How Old Is Evangelicalism?
There is a dustup these days about the origins
of evangelicalism: is it to be traced to the Reformation or to the 18th
Century? (Never mind that many just say it goes back to the New
Andy Tooley, a friend of ours and this blog, is a student of
David Bebbington, who is Britain’s leading light on the history of
evangelicalism, and currently works for the Institute for the Study of
American Evangelicals at Wheaton College. He wrote a niece piece on evangelicalism and emerging (link here). Bebbington anchors
evangelicalism (as we now know it) in the 18th Century where some major
influences reshaped Protestantism. Recently some scholars put
Bebbington’s theories to the test. Thanks to Andy for this post.
In a recent review of Michael Haykin and Ken Stewart’s edited volume
entitled The Advent of Evangelicalism, editor at large Collin Hansen at Christianity Today rightly observes that some sixteen authors
discuss several problems with David Bebbington’s descriptive framework in the
book. What Hansen does not point out,
however, is that nearly all of the contributors end their examinations
by confirming the relative soundness of the quadrilateral and, most
importantly, affirming Bebbington’s thesis that evangelicalism was a
new movement that emerged in the eighteenth-century.
[The now well-known Bebbington quadrilateral is that evangelicalism is
characterized by Bible, cross, conversion, and active Christian living.]
Interestingly, and revealingly, Hansen also chooses to grant authority
to a contributor who is not widely recognized to be an expert on the
topic on which he has chosen to write.
He then incorrectly suggests
that this contributor makes the strongest argument as to why evangelicalism is
not an eighteenth-century innovation.
Hansen emphasizes this, I believe, because both he and this
contributor are interested in shoring up Reformed theology and a
particular type of Reformed Evangelicalism, a trait they share with the
editors of the book.
In the penultimate
paragraph of Hansen’s review he lists a series of “ifs” with which I
disagree. Why is Evangelicalism less credible if it is not completely
rooted in the Reformation?
Why also is it less credible if it happens to be more deeply
rooted in the various Enlightenment movements of the 18th century than
one would like or have thought?
Perhaps my failure to agree with Hansen on these “what if”
scenarios stems from my belief that the mixing of culture, in this case
the English and Scottish enlightenments, with Christian belief and
practice is not only inevitable, but it possesses the potential to
bring vitality to Christianity.
And I believe this mixture that characterized the emergence of Evangelicalism during the Great Awakenings of the 18th century did indeed bring a new vitality to Protestant Christianity as it became much more focused on activism through
a devotion to missions.
There is, of course, much more to be said, but Hansen’s review presents its readers with an incorrect picture of Evangelicalism and the dangers facing it if it is indeed an 18th Century innovation.