Mark A. Noll
Reviewed by: Allan Story
Date posted: 07/30/2006
The Rise of Evangelicalism:The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys, by Mark A. Noll. Published by InterVarsity Press, 2003. Hardback, 330 pages, list price $23.00. Re- viewed by Pastor Allan Story.
This is the introductory volume of a sweeping, five-volume set, A History of Evangelicalism: People, Movements and Ideas in the English-Speaking World, under the general editorship of Noll and David W. Bebbington. As always with Noll, the scholarship is impressive. He, George Marsden, and a few other Christian historians have made a noticeable mark within the academic discipline of American social and religious history. This work furthers that achievement. He unabashedly identifies his own perspective as that of an evangelical Christian.
Noll uses a somewhat flexible definition of evangelicalism based partly on common convictions and partly on genealogical connections. This allows the breadth necessary to weave together numerous strands of diverse groups and opinions. With a scope wide enough to include both Calvinists and Arminians, Noll excludes scholasticism and secular-tending rationalism, while placing his emphasis on gospel rootedness, heartfelt evangelistic and moral activism, and a sense of unity flowing out of the Great Awakening in the American colonies and the Evangelical Revival in Great Britain.
These revivals were "intense periods of unusual response to gospel preaching linked with unusual efforts at godly living" (p. 18). The participants in these revivals regarded them as the work of the Holy Spirit. Noll criticizes secular historians for cavalierly dismissing that view, characterizing their approaches as "sheer hubris" (p. 138). He concludes: "However one regards the work of the Holy Spirit in the evangelical movement, the Spirit was certainly putting to use channels of influence from the domains of ordinary history" (p. 154).
Noll's treatment of the revivals and the developments flowing out of them and coming together as evangelicalism is careful, nuanced, and well documented. It is also amazingly comprehensive, synthesizing a wealth of research by others. It provides well-laid groundwork for further research. He aims to "provide interesting interpretations more than just factual details" (p. 21), and if these are not always satisfying, they are at least thought provoking.
It was disappointing, however, to read his characterization of the preaching of Jonathan Edwards and other preachers as representing "something new because its practitioners were intending to work directly on the affections" (p. 100). Edwards argued at length against such an approach in his Treatise on the Affections, where he did state that it was vital to impact the affections (emotions), but insisted that they be stirred only through the understanding. Noll makes a more balanced statement later on the same page, saying that Edwards and Wesley "used their formidable mental abilities to move the heart rather than simply convince the mind."
Pietistic elements figure so prominently in Noll's depiction of evangelicalism that those in Reformed churches will not necessarily wish to be classified as evangelicals in his sense of the word. One wonders if Edwards properly belongs in the group.