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The Advent of Evangelicalism: Exploring Historical Continuities

Michael A. G. Haykin and Kenneth J. Stewart, eds
Published by B&H Academic in 2008

What does it mean to be an evangelical Christian? This is the question explored by a collection of prominent Christian scholars in The Advent of Evangelicalism: Exploring Historical Continuities. The book was released first as a British imprint under the title: The Emergence of Evangelicalism: Exploring Historical Continuities (Apollos, 2008). The impetus for this collection of essays is a reexamination of the definition of “evangelicalism” offered by David Bebbington in his Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (UnwinHyman, 1989). In his book, Bebbington argued that evangelicalism did not begin at the time of the Reformation, but in the 1730s and as a result of the infusion of the thought and culture of the Enlightenment on the eighteenth-century transatlantic revivals. The outcome was that a new movement emerged composed of individuals who held to four tenets: “conversionism” (belief that one must be born again), “crucientrism” (eternal salvation through Christ’s work on the cross), “biblicism” (the centrality of the Bible), and “activism” (spreading the gospel through missions). So influential has this fourfold theory been that Timothy George, founding dean of Beeson Divinity School, in the forward of The Advent of Evangelicalism, writes that “it is a safe bet to assume that when one thinks of the distinctive marks of the evangelical church today, the Bebbington quadrilateral more often comes to mind than the venerable ecclesial attributes of the Nicene faith – one, holy, catholic and apostolic” (14). Although enjoying a “near monopoly position,” as Timothy Larsen of Wheaton College notes in the initial chapter, not everyone is pleased with the parameters of evangelicalism that Bebbington has outlined (16). Can it really be said that sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Puritans werenot evangelicals? And can we be sure that “evangelicalism” as a term can be simplified into a fourfold definition? There are doubts and some of the leading Christian historians, theologians, and philosophers are eager to contribute to this lively debate.

The book’s length of an eye-popping 432 pages appears daunting at first, and those who wish to cross-reference individuals or topics will be frustrated with the reality that there is no index. Nevertheless, readers interested in the roots of evangelicalism will not be disappointed in this seminal study. The book contains seventeen essays segmented into five parts. Two essays are included in the introductory section, Timothy Larsen’s “The Reception Given Evangelicalism in Modern Britain since its Publication in 1989” and Michael A. G. Haykin’s “Evangelicalism and the Enlightenment: A Reassessment;” five essays on regional perspectives: A. T. B. McGowan’s “Evangelicalism in Scotland from Knox to Cunningham,” D. Densil Morgan’s “Continuity, Novelty and Evangelicalism in Wales, c. 1640-1850,” David Ceri Jones’s “Calvinistic Methodism and the Origins of Evangelicalism in England,” Thomas S. Kidd’s “‘Prayer for a Saving Issue’: Evangelical Development in New England before the Great Awakening,” and Joel R. Beeke’s “Evangelicalism and the Dutch Further Reformation;” sixon era perspectives: Cameron A. MacKenzie’s “The Evangelical Character of Martin Luther’s Faith,” Paul Helm’s “Calvin, A.M. Toplady and the Bebbington Thesis,” Ashley Null’s “Thomas Cranmer and Tudor Evangelicalism,” John Coffey’s “Puritanism, Evangelicalism and the Evangelical Protestant Tradition,” Douglas A. Sweeney’s and Brandon G. Withrow’s “Jonathan Edwards: Continuator or Pioneer of Evangelical History?,” and Ian J. Shaw’s “The Evangelical Revival through the Eyes of the ‘Evangelical Century’: Nineteenth-century Perceptions of the Origins of Evangelicalism;” four pertaining to evangelical doctrines: D. Bruce Hindmarsh’s “The Antecedents of Evangelical Conversion Narrative: Spiritual Autobiography and the Christian Tradition,” Garry J. Williams’s “Enlightenment Epistemology and Eighteenth-century Evangelical Doctrines of Assurance,” Crawford Gribben’s “Evangelical Eschatology and ‘The Puritan Hope,’” and Kenneth J. Stewart’s “The Evangelical Doctrine of Scripture, 1650-1850: A Re-examination of David Bebbington’s Theory;” and in part five, a final response by Bebbington. Each of the authors in this male-dominated monograph has his own agenda, usually identifying one or two aspects of the quadrilateral and then offering a reassessment of some sort. Since there are contributions covering a broad spectrum of topics and disciplines, readers will benefit from this analytical roundtable discussion.

