Evangelicalism and the Spirit of the Age

November 10, 2010 — 10 Comments

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 roots.

Anderson Campbell

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  • Russ Pierson

    Brilliant, incisive post, Eddie. I think your summaries of both the “dark side” (“precocious adolescents”) and the “silver lining” (her “uncanny ability”) are spot on. I had to laugh at myself when I felt an inner reaction when you characterized Evangelicalism as a “she.” As a man who thinks of himself as a Christian feminist, I was surprised by my reaction. I realized that my inner image of Evangelicalism is that of a middle-aged televangelist with slicked back hair and a bit of a paunch.I bet I’m not alone, and that makes me wonder–do you think the term “Evangelical” can survive as a description of the primary stream of this great tradition? It has become so closely associated with “Fundamentalist” in the common vernacular that I seriously doubt it.

  • Anderson Campbell

    I share your doubts. In America, at least, “evangelical” has become so closely associated with fundamentalism that it has effectively lost all other depth and breadth of meaning. Within Evangelicalism it is still possible to parse “fundamentalist” away from “evangelical” but for the mission-minded such an internal distinction is rather useless.I’m not sure what word might replace “evangelical” in the lexicon. “Evangelicalist?” Perhaps there is none. Instead it may be that referring to oneself as evangelical will require an explanation and definition of what that means. There is a move in some evangelical circles to try and “reclaim” (notice the ressentiment inhered with that verbage!) the moniker from its fundamentalist association, but such a movement remains rather small and rather internal (with the exception of an ABC spot on Young Evangelicals that made the rounds earlier this year. It seems that many of the logical linguistic options are already taken. “Neo-Evangelicalism” references an early separation from the emergence of Fundamentalism – though since it died out it is a candidate for resurrection – and “Post-Evangelicalism” has been used in recent years to describe the Brian McLearn-esque reaction to the current usage of “Evangelical” (see Scot McKnight’s

  • Anderson Campbell

    hmmm… don’t know why that didn’t post all of the comment.I was saying, see Scot McKnight’s CT article .Perhaps we could explore “Meta-Evangelical?”

  • Bill Westfall

    Eddie, I love reading your book review posts. You are superb at distilling down the heart of the main issues and reflecting on those themes thoughtfully, and providing challenges for the church today.In your reference to the Emergent movement, do you have any thoughts on how we can navigate our way forward? I have close friends on both sides, that all seem to have solid theological foundations for their differing viewpoints. How can we respond to this potential divisive “movement” in an constructive way? Any practical tips?

  • Anderson Campbell

    For starters, I think that those who identify themselves as emergent need to also decide whether that means they are emerging within or from Evangelicalism. There is room for both in the emergent camp, which can lead to some confusion. For those who are emergent and have an Evangelical narrative, there exists an opportunity to stand in line with previous cadres of Evangelicals who acted to mold and shape Evangelicalism as the tides of the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and Modernity rolled up on the cultural shore. To do so would mean a willingness to take on the baggage that the word “evangelical” has in current circles and, through Faithful Presence, reappropriate its meaning. To represent the emergent movement as being something wholly other that Evangelicalism would be to take more of a Free Church or Congregationalist approach which, ironically, is also a very Evangelical response.Another way might be to look at coming under the authority of the Eastern Orthodox churches. Instead of branching off again, “reform” back into an earlier ecclesial lineage. This move, I think, takes a lot more courage and sacrifice than most of the emergent folks I know can reasonably stomach. While they love the forms of the Orthodox, in their heart of hearts they are still very much carrying the legacy of the Protestant Reformation. The greatest danger I see in the emerging movement is that it continues the pattern of split and schism which has become common among Evangelicalism, further alienating itself from any historical anchor and potentially falling prey to the heresy of theological innovation. (Man, that’s a charged statement that I probably can’t back up!)

  • Bill Westfall

    Hey, I think you hit on something I hadn’t considered before when you speak of coming under the authority of the Eastern Orthodox church. Is a large part of the issue, maybe even the main issues, with all schisms, an unwillingness to come under authority? Perhaps, the best way forward is the path of humility?

  • Chris Marshall

    As one who has been a part of whatever “emerging church” has been the past decade or so, I can’t align myself with “emergent”. It appears to me to be more like what you mentioned above of emerging past evangelicalism or anything orthodox to as you say, “theological innovation”. Like Wesley, I’m not interested in dissention. Reforming? Emerging? sure. But not a path of pride. Bill, I like your way of humility, in light of history, how could we not be?

  • Bill Westfall

    Why is it that it always comes down to humility? OK, OK…so I HAVE considered this as a solution before…I just keep struggling with it.

  • Chris Marshall

    It’s that darn Sermon on the Mount, Bill, it keeps getting in the way.

  • Bill Westfall

    Huh. Yes…that’s it. The words of Jesus. Profound. Jesus made it sound so easy: “Just do this, and things will be ‘difficult’ (Jesus’ common word for ‘really great’).” What part are we missing when things aren’t “really great?” Either, we have a poor understanding of “difficult,” or we simply are not doing it.