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Guarding the Holy Fire: The Evangelicalism of John R.W. Stott, J.I. Packer, and Alister McGrath

Roger Steer

Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999, 368 pages.

The title of this book is somewhat misleading, as it is not a study of Stott, Packer, and McGrath. Rather, it is a historical survey of evangelicals within the Anglican Church on both sides of the Atlantic, i.e., in its birthplace, England, and in America, where it is known as the Episcopal Church. In the section on the 20th century, it does look very closely at these three individuals, who are perhaps the most well known Anglican evangelicals. In fact, when the book was first published in 1998 in England, it was titled Church on Fire: The Story of Anglican Evangelicals (Hodder and Stoughton). The author says in the Introduction that “this is the story of a brand of Christianity which, at its best, has burned with the fire both of holiness and evangelism” (page 9). Further, he feels the title (the original one) “captures the zeal, commitment, and burning spirituality which have characterized the best manifestations of Anglican evangelicalism from the days of Wycliffe and the Lollards to the era when the present Archbishop of Canterbury found Christ in an evangelical parish church” (page 9).

So, first: what is an evangelical? Alister McGrath, perhaps the most prolific author among the current generation of Anglican evangelicals, lists the following four key elements: “1) A focus, both devotional and theological, on the person of Jesus Christ, especially his death on the cross; 2) The identification of Scripture as the ultimate authority in matters of spirituality, doctrine, and ethics; 3) An emphasis upon conversion or ‘a new birth’ as a life-changing religious experience; and 4) A concern for sharing faith, especially through evangelism.” (page 11).

And next, what is Anglicanism? It is a “system of doctrine and practice of those Christians who are in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury” (page 11), which today comprise nearly 70 million members of the Anglican Communion in 36 self-governing Member Churches or Provinces in more than 166 countries (page 11). The Archbishop of Canterbury is not like the Pope in the Roman Catholic Church, but he is regarded as “a unique focus of Anglican unity”. The Anglican tradition is a significant Reformed tradition within world-wide Christianity, which has a “loose federation of churches” thereby avoiding the extremes of hierarchism on the one hand and Nonconformism on the other (page 11).

The story of this “chain of men and women…who have taken Biblical Christianity intensely seriously” (page 13) begins in 1330 with Part One: “Church on Fire with Reforming Zeal (England, 1330-1700)”. This covers the era from the birth of John Wycliffe until the time of the glorious revolution under William and Mary at the end of the 17th century. Wycliffe was born nearly 200 years before Luther posted his 95 theses on the door at Wittenberg. Wycliffe asserted that everyone had the right to read the Bible for themselves, argued against transubstantiation, taught that the Bible was the sole criterion of doctrine, organized a body of traveling preachers (who became known as the Lollards), and began a translation of the Bible. Although the authorities tried to suppress his writings, his influence continued until the Reformation in the 16th century, when many of the Reformers quoted his writings. Next we meet William Tyndale, who had to leave England and go to Europe to fulfill his dream of translating the Bible. In Antwerp, he was eventually kidnapped by his enemies and burned at the stake. Later we meet two other martyrs, who were also burned at the stake as heretics: Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley. At the stake, Latimer made his famous statement to his fellow bishop: “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace in England, as I trust shall never be put out” (page 34). This section of the narrative also takes us “into the courts of kings and queens as the story of the establishment of the reformed Church of England gets entangled with Henry VIII’s divorce and remarriage” (page 13). Here we meet Thomas Cranmer, who as Archbishop became King Henry’s chief instrument for overthrowing the Pope’s rule in England. In composing his Prayer Book, which later became the Book of Common Prayer, Cranmer provided the Anglican Church with a liturgy which was thoroughly Biblical, and which provided a “text and ethos for worship which would remain almost unchanged for 400 years” (page 40). However, Cranmer’s days were numbered from the moment that the strongly Catholic Queen Mary took the throne. Charged with heresy, and under great stress and depression, Cranmer recanted his protestant beliefs. However, at the moment of his execution, he repented of his earlier recantations, and shouted, “Forasmuch as my hand offended…writing contrary to my heart, my hand shall be punished therefor” (page 39), and he stretched out his hand into the fire for all to see. Then followed the reign of Protestant Queen Elizabeth, who oversaw the writing of one of the historic formularies of the Church of England: the 39 Articles. Elizabeth was succeeded by James VI of Scotland who ruled as James I of England. James had been brought up in the Calvinist Presbyterian Church of Scotland and it was he who ordered the translation work that eventually became the King James Version of the Bible. In 1642 came civil war and Oliver Cromwell, and the eventual disestablishment of the Church of England and arrest and execution of King Charles I. However, in the midst of that turmoil, the Westminster Assembly began meeting in 1643, producing “the definitive statement of Presbyterian doctrine in the English-speaking world…(which) embodied Puritan theology in its classical form” (page 68). Also during this period we find Richard Baxter, the great Puritan and minister at Kidderminster, and author of the classic book, The Reformed Pastor. In the latter portion of this era, the Church of England regained its position as the established church under Charles II. His successor, James II, was Catholic and very unpopular, leading to the Revolution of 1688, known as “The Glorious Revolution’. This resulted in the crown being offered to William (the Dutch Protestant Prince William of Orange, who had been invited to come and deliver England from its Catholic king), and his wife Mary (who was the daughter of the English King James II). Further, the Toleration Act of 1689 gave Nonconformist churches the freedom of worship and marked the end of the Church of England’s claim to be the national, all-inclusive church of the English People.

