Tuesday, 22 December 2009

So how should evangelicals write about the history of Evangelicalism?

I don't often see The Banner of Truth magazine these days, but I happened to pick up the latest issue the other day in my local Christian bookshop, and noticed in the reviews section an appraisal by Iain H. Murray of Mark Smith (ed.), British Evangelical Identities: Past and Present (Paternoster, 2008), a book in which I've got a chapter, and which Murray singles out for special attention in his review (The Banner of Truth, 555 (December, 2009), pp. 31-2.) Murray has become a pretty virulent critic of us evangelical historians who write within the professional academy, accusing us of what he calls a 'concessive policy'; he argues that by accepting the standards of professional academia, which does not allow us to integrate the divine dimension into the history which we write, we have in effect sold out to the 'contemporary secular ethos'. Trenchant comments of this nature from Murray are nothing new; indeed his review of Harry S. Stout's biography of George Whitefield, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Evangelicalism (1991), provoked a spikey exchange of letters between Murray and Stout in the pages of The Banner of Truth magazine in the early '90s [http://http//isae.wheaton.edu/evangelical-studies-bulletin/from-the-isae-vault/]. My own book, A Glorious Work in the World: Welsh Methodism and the International Evangelical Revival, 1735-50 (2004) received similar treatment, potential readers being warned that they would have to 'read into it the spiritual dynamic' if they were going to profit from reading it all (this review was not actually by Murray, I hasten to add, but the views expressed in it are almost identical to those expressed by him elsewhere) (The Banner of Truth, 499 (April, 2005), pp. 25-6). To me the most obvious difference between the way professional academic historians write and the way in which authors like Murray write, lies in their very different methodolgies. Professional historians attempt to approach their subject scientifically, they read primary sources, methodically collect evidence and then draw their conclusions on the basis on that evidence. Now obviously, when it comes to their interpretations all historians are going to be influenced by their presuppositions to some degree, but professional historians at least attempt to set these aside, or work with them consciously, and try to be guided by the weight of the evidence. It seems to me that writers like Murray start with their presuppositions, their theological presuppositions mainly, and then construct their history to fit in with them. The lack of engagement with primary historical sources in much of what Murray writes (with the notable exception of his biography of Martyn Lloyd-Jones), is surely evidence of this. Maybe though this, at bottom, is one of the differences between the approach of the professionally trained historian and the amateur, the latter's approach owing more to the antiquarian than the historian. This is not to say that the work produced by the antiquarian does not have its place, its just that its different; professional historians write for their peers, largely, and so they have an inbuilt accountabilty mechanism as members of that professional community. Antiquarians often publish their own work, with all that that means unfortunately for the lack of intellectual accountability. Murray's accusation that evangelical historians within the academy are not able to bring God into their writing is of an altogether more serious nature, since it seems to me to strike at the heart of the integrity of us Christian scholars who attempt to operate within the academy while being faithful to our Christian profession. Murray seems to think that the only form of faithful Christian history is one that makes constant reference to the hand of God in the historical process. I wonder whether writing history is ever that simple? Charting the hand of God in post biblical history is fraught with difficulties and uncertainty, every generation of Christians, of whatever variety, have believed that they have been led by God. Surely the correct approach should be one of humility. While the Christian scholar should want to affirm strongly the role of Divine providence in the historical process, in the sense that God is superintending the history of world to a given end, the return of Jesus, and the creation of the new Heaven's and new Earth, charting his activity on a more mundane day-to-day level is far from easy. Surely we all know this even on a personal level - we can believe that God is leading us in a given way at a given time, only for subsequent events to eventually prove that the exact opposite was the case.
What Murray's approach to history inevitably tends to become is a pantheon of the saints, a collection of ideal historical exemplars who have safeguarded the faith down through the ages, who all look and say much the same, that is they reflect the predilictions of the person who is writing about them. How else could you argue for a kind of evangelical sucessionism that takes in the Apostle Paul, Augustine, a couple of favourite medieval pseudo-evangelical Catholics, Luther, Calvin, the Puritans, the Methodists, the Princeton theologians, Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones, or at least something like that! While there are certainly common themes to all of them, they're all enormously different from one another also. What this kind of approach ends up being is actually pretty ahistorical.
But now to a few of the more substantive issues in Murray's review of British Evangelical Identities:
  1. He clearly dislikes David Bebbington's fourfold characterisation of evangelicalism, wanting something much more theologically detailed one assumes. Yet the great advantage, and it is a big advantage, of Bebbington's taxonomy is that its helps define evangelicalism historically - not theologically! Evangelicals have been those who have stressed the Bible, the cross, conversion and activism; this both allows historians to stress the importance of a number foundational beliefs for evangelicals, and gives enough lattitude for us to reflect the flexibility of the opinions held about those four areas by different groups of evangelicals across the past three centuries.
  2. He criticises my chapter on Methodism and the rise of Evangelicalism in Wales for arguing that the cause of the evangelical revival is to be found in its social and cultural context, rather than in any spiritual explanation. Really? I certainly argue that the social and cultural milieu of the mid eighteenth century gave shape and definition to the shape of evangelicalism, but caused it? I'm not sure I ever really say what, or who, caused it! What my chapter actually argues is that Wales certainly did experience a Great Awakening in the eighteenth century, something that is called into question by the sort of secular historiography that Murray is so suspicious of. But that spiritual awakening was earthed in the mid eighteenth century, the same as every generation of Christians are earthed in their own particular contexts and affected by them in all sorts of ways, some of which they don't even realise themselves. Is it ever right to separate temporal and spiritual explanations in the history of Christianity? Surely, God works through means, constantly, and the shape and feel of evangelical belief, while retaining a consistent doctrinal core, changes and adapts in different periods and cultures. If this were not so evangelicals would be more like the Amish in present day America, clinging to a defunct cultural identity which they've baptised with Christian legitimacy. But then there are plenty of evangelicals who think they live in other generations too, whether it be the 1950s, the 1730s or 1650s! However, the big issue surely concerns passing judgement on where you think God is at work or is not at work. This is surely problematic. N. T. Wright has some appropriate advice which address the problem of identifying the hand of God in history just about perfectly: 'When Christians try to read off what God is doing even in their own situations, such claims always carry the word perhaps about them as a mark of humility and of the necessary reticence of faith. That doesn't mean that such claims can't be made, but that they need to be made with a 'perhaps' which is always inviting God to come in and say: 'Well, actually, No!
  3. Murray is much happier with the chapters in British Evangelical Identities which chart what he calls the current evangelical downgrade, attributable in large part he says to the charismatic movement which has turned attention away from clear doctrinal convicitons. Drawing this kind of conclusion from the evidence presented in these chapters is, of course, legitimate, but perhaps it also highlights the very reason why the kind of detailed careful historical scholarship in the pages of this volume is so needful in the contemporary church. Understanding the past, enables us to understand present trends of course; its in the interpretation of those present trends that most would want to take issue with Murray's analysis.
It may well be then that the kind of humble honest scholarship carried out by evangelical historians of the calibre of David Bebbington, Mark Noll and George Marsden, to name but three, ends up being much more faithful to the complexity of the past, the inconsistent actions of fallen men and women, who rarely live up to some of their highest ideals and therefore also to the Scriptural analysis of humanity and God's activity in the world. This is surely preferable to the kind of simplistic black and white analysis preferred by some who are currently balanced somewhat precariously over on the ring-wing of the evangelical movement.


