Evangelicals: Past and Present
- Friday, November 19, 2010
[Editor's Note: In an age lamenting unending confusion and fragmentation in evangelicalism, Christopher Catherwood sounds a hopeful, unifying call in Evangelicals: Beliefs and Politics. (Adapted from Chapter 4 of "Evangelicals Past and Present," Crossway) Used by permission.]
"This is the new global Christian reality! This, rather than tired old debates on the culture wars is where evangelical Christianity is at:
African, Latin American, Asian, growing, dynamic, expanding. Forget what you read in Western secular newspapers.
This is evangelicalism in the twenty-first century and where it will be, I suspect, for some time to come."
~ Christopher Catherwood
Historically speaking, evangelicalism is supposed to have begun with the Great Awakening in the eighteenth century, a transatlantic phenomenon. Similar evangelical movements have also reflected both a British and an American dimension, such as a major turning to Christian faith, called a revival (in the British sense of that term) in 1859. In particular the United States saw great evangelistic activity and a turning to Christian faith on a large scale associated with the ministry of Jonathan Edwards, and Britain saw similar revival with the brothers John and Charles Wesley. George Whitefield figured prominently on both sides of the Atlantic.
Four Characteristics of Evangelicalism
Historians such as David Bebbington in Scotland have noted four main characteristics of the growth of evangelicalism at that time.1 These are:
1. Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be changed
2. Activism: the expression of the gospel in effort
3. Biblicism: a particular regard for the Bible
4. Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross
As Bebbington reminds us, leaders such as John Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism, emphasized the first tw conversion, being "born again," or what theologians call "justification by faith"; and the necessity of being saved through accepting Jesus Christ as Savior through Jesus' sacrificial death on the cross, what theologians call the atonement.
With all this, evangelicals are in full agreement today, in the twenty-first century. Here I should note that these four points are certainly what evangelicals ought to believe as their foundational doctrines, as we saw in the IFES basis of faith in chapter 1. However, as younger scholars such as Michael Horton and older preachers such as John MacArthur have pointed out, often in controversial books, there is sometimes quite a difference between theoretical belief and what evangelicals do in practice.
This is not the place to argue these much debated points! Suffice it to say that some authors and preachers—notably the two in the last paragraph—have pointed out what they feel is a major cultural compromise by many (but not all) evangelicals, in going along with the touchy-feely, faith-meets-my-felt needs, me-centered culture of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. And it is certainly true that those who do preach what one might call Christianity-lite have packed congregations, hosted television shows, and written bestselling books you find at airport bookstores.
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