Within the book, the most frequent bone of contention has to do with the inception of evangelicalism as a movement. Several authors cannot swallow the idea that the Puritans and early Reformers were not true evangelicals in the strictest sense of the word. Cameron MacKenzie of Concordia Theological Seminary, for instance, opens his chapter confidently with the sentence: “Martin Luther was an evangelical” (171). Other authors are equally emphatic to guide their favorite Reformers into the fold of the evangelical tradition. Paul Helm, teaching Fellow at Regent College, presents Calvin as holding to all four “isms” of the Bebbington quadrilateral (202-8). A. T. B. McGowan, Principal of the Highland Theological College, also defies Bebbington’s premise that evangelicalism began in the 1730s, taking great pains to prove that there was “an unbroken line of evangelicalism from John Knox(c.1514-72) to William Cunningham (1805-61)” (63). Yet all three authors concede that the evangelistic activity of the Reformers was not quite the same as the cross-cultural missionary enterprises of the eighteenth-century orthodox Christians that Bebbington has described. The overall defense is that there is too much in common between the Reformers and modern-day evangelicals to exclude the names of individuals like Luther, Calvin, and Knox.

There are a number of excellent chapters by authors who discuss possible glitches in the Bebbington quadrilateral as it pertains to the seventeenth century. D. Bruce Hindmarsh of Regent College and Thomas S. Kidd of Baylor University demonstrate that there were attributes of evangelicalism that existed prior to the 1730s. Hindmarsh argues that the conversion experience expressed so potently by eighteenth-century evangelicals like George Whitefield and John Wesley was not a new phenomenon, yet clearly it was different than the Damascus Road encounter by the Apostle Paul, the Confessions of Augustine, and the tower experience of Martin Luther. “It was in the mid-seventeenth century that conversion narrative emerged as a truly popular oral and literary form,” Hindmarsh contends (331). Since the Reformers wanted to emphasize the continuity of their thought with early Christianity, they did not want to present any innovation in their thinking (338). If Hindmarsh is right, that the conversion narratives associated with the evangelical tradition began in the seventeenth century, then there is evidence of a stronger continuity among orthodox Christians prior to the eighteenth-century revivals than Bebbington has allowed previously. This same subtle style of arguing is present in the chapter by Thomas Kidd, who examines briefly the waves of revivals that came to America’s shore in the late seventeenth century (129-45). These covenant renewals, although not as well known as the later tidal wave known as the Great Awakening, draw into question again the dating of evangelicalism that Bebbington proposed first.

The most tastefully critical, yet powerfully convincing essay in the bunch is by John Coffey of the University of Leicester, England. This is no smear campaign against Bebbington. Coffey seems genuinely concerned to know how evangelicalism should be defined, pointing out flaws in the theory of discontinuity between seventeenth- and eighteenth-century orthodox Christians, yet recognizing that the transatlantic revivals during the time of Edwards, Wesley, and Whitefield were in many ways distinct from previous awakenings. If there is a chink in Bebbington’s intellectual armor, Coffey has identified it to be Bebbington’s knowledge of Puritanism. A thorough critique of Bebbington’s (and Mark Noll’s) understanding of Puritanism is presented by Coffey, who shows rightly that the boundary line between seventeen-century Puritans and eighteenth-century evangelicals is less than clear. The “questionable assumptions” made by Bebbington and Noll regarding Puritanism are challenged by Coffey, who asserts that the pair “fail to appreciate its dynamism and diversity” (255). Far from the “static” model of Puritanism that is assumed by Bebbington, Puritanism was a dynamic movement, sometimes even radical in its theology (261-4). Further, many of the leading Puritans of the seventeenth century shared the same characteristics as the so-called evangelicals of the eighteenth century (266-70). Bebbington, as primarily a nineteenth-century historian, is left with the difficulty of answering many of the probing questions by Coffey, whose expertise in Puritanism is apparent throughout the essay. Yet, in the final assessment, Coffey does admit freely that there are at least two distinct features of eighteenth-century evangelicalism: the “language of revival” and the “novelty” of this movement’s “practical methods” (275-6). Both relate to the innovative preaching methods and transdenominational support for the revivals in America and Britain.

