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Reinventing Evangelicalism

Category Book Reviews
Date February 15, 2008

A review article on Reinventing English Evangelicalism 1966-2001: A Theological and Sociological Study, by Rob Warner (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2007), which appeared in The Banner of Truth magazine, March 2008.

A complaint against this reviewer’s Evangelicalism Divided1 was its incompleteness as a history of English evangelicalism in the second half of the twentieth century. The observation was correct (for the book was not meant to be such a history) and this present work is an important contribution to a fuller understanding of what was happening between 1966 and 2001. The main theme is that while evangelicalism was a unity until 1966, the split between Martyn Lloyd-Jones and John Stott, in 1966, marked a break up from which there has been no recovery. But the polarization is not between the more doctrinally minded, who are described as Bible and cross-centred (‘biblicist-crucicentric’), and the pro-ecumenical; rather it is between the first group and the entrepreneurial activist evangelicals, including charismatics, who are said to concentrate on conversions and the changing of society. The latter are given the label, ‘conversionist-activists’. Dr Warner believes that when Lloyd-Jones and Stott – both Bible- and cross-centred – went different ways in 1966, a vacuum was left which came to be filled by the new type of evangelical, no longer ‘on the right’, but the activists, with a ‘progressive’ theology. Much of the book is taken up with describing the work of this group as seen in the Evangelical Alliance (resurgent under Clive Calver), in Spring Harvest, and in the Alpha movement. The remarkable numerical success of these agencies is documented, along with some sharp critical assessments. Yet notwithstanding the popularity of the activists, the author notes their lack of impact on the national situation, and their weakness in witness on the individual level.

Repeated expectations of revival were promoted only to prove ‘a false dawn’. In assessing the reasons for this, Warner gives a number of disturbing statistics on the decline of reading among evangelicals (for instance, a 61% decrease in sales of evangelical monthlies in 20 years), and he questions whether a professed commitment to Scripture is matched by the daily reading and prayer formerly known:

The demise of this practice [the daily ‘quiet time’] contributes to the perceived trend of growing biblical illiteracy among evangelicals. The distinctive spirituality of the mid-twentieth-century conservative evangelicals is being abandoned, presumably as no longer helpful (p. 97).

In contrast, a reliance on ‘methods’ as a means to achieving success is noted.

What then, does the author say of the more doctrinally minded? Very little. He seems to think they have either departed or are departing from positions of influence. Among the Anglicans, the biblicism of a Stott or a Packer has had few disciples (Oak Hill and Proclamation Trust do not get a mention); the leadership has fallen to a different breed. But if Anglican evangelicals on ‘the right’ are now more isolated, it is even more so with the followers of the Lloyd-Jones position. Dr Lloyd-Jones – committed to ‘obdurate exclusivity’ – has only left behind him ‘exclusivist separatists’, fundamentalist Calvinists like himself (p. 215). These words are sufficient to show that the author does not see any solution to the present evangelical scene in a return to a former evangelical faith, and certainly not in the ‘hegemony of Calvinistic conservatism’ that he believed marked evangelicalism in the mid-twentieth century (p. 39). His underlying standpoint seems to be that there is no definite faith ‘once delivered to the saints’ – no clear biblical teaching by which preachers can be judged faithful or heretical. He criticizes Packer for believing that evangelical belief is timeless and unchanging, and supports Bebbington’s thesis that ‘evangelicalism originated as an enlightenment construct’; he thinks its beliefs are bound to continue to evolve and change according to the cultural setting, etc. (pp. 13-14, 29, 199, 215). A doctrinal statement of 1999 that would have been unquestioned by a former generation of evangelicals is described as ‘theology for the ghetto’. It is condemned for presenting justification and penal substitution as ‘a timeless and culture-free articulation of gospel truth’ (p. 205). For his part, Dr Warner supports ‘generous orthodoxy’, and sees no need for upholding the inerrancy of Scripture or penal substitution.

