural shift. You could argue that popular music owes much of its origins to the reformers.

But then the Reformation also laid the foundations for the development of the natural sciences. Reformers such as Calvin stressed that the invisible God could be understood to some degree in the wonders of his creation. He encouraged the study of nature, as a means of appreciating more fully the wisdom and glory of God. No wonder so many of the greatest scientists were Christians! And these are just some examples of the Reformation’s deep and positive impact upon western culture!

MR: What are the underlying motifs which motivate such energetic activity in this world?
Dr. McGrath: Let’s look at just one: a sense of confidence in the gospel. As Christians, we ought to be in the world, converting it from within. The reformers knew that getting involved with the world was a risky business. It could change us, and make us lose our faith. But the reformers believed that believers could change the world, and help it to gain faith. The Reformation encourages us to be salt and light to the world—by getting involved! There were no monasteries for the reformers. Withdrawal from the world was an act of irresponsibility. Our place is in that world, as we try to convert it from within.

MR: How can we draw on these resources today?
Dr. McGrath: Let me just give one example. We’ve lost our sense that work is a way in which we glorify God. Too often, we see it just as means of keeping alive. Sunday is the day when we praise God; the rest of the time we just work! We retreat into our Christian subculture, without getting involved in the world outside. But the reformers ask us to see our work during the week as an act of praise and an act of witness. It is a means by which we can glorify God, by giving him our best. And people will notice the difference. They’ll ask what motivates us. Work is a means by which the gospel can be brought to the world. Now there’s a real opportunity to witness—especially to appreciative employers!

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