Archives For Evangelicalism in Modern Britain

In this Pop! Tech talk, neuroscientist Dr. David Eagleman talks about the conventional poles set up in the scientific community regarding religion:

“I don’t pretend that we [the scientific community] have it all figured out. I have felt, sometimes, that perhaps we know too little to commit to a position of strict atheism. At the other end of the spectrum, we know way too much to commit to any particular religious story.” Continue Reading…

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.

First released in 1989, David Bebbington's Evangelicalism in Modern Britain has become one of the standard texts relating to the history of the evangelical movement. It has not reached its place of esteem without provoking some significant criticism (see, for example, Kenneth Stewart's 2005 article in Evangelical Quarterly). Chief among the grievances are Bebbington's quadrilateral of evangelicalism and his assertion that evangelicalism has no cogent history per se, earlier than the mid-eighteenth century. Heavily influenced by the spirit of its age, argues Bebbington, the evangelical movement was "an adaptation of the Protestant tradition through contact with the Enlightenment" (loc. 1395) adding that, "the conviction that the pattern of cause and effect, the scientist's natural assumption, underlies all phenomena was to pervade Evangelical thinking long into the nineteenth century" (loc. 1555). This wedding of an emphasis on the innovations of science, specifically inductive reasoning and the empirical method, with the theology of the day led to evangelicalism's most novel development, the doctrine of assurance.

Prior to this period, the consensus among dominant theologies was that a believer could not "know" for certainty the condition of her salvation in the same way that one might "know" that if it was raining out side he would get wet. It was possible, however, to get a general sense of one's state by observing the works of his life. A believer growing in sanctification, it was held, would show that in the way she lived her life. The doctrine of assurance, however, claimed that such certainty was possible because it could be evidenced not only by outward works, but by an inward "sense." In this way, the doctrine of assurance was seeking to align itself with other sense-derived Enlightenment movements. Here, however, proponents like John Wesley were adding a sixth, innate "moral sense" to the five sense drawn upon by scientists (see locs. 1315-1316).

The doctrine of assurance is important because two of Bebbington's four characteristics of evangelicalism flourished under it. Conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed through the act of turning in repentance from sin to faith in Christ, and Activism, the strong emphasis on leading other people to instances of conversion, are both rooted in the firm principle that, "once a person has received salvation as a gift of God, he may be assured, according to Evangelicals, that he possess it" (loc. 259) and, hence, "Evangelicals were animated in their outreach by the expectation that salvation was widely available" (loc. 1567).

What I find particularly interesting to me personally and professionally is Bebbington's use of "Crucicentrism" to describe Evangelicalism's focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross. The focus of Christ crucified as the fulcrum for Evangelical theology is so strong that Bebbington feels compelled to assert that any to make any other theme more dominant than the cross is to "take a step away from Evangelicalism" (loc. 473). I've recently been becoming more and more aware of the effects of Evangelicalism's focus on propitiatory atonement. It often leads to a denigration of the resurrection, that singular event through which God both accomplished and promised the restoration of all Creation to an eternally sinless state.

In terms of discipleship, an exclusive focus on the atonement of the cross often leads to a kind of survivor's guilt. We lament, along with Paul, in the sin we still commit even as we understand the sacrifice endured that we might not remain in our sin. Our discipleship often lacks hope and instead turns into at attempt to atone for the atonement. We dress this up in flowery language and say that our good works are motivated out of "gratitude for what Christ has done on the cross," but often that gratitude is intellectual assent to the understanding that we ought to be thankful.

I am beginning to explore what discipleship rooted in a theology of hope based on the resurrection might look like. Does this, as Bebbington asserts, put me outside of Evangelicalism? I don't know. Perhaps. If it does, where does that leave me?