First published in Anvil March 2014
“Dwell on the past and you will lose an eye; forget the past and you will lose both eyes.”
Often evangelicals have a nostalgic view of the past, whether it is those of us who believe the Reformation was the high water mark of Christianity or those of us who discovered the worship revival of the 1970s, evangelicals often enjoy reminiscing of better days. But a Cyclops still has an advantage over the blind so it would seem a wise investment to explore the history of a movement that has grown to global status so rapidly over the past half century.
Brian Stanley is the most qualified person I can think of to write the fifth volume in IVP’s “A History of Evangelicalism” series. Previous volumes have included such luminary historians as David Bebbington and Mark Knoll but Stanley’s role as an evangelical historian serving as Professor of World Christianity at Edinburgh University is ideal for the task of writing a history of the globalisation of evangelicalism in the English-speaking world. Stanley has written a fascinating and engaging volume that rewards careful reading.
Rather than attempting a narrative history of the 1940s to 1990s of evangelicalism, Professor Stanley writes an introduction and then eight thematic essays exploring a broad range of trends.
1. Evangelicals and Fundamentalism
The first essay explores the evolving relationship between evangelicalism and fundamentalism. Noting that in the United States the defining feature of evangelicalism was differentiation from fundamentalism while in the United Kingdom the identity of evangelicals was formed in distinction from liberalism. This is a powerful and helpful distinction and may be the root of much miscommunication between American and European evangelicals.
2. Evangelicals and Globalised Networks
The second essay explores how evangelical networks globalised. Stanley focuses on the ministry of Billy Graham, the formation of the World Evangelical Fellowship (now known as the World Evangelical Alliance), the indigenisation process at work in Scripture Union and the worldwide effects of the East African Revival. Stanley notes how the decision in 1947 of Scripture Union director John Laird to deconstruct the movement’s “imperial” structure led to remarkable growth in Africa and a whole slew of indigenous leaders developing. This is a strategy that still needs further global application for many organisations 65 years on.
3. Evangelical Scholarship Matters
The third essay highlights the growth of evangelical scholarship once thought an oxymoron due to confusion between evangelicals and fundamentalists. The development of Tyndale House in Cambridge is shown to have played a vital role. In a fascinating piece of theological archaeology Stanley also shows how the subsequent editions and revisions of the New Bible Commentary can act as a window of the increasing conservatism on issues such as biblical inspiration, infallibility and openness to biblical criticism. Stanley also notes the way that at the turn of the century systematic expositional preaching was not a norm in the diet of evangelical churches and it is through the preaching of G. Campbell Morgan and of course Dr Martin Lloyd Jones and John Stott that it became a staple.
4. Evangelicals and Apologetics
In his fourth essay Professor Stanley tracks the development of evangelical apologetics and highlights the work of Cornelius Van Till, Edward Carnell, Carl F. Henry, Francis Schaeffer and Alvin Plantinga who in different ways helped evangelicals to defend the faith in the academies. Yet Stanley demonstrates that non-evangelicals such as Lesslie Newbigin and more significantly C.S. Lewis offered “an intellectual armoury of a very different kind from that offered by the sterling efforts of conservative theologians”.
5. Evangelicals and Lausanne
The captivating story of the Lausanne Congress on world evangelisation is told in the fifth essay. The Congress, the brainchild of Billy Graham, and after some coercion joined by John Stott brought together leaders from across the world in 1974. Stanley tells how the American-dominated programme was challenged by Latin American theologians: Rene Padilla (the need to rethink the cultural accommodation of Christianity in the West), Samuel Escobar (the need to engage with social justice in mission) and Orlando Costas (the need for contextualisation). Tribute is paid to John Stott’s mediatory skills in helping to include these insights into the final Lausanne statement. It is interesting to note that the UK reception to Lausanne was lukewarm – a term which applies to my experience of UK delegations at more recent global gatherings.
6. Evangelicals and the Global Charismatic and Pentecostals Movements
The sixth essay tracks the development of global charismatic and Pentecostal movements. Tracing the rise in healing ministries, John Wimber, the adaptation of worship music, the Toronto Blessing, the impact of Bretherenism on Newfrontiers and the birth of Alpha. Stanley is on the whole positive about the impact, stating: “The global evangelical family gained much-needed spiritual vitality as a result.”
