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In this important volume, Brian Stanley (Professor of World Christianity at Edinburgh University) explores the complex growth and diversification of evangelicalism from the 1940s to the 1990s. It represents the fifth and final volume in IVP’s series exploring the development of evangelicalism in the English-speaking world since the eighteenth century. It is a fitting conclusion to the series. Stanley’s obvious familiarity with both the topic and its associated literature will ensure that its judgments are taken seriously.
Inevitably, the analysis will generate controversy and debate, partly for historical reasons, yet perhaps more importantly in relation to what lessons may be drawn from Stanley’s analysis. Stanley’s narrative highlights the importance of certain individuals – such as Billy Graham and John Stott – in creating a sense of shared identity for evangelicalism, and raises awkward questions about who might succeed them. His account of the development of the “new evangelicalism” in the United States in the late 1940s and the growing influence of evangelicalism in English mainline churches in the 1950s is surefooted, and is well grounded in the substantial body of scholarly literature dealing with these questions. His discussion of the significance (and interpretation!) of Lausanne 1974 is judicious and thoughtful, as is his account of the remarkable growth in Pentecostalism and other forms of charismatic Christianity in recent decades.
Stanley is at his best when documenting trends in evangelicalism of which he approves – such as the move away from fundamentalism towards evangelicalism, and evangelicalism’s increasing commitment to scholarly and intellectual engagement, evident in the foundation of new institutions (such as Regent College Vancouver and Tyndale House Cambridge), and the redirection of others. Yet Stanley rightly notes how evangelicals have relied heavily on leading thinkers outside their own tradition to resource their engagement with contemporary cultural issues – most notably, Lesslie Newbigin and C. S. Lewis, neither of whom can be considered to be an “evangelical”.
Many would concur with his judgment that recent evangelical history shows that the movement is less rigorously defined, theologically or sociologically, than some of its less critical advocates might wish. “The contours of evangelical identity have been to a greater or lesser extent fluid throughout the history of the movement.” Stanley’s reflections will be uncomfortable reading for those who expect evangelicals to self-define by ticking certain theological boxes; they fit easily, however, into an historian’s concern to characterize – rather than define – the movement.
So what are the future prospects for the movement? In his final chapter, Stanley asks whether evangelicalism is essentially a coherent movement, concerned to diffuse its message globally, or a loosely defined and connected movement, liable to disintegration through expansion precisely because this process exposes its fundamental lack of coherence. His analysis is highly suggestive, noting the importance of the context in which evangelicalism is located in shaping the movement’s sense of identity. Will an increasingly secular context – as, for example, in Canada – lead to the movement gaining a greater sense of identity and shared beliefs?
And what of the rise of postmodernism? Stanley rightly emphasizes how evangelicalism emerged within an essentially modernist framework, which it tended to see as self-evidently correct. Postmodern criticism of modernism could thus be misconstrued as an erosion of Christian fundamentals, when it was actually a critique of a too cosy relationship between Christianity and modernism. We need to remember that modernism and postmodernism are both non-Christian worldviews, within which we are called to frame, articulate and defend the Christian faith. As modernism recedes into the distance, it remains to be seen how evangelicalism will respond.
To my mind, there is no need for “post-evangelicalism”. There is, however, a need for a careful and considered evaluation of the manner and extent to which evangelicalism has been silently shaped by prevailing western worldviews – whether modern or postmodern – and a principled determination to avoid trapping the gospel in an ideology, no matter how benign. The gospel is too easily held captive by the fixed assumptions of an age. Perhaps when the next volume in this series finally comes to be written, we will learn how successfully today’s evangelicalism has safeguarded the evangelical treasure which it claims to serve.
Alister McGrath holds the Chair in Theology, Ministry and Education, and is Head of the Centre for Theology, Religion and Culture, at King’s College London
The Global Diffusion of Evangelicalism: The age of Billy Graham and John Stott by Brian Stanley is published by IVP
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