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The Rise of Evangelicalism

Posted Friday, December 08, 2006 by Charlie Trimm
Categories: Book Reviews  

Mark Noll has written a fascinating book on the early history of evangelicalism. It is the first book in a projected five book series. The third book, the Dominance of Evangelicalism is out and the second is due out next year, while the other last two are for the distant future apparently. Noll's book covers the time of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys.

Some of the more interesting chapters deal with why evangelicalism rose to prominance. Against the liberals, he argues that God actually played a role, although he frames it as giving the reasons why the early evangelicals thought that the movement was succeeding. Only at the very end of the book does he tip his hand. "An evangelical historian of evangelical history may be pardoned for his own conclusion that in many particulars they [statements of early evangelicals] also sound like the truth" (290). But then against some conservatives, he notes how the culture played a large role in helping the movement grow. The book is very interesting and worth reading, both for the history as well as to explain where we are today. I am eagerly awaiting the other books in the series, and the other one already out occupies a high number on my to-read list. I thought I would end with two summary paragraphs from the final section of the book on pages 292-293.

    "At its worst, this new evangelicalism neglected, caricatured and distorted the inherited traditions of the Reformation Protestantism. Evangelical beliefs and practices could foster a self-centered, egotistic and narcissistic spirituality and also create new areans for destructive spiritual competition. From in group cliches, associations and institutions, evangelicals sometimes constructed new barriers to alienate humans from each other. They could turn so obseesively inward as to ignore the structures of social evil. Most important, evangelicals could trivialize the Christian gospel by treating it as a ballyhooed commodity to be hawked for its power to soothe a nervous, dislocated people in the opening culture markets of the expanding British empire.

    But at its best, evangelicalism provided needed revitalization to English-speaking Protestant Christianity. It breathed vibrant religious life into stagnant or confused religious institutions. It created dynamic communities of self-giving love and international networks of supporting fellowship. It reached out to many at the margins of respectable society. From authentic personal experience it provided a dynamisim for addressing corporate evils. Most important, it communicated the beauty and the power of the Christian gospel in a wide variety of settings and through that gospel provided a wide range of individuals with purpose before God and meaning for this life, and it did so for the long haul. "

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