Rob Warner on My Past Life

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Our Library has just got its copies of Rob Warner’s hugely important Reinventing English Evangelicalism 1966-2001: A Theological and Sociological Study.  For those who don’t know, the book is significant because it offers a pretty searing indictment of many aspects of the evangelical renaissance that took place in the latter half of the twentieth century in England, written by someone who was at the very heart of what was going on.

As I have looked through it, I felt my life from about 1980-1990 being described: Spring Harvest, Buzz Magazine, Daily Bread SU notes; Clive Calver (the person whose vision for the Evangelical Alliance is the focus of much of Warner’s analysis – he coins the wonderful phrase ‘Hyper-Calverism" to denote the period).

At the heart of the book are several core criticisms that go to the heart of what evangelicalism has become in our context and, unfortunately, in many of our churches.  Here are a few representative quotations to whet your appetite.

‘the massive levels of indifference to organised religion among young adults suggests that evangelicals may have enjoyed a brief flurry of prominence in the residual remains of the churches in England before the entire edifice of organised and institutional Christianity sinks into accelerating or even terminal decline.’ p.4

‘If traditional evangelical theology has unconsciously assimilated a neo-platonic theism, a Reformation forenso-centric soteriology, a Pietist individualism, an enlightenment epistemology and a pre-critical tendency to literalism, then evangelicalism is a complex construct of historical theology, formulated through an often unperceived interaction with its cultural setting, rather than …unadulterated, timeless and universally applicable distillation of the Gospel of Christ.’ (p.13-14)

In short, the evangelicalism of my own early Christian upbringing, suffered from intellectual bankruptcy, ‘vision inflation’, cultural captivity and contested identity.  I first realised aspects of this at Spring Harvest in 1987, when Calver et al decided they would help people understand the root causes of the theological liberalism that had infected the church (well David Jenkins at least).  So we were offered sessions on Nietzsche, Bultmann, Tillich, etc. etc. -and as a new theology student I realised that, in the end, they didn’t have a clue what they were on about.

Warner’s prognosis is spot on (not least in the light of certain developments in Oxford):

‘for the Right, moderate and progressive evangelicals have become the ‘enemy within’ who must be purged.  As for the Left, they may tire of being tarnished with the excesses of extremism, and abandon the name of ‘evangelical’, perhaps with some relief.  Conversely, if the Left choose to retain identification and continuity with the longstanding, broad and self-critical evangelical tradition, they will surely need to disown the extremism of the Right, who have become Evangelicalism’s Militant Tendency’ (p. xviii)

This isn’t an easy read, but many church leaders, not least those within the Baptist Union, must read and take account of Warner’s analysis.

Note: Andy Goodliff has also posted a quotation relating to the diet of worship within many evangelical churches.