Monday, June 05, 2006

Was Evangelicalism created by the Enlightenment?

In his 2002 article of this name[1], Garry Williams offers a critique of historian David Bebbington’s thesis that evangelicalism is essentially a product of the Enlightenment. As I have read little of Bebbington’s work, I am not in a position to evaluate the debate, or indeed to present the counter-arguments from Bebbington’s side. I will therefore limit myself to summarising Williams’ argument and (in a second piece) offering a few meagre comments.

Bebbington’s definition of evangelicalism, as a historical movement, focuses on four key characteristics, a “quadrilateral of priorities”:

  • “conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed;
  • activism, the expression of the gospel in effort;
  • biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be called
  • crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross”[2]

Bebbington’s thesis is that evangelicalism thus defined was born in the early 18th century and was chiefly distinguished from what went before by the second characteristic, activism. The earlier Reformers and Puritans also placed great emphasis on conversion, the Bible and the Cross but lacked that activism that has been a hallmark of evangelicalism. That is, evangelicalism is a continuation of the Reformation and the Puritan movement, with a new intensification of activity in missions, evangelism and social action.

What caused this change is, according to Bebbington, a change in the theology of assurance which in turn was created by the absorption of certain aspects of Enlightenment philosophy into the thinking of the likes of John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards. According to Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, certainty could be obtained empirically, through the senses. This was, according to Bebbington, translated into Evangelicalism by the positing of a special ‘spiritual sense’ by which one could gain certain, early knowledge – assurance – of one’s salvation. While previous generations had expended much energy on ascertaining whether one was truly saved or not, now the question of the evangelical’s assurance could be quickly settled, and he was thus freed from self-examination to spend himself in godly activity.

This is the heart of Bebbington’s thesis and Williams critiques it in two ways. Firstly, he questions whether there was a new doctrine of assurance by examining the thought of Edwards, Wesley and John Newton; secondly, he briefly questions whether there was indeed a new activism.

In response, Williams argues:

(1) John Wesley does argue that the Holy Spirit gives an immediate sense of assurance upon conversion. However, post-conversion, Wesley urges the believer to examine himself for evidence of the Spirit’s work in his life to provide a second witness in addition to the immediate sense.[3]

(2) Wesley speaks of a ‘spiritual sense’ in language somewhat similar to that used by Enlightenment philosophers to speak of the physical senses. However,
a. The spiritual sense is only similar to the physical senses in the degree of certainty given by it
b. The spiritual sense is fundamentally different because the certainty obtained through the spiritual sense is given by the Spirit of God, not obtained through human reflection as with the physical senses.
c. Wesley draws his idea of a spiritual sense from pre-Enlightenment sources, while using language amenable to the times. “A shared vocabulary is not sufficient to demonstrate an intellectual origin.”[4]

(3) When Jonathan Edwards speaks of a spiritual sense, an immediate sense of assurance,
a. he is speaking about being certain of the objective truth of the gospel, not the certainty that the individual is saved.
b. although the language Edwards employs sounds Lockean, his conception of spiritual sense was not borrowed from Locke but was firmly rooted in the Augustinian-Reformed theological heritage. Many of the Puritans (Williams cites John Owen, Thomas Goodwin and John Flavel) spoke of spiritual sense in ways similar to Edwards. Williams suggests that Edwards “was engaged in an apologetic project in which he used the language and concepts of his opponents to his own theological ends.”[5]

(4) As regards assurance of salvation, Edwards in fact consistently and strongly rejected any kind of assurance based on a special, immediate ‘spiritual sense’ (contra Wesley).

(5) For Edwards, the route to assurance lies through the evidence of the fruit of the Spirit in the believer’s life. He therefore called for the same rigorous self-examination as the Puritans.
a. Furthermore, “where we would expect from Bebbington to find the earlier, possibly more confident theology fuelling evangelical activism, we find that Edwards’s activism [namely his mission work among the Indians in Stockbridge] followed his attack on the idea of a direct witness.”[6]

(6) John Newton also does not fit Bebbington’s description, as he held, for example, that assurance was rare and difficult to obtain.

(7) Finally, leaving aside assurance, Williams disputes Bebbington’s claim that Evangelicalism was characterised by a new activism. “The dating of Evangelicalism to the 1730s will only work if we say that preaching, pastoring, evangelism and social concern do not count as examples of Evangelical activism”[7], for all those activities were practised by both the Reformers and the Puritans. Only in the case of foreign missions could such a case possibly be made, but then ‘activism’ would have by far too narrow a definition.

On the basis of these arguments, Williams disputes Bebbington’s dating of the origins of evangelicalism and seeks to reopen for consideration “the case for the Reformation and Puritanism being authentically Evangelical movements.”[8]

Williams concludes by suggesting that one implication of renewing the stress on the continuity of Evangelicalism with the Reformation and the Puritans rather than its (supposed) newness is to do with the doctrine of election. On the view that evangelicalism originated in the early 18th century, both Edwards and Wesley are seen as foundational figures, and hence the divide between Arminian and Reformed theology is present from the beginning. On the other hand, tracing evangelicalism’s roots back through the Puritans to the Reformers is to show that the Reformed doctrine of election is original, and the Arminian version an aberration. “With such an historical perspective, Reformed theology becomes the authentic Evangelical mainstream of three centuries, and the historical case for the foundational status of Arminianism is undermined.”[9]

This is post is quite long enough, so my own comments will wait until the next post.

[1] Williams, Garry (2002) "Was Evangelicalism Created by the Enlightenment?", Tyndale Bulletin 53, 2, 283-312
[2] Bebbington, David (1992) Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (Grand Rapids: Baker), 2-3, quoted in Carson, D.A. (1996) The Gagging of God (Leicester: Apollos), 449
[3] “This is not to deny that assurance was more widely experienced among Wesleyans, but it is to counter Bebbington’s argument that the Methodists were freed for activism by leaving the self-examination of the Puritans behind them.” Williams p.291
[4] Williams p.293
[5] Williams p.298
[6] Williams p.306, emphasis added
[7] Williams p.311
[8] Williams p.311
[9] Williams p.312

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