Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Why American Evangelicals (and I) Love the British

Over at the Gospel Coalition, Joe Carter has pointed to an interesting article by Molly Worthen on the Religion & Politics website entitled "John Stott, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien: Why American Evangelicals Love the British."  Indeed, the phenomenon is immediately noticeable and is not of recent vintage.

Moreover, a brief consideration of Worthen's three examples raises yet another issue, viz., the high peculiarity quotient of the phenomenon.  Stott, after all, was an Anglican, a denomination held in suspicion (or worse) by most of the Confessional and nonconfessional Evangelicals and Fundamentalists among whom I was raised.  Even though he was a self-styled "inerrancy man," his belief that social justice must be joined hand-in-glove with the preaching of the Gospel ran—and continues to run—counter to the assumed political pieties of conservative American Evangelicals.  Lewis, likewise, was an Anglican.  Perhaps he was granted some "curve" points because he was a Christian convert from atheism and was not, by his own admission, a professionally-trained theologian.  Nevertheless, he was distinctly not the type of low-church Anglican Stott was, and his theology—yes, he was a practicing theologian, whether trained or not—(e.g., denial of verbal inspiration and hermeneutical literalism, distaste for penal substitution, etc.) would never be countenanced if a putative American Evangelical theologian embraced it.  Likewise, his social behaviors, especially his fondness for beer and tobacco, would have disqualified him from employment at many of the American theological schools that lionize his legacy. And Tolkien—a Roman Catholic!  I am hard-pressed to name one post-Reformation Catholic theologian about whom my theologian father spoke highly.

Yet the phenomenon remains.  The other day I was asked to list the four New Testament scholars whom I would place on my personal, hypothetical  Mt. Rushmore.  My response was telling: F. F. Bruce, N. T. Wright, Jimmy Dunn, and Martin Hengel—three Brits and a German.  How is this theological and biblical Anglophilia to be explained?

Worthen suggests it is based in a desire to overcome a longstanding intellectual inferiority complex.
American evangelicals find intellectual and cultural validation in Oxbridge Christians like Tolkien, Lewis and Stott. If these Oxford and Cambridge-trained gentlemen with plummy accents believed that God spoke from a burning bush and Jesus truly rose from the grave, that is proof that one can be an intellectual, a sophisticate, and a Bible-believer too, no matter what the snide mainstream media says. Britain represents high culture and class—but which Britain?
To be sure, this plays a part.  American Evangelicalism, after all, was born of the desire of conservative Protestants to shred the anti-intellectual baggage of the culturally-discredited, post-Scopes trial Fundamentalism that was its heritage.  Then, as now, a Cambridge PhD or an Oxford DPhil had a certain cachet that similar degrees from American Universities (except for Harvard, Yale, and Princeton) simply do not have.  It is likewise true that British academia, especially in biblical studies, has a tradition of being somewhat less hostile than its American counterpart to Evangelical students and ideas.  Witness, in particular, the hiring of F. F. Bruce to the Rylands chair—held previously by C. H. Dodd and T. W. Manson—at the University of Manchester.  [Indeed, it is of note that the most prominent North American Evangelical New Testament scholars from whom I have learned the most (Don Carson, Bob Gundry, Don Hagner, Grant Osborne, Darrell Bock, Doug Moo, Scot McKnight, and Harold Hoehner) all received their doctorates from British universities.]  Yet Worthen stoops to mere silliness when she suggests that Evangelical students cross the pond "to study in a grey Oxford tower because there no professor will force them to read books that challenge their preexisting ideas."  If American PhD students at Dallas Seminary, TEDS, and Wheaton can't pursue their degrees without interacting seriously with scholarly viewpoints diametrically opposed to what they believe, how much more students at Cambridge, Oxford, St. Andrews, and Aberdeen?  Indeed, British universities are more "liberal," in the best sense of the word, than their American counterparts.

