"If God is sovereign, then his lordship must extend over all of life, and it cannot be restricted to the walls of the church or within the Christian orbit."
Abraham Kuyper Common Grace 1.1.
Friday, 27 May 2016
Interview with Keith Sewell
Wipf and Stock have recently published a new book by Keith Sewell, The Crisis of Evangelical Christianity: Roots, Consequences, and Resolutions. Full details of the book are available here.
I recently caught up with Keith to discuss his important book.
Thanks for doing this interview Keith.
Could you start by saying something about yourself?
I was born in London in 1944, and professed the faith and was baptized in 1961. In 1969 I migrated to Australia, and in 1971 married Alida who had previously emigrated with her family from the Netherlands to New Zealand. We have two sons. I commenced my tertiary studies at the University of Canterbury in 1971. I was a Professor of History at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa from 1998 to 2012. In that year we retired to Australia.
Who or what have been your main influences?
I have been influenced by a variety of authors. As a young Christian I found my way from Arthur Pink and J.C. Ryle to Abraham Kuyper, and from Kuyper to Herman Dooyeweerd, and especially his In the Twilight of Western Thought. Nevertheless, I am a historian and not a philosopher, and greatly admire the work of historians such as Richard Bauckham, Peter Brown, William Reginald Ward, and Heiko A. Oberman. I did my doctoral research on Herbert Butterfield, and I continue to be interested in his work.
How did your interest in history start?
When I was very young, growing up in severely war damaged and down-at-the-heel London, I was struck at the contrast between the evidences of former wealth and power and the straightened circumstances of my own time and place. I seemed to be growing up amid the ruins of Victorian and Edwardian greatness. I think that’s what got me thinking, rather than history classes at school or anything like that. The first history books I read were from the Penge and Anerley Urban District Public Library.
How did you come to lecture in history at Dordt College?
In 1998 I met Don Petcher (of Covenant College) who was on a visit to Melbourne. He told me that Dordt College was advertising a position in History. It was at a time when I was seeking to “move up” from senior secondary to tertiary teaching, so I applied. At Dordt College I had the privilege of working with some excellent colleagues.
What is it that distinguishes a Christian approach to history from any other?
When I answer questions such as this, folks are prone to say that I talk too much! Certainly, a Christian view of history must be anchored in an overarching understanding of the sovereignty of God over all things. It also understands that all human culture-forming, culture-maintaining, and culture-destroying activity is ultimately religious, being in the service of the one true God, or of a false “god,”an idol of some description. It may be unfashionable, but I do believe that human disobedience does meet with divine judgment, even within the historical process. In what we do with the power that God has given us we can flout the law to which we are subject, but we cannot do so with impunity. Of course, such insight must be used with discernment, and always remembering that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Already I feel that this answer is too long!
What were the catalysts to you writing this book on Evangelicalism?
It seemed to me that a critique of evangelicalism from the standpoint of orthodox Christian belief was long overdue, especially from a reformational standpoint. I long expected such a work to be written by someone or other, but when that did not happen I decided to try and start to plug the gap myself.
I have tried to gather many different strands together in a single account. I hope that the book will foster discussion that is both critical and constructive.
Could you briefly describe the book, who are the primary audience and why anyone should read the book?
The book looks at the overall development of Christianity in the West, and considers the roots of Evangelicalism in Reformation and post-Reformation Protestantism. The approach is broadly historical, but I have tried not to make too many assumptions about the historical knowledge of the reader. I find that Christianity generally has reduced the gospel message to “church and missions,” while Evangelicalism had tended towards a further level of reductionism by way of a pietistic emphasis on “inner spiritual feelings.” The book aims to be accessible to undergraduates, students at seminary, ministers, and concerned congregants while at the same time passing scholarly muster. I would like Evangelicals to read this book and ask themselves if their Evangelicalism is really as scriptural as they assume. How can you possibly “preach the gospel” without reference to the kingdom of God?
What was the highlight in researching and writing the book?
For me a high point was reacquainting myself with the first two generations of English Evangelical leaders, men such as John Newton and William Cowper. These were remarkable people, not least when set in the context of their times. I do criticize what I see as the crippling deficiencies of Evangelicalism, but I find it impossible not to respect such early evangelicals for their courage and steadfastness. I was also impressed by the formative influence of the Moravian movement at the decisive point. It would be a grand thing if reformational scholars could work on developing a sympathetic yet critical understanding of the Moravians. Such an analysis would give us a keener insight into the foundations of Anglophone Evangelicalism itself.
In Chapter 6 you seem to suggest at one point that Evangelicalism contributed to the rise of Romanticism, whereas the Brit David Bebbington seems to attribute the transformation of Evangelicalism to the spread of Romanticism (Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, Ch3) and particularly the rise of Irvingism and the Brethren. Could you comment on that?
