Nonconformist Theology in the Twentieth Century: A Review

Alan P.F. Sell, Nonconformist Theology in the Twentieth Century (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2006). 239 pages. ISBN: 9781842274712. Review copy courtesy of Paternoster/Authentic Books.

Readers already familiar with Professor Alan P. F. Sell’s writing will know that he is a meticulous researcher whose reading is extensive (much of the material cited is now well out of print), whose commitment to ecumenism is exemplary, whose love for, and devotion to, the nonconformist tradition is contagious, whose acumen for critically identifying contemporary theological trends is cultivated and well coached, whose affection for PT Forsyth – and the centrality of the Cross in Forsyth’s thought – is laudable, whose writing betrays not a few hours of pastorally-informed reflection, and whose ability to get to the heart of things with an elegant economy of words makes not a few of his readers (including me) jealous. If all these accolades are accurate, then this published set of Alan Sell’s 2006 Didsbury Lectures is classic Sell, and Nazarene Theological College is to be congratulated for extending the invitation to Professor Sell to give these four distinguished lectures; furthermore, Paternoster are to be saluted for continuing to publish the series of which these lectures form a part. Certainly, here Sell deservedly joins the ranks of some distinguished scholars.

Despite significant works by historians Clyde Binfield, Dale Johnson, David Bebbington, Mark Hopkins, and Jim Gordon, and the wonderful 4-volume series of Protestant Nonconformist Texts, Paternoster’s Studies in Evangelical History and Thought series, and numerous other works by Sell himself, it could still be argued that too little ink has been spilt in recent years exploring the enormously rich contribution that nonconformist theologians have made, and continue to make, to theological conversation and Church life. Sell’s book needs to be considered as one of many – and one of the best – that continue to fill a gap in this area.

Nonconformist Theology in the Twentieth Century is broad in its scope, offering a well-textured balance of historical contextualisation, theological grappling, contemporary application, and anecdotal stories. Areas of divine providence, the New Theology (associated with RJ Campbell), baptism, Feminist Theology, Natural Theology, Process Theology, Calvinism, God’s Fatherhood, merely-Incarnational theology, the reception of Karl Barth into British theological conversation, and contemporary theological education all fall under Sell’s discerning gaze.

In the first lecture, Sell provides an erudite survey, a ‘bird’s-eye-view of the landscape’ (p. 38) of Protestant Nonconformist theology in the twentieth century, particular the century’s first half. The historical terrain, theological motifs, and ecclesiological realities, and their ongoing relevance for understanding and informing contemporary theological thought, debate and practice are all well covered in this chapter, which sets the tone for the remaining three.

Sell then turns in Lecture Two to the ‘doctrinal peaks’ of Christology (pp. 41–66), Pneumatology (pp. 66–71), the Trinity (pp. 71–84), and confessions of faith (pp. 84–89), attending fruitfully to each within their historical context while harnessing contributions from an enormous range of nonconformist theologians. Resisting the temptation to here rehearse multiple citations, I will offer just this one:

‘No Nonconformist theologian did more in the last two decades of the twentieth century to place the Trinity in the centre of theological debate than Colin Gunton. So all-embracing is his Trinitarian vision (an analogy might be drawn with the centrality of the Cross in the writings of P.T. Forsyth) that it is difficult to place him in a study of this kind’. (p. 81)

In the third chapter, Sell turns to discuss one of his great passions: ecumenism. Herein he seeks to address a number of questions: How did the mainline Nonconformist traditions understand themselves in the twentieth century? How did they reach out to one another and to more distant communions during the so-called ‘ecumenical century’? Is their traditional witness as Free Churchpeople still required, or even viable? Sell provides an at times provocative discussion on the relationship between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism (pp. 91–96), wherein he cites favourably the Congregationalist historian Bernard Lord Manning: ‘Protestantism … is not the opposite of medieval Catholicism: it is simply an improved kind of catholicism. Protestantism is not a negative thing. It is a positive re-statement of catholic truth’ (p. 93). True catholicity, Sell argues, is not found in a book, nor in a church, but in that true authority over book, Church and conscience – Jesus Christ, and the effectual word of his Cross, ‘to which the conscience owes its life’ (P.T. Forsyth, Rome, Reform and Reaction, 136). It is not here only that Sell walks abreast with Forsyth.

Professor Sell then accents the many published nonconformist studies on ecclesiology. It is a breathtaking reminder of the central place that ecclesiology has played in informing nonconformist theology, from John Oman to R. Newton Flew to Lesslie Newbigin and Daniel Strange. He notes that while all these contributors were not singing the same part, and ‘occasionally a faintly discordant note was struck’, they were ‘clearly singing in the same choir’ (p. 99), which is a fresh reminder of the breadth within the tradition. In more than one way were these theologians non-conformists.

With a newly sharpened pencil, this internationally known scholar of ecumenical studies turns our attention to ‘an abiding issue of global significance’ (p. 136): that of the historic episcopate. After noting that nonconformists are not simply Protestants but ‘Free Church people’, and as such have played significant roles in various ecumenical councils, he witily suggests that ‘the question for us now is whether there is any theological topic distinctive of Free Churches as a whole and not of one denomination only, on which the Nonconformists of England might be expected to speak with a united voice? Living alongside the only remaining Anglican established Church as they do, the obvious candidate is the establishment question’ (p. 136). Sell recalls that nonconformists have not been those who have denied the necessity of the state recognition of religion; ‘it was, after all, the state which accorded religious toleration’ (p. 137). Nonconformists have well understood the appropriateness of proper Church-state relations, but have (rightfully) questioned the very principal of a national church. Again, he cites Forsyth: ‘What we protest against is not the abuses but the existence, the principle, of a national church’. The very existence of a state church denies the Church’s catholicity. Again, Forsyth: ‘However Establishment may seem to work at a given time, the thing is wrong … For my own part, any doubt of the truth of our Nonconformist principles would mean doubt of the truth of what is most distinctive in Christianity itself – free faith, free action, and free giving, as the response of men who have been moved and changed and controlled by the free gift of God and grace in Jesus Christ’ (P.T. Forsyth, The Charter of the Church, 32). A state church is, as Congregationalist John Whale once noted, a ‘contradiction in terms’ (p. 139). Rightly suspicious of attempts towards dialogue in the past that were based on purely pragmatic principles, Sell looks hopefully towards the future, and towards those Anglicans and Free Church folk who are currently engaged in discussion about issues of establishment. He pleads: ‘May their outlook be ecumenical and their thoughts in the first place be theological’ (p. 144).

