The current class I’m taking at the University of Birmingham (UK) has been focused on the history of Evangelicalism. We spent some time reading through David Bebbington’s classic Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, Alister McGrath’s Evangelicalism & the Future of Christianity, and Mark Noll’s American Evangelical Christianity. My professor, the esteemed Dr. Allan Anderson, prompted reflection by asking what were the differences and the similarities between these three authors. Here’s how I think through the differences and similarities between Bebbington, McGrath, and Noll…
First, finding differences between the definitions for Evangelicalism by Beggington, McGrath, and Noll is more difficult than finding similarities. In my reading, I’d suggest that Bebbington appears more historical, McGrath more doctrinal, and Noll more political. What I mean by this is that Bebbington lays out a more detailed exposition on how Evangelicalism has been characterized throughout history and sees the movement through the lens of four qualities (conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism). This approach is, in some ways, the path of least common denominator and, perhaps, a great starting point towards defining Evangelicalism. It also seems important to note that Bebbington seems to focus on Europe and the United States as opposed to global Evangelicalism, which makes sense since his book is focused on modern Britain.
Rather than simplifying Evangelicalism into having four qualities, McGrath provides six characteristics. McGrath’s six characteristics of Evangelicalism are:
- The supreme authority of Scripture as a source of knowledge of God and a guide to Christian living.
- The lordship of the Holy Spirit.
- The need for personal conversion.
- The priority for evangelism for both individuals and the church as a whole.
- The importance of Christian community for spiritual nourishment, fellowship and growth.
It appears that McGrath would suggest that Bebbington’s four qualities need some explanation. How is an Evangelical committed to Scripture? How do Evangelicals think about the Holy Spirit? McGrath sees answering these questions, and several more, as important towards defining Evangelicalism. Furthermore, McGrath acknowledges that significant contributions that the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements have made upon Evangelicalism. Bebbington and Noll both gloss over this important fact. McGrath clearly has an appreciation for Anglicanism and Reformed influences, while also acknowledging the wider global influences within Evangelicalism. Bebbington and Noll appear to simply give a nod in this direction.
Noll, writing explicitly in regards to American Evangelicalism tends to approach Evangelicalism through the lens of culture. Thus, there is focus upon the political culture of American Evangelicalism and less focus on theology and activity, though Noll provided an interesting insight regarding the use of media in the early and mid-twentieth century as well as issues related to contextualization within modern worship expressions. I also sensed the Noll tended to overlook some of the historical influences upon Evangelicalism that Bebbington and McGrath both appreciate in some areas while also making special note of Fundamentalism and its relationship to Evangelicalism. This is likely due to the focus on American Evangelicalism.
How are these authors similar? While all three authors acknowledge similarities between the different traditions with Evangelicalism (e.g., Baptists, Presbyterians, Wesleyans), they also note the great diversity. While all Evangelicals are generally committed to the four qualities that Bebbington provides, they are clearly diverse in perspective of what those qualities look like and how they are best expressed. This is an important concept. In fact, each author took care to note the diversity with Evangelicalism multiple times.
It’s also important to note that all three authors clearly envision Evangelicalism as a movement that is both “head and heart.” The qualities of Evangelicalism are both intellectual experienced as well as internally experienced. Evangelicals, according to Bebbington, McGrath, and Noll, are generally committed to both mental assent and emotional response.
What do you think? Do these explanations of Evangelicalism resemble your understanding of this Christian movement/tradition?
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.