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.

Review: Balm in Gilead

balm in gilead

Balm in Gilead: A Theological Dialogue with Marilynne Robinson, edited by Timothy Larsen and Keith L. Johnson. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A collection of presentations from the 2018 Wheaton Theology Conference, discussing the work, and particularly the fiction, of Marilynne Robinson with contributions from Robinson.

It is not unusual at an academic conference to discuss the work of a particular author. What is perhaps more remarkable is to discuss the work of a living author with the author present and contributing. The subtitle of this work calls this “a theological dialogue with Marilynne Robinson, and this is true in two senses. The various essays do engage the theology, particularly the Calvinism of Robinson’s work. But the conference also engaged Robinson, with a presentation by her (“The Protestant Conscience”) and a conversation between her and Rowan Williams, and an interview with Wheaton College President Philip Ryken.

Most of the essays focus on some aspect of the theology found in Robinson’s work. Timothy Larsen considers the main character of her fiction, Reverend John Ames, his heritage as the grandson of a staunch abolitionist in the mold of Wheaton’s Jonathan Blanchard, his reaction against that as a pacifist, and the mindset of the 1950’s Christian Century which he and fellow minister Boughton regularly discussed. Han-luen Kantzer Komline explores Ames “heart condition,” both physical and spiritual, and his struggle to forgive and extend grace to Jack Boughton, the wayward child of his friend. Timothy George explores the unusual, for an academic and a writer, embrace of Calvinism by Robinson, with its doctrine of predestination, emphasizing grace and undercutting human presumption. George notes the central focus of Robinson on Christ and so does Keith L. Johnson in a discussion of Robinson’s metaphysics. Here he teases out Robinson’s understanding of the significance of the cross as the demonstration of the love of God for us rather than on its sacrificial character, a focus Robinson engages and differs with.

Lauren Winner focuses on the preaching of John Ames–the 67,500 pages and 2,250 sermons in the course of his pastorate in Gilead and his conclusion that “they mattered or they didn’t and that’s the end of it.” One of the most intriguing essays for me was that of Patricia Andujo on the African American experience in Robinson’s works. She explores how these works reflect the attitudes of mainline white churches in the 1950’s, a kind of passivity in the face of racism, even while raising the uncomfortable issue of Jack Boughton’s inter-racial marriage, and the lack of response when the town’s black church burns down and the congregation leaves.

Tiffany Eberle Kriner’s essay on “Space/Time/Doctrine” raises the intriguing idea of the influence of Robinson’s understanding of predestination, and the shifts backwards and forwards in time in her novels. Joel Sheesley, a midwestern artist, focuses on the landscape of Robinson’s novels. In the penultimate essay Rowan Williams explores the theme of the grace that is beyond human goodness. He writes:

“Grace, not goodness, is the key to our healing. To say that is to say that we’re healed in relation not only to God but to one another. Without that dimension, we’re back with toxic goodness again, the goodness that forgets and excludes. Lila’s problem in the novel is that the instinctive warmth, the human friendliness, the humanly constructed fellowship that characterizes Gilead cannot allow itself to be wounded and broken open in such a way that the stranger is welcome, whether that stranger is the racial other, or simply the socially marginal and damaged person like Lila herself. But to be wounded in our goodness, to learn to have that dimension of our self-image and self-presentation cracked open, is the beginning of where grace can act in us” (pp. 163-164).

The final essay is Robinson’s on “The Protestant Conscience,” in which she defends not only the freedom of conscience of religious believers but argues that the Protestant idea of conscience defended the freedom of all rather than enforcing a Christian conscience upon all through means of the state. This presentation is followed by conversations with Rowan Williams, and an interview with Philip Ryken. In this collection, I found these diverting, but not nearly as substantive and satisfying as the various essays. Perhaps a highlight was the difference between Robinson and Williams on the literary merits of Flannery O’Connor, of whom Robinson is no fan.

This is a great volume for any who, like me, love the work of Marilynne Robinson. It helped make greater sense of some of the themes I’ve seen in her work, particularly her Calvinism. It served to invite me to a re-reading of her work in its exploration of themes of place, race, and grace. Robinson’s presence by no means muted the critique of her work, and yet I saw no defensiveness in her comments, which bespeaks the evidence of grace in her life. All in all, this is well worth acquiring if you have followed Robinson’s work. For those who have not, read the novels first, and then you will appreciate this volume!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.