Carter disputes Worthen's answer on the grounds that it is a cliched anachronism.  It is better, he suggests, to attribute it sociologically to our shared history and language:
Few British Evangelicals would consider themselves to be Americans, but many English-speaking American Evangelicals think that we are, in an intellectual sense, from the U.K. This is likely not limited to the British, of course. I suspect that Evangelicals of Dutch ancestry have a simliar [sic!] affinity for thinkers like Abraham Kuyper, German-American Evangelicals for Martin Luther, etc., because of the Old World connection. Because our country---and our brand of evangelicalism---is relatively young, we American Evangelicals must look to our cousins across the sea to help us find deeper soil for our religious roots.
For some this may be true.  I can only speak for myself, however.  I am an American of British descent, whose father was born 9 months after his mother got off the boat in New York City to join her husband who had emigrated a year earlier.  I love to study British history, read British literature, watch British television, and listen to old-fashioned British rock 'n roll music.  Hence I might be genetically and culturally conditioned to admire Christian leaders from the UK.  Be that as it may, this hardly explains my decided appreciation for British New Testament scholars and preachers.  Theologically, I am no less disposed to admire Martin Luther and John Calvin because they were, respectively, German and French rather than English or Scottish.  Indeed, I consider myself as indebted to them and their work as I am to anyone from Shakespeare's "Scepter'd Isle."

Ultimately, my appreciation for British Christians stems from two considerations.  First, the Brits genuinely understand the language better than do their American cousins, and hence they write more clearly and incisively (this likewise partially explains my preference for British actors, whose diction and vocal inflection, by-and-large, outstrip us Americans by a considerable margin).  Stott is a perfect example.  Among American preachers I have heard, only Jim Boice approached his level of combining profundity with simplicity of language.  That is a rare gift.  Far more often does one hear simplicity simpliciter.  More often than not, I can do without that.

Second, and more important, British Christians illuminate the text because they approach it from a different set of presuppositions and preunderstandings from those with which I was accustomed.  All of us raised in Fundamentalism have a certain intellectual baggage we must come to grips with, and the sooner the better.  This is especially true of those of us, like me, who were raised in dispensationalism and who were taught that its only alternative was the "covenant theology" of those who followed, say, the Westminster Confession.  Could there not be alternative paradigms that took what was best from both systems and, at times, differed from both?  Because of my background, reading Anglicans like Charlie Moule, Methodists like C. K. Barrett and Howard Marshall, and even the odd Plymouth Brethren scholar like F. F. Bruce was a breath of fresh air that opened up promising avenues of interpretation closed off to me previously because of lack of exposure.  The relentless historical interpretations of the text such scholars provided exposed the anachronisms inherent in much of the theology I had been taught.  Indeed, what has always drawn me to the work of N. T. Wright is his capacity to enlighten passages with whose inherited/traditional interpretations I had always been uncomfortable simply because he approached the text without the written or unspoken "confessional" lenses I had always assumed. 

I am no more immune from the influences of my preunderstandings and presuppositions than are N. T. Wright and such explicitly "confessional" New Testament scholars as Greg Beale.  That is not only a necessary thing; it is a good thing as well.  But my job as a New Testament scholar is to work through those preunderstandings, back and forth time and again, not to validate the views with which I started and am expected to hold, but to approximate as best I can what the text meant and, indeed, means as God's inspired Word.  And it is this which I have best learned from those esteemed literary teachers from Britain and their American students in whose steps I have always aspired to follow.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. As a student of FF Bruce at Manchester, I do not regard him as an Evangelical. One of the 1st things he told me was that Paul over-argued himself! In discussing variations between reports of the resurrection in the 4 gospels, I inquired like, "Well then Mark may be wrong?" He replied, "We all see thru a glass darkly." I asked Him if He felt obligated to believe what the Bible said, & he replied, "If Paul said it."

    I wud call Bruce neo-orthodox with academic respectability.