The final chapter, entitled ‘Rivers, Rivulets – and Encroaching Desert?’, turns our attention to eschatology, the atonement, and a collection of other themes that Sell identifies as important for understanding nonconformist theology, but have largely been overlooked in the preceeding chapters. He recollects that debates concerning the final fate of the impenitence were hotly contested, not least by Unitarians. Sell’s focus here is mainly on notions of universalism, annihilationism and the possibility of post-mortem probation. The discussion is fascinating, revealing again that there really is nothing new under the sun. I will limit myself here to one quotation. Sell introduces us to Sydney H. Mellone, Principal of Manchester Unitarian College, and his 1916 work Eternal Life Here and Hereafter. Mellone writes,

The assertion, sometimes made, that Universalism means in effect ‘it does not matter what we do, for we shall be all right in the end’ is unworthy of discussion. Universalism rests on the same foundation on which rests our belief in the eternity of goodness and truth in God … The ethical motive of belief in immortality means that compensation and retribution, to be real, must be redemptive. The religious motive means that final communion with God is the destiny of every soul, and not alone of those who know in this present by living experience what such communion is. The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever. (cited on p. 150.)

The chapter, and the book, concludes with Sell offering some hard hitting words as he critically reflects on the demise of the Church’s vocabulary, the integrity-eroding effects of political correctness on inter-faith dialogue, the revival of interest in the Trinity during the last 30 years, the side-lining of the atonement in the Church’s proclamation, the necessity for theologians to not merely speak ‘from faith to faith’ but to commend the faith to others, and the current state of theological education, particularly in England. On the latter, and in the same manner as his champion PT Forsyth, Sell argues that the Church desperately needs a more thoroughly trained clergy than it is currently receiving.

As a devoted churchman who served two pastorates in the United Kingdom from 1959 to 1968, and who has served internationally as a theological educator since, and so not unaware of the practical and financial hurdles that pastoral ministry candidates, their churches and their colleges are often forced to jump, Sell urges churches to take steps to ‘ensure that their younger candidates at least receive a full and rigorous academic course. If this means fewer visits to hospitals and prisons during a candidate’s college years, so be it; required in-service training for licensed probationers prior to ordination is not impossible to provide, and it is never more readily received than by those at the pastoral “coal face”.’ He continues,

I see no viable substitute for practitioners’ having a solid grounding in the Bible, a thorough acquaintance with the history of Christian thought (which is broader than historical theology, but includes both it and the linguistic competence to read salient texts), and sufficient philosophical-analytical skills to probe presuppositions, analyse arguments and avoid the writing of incoherent gobbledegook. None of this is achieved without real time and effort; and the churches would do well to encourage in all possible ways those ministerial candidates whose gifts take them in these directions, and whose academic lungs can withstand prolonged immersion in extensive and sometimes choppy waters (p. 191).

At times throughout the book, Sell makes claims that invite clarification and further comment. For example, he states that ‘there is a common defining essence underlying all genuine religious phenomena’ (p. 37). Does he have something like Otto’s notion of holiness in mind here [which I have written on here, here, here, here and here], or Feuerbach, or something else? I would have liked Sell to unpack this just a little. But this is really an insignificant squabble. More disappointing is the fact that Sell spills comparatively little ink on the second half of the century to which the title of his book flags. Apart from infrequent and brief discussions of the contributions of Paul Fiddes and Colin Gunton, by and large the lectures are heavily weighted towards the century’s first half which, to be fair, is by far where most of the material published by twentieth century nonconformist was birthed. As a consequence, the albeit scarcity of significant contributions from within Pentecostalism, the Brethren, Black churches, and independent evangelical churches are all but ignored. (This says more about the dearthly state of more recent nonconformist scholarship in England than it does about Sell’s treatment of the material.) Congregationalist, which receives the most attention, Baptist, Methodist and Unitarian contributions are, however, well represented. Some readers may also be disappointed that Sell limits his discussion to the nonconformist scene in England and, to some extent, in Wales. While a book that seriously took in any more would expand the book’s length considerably (and I think in this case with little profit), perhaps the title of the book could have been more revelatory here. That said, the book is no poorer for that.

The volume includes a helpful list of biographical references of some of the major personalities discussed in the lectures, as well as an impressive bibliography. Those concerned with the life and theological contribution of the nonconformist family specifically, and those interested in the shape that theology took in twentieth-century Britain more generally (and may be taking in this century) will be prodigiously served by reading this book. An encyclopedic, but accessible, study!


  1. Jason

    Thanks for this review of what appears to be an impt volume.

    Does it deal with that stream of theology that stressed the spirituality or theology of the everyday, the ordinary and the commonplace?

    This was picked up later by John Baillie (when he looks at a Theology of Sleep etc) and in recent days by Robert Banks (Faith Goes to Work) and his disciples (Simon Holt on God Next Door and in the Neighbourhood).

    This is one of the strands in the theology of F w Boreham and I have been looking for other early proponents of this thinking.



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