Evangelicalism divided?

I have seen/heard several comments in the last few weeks about the divided state of contemporary British Evangelicalism. Rob Warner’s book, Reinventing English Evangelicalism, has attracted a fair amount of attention, not least because of his central role in some of the debates he reflects on in the book. Andy Goodliff has begun a review here, and Jim Gordon has posted two parts of his own review here and here. Both focus in part on Warner’s account of the growing divisions in English Evangelicalism through the 1980s to the present. In addition, this month’s Christianity magazine has a feature article by Andy Peck (an excerpt can be read here) entitled ‘Evangelicals United?’ which is in many ways a re-presentation and popularisation of Pete Ward’s ‘tribes of evangelicalism’ thesis.

All these accounts start with David Bebbington’s ‘Quadrilateral,’ from his classic book Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. David had argued that, historically, if we were to look for the uniting features of those people and groupings that were regarded as ‘Evangelical’, four broad themes would emerge: biblicism; christocentrism; crucicentrism; and activism. Reading the reviews of Warner’s book (my copy is on order…) and Peck’s article, both then recall a time in the 1950s or 1960s when Evangelicalism did appear united to the authors, and chart how Evangelical growth in numbers, influence, and confidence since then has led to fracture and disunity.

Andy says this in his summary of the book:

Warner’s thesis ‘seeks to build upon Bebbington’s Evangelicalism in Modern Britain‘, but identifies a rather more dynamic model of ‘twin and rival axes within pan-evangelicalism that energise the dynamic of evangelical rivalries, experiments and evolution’ (20). There are two things happening, firstly there are the group of active-orientated entrepreneurs, who make up the conversionist-activist axis – those who are engaged in Spring Harvest, March for Jesus, Alpha, and what was in the 1980s and 90s a growing worship industry. Secondly, there are the more theologically-orientated group, who make up the biblicist-crucicentric axis – those who are concerned with doctrine and often the formulating and guarding the doctrinal core of evangelical convictions’ (20). The book is thus divided into two parts, exploring historically and theologically these two axes.

[Where does the third quotation start, Andy? I expect better from my former students!]

Jim states that ‘The last 20 years have seen a process of increasing polarisation, as Evangelicalism has gone through a period of reinvention, redefinition and realignment.’ and explores the same basic theme that Andy picked up on:

The historic movement of pan-Evangelicalism, has in the past been held together despite many internal tensions, by agreed principles generously interpreted …. What Warner argues is that in late 20th century English Evangelicalism, these four essentials in the Evangelical bar code have through a process of bifurcation split the Evangelical movement into two axes. The first is the crucicentric biblicist axis which is essentially Reformed, doctrinally defensive, leans heavily towards fundamentalism and is increasingly separatist. The other is the conversionist activist axis, which is entrepreneurial in style, pragmatic in approach and mainly driven by and ecclesial pragmatism baptised in the Spirit, but less doctrinally precise. Both are increasingly discredited.

I ought to declare an interest here: I presently chair what used to be the Evangelical Alliance Commission on Unity and Truth amongst Evangelicals (ACUTE), although the first decision under my chairing was to re-name it (to an even longer mouthful!). But my concern with this picture is not because I have anything invested in pretending that the Evangelical movement is more united than it is (if anything, unless there is more than Andy and Jim are saying, I think Warner misses the truly toxic potential divisions which may yet happen, and which, if they do, will get entangled with the politics of ethnicity). Rather, it is because I am interested in Evangelical history.

The account of increasing division Warner and Peck give is true, but only in the way that political statistics are always true: it is easy to demonstrate decline or increase by carefully choosing the starting point. Evangelicalism in the 1950s in Britain was united and uniform, surprisingly so: the old ‘liberal’ and ‘centrist’ wings of the movement, significant before the Second World War, had declined, and a moderate conservatism held sway. My reading of British Evangelical history, however, is that the 1950s represent an astonishing moment of uniformity, unparalleled in history before or since, rather than a norm against which other things may be measured.

