David Bebbington’s Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (Routledge, 1989) was a compelling account of the history of the evangelical movement in the modern era. In it he traces the development of evangelical Christianity and marks out what has been for some time a widely accepted version of its distinguishing marks: conversionism, activism, biblicism, crucicentrism.
Yet, Bebbington’s quadrilateral rule has not been without its detractors, and his contention that evangelical Christianity arose in the eighteenth century era of Whitefield and Wesley has been questioned by a growing number of historians – that it was not so novel as Bebbington asserts. In this book, The Advent of Evangelicalism, Bebbington’s definition receives close analysis and critical engagement from various church historians and theologians such as Timothy George, Paul Helm, and Timothy Larson (to name only a few, this is a thick collection. Many thanks to B&H for the review Copy).
Underlying all the essays here – including Bebbington’s own response to them – is a fundamental (and I think relevant) question: “to what extent does evangelicalism of modern/postmodern times represent continuity and discontinuity with the preceding Christian story” (p. 14). The contributions all press Bebbington’s thesis that evangelicalism began as a novel movement in the Whitefield and Wesley era, and in doing so raise issues orbiting that central question.
For those interested in evangelicalism’s future and all the attending questions that get wrapped up with evangelical identity today this is a valuable collection to consider. Issues are raised concerning the relationship between evangelicalism and the Enlightenment, those formative influences pointed out by Bebbington such as Wesley and Whitefield are laid against those of Luther, Calvin, Cranmer, and Jonathan Edwards, and (very relevantly) the “conversionism” of Bebbington’s definition is put in conversation with the Protestant doctrines of scripture and assurance.
Evangelicals and Theology
All this is well and good (and valuable), but let me highlight one of Bebbington’s insights from his response essay related to evangelicals and theology. This is close to my heart as a teacher of Christian theology in a Christian liberal arts University. The faith of many of my students was formed in contexts hostile, or at least ambivalent, to theology, and I find myself continually curious about that phenomenon. Consider the following which Bebbington links the evangelical love for the Bible with an “instrumentalist” view of theology:
Evangelicals [...] champion[ed] doctrines that related directly to salvation, but the beliefs were appreciated chiefly as necessary instruments for converting people to Christ: ‘They cared for their truth’…’as a general cares for his guns and ammunition, or as a mechanic cares for his tools; not as an artist of genius cares for his canvas’ (p. 430).
If you grew up in an evangelical Christian environment does this describe your experience?
In my opinion, until evangelical theologians (no matter where they fall on the spectrum from custodial to progressive) can articulate a compelling view of Christian doctrine that remains both transparent to Scripture and rooted in the lived existences and practices of the Church, then our children will take their places in tomorrow’s church with a similarly anemic view of Christian theology. From what I see today there are some exciting voices which should be heard, John Webster, Kevin Vanhoozer, and Telford Work being only a few that come readily to mind.
Any others we should be watching?