7. Evangelical Hermeneutics
The seventh essay tackles hermeneutics, gender and sexual ethics. I think it was somewhat unfortunate to lump these issues together. There are very few women mentioned in the entire volume – the history of the global proliferation of evangelicalism is mainly told through white male leaders. When Stanley does get round to engage with women it is in the context of a debate around the role of hermeneutics that ends with an exploration of evangelical responses to homosexuality. Stanley tackles the controversy around women’s ministry by citing the debate between Melvin Tinker, a prominent member of Reform, who argued for a “slippery slope” that a change of view on women’s ministry would lead to the approval of homosexual relationships. Tinker’s debate with Dick France, then principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford who argued clearly and robustly that it does not. He then goes on to cite Stanley Grenz and Paul King Jewetts’ argument that there is no intrinsic link between a changed view on women’s ministry and homosexuality. It was a shame that the role of women in the proliferation of evangelicalism is only cast in the middle of this debate.
8. Global Evangelical Trends
The last essay was a sobering one to read. Professor Stanley attempts to summarise the trends he sees at work in the evangelical world today. Stanley revisits the post-evangelical debate of Dave Tomlinson and comments that many conservatives (Professor Don Carson included) refuse to see a difference between post-evangelicals and post-conservatives such as Stanley Grenz and NT Wright. I have experienced this kind of tarring with the same brush such that if you take a different view on the role of women to the likes of Don Carson, John Piper and Wayne Grudem you are effectively labeled a non-evangelical. Stanley seeks to mediate the divide between Postconservative/ Open Evangelicals and Conservative Evangelicals. After citing Carson’s withering critique of Stanley Grenz’s “Renewing the centre” where Carson concludes that Grenz’s work was ‘truly outside of the evangelical camp’ Brian Stanley states that: “Grenz, however remained until his death a faithful member of First Baptist Church, Vancouver, under the conservative expository ministry of Bruce Milne… Assessments of the state of evangelicalism can be misleading if they focus exclusively on academic theological arguments and neglect the evidence of spirituality and church life.”
In many ways this book, though skillfully written, is a depressing read. Stanley recognises this in his summation when he states: “It is part of the vocation of the church historian to remind Christians who may be depressed about the current condition of the church that states of division and uncertainty are the norm rather than the exception in Christian history” (p.237).
There is a note of encouragement in the midst of the gloom. When we look back to the halcyon days of evangelical unity that saw the renewed confidence and growth of evangelicalism – there was as much disunity and the term evangelical was as contested then as it is now and that evangelicalism seems to be perennially needing to rediscover its identity. For me if the apostle Paul can call the church to continually hold firm to the gospel and continually re-examine those that claim to present the gospel in light of the apostolic witness – it seems evangelicalism’s need to continually re-examine itself in light of scripture is a healthy one.
Sadly, I think Brian Stanley is optimistic in his closing sentiment that “the battle for the integrity of the gospel in the opening years of the 21st century is being fought not primarily in the lecture rooms of North American seminaries but in the shanty towns, urban slims and villages of Africa, Asia and Latin America”. We praise God for the proliferation of the gospel that is bearing so much fruit among the poor. We rejoice that the centre of gravity of the church has moved to the global south. But in my limited experience of working with the poor – the gospel that is being spoken about there looks a lot like the Western individualistic virtually-gnostic version that we have exported. The battle for the integrity of the gospel is being fought on social media and in the budget meetings of western publishers and conference organisers where global celebrities are made out of certain preachers who export their cultural assumptions to the rest of the world. We need to allow the spirit of the first Lausanne congress to continue on and allow the global church to be reshaping our understanding of mission and the gospel in the light of scripture. We need to continually fight the imperialism of Western domination in global evangelicalism.
Stanley’s well written and researched book will help evangelicals to avoid the blindness of ahistoricity; perhaps we need a companion volume to help us know what we can learn from Evangelicals in the non English speaking world?