Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Rise of Evangelicalism (Mark Noll)

Just finished this, which was a really good historical overview - just what I needed as I start to research evangelicalism more thoroughly for my autumn Learning Church series. I am now much clearer in my mind about what evangelicalism is, and what I like and don't like about it. I'm most particularly intrigued by the influence that High-Church theology had on its beginnings, mainly via the Wesleys, as I suspect that there is the stream where I would locate myself, in what Noll calls 'primitivism': "the faith thought to have been practiced with great purity in the church's very first centuries... imitation of the faith and life of early believers, ascetic practice for the self, godly discipline for society and regular participation in the church's celebration of the Eucharist".

I'm not going to say too much more in this review because so many issues were raised that I want to explore them in separate posts, but it's probably worth sharing some longish quotations.

The four key ingredients [as defined by David Bebbington]:
- conversion, or 'the belief that lives need to be changed';
- the Bible, or 'the belief that all spiritual truth is to be found in its pages';
- activism, or the dedication of all believers, including lay people, to lives of service for God, especially as manifested in evangelism (spreading the good news) and mission (taking the gospel to other societies); and
- crucicentrism, or the conviction that Christ's death was the crucial matter in providing atonement for sin (ie providing reconciliation between a holy God and sinful humans).

If evangelicals were strong in personal reassurance before God, they were weak in the formation of worldviews. If they stripped away other considerations to focus on the need for a Saviour, they sometimes also stripped away the urgency to think generally about responsible Christian life in the world. The remarkable effects from concentrating on Christian experience as depicted in Scripture were often matched by the deliberate devaluation of intellectual tradition. At the end of the day, evangelical concern for society reflected the character of the movement as a whole. It was a pietistic movement that did much good in the world. But as a pietistic movement its focused attention on the spiritual tended to edge aside, rather than stimulate, self-conscious attention to the social.

At its worst, this new evangelicalism neglected, caricatured and distorted the inherited tradtions of Reformation Protestantism. Evangelical beliefs and practices could foster a self-centered, egotistic and narcissistic spirituality and also create new arenas for destructive spiritual competition. From in-group cliches, associations and institutions, evangelicals sometimes constructed new barriers to alienate humans from each other. They could turn so obsessively inward as to ignore the structures of social evil. Most important, evangelicals could trivialise the Christian gospel by treating it as a ballyhooed commodity to be hawked for its power to soothe a nervous, dislocated people in the opening cultural markets of the expanding British Empire.
But at its best evangelicalism provided needed revitalisation to English-speaking Protestant Christianity. It breathed vibrant religious life into stagnant or confused religious institutions. It created dynamic communities of self-giving love and international networks of supporting fellowship. It reached out to many at the margins of respectable society. From authentic personal experience it provided a dynamism for addressing corporate evils. Most important, it communicated the beauty and the power of the Christian gospel in a wide variety of settings and through that gospel provided a wider range of individuals with purpose before God and meaning for this life, and it did so for the long haul.

Great stuff.

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