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Enlightenment thought Moreover, tied to this theory – particularly its ‘activism’ aspect – was the idea that under the influence of Enlightenment thought, the assurance of salvation given in the eighteenth-century revival had been something relatively easy to obtain.This contrasted with the seventeenth century, when assurance was regarded as something attained only by a few and that after much inward struggle. Robert Strivens, principal of London Theological Seminary, reviews a book that takes issue with the current historical consensus on evangelicalism.
Dr Bebbington’s thesis not only describes these as the main features of evangelicalism, but also argues that they mark evangelicalism as a new movement.
Evangelicalism proper, according to Bebbington, began in Christian history at the time of the eighteenth-century revival under Whitefield and Wesley and those associated with them.
Space does not permit a full examination of the contents of The emergence of evangelicalism here.
I have selected just two contributions of particular significance.
The optimistic view of human nature, fostered by the Enlightenment, was the complete opposite of the doctrine of the fallenness of man and hopelessness of his condition, preached by evangelicals.
Furthermore, Haykin questions the view that seventeenth-century Puritans had little interest in mission.Secondly, a marked dividing line thereby separates today’s Reformed evangelical Christianity from the Christianity of the Reformers and Puritans.And, thirdly, as Garry Williams argues in this book, out the Arminianism of Wesley and the Calvinism of Whitefield would have an equal claim to be integral and foundational to the new movement.Puritans were extremely active in promoting the gospel through writing, catechising, preaching and counselling.An emphasis on subjective experience, optimism and desire for unity amongst Christians, all of which Bebbington attributes to Enlightenment influences, were evident in seventeenth-century Puritanism.Many historians, and scholars working in related fields, now take for granted that this is the best way of understanding and defining what evangelicalism is.This particular approach was first posited by David Bebbington, Professor of History at the University of Stirling, in his influential book, Evangelicalism in modern Britain: A history from the 1730s to the 1980s, published in 1989.Revelation Haykin says, however, that there are vital areas where the evangelicals opposed Enlightenment ideas.The evangelical view of Scripture as God’s revelation to man and the ultimate foundation of true spiritual knowledge is radically opposed to the Enlightenment emphasis upon human reason as the touchstone of what can be known.Thus Whitefield’s evangelicalism was ‘deeply rooted in the Reformation’.Reformation roots But, Coffey argues, in fairness to Bebbington it needs to be recognised there were new features in eighteenth-century evangelicalism, particularly in the evangelicals’ language of ‘revival’ (they desired, experienced, and looked forward to more of it) and the use by some of them of innovative methods to promote the old religion.