Evangelicalism has always been a pluriform movement; in some ways, its chief genius since the 1730s has been its ability to hold together people across lines that divide the wider church, in the name of a focus on certain essentials and a commitment to action. In 1750, some of the Evangelicals astonishingly refuse to be divided on Calvinist-Arminian lines; in 1800 the great pan-Evangelical campaigns all begin in a public house, the London Tavern, because they are bringing together ministers who are prohibited by their denominations from entering one-another’s churches, or even houses; in 1846, the Evangelical Alliance is consciously and determinedly internationalist in scope and focus; and so on.

Through the twentieth century, the wider church became better at not being divided, and so this feature of Evangelicalism becomes less obvious–but, actually, it is still true in important ways: all the ecumenical groups I have been involved in, local or national, multi-lateral or bilateral, have been unable to celebrate the Eucharist together; Evangelicals do it routinely (and the fact that we do it demonstrates that this is not because we don’t care about the Eucharist!). Jim’s line about ‘agreed principles, generously interpreted’ is a very good one; both parts capture something of the central genius of the British Evangelical movement.

I think, pending a close reading of his book, that Warner is simply wrong to suggest the present pluriformity of English Evangelicalism is anything remarkable; rather, the uniformity of a half-century ago was remarkable, in historical terms. However, the thesis is not just about uniformity, but about unity. This post is long enough already, though–that can wait a day or two.

8 Comments

  1. Jim Gordon
    Jan 12, 2008

    Steve this is becoming a fascinating discussion, and I’m really glad you’re in on this discussion. I think the word pluriformity is a good word to describe the evangelical tradition, and I believe it is a tradition. My own interest in Evangelical spirituality, and my consequent understanding of its spiritual tradition is precisely that it contains (and the word ‘contains’ is important)diversity, pluriformity, and exhibits a remarkable capacity for inclusion, even when there were serious doctrinal difference. Witness the Wesleys and Whitefield, the generous negotiations of Charles Simeon between Calvinist and Arminian positions, the exuberant experimentation of Moody encountering Free Kirk Calvinsim to his and their consternation in Scotland, the Keswick Bishop Moule and the Reformed Bishop Ryle, at serious odds over sanctification and sin in the believer, but neither of whom would disenfranchise the other. Pluriformity is not the same as division, though, and one of the less palatable sections of Warner’s book for some Evangelicals will be his highlighting of Don Carson’s readiness to say who is and who is not to be considered an Evangelical. Such judgmentalism lacks the generosity and theological hospitality of a movement in which christocentric experience is definitive. David Bebbington didn’t make it a part of his quadrilateral, but I suspect would argue it is the underlying assumption of the four on which he does build.

    I think also that definitions are both important and extremely difficult to settle. When Warner talks of a Reformed Calvinist axis, with fundamentalist leanings, is he talking then about Evangelicalsim or Fundamentalism? They are not synonyms. And it is a major debate as to whether the Fundamentalist controversies of the past hundred years are simply to be understood as a subset of Evangelicalism. The point I think Warner is making is that the ‘agreed principles, generally accepted’ which undergirded the early EA and much of the evangelical tradition since, are now not so agreed, or generally accepted. And the biblicist crucicentric axis he identifies, is increasingly anxious about doctrinal transitions within Evangelicalsim, and suspicious of a number of prominenet evangelical theologians seeking to restate faithfully the gospel in terms relevant to and accessible to postmodern, post Christian culture. Now of course, it may be argued such restatement is itself a deflection from evangelical soundness, but when does one person’s pluriformity become another person’s defection from a tradition ….. and who decides?
    The large number of (evangelcial)Christians satisfied with neither the conversionist activist entrepreneurial brand, nor the biblicist crucicentric Reformed axis with its doctrinal protectionism, is now itself a significant flow of tributaries. Whether they flow into one or other of the two ‘axes’, or whether they become a new plurifiorm stream of whatever name, there is little doubt to my mind that evangelical pluriformity is becoming less accommodating of legitimate difference within its own constituency. That I think is a major worry, and a key aspect of contemporary Christian realignments that requires serious thought, prayer and wisdom to interpret.

  2. Michael Bird
    Jan 12, 2008

    Stephen,
    Nice discussion. I couldn’t agree more. Evangelicalism is a hard movement to define and there are competing agendas as to how to define it.