Yes. David Bebbington has made a valuable contribution to the historiography of British Evangelicalism, although I think that he is disposed to work within the constraints of Evangelicalism itself. I really liked his books on William Gladstone. As to your specific point, much depends upon how we choose to define both Evangelicalism and Romanticism. I see both as having its roots in the eighteenth century and coming to full flower in the nineteenth. Both were reactions against the rational constructs of the great Protestant scholastic system-builders. I think that I would like to keep my mind open to see the earliest Evangelicalism of the second and third decades of the eighteenth century as contributing towards the inception and/ or early development of Romanticism itself.
Are there unsung heroes that you have come across in your research that deserve further study?
Yes, not least Zinzendorf, “the Count,” himself, and William Wilberforce, both truly remarkable men who have suffered somewhat from unhelpfully hagiographic treatment. Other names that I would add to this list would include figures as diverse as Hannah More, and Geerhardus Vos, especially in his later years, and also Henry Atherton. We also need a much more detailed and rigorously researched literature on the leaders on the Pentecostal and Charismatic side of the equation.
You mention in passing Bernard Lord Manning that’s not a name I’ve come across before. Could you say a little more about him and why he merits a mention in the book?
Bernard Lord Manning was a Senior Tutor at Jesus College, Cambridge, and a Congregationalist. He had a strong grasp of English church history and his lectures, published in short, clear and well-argued volumes are well worth reading. He was ecumenically minded while appreciating the clarity and strength of reformed thinking and worship. After his death F. Brittain published Bernard Lord Manning: A Memoir (1941).
How does your analysis of evangelicalism apply to Calvinism? What do you see as the relationship between Calvinism and evangelicalism? I ask because some of the problems you expose regarding evangelicalism seem to stem from Arminianism rather than Calvinism.
I have immense respect for John Calvin. After all, he laid the foundations of the protestant exposition of scripture. On the other hand, Calvin would have hated the term “Calvinism.” It represents what later Reformed Protestants made of his legacy and asserted in his name. So, the term itself is highly questionable. I hope to write more on this eventually. On the other hand, I think that it is true that evangelicalism has become more and more problematic and fractured the more it has moved away from the best teaching of the protestant reformation itself. Yes, you are, of course, right in saying that some evangelicals call themselves “Calvinists,” but almost always they are standing for the “five points” (that Calvin never heard of), and their position is almost entirely restricted to making soteriological stipulations and lacking anything that would amount to an integral Christian world view capable of coherent and cogent elaboration.
You have included a massive number of books in the bibliography (over 1250), which of those books would you recommend for those who want to study the crisis in evangelicalism further?
The original version of this bibliography was broken down into categories, which I think made it somewhat more usable. The publishers wanted it done differently. Where you should start depends somewhat on where you are coming from. The bibliography is extensive because evangelicalism is so diverse and fragmented. A good place to start might well be the five-volume series “A History of Evangelicalism” edited by Mark Noll and David Bebbington. The final Volume IV in this sequence, by my friend Geoff Treloar, will be published soon. Far too many evangelicals don’t read at all, or they confine themselves exclusively to “their” kind of books. This is a problem. For example, many dispensationalists are unaware of the cogent critiques that have been published addressing both the foundations and the details of their system. Again, few evangelicals have fronted up to the literature that has analyzed the degree to which evangelicalism has become compromised by its subordination to the power and ways of corporate capitalism and contemporary celebrity culture. I would encourage evangelicals to read what makes them feel uncomfortable, while always keeping front and centre the teachings of Christ and his Apostles.
Are there any other projects in the pipeline?
Yes. I am now working on a sequel to my Herbert Butterfield and the Interpretation of History (2005). It is provisionally entitled: Herbert Butterfield, British Policy, and the Origins of the Great War. I am now fully engaged on this project. I contemplate a sequel to The Crisis of Evangelical Christianity (2016), which will focus on elucidating the history of the historiography on John Calvin and Calvinism but so far I have only gathered materials on this topic and have yet to do some writing. I also have some book reviews pending.
What books are you reading at the moment?
I recall the saying of C.S. Lewis that no mug of tea is too large and no book is too long. I usually read two or three simultaneously, that you could label light, medium, and heavy. I also like to combine old and new titles. Right now I am reading as follows: light Frederick William Maitland and the History of English Law by James R. Cameron (1961), medium the papers collected in Neo-Calvinism and the French Revolution (2014), and, heavy The French Foreign Office and the Origins of the First World War, 1898-1914 by M.B. Hayne (1993).
If you were castaway on a desert island what would be the two luxury items you’d take with you?
I remember this question on a BBC radio programme called “Desert Island Discs!” I assume that an English Bible and spectacles are necessities. That said, I think I would opt for an everlasting razor for shaving in the morning and a pair of “these will last a lifetime” sandals.