Reinventing English Evangelicalism, 1966-2001: A Theological and Sociological Study
Rob Warner, sociologist and head of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at University of Wales, Lampeter, produces an intriguing analysis of the evolution of English pan-Evangelicalism during the latter half of the 20th century in his recent work Reinventing English Evangelicalism. Following Callum Brown’s advocacy of an interdisciplinary approach to the study of Christianity, Warner integrates sociology, history and theology to create a dynamic appraisal of twentieth-century English Evangelicalism that crackles with intellectual energy.
Warner builds upon David Bebbington’s and George Marsden’s definitions of ‘Evangelicalism,’ in which evangelical identity is comprised of four leading characteristics and convictions (conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism) that function as competing or conflicting priorities, to create a definition by which the author can analyze Evangelicalism. Employing this definitional framework leads Warner to identify two contrasting tendencies within Evangelicalism.
The first tendency within English Evangelicalism (analyzed in the first half of the book, Chapters 1 through 6) emphasized conversionism and activism, and was largely charismatic in its constituency. These evangelical entrepreneurs were more pragmatic in their orientation and, as the author observes, preoccupied with results such as church attendance, membership and professed conversions. Case studies include the Evangelical Alliance, Spring Harvest and Alpha and serve as examples of the type of activities that follow from this group’s conversionist and activist proclivities.
The second tendency, described as conservatism, is the main focus in the latter half of the book. Conservatism stressed biblicist and crucicentric dimensions of Evangelicalism and attracted those individuals who were concerned primarily with theology and “guarding the core doctrines of evangelical convictions” (20). Although this group incorporated evangelism programs, such as Christianity Explored, they remained theologically oriented. Case studies evaluating InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship statements of faith in addition to the Lausanne document (1974) and Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978), for example, are presented in the last several chapters.
The story that emerges amidst the author’s analysis is one of alternating periods of prominence between the two competing tendencies. Warner argues that the fragmentation of the conservative evangelicals’ hegemony in the 1960s was followed by an attempt by the entrepreneurialists, those who were more conversionist/activist-oriented, to reinvent Evangelicalism along more pragmatic lines. During this entrepreneurial period of reconstruction, Warner claims that three subdivisions within evangelicalism emerged: the neo-conservative, the cautiously open, and the progressive (each of which are examined in their own chapters). This entrepreneurial period, Warner argues, was not sustainable because the evangelical entrepreneurs were too enthusiastic in their goals and guilty of “vision inflation” (86), unable to deliver the success they promised. Thus the alterations made to evangelical identity during their tenure were ephemeral. In the wake of this entrepreneurial failure the neo-conservatives reasserted their theological views, arguing, for example, that the penal substitutionary view of the atonement is the only acceptable view for an evangelical, and subsequently they experienced a resurgence in popularity and influence. This conservative resurgence, in turn, was countered by the progressives who desired an evangelical identity that was less theologically exclusive. Tensions increased and the two competing evangelical groups settled firmly into their quarters. The result of this trajectory of events for Warner is clear: Evangelicalism, though broad, diverse and having always possessed a certain degree of competing priorities, is on the brink of a major division that threatens to cripple the movement.
The author advances several other arguments throughout this work as he transitions from an “observing-participant” to a “participating observer” (32). For example, Warner argues implicitly that the conservative position is doing damage to Evangelicalism and describes D. A. Carson, New Testament scholar and author of many popular evangelical books, as the “doyen of old school conservatives” who “cannot accept legitimate diversity or dialogue within, let alone beyond, evangelicalism” (6,8). He identifies the Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration document, released in 1999 and signed by many prominent conservative evangelicals, as a document which should be re-titled “Justification Celebration”for its exclusive Calvinistic interpretation of the Gospel. “If the Lausanne document (1974) presented itself as the ‘new face of evangelicalism,’” writes Warner, then this Gospel Celebration document “is the new face of the Right, a collaboration between calvinistic conservativism and neo-fundamentalism” (205). Warner laments that “for the Right, moderate and progressive evangelicals have become the ‘enemy within’ who must be purged”(xvii).
It appears that these subsidiary arguments amount, for Warner, to an emancipatory concern for the evangelical tradition to free itself from the “conservative calvinistic hegemony, with its enlightenment epistemology and exclusivist claims to represent the only authentic evangelical tradition” (8). But, as mentioned above, Warner does not believe this concern will disappear; rather, it will exacerbate the existing tensions and lead Evangelicalism to bifurcate into conservative and progressive groups to the point that perhaps neither group will identify itself as evangelical.
For all its strengths, Warner’s work would benefit from a fuller treatment of Evangelicalism during this period. One wishes some attention would have been given to other British institutions such as Oak Hill Theological College or Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. A major gap in this reviewer ’s view, however, is that after reading this work one might think there were no Black evangelicals in England during this time period. It would be very interesting to see what a case study of, say, Kingsway International Christian Centre, one of the leading Black churches in London, would reveal.
One wonders also whether the dire future predicted by the author threatens Evangelicalism so gravely. If one explores the history of the evangelical movement it becomes clear that it has always been rife with controversies and divisions, yet it has proven itself to be a remarkably resilient movement in which fresh expressions of the evangelical faith often emerge in the wake of conflict. While Warner highlights the internal tensions characteristic of Evangelicalism, he fears that this current conflict will break apart the binding ties of the movement. Given that he characterizes the evangelical movement as comprising diverse and even competing interests, Warner’s prognosis that this particular conflict between the conservatives and the progressives has the special potential to break apart the movement seems all the more striking.
While Warner’s conceptual frameworks occasionally make for labored reading, his statistical data and overall analysis reveal interesting and insightful details of a diverse and evolving religious movement. Surely this work will serve as essential reading for those interested in twentieth-century British and transatlantic Evangelicalism.