After the seventeenth and final essay by Kenneth J. Stewart of Covenant College, Bebbington is given an opportunity to respond. For the most part, he does not back downfrom his original thesis in Evangelicalism in Modern Britain. Bebbington makes it clear that“not withstanding the sometimes legitimate criticism of the book, the rise of the movement did represent much that was new” (418). His initial tactic is to group together the themes of criticism levied against his theory and then to address each in turn. On the issue of activism, for instance, several authors have found cracks in this pillar of the quadrilateral, attesting that the missionary activity of eighteenth-century evangelicals was not a novel enterprise. Garry J. Williams of Oak Hill Theological College, for instance, asserts that there were anumber of orthodox Christians who were just as zealous to evangelize as the next generation. He cites the Puritan Richard Baxter as a case in point. Williams writes, “from his work at Kidderminster he could hardly be thought of except as an activist” (373). Yet Williams is forced to concede that, at least technically speaking, the cross-cultural missionary work among eighteenth-century orthodox Christians was much more unified and widespread than previous centuries (373-4), a point that other contributors such as Coffey, Haykin, and Kidd acknowledge as well (275-6, 60, 129). Bebbington refers to the chapter by David Ceri Jones of Aberystwyth University to defend his position on active evangelism. New to the eighteenth century, “itinerant preachers, with George Whitefield at their head, became star personalities in a way that was alien to an earlier age.” The result was that the “extensive deployment of lay preachers (though not wholly new) was just one symptom of a different attitude to non-ministerial endeavours” (419). The two sides of the argument agree that there was a certain measure of active missions since the Reformation, but the extent and techniques of this activity seems to be a matter of one’s perspective.

After defending his thesis, Bebbington launches an offensive of his own. He zeroes in on the fact that the Advent of Evangelicalism is surprisingly limited on the subject of Methodism, the largest branch of evangelicalism in Britain. Methodism under the auspices of John Wesley, he argues, “displayed…theological and practical innovation” (424). Because of its absence in the book, he says, this “unduly skews the evidence of this volume in favour of continuity between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries” (424). It is because of the novelty of Wesleyan Methodism that this “contribution ensured that the movement as a whole was in many respects discontinuous with earlier Protestantism as well as in other ways continuous with it” (425). Where Bebbington gives in the most is on the subject of continuity with Puritans, which he attributes to the convincing arguments made by Hindmarsh, Coffey, and the work of W. R. Ward (427-8). As a result, he submits that the “chronology of the early stages of evangelicalism needs to be extended in both directions” (428). But this latitude does not detract him from affirming the discontinuity between evangelicals and previous orthodox Christians as the final word (432).

With The Advent of Evangelicalism one finds a paradigm for ecumenical discussions on a pertinent issue within the Christian sphere. While the central debate of the book may seem inconsequential, the implications are far reaching. How many students attending self-declared evangelical institutions actually know what it means to be an evangelical? When considering the gravity of determining who should be included or excluded from this Christian faction, it is apparent why so many of the authors within The Advent of Evangelicalism view this discussion as more than simply a hair-splitting exercise. The essays have demonstrated clearly some of the flaws in the quadrilateral, but the combined weight of the essays do not appear to have knocked Bebbington down from his position as king of the hill. The authors have, however, successfully extended the range of evangelicalism to include some of the pre-Enlightenment orthodox Christians of the late seventeenth century. Coincidentally, in the end, the definition of “evangelicalism” may be as elusive as that of the Enlightenment, the cultural and intellectual movement that Bebbington had suggested was the catalyst for the creation of this orthodox Christian movement. Just as scholars recognize that the Enlightenment existed and was something different than the previous Baroque period, so most Christian scholars concede that the eighteenth-century transatlantic revivals represented something fresh in Christian history. Only time will tell if Bebbington’s thesis continues to hold weight for another twenty years or more.

Cite this article
Jonathan Yeager, “The Advent of Evangelicalism: Exploring Historical Continuities”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 38:4 , 500-503

Jonathan Yeager

Indiana Wesleyan University
Jonathan Yeager, Biblical Studies, Indiana Wesleyan University and Taylor University