I have just finished reading A Rising Tide: Evangelical Christianity in New Zealand 1930–65 by my friend, mentor, and colleague, Stuart Lange.
Like Destiny by Peter Lineham referred to in the previous blog-post, it is a fine book. Both Lineham and Lange are great writers. I enjoyed Stuart’s book greatly. Dr Lange writes as an observer-participant. As one who has worked with Stuart in Affirm, the evangelical wing of the Presbyterian Church for the last 20 years or so, I read it with the same bias; although in a more indirect sense only joining the story in the mid-80s. Certainly my bias led me to find a lot to love about the book, as I found context for the movement I have participated in since my conversion in 1985. Indeed, this occurred at one of the evangelical churches that represents the evangelical stream Lange explores—St Columbas Presbyterian then under the leadership of Rev Graeme Murray, an important evangelical leader. It was intriguing seeing familiar names like Roxburgh, Meadowcroft, Don Elley, Derek Eaton, and so on.
The book certainly describes the period of the rising tide of Presbyterian and Anglican evangelicalism. It was reaffirmed to me that I am an heir not to some of the more belligerent American forms of evangelicalism, but the more irenic British evangelicalism represented by the likes of Stott and Packer. I feel I now understand more fully the tradition I stand in in the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa NZ and Presbyterian Affirm. I am indebted to the wonderful work done for the evangelicals who went before. The word “evangelical” is much maligned, but the story woven by Lange gives me a more positive and optimistic sense of ownership of “my” heritage. I found myself more motivated than before to live a life faithful to the gospel.
For me, like J.I. Packer, evangelicalism is defined by “faithfulness to Scripture.” This leads to a range of other core elements of Christian life like image bearing; gospel; Christ and Christ alone; a life filled with the Spirit; God in history and creation; the problem of sin and evil; mission with evangelism at its centre but embracing the transformation of a world; faith, hope, and love; conversionism; crucicentricism; the second coming; eternal judgment; and eternal life, among others. Knowing how to read and apply the Scriptures remains my deepest desire.
I was struck throughout his descriptions of core leaders by the recurring reference to the importance of biblical preaching and exposition, prayer, and passion. In this regard, the description of evangelicalism in many ways reflects Stuart Lange. I know him well and found in the story of his forebears reasons he is what he is. He knows the story in which he is embedded and has sought to live the best of it. In my biased view, he is an embodiment of the positives of the story. He has carried on the work of Miller, Orange, and others, and the evangelical heritage has been in great hands.
A few things bugged me. I wish there were chapters on the evangelicalism in the Baptist, Open Brethren, an d Methodist movements. They were not without mention, but I think a full picture of evangelicalism would include these two important evangelical traditions more fully. I feel the book is slightly misnamed and should include specifically evangelicalism as represented in universities, Anglicanism, and Presbyterianism. The book to me calls for further volumes that explore other evangelical traditions and their relationship to those described in this fine book.
I thought there may be more critique of the evangelical movement. Disputes and limitations were mentioned. However, the tone is very positive, unsurprising for an author who identifies so strongly with it. I wondered if more thought could be given to why, despite the rise of evangelicalism, the two denominations and university ministries mentioned have declined (including the evangelical wing). Why has it declined? In the PCANZ evangelicalism has become more dominant, despite some very vibrant parishes like Stuart Lange’s own church in Massey, overall it is declining like all the Church. What has gone wrong? Was it avoidable? What did the Westminster Fellowship and other organisations fail to do that may have contributed? Why did so many abdicate even evangelical mainline churches for Pentecostalism? What blind spots led to this? I don’t have the answers myself, or better, I have some ideas, but I would like to have heard his view. To me the book demands a series of sequels looking at the charismatic renewal more closely, and the subsequent history including the decline of the WF and the rise of Affirm. Perhaps Stuart is not the one to write such stories, as he is so embroiled in the subsequent period that it may need the hand of someone a little further removed. The good news is that Stuart Lange is well-positioned to look for able Church History PhD students to carry on the story and extend it.
All in all, I loved this book. I am excited to read such wonderful works from Kiwis like Peter L and Stuart L. I recommend these two books heartily to all who want to understand who we are in NZ.