Review: Every Leaf, Line, and Letter

Every Leaf, Line, and Letter, Edited by Timothy Larsen, Introduction by Thomas S. Kidd. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: A collection of articles in honor of historian of evangelicalism, David Bebbington, exploring expressions of the “biblicism,” in Bebbington’s definition of evangelicalism, known as the “Bebbington Quadrilateral.”

Historian David Bebbington is most widely known for his description of the defining characteristics of evangelicalism: conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism, which has become known as the “Bebbington Quadrilateral.” This collection of articles focuses on biblicism, an effort to honor Bebbington on his 70th birthday and retirement from his Chair. The articles cover a span of time from the 1730’s to the present and are organized by century. One of the main themes of the books is the variety of uses of the Bible and forms of expression of evangelicalism’s commitment to the Bible. In my review I will summarize the articles by century, noting salient points.

Eighteenth Century

Kristina Benham opens this collection considering American preaching during the Revolutionary War and the widespread invocation of Exodus and Independence as ascent to an American Zion. She notes how the exodus theme will later be used by slaves from within the American system. Bruce Hindmarsh takes some exception with Bebbington’s observation of Enlightenment influence in 18th century evangelicalism by noting the extensive examples of figural reading of the biblical text. Then Jonathan Yeager rounds out this section by contrasting the views of Jonathan Edwards and John Erskine on faith and free will. Yeager exposes Edward’s distinctiveness from the reformers on his views of the place of the will in the exercise of faith, contrasting him with the more traditionally reformed Erskine.

Nineteenth Century

I found K. Elise Leal’s “Young People Are Actually Becoming Accurate Bible Theologians” one of the most interesting essays in the volume. She looks at children’s Bible education, including a heavy emphasis on memory work and the efforts of the Sunday school movement to form children into “Bible Theologians.” I saw echoes of these efforts in my own childhood Sunday school experience. Mark Noll explores the challenge that the debate to slavery posed to the belief in sola scriptura–the reality that pro-slavery and abolitionist preaching both invoked the same Bible. I’m convinced that evangelicalism in the U.S. bears the mark of this crisis down to the present day. I had not previously been acquainted with Josephine Butler, a crusader for women’s rights whose life was animated by her reading of scripture, particularly in its focus on the gospels and an almost mystical love for Jesus. Mary Riso offers a fascinating portrait of her as an example of the expression of biblicism in evangelical piety.

Twentieth Century

This section opens with David Bebbington’s own contribution to this volume: a study of the Bible crisis in British evangelicalism in the 1920’s, the fundamentalist reaction to critical studies that brought significant divides in the U.S. was more muted, in part because of the strong Anglican evangelical presence who refused to denounce or separate. I was fascinated to learn of the significant role the Bible league played in the student movement that became Inter-Varsity Fellowship in the UK, later spreading to Canada and the U.S. Timothy Larson follows up with a study of Liberal Evangelicals in the UK through a study of the ministry of Vernon Faithful Storr, a leader in the Anglican Evangelical Group Movement, the locus of liberal evangelicalism. It was telling that they were defined as much for their stance against Anglo-Catholicism and for the “central” churchman rather than doctrinal views, although Storrs moved to a position of believing neither in the plenary inspiration or final authority of the Bible. Sadly his efforts to be “on the right side of history” led to the eclipse of his movement by the evangelicals led by John Stott, much to his chagrin.

The next essay shifts the focus to the United States and the anti-lynching efforts of Francis Grimke and the biblical arguments he used, the lack of attention he received, and his developing arguments for the legitimacy of defensive resistance in the face of white tyranny and oppression. The section concludes with the rise of the charismatic movement, particularly in New Zealand and Britain, the rift between Michael Harper and John Stott over whether Spirit baptism was a second and distinct work to justification and how the charismatic renewal led to more democratic uses of scripture in personal and public devotion and ministry.

Twenty-first Century

This last part begins with what I thought a chilling study of the Patriot’s Bible, the interweaving of biblical text and American history laying groundwork for a kind of Christian nationalistic fervor and militarism in defense of country. It is interesting to trace how many problems in American Christianity trace to what is in the margins of our Bibles along with the Biblical text from C. I. Scofield to the present. I’ve often warned against treating the notes as inspired and that we may do better to read Bibles without such notes. Finally Brian Stanley, a global church historian considers the variety of forms biblicism takes in global evangelicalism, particularly in context where oral tradition or hymn-singing are important.

