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Reinventing evangelicalism

February 2008 | by Iain Murray

Reinventing evangelicalism

Iain Murray reviews Rob Warner’s recent book Reinventing English Evangelicalism

A complaint levelled against this reviewer’s Evangelicalism divided (2000) was its incompleteness as a history of English evangelicalism in the second half of the twentieth century. This was fair comment because the book was not meant to be such a history. However, Rob Warner’s new book helps to fill the gap and provides a fuller understanding of what was happening between 1966 and 2001.

A main theme in the book is that while evangelicalism was a unity until 1966, the split in that year between Martyn Lloyd-Jones and John Stott marked a fracture from which there has been no recovery.

However, argues the author, the resulting polarisation is not now between the doctrinally minded (described as Bible and cross-centred — ‘biblicist-crucicentric’) and the pro-ecumenical. Rather, it is between the doctrinally minded and the entrepreneurial activists (including charismatics) who concentrate on conversions and seek to change society (‘conversionist-activists’).

Lack of impact

Dr Warner believes that when Lloyd-Jones and Stott — both Bible and cross-centred — went different ways in 1966, it left a vacuum which was filled by a new type of Evangelical — no longer ‘on the right’ but an activist with a ‘progressive’ theology.

Much of the book is devoted to the work of this group as seen in the Evangelical Alliance (resurgent under Clive Calver), in Spring Harvest and in the Alpha movement. The remarkable numerical success of these agencies is documented, along with some sharp critical assessments.

Notwithstanding the popularity of the activists, the author notes their lack of impact on the national situation, and their weakness in witness on the individual level.

Repeated expectations of revival were raised only to prove ‘a false dawn’. In assessing the reasons for this, Warner provides disturbing statistics on the decline of reading among Evangelicals — for instance, a 61% decrease in sales of evangelical monthlies in 20 years. He questions whether the professed commitment to Scripture among the activists is matched by daily reading and prayer as formerly practised by Evangelicals: ‘The demise of [the daily ‘quiet time’] contributes to … growing biblical illiteracy among Evangelicals. The distinctive spirituality of the mid-twentieth century conservative Evangelicals is being abandoned, presumably as no longer helpful’ (p.97).

By contrast, the author notes a reliance on ‘methods’ as a means to achieving success.

No definite faith?

What, then, does the author have to say about the ‘doctrinally minded’? Very little — he seems to think they have faded from positions of influence. Among the Anglicans, he asserts, the biblicism of a Stott or Packer has won few disciples (Oak Hill and Proclamation Trust do not get a mention) — the leadership has fallen to a different breed.

But if Anglican Evangelicals on ‘the right’ are now more isolated, it is even more so with the followers of the Lloyd-Jones position. Committed to ‘obdurate exclusivity’, claims the author, Lloyd-Jones has left behind him only ‘exclusivist separatists’ and fundamentalist Calvinists (p.215).

These words are sufficient to show that Warner sees no solution in a return to a former evangelical paradigm, and certainly not in the ‘hegemony of Calvinistic conservatism’ that (he says) marked evangelicalism in the mid-twentieth century (p.39).

His underlying thesis seems to be that there remains no definite ‘faith once delivered to the saints’ — no clear biblical teaching by which preachers can be judged faithful or heretical.

He criticises Packer for thinking that evangelical belief is timeless and unchanging, and supports David Bebbington’s thesis ‘that evangelicalism originated as an enlightenment construct’. He thinks its beliefs are bound to continue to evolve according to the cultural setting and similar factors (pp. 13-14, 29, 199, 215).

A 1999 doctrinal statement that would have gone unquestioned by a former generation of Evangelicals is described as ‘theology for the ghetto’. It is condemned for presenting justification and penal substitution as ‘a timeless and culture-free articulation of gospel truth’ (p.205).

For his part, Dr Warner supports what he calls ‘generous orthodoxy’ and sees no need to uphold the inerrancy of Scripture or penal substitution.

What is evangelicalism?

If this were a longer review there are several questions I would want to ask — including ‘What is evangelicalism?’ But I hope I have said enough to indicate that this is a work that justifies serious attention. Two points, however, I cannot leave without comment.

In some illuminating pages, Warner addresses the ‘dramatic rupture’ in which ‘contemporary worship’ displaced what had long been traditional (pp. 70-73, 82-85), Spring Harvest being ‘the market leader’ that brought ‘charismatic renewal onto the agenda of many local churches’.

Here was worship ‘reflecting contemporary pop culture far more closely than the traditional church culture’ and aimed at intoxicating believers ‘to sing themselves into an alternate reality’.

The new songs were not simply the old hymns differently presented. Rather, the emphasis was on emotion — ‘Ecstatic experience is celebrated as the source of dependable assurance’.

When a reliable history of twentieth century evangelicalism comes to be written, I believe a later generation of Christians will wonder how such a sweeping transformation of praise (with song-leaders, bands etc.) was ever allowed to prevail.

Is the Bible still God’s Word?

My last comment is to point out that this book is part of the series ‘Studies in evangelical history and thought’ (Editors: David Bebbington, John Briggs, Timothy Larsen, Mark Noll and Ian Randall). Most books in this series, including Warner’s, seem to have originated as doctoral theses in British universities.

The universities provide time and opportunity for advanced study which few could otherwise undertake. This has its benefits but it also means that, in a number of areas, we are increasingly dependent on material emerging from the contemporary academic world. Should that disturb us when, as in this series, the authors profess to be Evangelicals? I think it should — because the universities universally impose the requirement that the Bible should not be treated as the Word of God but merely as a historical document. The effect of this requirement is to secularise church history and theology and to treat Christianity as just another human discipline.

So, for a student to express value judgements based on Scripture is not acceptable. It is permissible to say that Princeton theology represents the ‘rationalism’ born of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment; or that evangelicalism itself is ‘a construct’ of that same period. What is not permitted under this academic regime is to assert biblical authority for the theological beliefs under examination.

Evangelicals and the universities

Rob Warner’s book reminds us that this issue needs to be brought into the open. The relation of evangelical seminaries and Bible colleges to university theological teaching raises complex issues.

Without question, a high standard of scholarship and a well-trained ministry are major needs today. Therefore, given the current weakness of the church in the UK — and that state financial aid is only available to accredited degree-course students — some association with the universities may seem highly desirable.

But the fact remains that the New Testament insists that spiritual wisdom and the wisdom of the world are opposed. And church history tells us that (to quote an old Methodist) ‘the acceptance of the friendship of the world by the church has done more to secularise her, and to rob her of her power to save and bless, than the bitterest persecution could ever have done’.

It is my belief that the policy of co-operation with the universities in theological education, presently advocated by British Evangelicals, arises from a failure to address the main problem — a problem well put by James Henley Thornwell long ago:

‘Our whole system of operations gives an undue influence to money. Where money is the great want, numbers must be sought; and where an ambition for numbers prevails, doctrinal purity must be sacrificed. The root of the evil is the secular spirit of our ecclesiastical institutions. What we want is a spiritual body; a church whose power lies in the truth, and the presence of the Holy Ghost’ (B. M. Palmer, Life and Letters of J. H. Thornwell, p.291).

Reinventing English Evangelicalism 1966-2001 by Rob Warner is published by Paternoster (2007) at £19.95 (ISBN:1-84227-392-2).
This article is in full on the Banner of Truth web site www.banneroftruth.org