Every Leaf, Line, and Letter – Timothy Larsen

Every Leaf Line and Letter Timothy Larsen
Every Leaf, Line, and Letter: Evangelicals and the Bible from the 1730s to the Present by Timothy Larsen, David Bebbington, Kristina Benham, Catherine Brekus, Malcolm Foley, Bruce Hindmarsh, Thomas S. Kidd, K. Elise Leal, John Maiden, Mark A. Noll, Mary Riso, Brian Stanley, Jonathan Yeager
Published by IVP Academic on May 4, 2021
Genres: Academic, Non-Fiction, Theology
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I was filled with a pining desire to see Christ's own words in the Bible. . . . I got along to the window where my Bible was and I opened it and . . . every leaf, line, and letter smiled in my face. --The Spiritual Travels of Nathan Cole, 1765 From its earliest days, Christians in the movement known as evangelicalism have had a particular regard for the Bible, to borrow a phrase from David Bebbington, the historian who framed its most influential definition. But this biblicism has taken many different forms from the 1730s to the 2020s. How has the eternal Word of God been received across various races, age groups, genders, nations, and eras? This collection of historical studies focuses on evangelicals' defining uses--and abuses--of Scripture, from Great Britain to the Global South, from the high pulpit to the Sunday School classroom, from private devotions to public causes. Contributors:
David Bebbington, University of Stirling Kristina Benham, Baylor University Catherine Brekus, Harvard Divinity School Malcolm Foley, Truett Seminary Bruce Hindmarsh, Regent College, Vancouver Thomas S. Kidd, Baylor University Timothy Larsen, Wheaton College K. Elise Leal, Whitworth University John Maiden, The Open University, UK Mark A. Noll, University of Notre Dame Mary Riso, Gordon College Brian Stanley, University of Edinburgh Jonathan Yeager, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

If you grew up as a Christian in North America or Europe, there’s a good chance that you not only know who evangelicals are, but that you attended a church that prided itself on being evangelical. For many of us, being evangelical was shorthand for saying that we are the proper kind of Christian, not given to weird beliefs or else liberal ones. In the global and historical reality of the Church, however, evangelicalism is something of a minority view, and even within itself, evangelicalism is not a monolith. Thomas S. Kidd of Baylor University sets the stage for Every Leaf, Line, and Letter with his introduction. He highlights one scholar, David Bebbington, who once outlined the four basic characteristics of evangelicalism as activism, biblicism, conversionism, and crucicentrism. This categorization was so enthusiastically adopted by evangelicals of the day that it was given a name—The Bebbington Quadrilateral.

It is the Bebbington Quadrilateral that serves at the starting and ending point of Every Leaf, Line, and Letter. Around this concept, editor Timothy Larsen has arranged a collection of essays on the history and impact of evangelicalism, from it’s roots in England and Wales, through the United States, and finally into the Global South. Larsen invites an array of diverse opinions, including Bebbington himself, to talk about the factors which caused evangelicalism to look as it does today. The final product is a dazzling combination of history, theology, and anthropology that touches every major landmark of the evangelical movement in a way that is both entertaining and forthright.

Overview

In Part One: The Eighteenth Century, address the origins of those factors which most commonly define evangelicalism: evangelical preaching, figurative and literal interpretation of the Bible, and the wrestling match between Calvinism and  Arminianism in popular thought. None of these doctrines sprung fully formed from the pages of the Bible, but neither were they arbitrarily concocted by men. Kristina Benham gives a brief but comprehensive view of how the book of Exodus was used as a kind of early liberation theology during the American Revolution, and how it was broken off before that same theology could be used to argue against slavery. Bruce Hindmarsh pays tribute to Bebbington by debating him on the potential incompatability of Evangelicals and the Enlightenment thinkers. Jonathan Yeager narrates the struggle between Christian perspectives on faith and free will that are most manifestly represented by the works of Jonathan Edwards and John Erskine.

Part Two: The Nineteeth Century opens with K. Elise Leal’s history of Sunday School as an institution, how it encouraged literacy, but more importantly, by telling the story of the most frequently overlooked people group of Evangelicalism: the children. The well-known Mark A. Noll contributes a chapter to this section on the hijacking of scripture to defend chattel slavery and the crisis it created for the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Mary Riso concludes Part Two with a short biographical sketch of the inadequately known mystic, Josephine Butler, who bravely defied theological and social norms, representing a shift that may not yet be fully realized even today.

David Bebbington opens Part Three: The Twentieth Century with a discussion of what he calls the Bible Crisis of British Evangelicalism, namely that popular opinion within the Church does not always allow for Christian scholars and laymen to follow where the Bible seems to be leading. Editor Timothy Larsen contributes a chapter directly, discussing liberalism in evangelicalism, and how evangelicals once defined themselves by distancing themselves from the wooden literalism of the fundamentalists, sometimes in ways that misrepresented the fundamentalists. Malcolm Foley provides another biography for the collection—Francis Grimké: The Black preacher who deftly navigated the use of violence by Black Christians in defense of their homes and lives against white lynch mobs. Lastly for this section, John Maiden talks about the introduction of Charismatic Renewal into Evangelicalism, setting the stage for some of the major developments of the Twenty-First Century.

The final section, dealing with the Twenty-First Century, expands on events that many of us are familiar with. Catherine A. Brekus begins with a hearty and immanently relevant discussion on the publication of the practically idolatrous American Patriot’s Bible. This section reads as half biblical exegesis, half one-star book review. Brian Stanley contributes a chapter on the place of the Evangelical mind in both history and the globe, pointing us back to some of the key elements of the early part of the book, and appropriately closing the collection.

Conclusion

Every Leaf, Line, and Letter is an indispensable addition not only to the bookshelves of clergy, but to the canon of books which should be employed at seminaries in their church history courses. The diversity of perspectives in this book creates something of a Side B collection for all those whose names who have been left out of the discussion because they are neither white nor male. My sole complaint for this anthology, particularly for the quarter of the book devoted to the Twenty-first Century, is the lack of discussion surrounding LGBT inclusion, one of the most fundamentally challenging crises of our day. In Larsen’s defense, however, I suppose I can say this: it must be incredibly hard to write comprehensively on a debate which has not yet run its course.

Larsen has curated a collection of voices that demand representation in the scope of Evangelical history. Any of the essays contained in this book are worth the price of the entire collection.

five-stars