In Part Two we find the “Church on Fire in Revival: England, 1700-1800.” The author begins with England in the early 18th century characterized by widespread drunkenness, immorality, cruelty, and crime. The church was weakened by the loss of Puritan enthusiasm, and characterized by dilapidated parish buildings, money-seeking clergy, and sermons which were either too learned or too dull for the congregations. But a small flame was being kindled at Oxford University, which would in time become a mighty fire in both England and America. It began with a group called the Holy Club, founded by Charles Wesley for the purpose of taking their religion seriously. The group eventually included Charles’ brother John, and George Whitefield. From this small group eventually sprang a mighty revival that shook both England and America. Despite being credited with founding the Methodist denomination, John Wesley never left the Church of England, and saw his role as seeking to purify and strengthen it, not to form a new denomination. Other leaders of revival within the Church of England whom we meet in this section are John Fletcher of Madeley (called the Saint of Evangelicalism), John Newton (the former slave trader), Thomas Scott (writer of a commentary on the whole Bible), and Charles Simeon. John Stott has said that Simeon has always been one of his heroes, one reason being his emphasis on the truth not being “at one extreme or the opposite extreme, or in a confused admixture…(but rather) at both extremes even if you cannot reconcile these extremes” (page 133). Stott has found that thought helpful in the controversy between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Another very colorful character we meet is William Grimshaw, who helped to establish Anglican evangelicalism in the northern part of England. Grimshaw’s preaching was aimed at “debasing man and exalting my dear Lord” (page 112). Many of the leaders of the 18th century English revival preached from Grimshaw’s pulpit: Whitefield, the two Wesleys, Henry Venn, and William Romaine. Grimshaw, in giving a statement of his theology, said he was “a Calvinist on his knees and an Arminian on his feet, and he tried to strike a balance between the two” (page 116).

In Part Three we find the “Church on Fire in the New World: North America, 1730-1900),” beginning with the young British colony of Virginia. In this chapter, we see the influence of George Whitefield and the American revival known as “The Great Awakening” upon the Church of England. We see the golden years of Anglican evangelicalism in mid-19th century America under Joseph Pilmore, Alexander Griswold and others. However, in the latter part of the century, the Anglican church came under a cloud, and the chapter ends with the former evangelicals in the Episcopal Church having become liberals, as liberalism, Biblical criticism and Darwinism gained ascendancy in the denomination’s educational institutions.

Part Four finds the “Church on Fire in 19th Century England”, as Anglican evangelicalism became a power in England. Here we meet the Clapham Sect and watch as William Wilberforce works patiently to end the slave trade in the British Empire. Organizational movement was afoot as the Church Missionary Society, the Bible Society, and the Keswick Convention were founded. John Henry Newman left his position as vicar of an Anglican parish, and became a Roman Catholic. He moved toward the Oxford movement, which charged evangelicals with being obsessed with justification by faith, and downplaying such passages as the Sermon on the Mount with its high standard of Christian righteousness and its obvious absence of reference to the atonement. Among evangelicals, one man stood “head and shoulders above his contemporaries” (page 196). That man was J.C. Ryle, the bishop of Liverpool. Spurgeon called him “the best man in the Church of England” (page 197). He stated the evangelical position with clarity on many issues. He once said: “I have no love for men who have no distinct opinions, theological jellyfish without bones, brains, teeth or claws” (page 197). Ryle (and in a later century, Packer) criticized the Keswick teaching on holiness, a passive approach summed up as “let go and let God”.

