Monday, 21 September 2009

Evangelicalism in Modern Britain (1)

Some years ago I bought a copy of David Bebbington’s Evangelicalism in Modern Britain (pub Routledge 1989). Bebbington’s book can hardly be described as a page turner, however, it has become a major text in terms of understanding Evangelicalism in an historical context. In the Church of Scotland, and I’m sure other denominations, Evangelical is a slippery term which seems difficult to define and its origins are uncertain if not in dispute. Bebbington’s work is highly commended to anyone interested in understanding Evangelicalism.

I hope to write a series of posts on this important work as an offering towards understanding and communication between Evangelicals and non-Evangelicals especially in the Church of Scotland at this time.

Bebbington begins with an attempt to define Evangelicalism.
Evangelical apologists sometimes explained their distinctiveness by laying claim to particular emphases. … according to Henry Venn in 1835 Evangelical Clery differs from others, ‘not so much in their systematic statement of doctrines, as in the relative importance which they assign to the particular parts of the Christian System, and in the vital operation of Christian Doctrines upon the heart and conduct.’ And Bishop Ryle of Liverpool asserted that it was not the substance of certain doctrines but the prominent position assigned to only a few of them that marked out Evangelical Churchmen from others. … It [the Evangelical tradition] gave exclusive pride of place to a small number of leading principles. (page 2)

What Venn and Ryle are saying here is that Evangelicals do not hold different doctrines from other Christians, but that in their systematic exposition of the Christian faith they give prominence to a few of those, which are not so privileged in other systems of Christian doctrine. I’m sure there is a danger in elevating only a few doctrines amongst others, the obvious danger is of imbalance. There would need to be more said to identify the particular points of doctrine so elevated and a case made for their place in the Evangelical scheme.
I do like Venn’s comment about the vital operation of Christian Doctrines upon the heart and conduct. There is far too much that passes under the name of Christian doctrine or theology that would only move the heart to coldness and leave all matters of conduct to personal preference. For Evangelicals this will not do. If the heart is not affected by our Christian doctrine and our life is not conformed to the likeness of Christ then our doctrine is wrong and needs changed.

Bebbington describes four characteristics which he says emerge clearly from a study of Evangelical history:
conversionism – the belief that lives need to be changed.
activism – the expression of the gospel in effort.
biblicism – a particular regard for the Bible.
crucicentrism – a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

These are not elegant terms and should not be widely used. However, they do get to the heart of what is distinctive about Evangelicalism. Of interest, Bebbington can show that for eighteenth century Evangelicals the Bible was not normally put among the most important features of their religion, however, by the time of Bishop Ryle at the end of the nineteenth century the first principle of Evangelical religion is the absolute supremacy it assigns to Holy Scripture. (page 3) In particular the primacy of Scripture was directed against those who exalted the authority of either church or reason. And then in the twentieth century those attributing most importance to Scripture became known as conservatives.
This ‘change’ in the relative importance attached to Scripture is something Bebbington returns to, as we will in later posts.

There is what I find a sad note on page 4,
Instead of the joy of new discovery that pervades eighteenth-century lists of distinctives, there is a resolve to resist an incoming tide of error.
For many resisting error has become the main thing in Evangelical religion in the early twenty-first century. But this cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged. Yes, resisting error is important, the watchman must sound a warning, the sheep must be guarded from the wolves. But is this all Evangelicalism has to offer the church, and more importantly the non-Christian world? I hope not!
And yet, the joy of new discovery doesn't seem quite right. Perhaps what should be more evident in Evangelicalism is that joy in the Lord and in his wonderful gospel which brings to life a confidence and humility in trusting our Lord. We could do with more of this!

I think it will be good to post separately on each of these four distinctives before moving onto the rest of Bebbington’s book, so watch out for more on this theme.

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