If this were an extended review there are a number of things I would want to question, including ‘What is evangelicalism?’, but I hope I have said enough to indicate this is a work that justifies serious attention. Two points I cannot, however, leave unnoticed.

Studies in Evangelical History and Thought (with Editors David Bebbington, John Briggs, Timothy Larsen, Mark Noll, and Ian Randall). Most titles published in this series, as with Warner’s title, seem to be work presented as doctoral theses in British universities. We can be thankful that the universities thus provide time and opportunity for men to do advanced study which few others can attempt. This also means that for a number of areas of research we are increasingly dependent on material coming from the contemporary academic world. Should that be at all disturbing when, as in this series, the authors are professed evangelicals? We think it should, and that because the British universities commonly impose a qualification that inevitably affects the work done: The Bible is not to be treated as the Word of God. So for a student to express value judgments based on Scripture is not acceptable procedure. It is therefore permissible to say that Princeton theology represents the ‘rationalism’ born of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment;2 or that Evangelicalism itself is ‘a construct’ of that same period; what is not in order is to assert biblical authority for evangelical beliefs. The effect of this qualification is to secularize church history and theology and to treat Christianity as another human discipline. Dr Warner’s book is a reminder that this is an issue that needs to be brought out into the open. One of our well-known British training schools for ministers and missionaries is the Wales Evangelical School of Theology (WEST) at Bridgend. Currently it advertises: ‘Thinking of studying Theology? Why go to a secular university?’ Yet degree courses at WEST (as at other similar evangelical institutions in the U.K.) necessarily involve co-operation with secular universities, in the case of WEST with the University of Wales, Lampeter, where Dr Warner teaches Sociology of Religion and Practical Theology.

The relation of evangelicals to current university teaching raises complex issues. Without question, a high standard of scholarship and a well-trained ministry are major needs today. Therefore, given the current weakness of the church in the U.K., and the fact that government financial aid is only available to accredited degree-course students, is not some association with the universities desirable? It might well seem so. But the fact remains that the New Testament would have us believe that her wisdom and the wisdom of the world are opposites. And church history, to quote an old Methodist, tells us that ‘the acceptance of the friendship of the world by the church has done more to secularise her, and to rob her of her power to save and bless than the bitterest persecution could ever have done’. It is to be feared that the decisions evangelicals are taking in this matter arise out of a failure to address the main problem. What that is was well put by James Henley Thornwell long ago:

Our whole system of operations gives an undue influence to money. Where money is the great want, numbers must be sought; and where an ambition for numbers prevails, doctrinal purity must be sacrificed. The root of the evil is the secular spirit of our ecclesiastical institutions. What we want is a spiritual body; a Church whose power lies in the truth, and the presence of the Holy Ghost.3

Notes

    • Evangelicalism Divided

      Evangelicalism Divided

      A Record of Crucial Change in the Years 1950 to 2000

      by  Iain H. Murray


      price £14.50

      Description

      A review article on Reinventing English Evangelicalism 1966-2001: A Theological and Sociological Study, by Rob Warner (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2007), which appeared in The Banner of Truth magazine, March 2008. A complaint against this reviewer’s Evangelicalism Divided1 was its incompleteness as a history of English evangelicalism in the second half of the twentieth century. The […]

  1. At one point Warner sees the parallel between the Enlightenment and the Reformed evangelical in that the former elevated the place of reason and so do the Reformed by their belief in propositional truth. He regrets the disruptive influence this brings: ‘From Warfield to Lloyd-Jones and beyond, Calvinistic-exclusivism is a recurrent theme’ (pp. 238-9). ‘Calvinistic exclusivism is a mutation of the authentic, broad and self-critical tradition of evangelicalism, and is more accurately designated by its exponents and critics alike, as nothing less than unreconstructed fundamentalism’ (p. xviii).
  2. B. M. Palmer, Life and Letters of J. H. Thornwell (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974), p. 291 [out of print].

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