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What is evangelicalism?

August 2009 | by Robert Strivens

What is evangelicalism?

 

Robert Strivens, principal of London Theological Seminary, reviews a book that takes issue with the current historical consensus on evangelicalism.

 

Most historians have been clear about this question, in their own minds at least, for the last 20 years. They define evangelicalism as a movement that has four distinctive features – a conviction that lives need to be changed by conversion; a parallel conviction that the gospel requires Christians to be actively living by and testifying to that gospel; a high view of Scripture; and a central emphasis upon the atoning work of Christ on the cross.

     These four features are often expressed in four rather ugly words: ‘conversionism’, ‘activism’, ‘biblicism’, and ‘crucicentrism’. Many historians, and scholars working in related fields, now take for granted that this is the best way of understanding and defining what evangelicalism is.

     This particular approach was first posited by David Bebbington, Professor of History at the University of Stirling, in his influential book, Evangelicalism in modern Britain: A history from the 1730s to the 1980s, published in 1989.

     Dr Bebbington’s thesis not only describes these as the main features of evangelicalism, but also argues that they mark evangelicalism as a new movement. Evangelicalism proper, according to Bebbington, began in Christian history at the time of the eighteenth-century revival under Whitefield and Wesley and those associated with them.

 

Enlightenment thought

    

Moreover, tied to this theory – particularly its ‘activism’ aspect – was the idea that under the influence of Enlightenment thought, the assurance of salvation given in the eighteenth-century revival had been something relatively easy to obtain.

     This contrasted with the seventeenth century, when assurance was regarded as something attained only by a few and that after much inward struggle. As assurance came more easily during the eighteenth century, Bebbington argued, so Christians became more confident and more active in the propagation of the faith. They dared to engage in evangelistic and missionary enterprises that played little part in the life and thinking of seventeenth-century Puritans.

     This analysis raises issues of great importance. In the first instance, if the thesis is correct, the movement to which evangelicals now belong must be characterised as something new, a movement which arose barely 300 years ago on the back of Enlightenment thought.

     Secondly, a marked dividing line thereby separates today’s Reformed evangelical Christianity from the Christianity of the Reformers and Puritans. And, thirdly, as Garry Williams argues in this book, out the Arminianism of Wesley and the Calvinism of Whitefield would have an equal claim to be integral and foundational to the new movement.

     Bebbington’s thesis has not been without its critics. Over the twenty years, some have contested it. They have pointed out that there is far more continuity between the views of sixteenth-century Reformers and seventeenth-century Puritans on the one hand, and eighteenth-century evangelicals on the other, than Bebbington appears to allow.

 

Continuity

 

Reformers and Puritans also emphasised conversion, the Bible and the cross of Christ, and were active in propagating their convictions. And it is not as obvious as Bebbington maintains that an understanding of assurance, and the ease or difficulty with which assurance was attained, differed markedly between the centuries.

     Arguments responding to and taking issue with the Bebbington thesis, have now been helpfully brought together in a new book, edited by Michael Haykin and Kenneth Stewart. The book also includes a response to these arguments by David Bebbington himself.

     The range of topics covered and the historical depth and detail evidenced is impressive. Eighteen contributors address the issues from different geographical, temporal, denominational and doctrinal perspectives. David Bebbington’s response is, as always, a model of reason, grace and historical analysis. He agrees that some modification of his original thesis is necessary, but maintains its central aspects remain valid.

     Space does not permit a full examination of the contents of The emergence of evangelicalism here. I have selected just two contributions of particular significance. Readers who want to know more should buy the book for themselves – it is essential reading for anyone interested in these important issues.

     Michael Haykin explores the relationship between the Enlightenment and evangelicalism. He accepts that Enlightenment attitudes did have an influence on evangelicalism. The Enlightenment’s emphasis on experience, its ethos of progress and optimism for the future, its pragmatism and wide social embrace, can all be seen in different aspects of the evangelical revivals of the eighteenth century.

     The revivalists’ field preaching, their emphasis on plainness and conciseness in preaching, their emphasis on philanthropy and humanitarianism, including the abolition of the slave trade, are all examples where Enlightenment thinking influenced the evangelical revival.

    

Revelation

 

Haykin says, however, that there are vital areas where the evangelicals opposed Enlightenment ideas. The evangelical view of Scripture as God’s revelation to man and the ultimate foundation of true spiritual knowledge is radically opposed to the Enlightenment emphasis upon human reason as the touchstone of what can be known.

     The optimistic view of human nature, fostered by the Enlightenment, was the complete opposite of the doctrine of the fallenness of man and hopelessness of his condition, preached by evangelicals. Furthermore, Haykin questions the view that seventeenth-century Puritans had little interest in mission. He gives contrary examples, ranging from Joseph Alleine’s desire to go to China to preach the gospel, to John Bunyan’s concern to engage in ‘awakening and converting Work’ in ‘the darkest places in the Countrey’ (sic).

     Haykin concludes by arguing that the real explanation for the eighteenth-century revival was exactly what the participants in that revival believed it to be – an outpouring of the Spirit of God.

     John Coffey disputes Bebbington’s ‘strong discontinuity’ thesis. While warning against a simplistic, homogenised view of Puritanism, he argues that activism can also be demonstrated in the Puritans of the seventeenth-century.

     Puritans were extremely active in promoting the gospel through writing, catechising, preaching and counselling. An emphasis on subjective experience, optimism and desire for unity amongst Christians, all of which Bebbington attributes to Enlightenment influences, were evident in seventeenth-century Puritanism. Thus Whitefield’s evangelicalism was ‘deeply rooted in the Reformation’.

    

Reformation roots

 

But, Coffey argues, in fairness to Bebbington it needs to be recognised there were new features in eighteenth-century evangelicalism, particularly in the evangelicals’ language of ‘revival’ (they desired, experienced, and looked forward to more of it) and the use by some of them of innovative methods to promote the old religion.

     As this book shows, Christians are, inevitably, influenced by the time, language and culture in which they live. It would be surprising if eighteenth-century evangelicals were not different in some ways from their forebears. Nor were evangelicals entirely immune from the Enlightenment.

     But the discontinuity must not be overdone. As The emergence of evangelicalism amply demonstrates, in the four areas identified by Bebbington there was very considerable continuity between the seventeenth-century Puritan and the eighteenth-century evangelical and the roots of both movements lay deep in the Reformation itself.

     Moreover, all such movements of God, though undoubtedly affected and influenced by their cultural setting, are fundamentally rooted in and shaped by Scripture.

Robert Strivens

 

The emergence of evangelicalism: exploring historical continuities is edited by Michael A. G. Haykin and Kenneth J. Stewart, and published by IVP/Apollos (432 pages, £19.99; ISBN: 978-1-84474-254-7).

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Historical