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A flood flowing into a divergent delta

19 July 2013

This history ducks the topic of divisions in Evangelicalism, says Peter Forster

The Global Diffusion of Evangelicalism: The age of Billy Graham and John Stott
Brian Stanley
IVP £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT469 )

THIS is the fifth and final volume in IVP's scholarly history of the Evangelical movement. Brian Stanley is a distinguished church historian at Edinburgh University, and this is an account of Evangelicalism since 1945 which is both erudite and readable.

Anyone with an interest in the Evangelical tradition would enjoy it, partly because it is largely written in terms of the leading personalities concerned. The downside is that the theological analysis is comparatively weak, with little or no discussion, for example, of the part that different theologies of atonement have played in the evolution of Evangelical identities.

Evangelicalism has always been a contested concept, and the fluid contours of Evangelical identity have become even more evident in recent decades. As the Evangelical tradition has grown and broadened, it has become less stable, and today the global floodtide of Evangelical-ism can resemble a delta, as the single stream of the river breaks down into divergent channels.

Terminology is fluid, too. Stanley skilfully pilots the reader through the different meanings of fundamentalism on different sides of the Atlantic, and the various interpretations of such terms as "infallible" or "inerrant" as applied to the Bible.

Allied to this, there are choices over theological method. The more revelation is regarded in propositional terms, the greater the inclination towards the view that it can be proved by logic that Evangelical theology is true, and other approaches are false. That the rationalism of more conservative Evangelicalism can produce a rather unattractive and critical spirituality is not explored, but might well have been. Generally in this volume, the spirituality of Evangelicalism is rather neglected.

The less propositional approach that locates an Evangelical claim to truth in the innate plausibility of the gospel as experienced in the life of the Church is exemplified here by Lesslie Newbigin and C. S. Lewis, whose underlying, and traditional, theological orthodoxy awards them the badge of being Evangelicals. Karl Barth lurks in the background, not quite deserving a place in the Evangelical firmament because he recast too many Evangelical commonplaces. For Lewis, in particular, logic could not be enough to draw people to faith. Imagination was equally necessary, in order to enter the mysterious Narnian world where God is incarnate, and suffers with us.

Stanley draws out the significance of the hermeneutical movement for Evangelicalism, as exemplified by Anthony Thiselton's seminal work. He illustrates the issues with particularly perceptive accounts of the way in which different Evangelical writers have wrestled with the issues of the ordination of women and homosexuality. Do hermeneutical insights represent potential solutions, or are they merely a Trojan horse to smuggle a new liberalism into the Evangelical camp? Is a post-Evangelical still to be regarded as an Evangelical? For Stanley the answer is yes, provided that he or she is inspired by the same "convertive piety" that animated early Methodism. Sometimes, in the life of the Church, things do seem to turn full circle.

Is the Pentecostal resurgence in recent decades to be viewed as an aspect of Evangelicalism? Stanley addresses but doesn't quite answer this question, which perhaps needs a separate treatment. Analogous questions arise in relation to the inculturation of Evangelicalism in Africa and elsewhere. Much African Christianity bears the imprint of Western Evangelicalism, but it is also very different, sometimes baff- lingly so to Western Evangelicals.

The impact of Billy Graham's crusades a generation ago are fully treated. He seems to have catalysed much of the subsequent revival of wider Evangelicalism, although today his impact seems rather muted. It is interesting to be reminded that Michael Ramsey denounced him as a heretic; perhaps Graham's success is illustrated by the fact that today such a remark would seem somewhat ludicrous. But Graham's impact, while global, was not universal, and was particularly limited in Africa, where cultural patterns are much more communal and less individualistic than in many other cultures.

The fact that so much of the history narrated here is the history of competing, and of individual leaders, often American, provokes a final reflection from this reviewer. A history of Anglo-Catholicism would be very different in character. Did the Reformation, for all its energy and purchase on the truth of the gospel, unleash a never-ending proliferation of denominations and sects? Does it lack the ecclesial infrastructure, the givenness of the ordained ministry and sacramental life, which should help to safeguard the Church against disunity?

Stanley does not discuss in any detail the fissiparous nature of Evangelicalism, the results of which he so eloquently lays before us, but for the future of Evangelicalism this will surely be a crucial question.

Dr Forster is the Bishop of Chester.

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