While this is a selective treatment of biblicism in evangelical history as any such treatment must be, this festschrift offers rich food for thought. The two articles on early twentieth century evangelicalism remind me of the challenge of avoiding either polemical dogmatism or liberal latitudinarianism. It was fascinating to think about the formation of children, which seems less important in many circles, than even in my youth. More striking is how often evangelicals have appropriated scripture for political ends, from revolution to slavery to making America great. It makes sense to me of the advocacy of some Christians that we need a new revolution. It seems to me instead that we need a better reading of scripture, perhaps one shaped by the other aspects of Bebbington’s Quadrilateral–the centrality of Christ and his cross, the necessity of conversion (rarely talked about these days) and activism like that of Josephine Butler, fueled by the biblical text and the love of Christ.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Destruction of a Good Word

charles_g_finney

Charles Grandison Finney. Preacher, abolitionist, and second president of Oberlin College. An example of a nineteenth century evangelical. Photo, Public Domain via Wikimedia

Yesterday, I reviewed the new edition of Donald Dayton’s Rediscovering an Evangelical Heritage. My own sense as I reflect on the book and its title is that the identifier “evangelical” in the American context has been eviscerated of its meaning. “Mourning a Lost Heritage” might be a better title.

Almost no one I know thinks this is a good word any longer. It is associated with the racial and political divides in our country. To be “evangelical” is to be white, Republican, anti-immigrant, among other things, none of which has to do with the word’s etymological roots or historic usage.

Literally, the term means “one who bears or is associated with a good message” or more briefly, “a bearer of good news.” There are four qualities that have made this good news, historically, noted by historians like David Bebbington and Mark Noll:

1. Conversion. The idea is that the message of Christian faith is not try harder, but become a new person through trust in Christ. It is a message that offers hope across all ethnic groups, economic strata, and every human condition.

2. God has spoken. Evangelicals affirm a Bible that is trustworthy and speaks with authority about the crucial questions of life, not leaving us to wander in the dark.

3. The Person and Work of Christ. Evangelicals have affirmed that Christ is fully God and fully human, and thus the perfect mediator to bring God to us, and us to God. His death and bodily resurrection root our hope of life and future with God not in what we do but what has been done for us in time and space.

4. Activism. Gratitude for the above three realities motivates a care for others expressed both in word and deed, both in seeking to persuade others to believe, hopefully but not always with grace and humility, and caring for needs of the body and injustices of society as well as spiritual renewal. Dayton’s book highlights how nineteenth century evangelicals like Charles Finney were in the vanguard of abolitionist and feminist movements, anti-trafficking movements, and urban outreaches to the poor, many immigrants. Some of this continues to the present in organizations like the Salvation Army.

Sadly, outside a historically and theologically informed sub-culture, I suspect there are few in American society today who would think of these distinctives when they hear the word “evangelical.” I seriously doubt they would think “good news” when they hear this word. It’s not their fault, however. It is ours. We’ve traded the pursuit of these wonderful distinctives and a message that transcends Left and Right for attempted political influence with one political party. And the sad truth is that in the end, we’ve had little political influence and lost spiritual influence in our culture. We’ve been political and cultural captives, and we are dying in captivity!

I’ll be honest, I had hoped that this would be the election when “evangelicals” would abstain from endorsements and public advocacy for particular candidates, given who the nominees are. Sadly, if anything, evangelicals have been among the most visible advocates for this year’s Republican candidate. Given what seems to be a deepening racial estrangement in our nation, this identification if anything has only seemed to deepen the corresponding estrangement between white evangelicals and black churches, and other ethnic minorities.

There are many believers, black and white who are seeking to bridge these divides. Many of us think that if we have any engagement in the political process, it is not to lodge our hope in political power, but to advocate with whoever is in office for justice. My sense is that most are very uncomfortable with the identifier of “evangelical.” Truthfully, I am among them. I often describe myself as a “mere Christian,” drawing on the example of C. S. Lewis. But it is not the case that I have left “evangelicalism” but rather that I would say “evangelicalism,” at least in its American form, has left me. Scratch me, and I bleed Bebbington’s distinctives.

But I grieve for the destruction of a good word about good news. I hate the fact that it is an epithet in the ears of many, and for all the wrong reasons. The real issue isn’t the word, but the loss of what the word has represented as a vital stream within American (as well as global) Christianity. I also grieve because of how much “damage control” it seems is necessary because of the political captivity of American evangelicalism. It often seems so hard to get to the good news, because first we have to deal with all the barriers and misconceptions that associates Christian faith in any form with “bad news.” I wish those “evangelical” leaders who make endorsements understood how every endorsement makes it just that much harder to pursue those core distinctives some of us still hold dear.

This particular movement may die, as Robert P. Jones and others are predicting. God’s way seems to be when one group ceases to be faithful to its call, others are raised up to take their place. Today, the most vibrant forms of Christianity are outside North America, and it might be argued that the most vibrant forms of Christianity inside North America are outside the white, evangelical church, in immigrant and ethnic minority communities. God is not bound to our cultural and political captivities. The question is whether we are willing to walk with Him on His long road to freedom.