Evangelicalism’s Fall and Rise (The 20th Century)
In the first article I provided a condensed overview of the aspects of English Church History which were salient to my goal. I zeroed in on those persons and developments that shaped the backdrop to the present Evangelical landscape. Naturally, I am aware that in the last 40 years or so the band of churchgoers who have taken possession of the name has become broader (though not deeper). This group (e.g. the Charismatics and their sympathizers) are everywhere and their effect is too well known to require comment here.
This essay will try to do two things:
I. Sketch the major influences on English “Christianity” from circa 1900 to around 1970.
II. Point out the main theological ideas with which most British conservatives (minus the Charismatics) identify.
- The ‘New Theology.’
The world at the end of the 19th century was ripe for the propagation of Liberalism, both theological and social. People had become sick and tired of the class divisions of “old England.” Poverty was a problem that would not go away, and the old orthodoxy was thought to be one of the central pillars of the old order. Adolf Harnack’s little book, What Is Christianity? had reconfigured the elements of the Christian belief system to fit the burgeoning mindset of “the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of man.” George Eliot had already given us Strauss’s and Feuerbach’s works in English dress; Freud was busy dismantling biblical faith and reassembling it in terms of personal window-dressing, and Albert Schweitzer was soon to show that this more human theology was also more humane. Socialism was the new gospel.
To articulate this new self-understanding, Liberalism produced the likes of R.J. Campbell who could confidently assert that, “The great social movement which is now taking place in ever country of the civilized world toward universal peace and brotherhood and a better and faster distribution of wealth is really the same movement as that which in the more distinctly religious sphere is coming to be called the New Theology.”- Horton Davies, Worship and Theology in England, Vol.V, p.126.
Liberal theology was riding the crest of a wave. It was fresh and full of promise, and, most importantly, it looked relevant, in sharp contrast to the recently thrown-off idiosyncratic Evangelicalism.
Whenever man makes some significant advance in technology or “science” he is apt to regard what came before as greatly inferior. One only has to recall that it was the men of the Renaissance who dubbed the preceding centuries “The Dark Ages” and not the Reformers. And they were referring not to spiritual but to metaphysical ignorance. This is how the Liberals and neo-orthodox viewed the Evangelicals, even well into the 1950’s. The influence of figures like Archbishop William Temple, the doyen of the Ecumenical Movement, along with Leslie Weatherhead and Donald Soper, prevailed upon the masses of ‘Christian England’. Dr. Weatherhead of the City Temple was one of London’s most popular preachers whose anti-evangelical stance is perfectly (and sardonically) expressed in a limerick:
There was a young lady of Ryde,
Who was carried away by the tide.
A man-eating shark,
Was heard to remark,
“I knew that the Lord would provide!”
(Ibid, p. 223)
I can recall hearing Lord (Donald) Soper at Tower Hill, London, preaching what he claimed was Christianity -, though he always sounded more Marxist than Christian.
- Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones.
Although new theological fads may garner applause from all sectors for a while, the superficiality of any man-centered religion will eventually be the cause of its own demise. At the end of the day, all that these men, with their consummate gifts, had to offer, was sentimentality and arid intellectualism. The rude thud that was World War II and its aftermath would reveal these pulpiteers to be hollow men with a hollow message.
When Evangelicalism is on the wane we might conclude that it will die out. But such predictions are usually premature. God always has His 7,000, even when there is no leadership around to give them visibility. What usually happens is that Bible-believers spend too much time trend-spotting, until, little by little, their thinking is prevailed upon by the ethos of the world. This describes the general state of conservatism in the period 1900-1940.
What the Evangelicals needed was a figure who could boldly communicate the ever-new message of Christ in the power of the Spirit of God. Such a man was D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones.
By the time he gave up medicine to commence his ministry in South Wales, Lloyd-Jones was recognized as being one of the foremost young surgeons in Great Britain. Though it was to be some time before he would throw off the label of “the man who exchanged Harley Street for an obscure Welsh pulpit,” it was his preaching that would rekindle the dying embers of Truth in the land.
