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:
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.