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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Enlightened Evangelicalism

Written by: on January 17, 2019

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.[1] 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,[2] 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.[3]

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.[4] Not to do so ignores the more important kaleidoscope of cultural politics, scientific endeavour, philosophy and early globalisation that shaped the world.[5]  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.[6]

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”.[7]

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.[8] 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.[9] 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.”[10] 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.[11] A new voice is needed – the voice of the Spirit crying in a new wilderness.

Notes

[1] 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).

[2] D.W. Bebbington. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History From the 1730s to the 1980s. (Routledge, 2005), Kindle Edition

[3] Ibid. 50ff

[4] Ibid. 2ff

[5] J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, (IVP Academic, 2003). 1-6

[6] Bebbington, “Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History From the 1730s to the 1980s”. 56

[7] Ibid. 144

[8] 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

[9] Bebbington, “Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History From the 1730s to the 1980s”. 63f

[10] Ibid. 274

[11] Cox, Fire From Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-First Century. 186

 

Bibliography

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.

 

About the Author

Digby Wilkinson

I am currently the Vicar of the Tawa Anglican Church in Wellington, New Zealand. I have only been in this role since February 2018. Prior to this appointment, I was the Dean of the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul, which made me the senior priest of the diocese working alongside the Bishop. I guess from an American perspective this makes me look decidedly Episcopalian, however my ministry background and training was among the Baptists. Consequently, I have been serving as pastor/priest for nearly thirty years. My wife Jane also trained for ministry, and has spent the last decade spiritually directing and supervising church leaders from different denominations. We have three grown children.

9 responses to “Enlightened Evangelicalism”

  1. Andrea Lathrop says:

    Digby – I love this: ‘Thus evangelical thinking must draw from its enlightenment lessons in order to communicate with a new world with little Christian memory.’ Your questions about revival are intriguing, especially your point about not having a memory of what we are trying to get back to…it makes me think about my ‘revival’ memories as a late teen and whether I see those times as something we should get back to. I wonder. 🙂

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      I am pretty sure we cannot repeat the past. And why would we want to? There is no life in what has been lived – it’s already been lived. Likewise, there is no life in the future unless we live that life in the present. Too ugh leadership is about tomorrow bolstered by telling stories from the past. Yet two Millenia of mystics have been reminding us that we can only see, know and experience God in the Now. It’s very difficult though. We expend vast energy on attending to yesterday’s demons and tomorrows concerns, it’s hard to find the energy to be present. I have a suspicion that evangelicals and modernity’s industrialisation both harnessed to power of progress for progress’s sake. The outcome was a hope to be a human utopia of scientific and industrial growth. Religion hopped on the same bus – big number constant growth, driving toward to tomorow with the demand for lives saved. I’m not sure it’s what postmodern, disaffected people are looking – quite honestly, I’m not. And in part, that’s why the environmental movement is picking up it’s pace. The world of ordinary people is looking for a salvation that enables them to see God each day, but they don’t know how. Better, bigger, faster and harder, are not resounding words of peace.

  2. Mario Hood says:

    Great post Digby! I enjoyed reading your viewpoint of capturing the past as we tend to forget we are reading about real people, not just real facts (or at least what is presented to us). Last night the Mrs. and I went to see a movie and one of the previews was of a 100-year war documentary, that they now have added back in the color and sound to the original black and white movie. We were both shocked at how it brought the people “back to life” for us. Point being, when we remove the humanity from the context we really have no context. As you have rightly pointed out, in your context there is no context for revival. Many times in America we here preachers calling for revival aka get back to the old days but we tend to forget the context in which those revivals happened. I think your last sentence is needed here just as much as it is needed there, a new voice, for the context in which we live is needed if we want to see a change in our times.

    To my question: In your context/culture where do you see an opportunity to be a voice?

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      Hi Mario. I am playing with the idea that the church has an opportunity to remind itself and the people of the communities in which they find themselves that their identity is not tangled in the chaos of what they do or how successful they are or their politics and so on, but rather we are all children of God. That is our identity, and it is best fulfilled when we know that childhood ‘in christ’. In New Zealand there is a resurgence in young people attending traditional liturgical churches that offer sacred spaces and relational community. They connect with mysticism from the past, feeling some connection with spiritual ancestors. They want relationships that offer security hope and identity that is not political or filled with requirements, and they want to know the story of faith. They want to experience God and make meaning of each day in the ordinariness of life in an unpredictable world. And lastly, they want to rectify the cultural failures of history that have marginalised and crippled indigenous peoples in a race to wealth and consumption. It’s a little bit different from the evangelicalism I grew up with, but the challenge is before – we are learning to speak a new anguage in a new time, with a very old story and no particular map.

  3. mm Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Excellent post, Digby. Given my post and research I was interested in your statement, “What I think Bebbington has done well, is to describe all these evangelical ‘identity groups’ as children of their time and context.” You seem to connect the cultural influences and revivals of certain periods through the ebb and flow of Evangelicalism. Does this give you insight into what may be the potential seedbed for the next wave in New Zealand?

  4. Digby Wilkinson says:

    Hi Tammy. Evangelicalism is a problem in New Zealand. Unfortunately is has been tangled with the right wing politics of certain fundamentalist groups in the United States, and we are too small to simply ignore the fallout as if we can hold our ground against devastating public perception. Despite that there remains a strong commitment to bible and activism. The Bible is rarely held as innerant or to be read literally – there is high level of hermeneutical application among different communities. Conversion has been changed to relational journey; we talk more about people moving toward Jesus rather than signing on the dotted line. At the end of the day, we are working toward daily transformation through the Story of scripture and the work of the Spirit, but it is languaged differently.

  5. mm John Muhanji says:

    Digby, you are such a blessed team in this cohort my dear brother. I am impressed with your deep analysis and connecting what Bebbington wrote. I am curious to know what you felt on whether the evangelicals made any revival or not? What I noticed was whenever they made a move, there was another descending voice that came up from within to counter. Why is it common among Christians that wherever a theological perspective is raised, many support and many critique the whole process? Thank you for this great sharing.

  6. mm Jenn Burnett says:

    I appreciate you highlighting the often conflicted relationship between the Enlightenment and Evangelicalism. It seemed to me that they took great pains to begin in scripture but then would accomodate external reasoning practices (as you pointed out with Bacon). There was severe critique of ‘liberals’ whose thinking originated somewhere other than scripture. And yet Paul himself started with the idols ‘to an unknown god’ to help bring people to Christ. Granted, he was starting with his own tradition, but I wonder at this prescription for the highly secular environment that you and I find ourselves in. As you mention in your later comments, environmentalism is a key narrative today. In many ways this is demanding a ‘revival’ type experience of returning to roots of nurturing and stewarding resources. I can see this call in the gospel. The environmental movement often highlights our need to slow down, repent from excessive productivity, consume less—all which I find in the gospel concept of a Sabbath and in rhythms of fasting and prayer. Perhaps the call for today in a secular context is not so much revival—as you point out their is no memory of faith to return to—but maybe more accurately is an invitation to repentance. Though a common understanding of sin may be absent, a recognition that the way we’ve gone has done harm is quite familiar. Is it possible today’s revival is mass repentance? That is, turning away from the environmental calamity that we are heading toward?

  7. mm Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Digby,
    Brilliant post as usual. You responded to Mario by stating, “we are learning to speak a new language in a new time, with a very old story and no particular map.” I think this is the challenge in each one of our locales. How does this source material apply to your research (if at all)? Thanks again and talk to you soon.

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