Next is Part Five: “Church on Fire in 20th Century England”. Here we see the evangelical reaction to theological liberalism, and we meet and spend some time with the two most influential Anglicans of this century: John Stott and James I. Packer. For many years, Stott was rector of All Souls, Langham Place, London. He is a prolific writer, and sees the cross at the center of Christian faith and life. He said that “more of his heart and mind went into the writing of The Cross of Christ than any other book”. Jim Packer, who was greatly influenced by Puritan thought, is also a prolific writer. By 1997, his books had sold over 3 million copies worldwide, and have “inspired young scholars with the intellectual coherence of Christianity itself” (page 216). Other significant events covered in this chapter include non-Anglican Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ unsuccessful call for evangelicals within the Anglican Church to leave the church due to liberal dominance, a move which put him at odds with both Packer and Stott. Then there was the growth of the charismatic movement, and Oxford Professor James Barr’s launching of a major attack on conservative evangelicalism in his book, Fundamentalism. Barr charged evangelicals with picking out from the mass of Biblical material certain themes, passages, contexts, and emphases, and representing those as the core doctrines of the Christian faith. He said that the Bible taken alone and as a whole does not lead to the evangelical position. Among the doctrines he took issue with are inspiration of Scripture and justification by faith. Surprisingly, Barr did not consider his position to be a liberal one. The chapter ends with George Carey (who some have considered an evangelical though he does not claim that label for himself) at the helm as Archbishop of Canterbury, and the church dealing with the controversy of the ordination of women.

Then we come to Part Six: “Church on Fire in 20th Century America”. By the beginning of the 20th century, “evangelical Episcopalianism… had virtually died out…(as) after 1900 the American Church went liberal in two directions: liberal Catholic and liberal evangelical…(and) no classical evangelical party existed from 1900 until the 1960s” (page 269). However, in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a resurgence of evangelical enthusiasm, much of which came from a growing charismatic wing. In addition, this period saw the founding of an evangelical seminary, Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, which was the outworking of one man’s faith in the power of prayer; that man was Alf Steinway, a man who “never missed his daily quiet time in 40 years” (page 275). Trinity was ultimately located in Ambridge, PA, and Stephen Noll and Peter Davids are two evangelicals assocated with Trinity whose names have become prominent in evangelical and academic circles. Another interesting event was the founding of the White Horse Tavern, an internet mailing list for the purpose of “vigorous discussion carried on within the reasonable bounds of courtesy and decorum” (page 285). One surprising event during this era has been a move of evangelicals from other traditions into the Episcopal Church in search of a worship experience and a strong church tradition. One of the first was Robert Webber, son of a Baptist minister, graduate of fundamentalist Bob Jones University, professor at Wheaton College, and ordained minister in the Reformed Presbyterian Church. Webber joined the Episcopal Church, and documented his experience and that of six other evangelicals, along with his theological reasons, in the book Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail.

Finally, in Part Seven, we find the “Church on Fire Over Sexuality”, and the book examines the evangelical approach to homosexual partnerships and the ordination of practicing homosexuals, burning issues not only in the Episcopal and Anglican churches, but other mainline denominations as well. John Stott’s position affirming the Church’s traditional teaching on marriage and opposition to homosexual activity has been widely accepted among Anglican evangelicals. His argument and its Biblical basis are set forth at some length. We also meet Bishop Spong, the controversial bishop of Newark, NJ, who has ordained a number of homosexual clergy, and has argued publicly for the permissibility of sexual activity outside of marriage for both homosexuals and heterosexuals. In his book Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Spong denied that Jesus was born of a virgin and disputed the Church’s traditional understanding of the resurrection of Jesus. McGrath is quoted as saying that Spong’s “somewhat modest theological competence…(is) vastly exceeded by his ability to obtain media attention” (page 309). This chapter concludes with the 1998 Lambeth Conference of the worldwide Anglican fellowship, which voted by a large majority for “a resolution that surprised the world by its adherence to traditional teaching about homosexual behavior” (page 321). The positive vote was due in large part to the strong reaffirmation of the Biblical position by the bishops from Africa and the southern hemisphere.

In Part Eight, “Gospel People for the 21st Century?,” Steer brings the book to a conclusion with a reflection on the strengths and weaknesses of Anglican evangelicalism, and “the pros and cons of loyalty to the doctrines and ethos of a single strand within Christianity” (page 14). He also focuses on the role evangelicals might play in the Anglican Church of England and the American Episcopal Church in the new millennium.

Related Topics: Introduction to Theology, Ecclesiology (The Church), Apologetics

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