History is complicated because it records and interprets multifaceted humanity at work. Our capacity to simultaneously recognise and ignore the past is a reason our future is unpredictable; we do not follow logical lines of growth, instead we respond to set events at certain times without reference to the necessary causes creating the contexts in which we decide and act. This makes our history chaotic rather than evolutionary. This being the case, so far as I see it, historical research provides a useful interpretive lens through which to observe and interpret the past in such a way that it dampens the desire the tread heavily on the graves of those who have gone before us. So, coming to Bebbington’s Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, I was interested to see that he has taken a broad approach to survey the broader landscape of evangelical development, influence, schism and trajectory over 250 years. Instead of weighing the relative merits of particular movements within evangelicalism, Bebbington’s book is much more useful as it reflects on the enlightenment environment in which evangelicalism flourished; an environment that altered the entire worldview of the Christianised west.
Bebbington notes that it is too easy to simply unpack the four hallmarks of evangelical faith (conversionism, activism, biblicism and cruci-centrism). More important is why the hallmarks came in to being and how they were developed over time. Not to do so ignores the more important kaleidoscope of cultural politics, scientific endeavour, philosophy and early globalisation that shaped the world. Until now, most studies of evangelicalism focus on the particulars of a specific personality or form of evangelicalism in isolation from the broad cradle of Christian life and belief, which is no smaller than the entire east/west geopolitical history.
Personally, I was taken by Bebbington’s observation that despite evangelical opposition to enlightenment thinking, it’s leaders would use such thinking to justify their own positions.
The Evangelical movement, however, was permeated by Enlightenment influences. Its leaders would casually refer to the opinion of Locke as settling an issue or to his Essay as providing the best account of the human mind.
This theme becomes more obvious as the book progresses. Despite the desire to keep reverent devotion separate from rational inquiry, there was an unsettling mixing of the two that required learned academics to make sense of the situation. According to Bebbington, Joseph Angus, Principal of Regent’s Park Baptist College, taught in the 1860s that theology is an inductive science…
“with the texts of scripture as its facts and the rules of Francis Bacon as its method. Progress is possible, not through the appearance of new truth, but through better understanding of the old”.
Though the book doesn’t mention it, the systematic rules that Francis Bacon created for proper scientific inquiry had more effect on theology and biblical study than is often credited. The systematic theologies of Karl Barth and more recently, Louis Berkhof, Millard J. Erickson and Wayne Grudem are examples of the influence of Francis Bacon on the nature of Christian inquiry. But more importantly, despite being both celebrated and repudiated, there is no denying that such works were, and are, the result of an enlightenment thinking that is rarely acknowledged in evangelicalism – such was the need to keep reverent devotion and rational areligious inquiry separate. But why?
I think Bebbington makes it clear that religious politics, rational observation, social identity, the need for hope and the attendant fear of change, tend to be the reasons behind the complex theological development and fragmentation of evangelicalism over the last two centuries. Even the 20th centuries rise of Pentecostalism and it’s indifferent, yet symbiotic connection with evangelicalism, is an example of how socio-economic and racial contexts become the soil in which God uniquely works. For me, it is too easy to simply study the divisions between conformist and non-conformist, Reformed, Puritan, Fundamentalist, Calvinist, Arminian, Pentecostal and so on. What I think Bebbington has done well, is to describe all these evangelical ‘identity groups’ as children of their time and context.
Throughout the book, revival is mentioned as a key component of evangelical fervour, but Bebbington does not describe in any depth what revival was really about – revival to what? And in fairness that was not the intention of the book. However, the idea of revival belies a certain cultural trend prevalent at the time. Certainly, there was an emphasis on restored piety, reverence and spiritual experience, but much of the preaching aimed at moral transformation as a sign and seal of salvation in the same way that glossolalia was a sacramental sign to Pentecostals. Revival was a return to something that had been lost through enculturated Christianity. And this leads me to ask the question, ‘what am I left with after reading the book?’
As I wrote at the beginning, history is complex because it records and interprets multifaceted humanity at work. Bebbington makes no assessment of evangelicalism in the present, nor does he predict it future. Be that as it may, his recording of evangelical history and development does show that many things have not changed, while some have. Evangelicals still struggle with rationalism in biblical studies. They still lament the losses of the church to cultural and social trends. And they likewise hope to restore past glories into perceived present day social and spiritual disaster – and for perfectly good reason; as Bebbington rightly declares, “Moulded and remoulded by its environment, Evangelical religion has been a vital force in modern Britain.” Yet, the differences are becoming more apparent. I live in one of the most secular countries on earth, which means evangelical Christianity finds itself in uncharted territory. When we use the word revival, it is somewhat meaningless because there is no memory of a Christian cultural era to revive to. Likewise, sin is not universally recognised as a fault that needs redemptive help from the divine. Thus evangelical thinking must draw from its enlightenment lessons in order to communicate with a new world with little Christian memory. As Cox put it, it will require an extraordinary experience of God without the fetters of dogma from a previous age. A new voice is needed – the voice of the Spirit crying in a new wilderness.
 Michael Shermer, “The Crooked Timber of History: History is Complex and Often Chaotic. Can We Use This to Better Understand the Past?,” Complexity: Essays and Commentaries 2, no. 6 (1997).
 D.W. Bebbington. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History From the 1730s to the 1980s. (Routledge, 2005), Kindle Edition
 Ibid. 50ff
 Ibid. 2ff
 J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, (IVP Academic, 2003). 1-6
 Bebbington, “Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History From the 1730s to the 1980s”. 56
 Ibid. 144
 Harvey Cox, Fire From Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-First Century, 1st Paperback Edition ed. (Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1995). 3-18
 Bebbington, “Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History From the 1730s to the 1980s”. 63f
 Ibid. 274
 Cox, Fire From Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-First Century. 186
Bebbington, D.W. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History From the 1730s to the 1980s. Routledge, 2005. Kindle Edition
Cox, Harvey. Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-First Century. 1st Paperback Edition ed. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1995.
Moreland, J. P., and William Lane Craig. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. unknown ed. IVP Academic, 2003.
Shermer, Michael. “The Crooked Timber of History: History is Complex and Often Chaotic. Can We Use This to Better Understand the Past?” Complexity: Essays and Commentaries 2, no. 6 (1997): 23–29.