Thursday, May 03, 2007

Evangelicals and Eschatology, Act One, Scene One

On Monday last, I accompanied Doctor Bird on a trip to St Andrews to take in the 'Evangelicals and Eschatology' conference at St Andrews. I thought I would reflect on each of the papers I heard there. The opening Act was from Prof David Bebbington and this was the highest light of the day, personally speaking. As the chairman Prof Stephen Holmes pointed out, Prof Bebbington's grasp of history in general, not just ecclesial, was impressive to say the least. My summary of his paper goes something like this:

Firstly, a brief survey of the common ground held by evangelicals (post 1730...):
  • Judgement and Hell - the association with hell has been disproportionately emphasised by some (e.g. the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist, Thomas Charles: 'I ransacked the livid flames of hell..[to grab the attention of]...unconcerned sinners'). In Anglicanism, the emphasis was on grace, not on ruin, on heaven and not hell. There was a shift from God primarily as Judge to Father during the 2nd part of the 19th century. In general there was less dwelling on the doctrine of hell than evangelical stereotypes might suggest. How did some evangelicals seek to mitigate the perceived problem of hell? Conditional immortality (lately, under Stott); further opportunities for salvation (similar to RC purgatory); all will be saved after posthumous moral discipline. There was more flexibility in teaching on the destination of unbelievers than has been generally recognised.
  • Death - in the early 19th century, death bed accounts are prominent in obituaries, but these are out of fashion by the late 19th. Death was retreating into the private sphere, a process that continued into the 20th.
  • Heaven - heaven was for many in the 18th century the 'death of death' (William Williams). There was a great sense of being in the presence of the Father, and Jesus, but little trace of the resurrection body. Singing was prominent. As death has retreated from our concerns, so has heaven. Prof Bebbington has not heard a sermon on the life to come in 50 years of churchgoing! The modern view of heaven has emerged as focussed on 'no more separation' and 'activity, not rest' - which can be seen as the activism of evangelicals transposed to the future life.
  • These four themes have undergone significant remodelling under the influence of social and intellectual currents.

Secondly, a survey of the evangelical debates surrounding the parousia, specifically its relationship to the millenium - that will follow in Scene Two....