Chris Adams said...

Many good points... perhaps an article in 'Banner of Truth' could be useful in explaining this view to the wider non-academic evangelical community?

Dr Digby L. James said...

I can understand the position of Christian academic historians, but I think Stout goes too far and ends up misrepresenting Whitefield and what motivated him. Even worse, there are plain errors in Stout's book. Stout has Whitefield born in Bristol (page 2) instead of Gloucester. Now I know that in America 200 years is a long time and in Europe 200 miles is a long way, and so the mere 30 miles may not be considered to be an error, but it is worrying that a professional historian (at Yale at the time) could make such an error. He also has Whitefield married in Abergavenny instead of Caerphilly . The details about his first sermon are wrong (page 32), he has Wesley preaching about the New Birth before he was converted in 1738 (page 38). I don't know what Scotsmen make of his statement (page 134) "Like America, Scotland emerged from the English Reformation." Stout seems to make out that Whitefield's success was down to his acting abilities. Frank Lambert ascribes it to his marketing skills. While there may be grounds for saying that both elements were involved in Whitefield's success (from a human point of view), to ascribe it wholly to one or other of these goes far beyond the evidence. While I can see that it is difficult in an academic work to speak of the work of the Holy Spirit (which would certainly result in an author being ignored and probably pilloried) I cannot see why it is necessary to have to invoke any reason for such success beyond saying that his preaching was successful.

Sorry for the rant. Stout's book makes me angry because of its inaccuracies which blight the useful things he says, especially on sources, may of which are now on my website.

Work progresses on my new edition of Whitefield's Journals. I am working through the Franklin editions to see if there are any significant differences. On the first Journal Franklin seems to follow the Thomas Cooper "surreptitious" edition.

What progress of the Whitefield letters project?

Incidentally, the speech bubbles in the evolution/creation cartoon are the wrong way round!