  3. Andy Goodliff
    Jan 13, 2008

    Steve, I’ve put in the necessary quotation mark! That first part was written fairly quickly. Here’s some thoughts I had after reading your post above – firstly, it seems now everyone wants to qualify the term ‘evangelical’ – whether it be ‘open’, ‘post’, ‘conservative’, ‘progressive’ – I’m looking forward to soon hearing of ‘mild evangelicals’, ‘nice evangeicals’, whatever … this seems to me to reflect the pluriform nature, which as you seem to suggest was always there, but is now becoming very obvious (very interesting is the elaine storkey case who is trying to say she is a different kind of evangelical to wycliffe hall and so is a case of religious discrimination). My second thought is whether part of the problem (or perhaps my problem) with evangelicalism is its lack of ecclesiology, where it has definite (maybe to strong a word) things to say about scripture, atonement, etc; it never seems rooted in an ecclesiology. Theology that describes itself as evangelical often appears fairly, for want of a better word, shallow, and I wonder is this because its ecclesiology is undeveloped. I prefer the term baptist: http://andygoodliff.typepad.com/my_weblog/2006/03/evangelical_and.html

    Now I’m no evangelical historian or theologian like you and jim, so this is probably all wrong, so please correct me.

  4. Fernando A Gros
    Jan 13, 2008

    As far as I understand the history, it seems you are right to suggest that the 50s were a glorious exception and not a hesiodic rule.

    However, doesn’t an account of the roots of evangelical disunity need to go back to 1966 and not just to the 80s?

    Moreover, can an account of evangelical disunity in the UK today really be done in isolation from the forces that are shaping evangelicalism globally, in particular Sydney Evangelicalism and African Evangelicalism?

  5. Steve H
    Jan 13, 2008

    Andy, see the new post…

    Fernando, on 66, see the new post…

    On the global influences, I agree to some extent, but the situation is fairly complex. Within the Anglican communion in particular, Sydney, Singapore and Nigeria have formed (what I take to be) a marriage of convenience at present, which makes it look like the rather particular theological commitments of Moore College have wider currency than in fact they do. On the other hand, the new denominations springing up in sub-Saharan Africa in particular are, I am told, often indicating a desire to be part of global Evangelical structures, and bring a significant new tradition to those structures (unconcerned about ancient battles with Roman Catholicism; very sacramental and supernaturalist), which is also becoming a significant feature in British Evangelicalism through the new black majority churches in London and other major cities.

  6. Steve H
    Jan 13, 2008

    Andy’s point about the qualifiers is interesting–there are some precursors in Evangelical history: ‘conservative Evangelicals’ and ‘liberal Evangelicals’ were self-identified parties in the 1930s; a generation earlier, those who went to Keswick would have lived with the name ‘holiness evangelical’ I think.
    I wonder, though, whether the real issue here is a wider one of post-denominationalism? The old divides were between Anglicans and Free Church evangelicals, or Brethren and Baptist Evangelicals–but such denominational tags no longer describe useful dividing lines, except in an organisational/structural sense.

  7. michael
    Jan 13, 2008

    I feel I should come forward as the representative Sydney Evangelical… I do have to say that British evangelicals do see the evangelical world as an extension of the themes developing in their own.

    Andy, I have heard the ‘evangelicalism has a weak ecclesiology’ complaint before. I would dispute this: it is not a weak ecclesiology, or an undeveloped one, it is an appropriate and Biblical one! The problem is that there are other ecclesiologies that are over-developed. It is precisely this ‘low’ ecclesiology that has made unity accross the movement possible. When evangelicals start believing they need to supplement their evangelicalism with an ‘ecclesiology’ drawn from other sources, I think further division can only be around the corner.

  8. Steve H
    Jan 13, 2008

    Hi Michael, Welcome!
    Warner’s book is specifically about ‘English Evangelicalism’–not even British–so it is perhaps not unreasonable that the debate has focused there.
    In my experience, English Evangelicals don’t often realise that the Scots and Welsh traditions are different (until we move here…); most British Evangelicals are fairly well-aware of the differences between Britain and the USA, but forget that there is a wider world out there…
    I just don’t buy the ‘evangelicalism has a low ecclesiology’ line, but I’ll write a new post on that, I think.

get facebook like button