To read his early sermons printed in Evangelical Sermons At Aberavon is to experience Gospel preaching at its very best. From the outset there was a noticeable difference from the common stock of messages. As Iain Murray reports it, “One thing that was dearly recognizable about this preaching was that it was based upon no contemporary models…among the elements which distinguished it from much of the best-known preaching of that period was its absolute dependency upon the authority of the Scriptures.” – D.M. Lloyd-Jones, The First Forty Years 1899-1939, pp. 146-147.
Lloyd-Jones joined G. Campbell Morgan at Westminster Chapel in 1938, taking over the full reins in 1943. From the capital he was to exert a large influence. In addition to the excellence of his preaching, he was instrumental in the rediscovery and republishing of Puritan literature (The Banner of Truth), the founding of a number of various institutions such as Inter Varsity Fellowship, The Evangelical Library, London Bible College, London Theological Seminary (no connection), and also the Puritan Conferences. As one writer put it, “All this was to give Evangelicalism in general, and Calvinism in particular, a renewed impetus.” – Nigel Clifford, Christian Preachers, p. 312. Even though he found himself in the midst of controversy with less ardent Biblicists than himself, his impact upon British Evangelicalism can scarcely be exaggerated.
- New Voices, Old Strains.
In no small measure due to the ministry of “the Doctor”, a crop of gifted preachers, theologians and writers began making an impression upon the nation. The promise of the ‘New Theology’ of spiritual socialism had turned into fool’s gold, emptying churches in the process. Leading the resurgence were people like J.I. Packer, Ernest Kevan, Philip E. Hughes, Herbert Carson and Iain Murray. Their theology was drawn from the wells of Reformation and Puritan literature. This both established continuity with the past and threw suspicion upon anything perceived to be new.
Dispensationalism, for instance, made ground for a few years under expositors like W. Graham Scroggie and J. Sidlow Baxter, but its tenure has been short-lived. A recent survey of commentaries warns the unwary to beware of the premillennialism of James M. Boice – and he’s a Covenant Premillennialist. You might imagine how Dispensational authors fare! It says a lot about the man that Lloyd-Jones could speak of J.N. Darby as “the great” (see Tony Sargent, The Sacred Anointing, p. 48), and even refer to the “great volume on Pneumatology” of Lewis Sperry Chafer (see The Puritans, Their Origins and Successors, p. 7). However, one should not hold one’s breath in anticipation of a repetition of those sentiments from among his peers.
- A Visit To An Evangelical Baptist Church.
In closing this second feature, I will give a thumbnail sketch of an average service in a mainline Evangelical Baptist Church in England. This will prepare the way for the third of the series.
Upon entering a rather austere brick building which could be well over a hundred years old, one would take one’s place in a pew. The mood would be quiet and conversational. A hymn in the mold of Wesley or Watts, and normally without a chorus, would be sung, the congregation rising automatically at the right point in the organist’s intro. No song-leader is required. There would be no choir since choirs are to be found in Anglican and Methodist churches.
After a deacon has given the announcements, the offering is taken, followed by another hymn. The Pastor, clad in formal suit and tie, will pray the ‘main’ prayer which could be over 20 minutes in length. His 45-minute sermon is doctrinal but seldom really expositional. Standard Calvinist tradesman’s terminology like, “the doctrines of grace”, “the Sovereignty of God”, “His people”, etc., will be heard at least once in the service, together with an allusion or two to a great Calvinist of the past. Illustrations will be short, though not always pertinent. No invitation is given. A hymn and a benediction close out the proceedings, with the Pastor waiting at the door of the chapel to thank you for coming.
Lest you think my tone is pejorative, I should say that I find some of these elements (e.g. hymns, no invitation, reference to Calvin or Spurgeon) both appealing and commendable. The lack of show, the pattern of worship, and the links with the past are the things I miss living in California. Though, as we shall see in the final article, the wind of change is blowing!