One of the recurring themes in Bebbington’s book Evangelicalism in Modern Britain is that throughout its existence, Evangelicalism has been greatly shaped major philosophical, political, and cultural movements. At different points, Bebbington refers to these as, “the temper of the age,” “learning of the age,” “historical awareness of the age,” “taste of the age,” “thought of the age,” “dominant ideas of the age,” and “sensibility of the age.” Of the nearly two dozen such references, nearly one-third of them appear as the phrase, “the spirit of the age.” Some of Bebbington’s most assertive statements in the book (and most controversial) include this turn of phrase. For example:
Evangelicals were integrating their faith with the rising philosophy of the later Enlightenment. They were in harmony with the spirit of the age (loc. 1560).
The leaders of Evangelical opinion were swayed by the fashionable Romantic assumptions of their day. The gospel was being remoulded by the spirit of the age (loc. 2653).
The holiness movement ushered in a new phase in Evangelical history. . . . The holiness teaching that caught on in these years, though having many and various antecedents, was primarily an expression of the spirit of the age. It was a Romantic impulse, harmonising with the premillennialism and faith mission principle that had similar origins (loc. 4468).
Taken individually these statements, and others like them, reflect the author’s deep scholarship and ability to tie the historicity of the Evangelical movement in with broader historical shifts. Yet seen together they become a thread of doubt about Evangelicalism’s claim that their version of Christianity, along with the theology and doctrines associated with it, has unbroken, Apostolic-era roots. Bebbington says as much when he writes,
Nothing could be further from the truth than the common image of Evangelicalism being the same. Yet Evangelicals themselves have often fostered the image. They have claimed that their brand of Christianity, the form once delivered to the saints, has possessed an essentially changeless content so long as it has remained loyal to its source. . . . the movement did not manage a total escape to a world of eternal truths. It was bound up in the flux of events (locs. 6667 and 6679).
In opposition to the claims of most Evangelicals – that the movement they associate with can be traced back to the Apostles in an unbroken, if sometimes obscured, fashion and that it has functioned largely as a light to the surrounding world, instead of being changed by the world – Bebbington asserts that Evangelicalism is, relatively speaking, a new and evolving player in the broad history of Christian movements. This undercuts Fundamentalist claims to a priori
doctrinal authority, especially in matters related to the nature and interpretation of the Bible. It also challenges their perception of their seat at the table, as it were. Instead of being seen as wizened stalwarts of the faith, Evangelicals might now be seen as precocious adolescents inventing history in a misguided attempt to gain authority and credibility on the world Christian stage.
What can be missed in all of this, unfortunately, is the upside of Evangelicalism’s history. She has an uncanny ability to ferret out, from an early stage, the next wave of dominant philosophical and high cultural shifts. Rising leaders in her ranks swell to the front with new ideas of how to adapt Conversionism, Biblicism, Actvism, and Crucicentrism in light of these shifts. Yet internally this becomes messy. What often results is schism and separation. New denominations form because the current ones set their faces against the new tides. Because they haven’t embraced their history of adaptation and interpretation, each generation of Evangelicals sees the rising generation and their “new” ideas as a threat to “historical” Christianity. One need only look to the virulent debates surrounding the Emerging Church and Evangelicalism to see a contemporary example.
However, if Bebbington’s history is accurate (and with nearly 400 citations in every chapter of his book, I hope that it is) Evangelicals have always
acted this way. Methodism split from the Church of England as a result of Enlightenment influence. Romanticism’s influence on premillenialism led to the founding of the Catholic Apostolic Church and the Brethren. Holiness teaching birthed the Salvation Army and the Pentecostals. Modernism gave rise to charismatic renewal. On it goes.
In the beginning of the twenty-first century, we are in the midst of another philosophical, cultural, and technological shift. If recent history is any indication, Evangelicalism will continue to be rife with conflict and schism throughout the shift. Yet, it doesn’t have to be so. Bebbington’s thorough history and analysis of Evangelicalism offers its adherents the opportunity to be proactive about the next chapter. By embracing the novelties of Evangelicalism’s history, especially her proclivity to lead into new eras with Kingdom imagination, Evangelical Christians might be able to separate themselves from the derisive fanaticism of Fundamentalism (which has become synonymous with the word “Evangelical”) and return to her actual