What Makes an Evangelical? Reconsidering Bebbington’s Rule

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David Bebbington’s Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (Routledge, 1989) was a compelling account of the history of the evangelical movement in the modern era. In it he traces the development of evangelical Christianity and marks out what has been for some time a widely accepted version of its distinguishing marks: conversionism, activism, biblicism, crucicentrism.

Yet, Bebbington’s quadrilateral rule has not been without its detractors, and his contention that evangelical Christianity arose in the eighteenth century era of Whitefield and Wesley has been questioned by a growing number of historians – that it was not so novel as Bebbington asserts.  In this book, The Advent of Evangelicalism, Bebbington’s definition receives close analysis and critical engagement from various church historians and theologians such as Timothy George, Paul Helm, and Timothy Larson (to name only a few, this is a thick collection. Many thanks to B&H for the review Copy).

Underlying all the essays here – including Bebbington’s own response to them – is a fundamental (and I think relevant) question: “to what extent does evangelicalism of modern/postmodern times represent continuity and discontinuity with the preceding Christian story” (p. 14). The contributions all press Bebbington’s thesis that evangelicalism began as a novel movement in the Whitefield and Wesley era, and in doing so raise issues orbiting that central question.

For those interested in evangelicalism’s future and all the attending questions that get wrapped up with evangelical identity today this is a valuable collection to consider. Issues are raised concerning the relationship between evangelicalism and the Enlightenment, those formative influences pointed out by Bebbington such as Wesley and Whitefield are laid against those of Luther, Calvin, Cranmer, and Jonathan Edwards, and (very relevantly) the “conversionism” of Bebbington’s definition is put in conversation with the Protestant doctrines of scripture and assurance.

Evangelicals and Theology

All this is well and good (and valuable), but let me highlight one of Bebbington’s insights from his response essay related to evangelicals and theology. This is close to my heart as a teacher of Christian theology in a Christian liberal arts University. The faith of many of my students was formed in contexts hostile, or at least ambivalent, to theology, and I find myself continually curious about that phenomenon. Consider the following which Bebbington links the evangelical love for the Bible with an “instrumentalist” view of theology:

Evangelicals [...] champion[ed] doctrines that related directly to salvation, but the beliefs were appreciated chiefly as necessary instruments for converting people to Christ: ‘They cared for their truth’…’as a general cares for his guns and ammunition, or as a mechanic cares for his tools; not as an artist of genius cares for his canvas’ (p. 430).

If you grew up in an evangelical Christian environment does this describe your experience?

In my opinion, until evangelical theologians (no matter where they fall on the spectrum from custodial to progressive) can articulate a compelling view of Christian doctrine that remains both transparent to Scripture and rooted in the lived existences and practices of the Church, then our children will take their places in tomorrow’s church with a similarly anemic view of Christian theology. From what I see today there are some exciting voices which should be heard, John Webster, Kevin Vanhoozer, and Telford Work being only a few that come readily to mind. 

Any others we should be watching?

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11 thoughts on “What Makes an Evangelical? Reconsidering Bebbington’s Rule

  1. Granted, Evangelical churches are anti-intellectual to the point that “Evangelical scholarship” is a contradiction in terms; an oxymoron.

    Still however, even just the simple focus on Jesus Christ himself, as a personality – a compelling, mild personality, an example of humility – might have some usefulness. Especially among people naturally inclined to be bullies.

    • Joe (or should I say Griffin?), even though many evangelical churches may lack vision for the life of the mind I don’t agree that evangelical scholarship is an oxymoron, nor do I agree that Jesus was a mild personality. If he was so “mild” why did everyone mistake him for Elijah.

  2. The church I grew up in did indeed have this curious attitude towards “theology”. They thought of it as what liberals did while conservatives (ie, Christians) just read their Bibles. Bebbingington’s analogy of doctrine to weapons hits home. In my pursuit of engaging pastors and lay leaders of my church on grappling with some of the weak spots of our (west coast conservative Baptist) tradition, I’m usually met with open mindedness as long as the points can be made with immediate reference to a managible portion of scripture; discussion of the post biblical development of doctrine and spirituality is usually met, not with hostility, but that fatigued look a high school student gets when they realize they didn’t read the book they were supposed to. I think the assumption is that our relationship with God through Christ is nurtured through prayer and devotional readings of scripture; study of theology might even be a dangerous distraction from this more important task. I encountered this attitude big time at the Pentecostal college I went to and even a tiny bit at Fuller Seminary.

    A theology that can succinctly and powerfully demonstrate its profitability to the church and internal, faithful relation to scripture, which invites further study and reflection without establishing any elitist boundaries, I believe and hope would be welcomed in the church I’ve grown up in and continue in.

    • Adam, my experience in a fair number of conservative, evangelical churches mirrors yours. I agree that our ability to articulate its “profitability” is important, but I worry that too much talk of “profitability” tends toward what has been a long-time characteristic of evangelical Christianity going all the way back to Whitefield: pragmatism. I am more inclined toward a model of theological education in which the study of God is cast as ‘life with God’, what the patristic age considered “sapience”. Ellen Charry says it well: “Sapience includes correct information about God but emphasizes attachment to that knowledge. Sapience is engaged knowledge that emotionally connects the knower to the known.” (By the Renewing of Your Minds, p.4).

      Quite honestly I think the problem has less to do with a “head/heart” divide than a fundamentally misguided concept of what “knowledge” entails (which leads to what we often call a head/heart disjunction).

      What are your thoughts on this?

      • I find the definition of sapience to be helpful. I agree that our concepts of knowledge are misguided. We seem to think that knowledge and ideas exist independent of minds. I am not so convinced.

        More than that we do not seem to make a connection between what we know (knowledge) and the act of knowing (means by which we come to have that knowledge). The path to knowing is also a form of knowledge and is an experience which either leads towards emotional attachment or away from emotional attachment.

        I tend to think that many of the ways in which we currently are educated lead towards emotional detachment. I think viewing theological education as “life with God” rather than say preparation for ministry is a big step forward.

  3. Could we 1) support Christ as a compelling personality (mild or not), for anyone to relate to? An easy handle, a human image, to personify for a moment, an otherwise bewilderingly complex godhead?

    But 2) then, having noted that to our students explicitly … seek next the theological underpinnings and implications and connections, behind, within, that image of Christ?

  4. Joe, I am not particularly clear where our discussion is heading at this point. To say the least, I am entirely uninterested in reducing the completely unrepeatable event of the incarnation to “an easy handle”. But if what you are saying is that we approach our knowledge of God explicitly through the incarnation (point 2)), then you and I would both be standing within a pretty dominant stream of the Christian tradition.

  5. 1) Is the incarnation “unrepeatable”? Would this would mean there is to be no second coming of Christ?

    2) No doubt the incarnation is very complex. And should not be called “simple.”

    3) Still, it is often said that having God assume human form, having him address us in the form of a physical man, was a way to make himself better (more easily?) known to us, and understandable to mortal creatures.

    4) Specifically, it is especially thanks in part to his “flesh”ly form, some might suggest, that we can have a fuller communion with God. Especially, even between our “flesh” and Him. Thanks to the common “flesh”ly medium, in both ourselves, and in Jesus.

    So that Jesus is relatively “simpler,” in Jesus. In the sense that when God took human form, that helps us understand him better: he is speaking with our tongue, in our language. He appears to us in a form we better understand.

    No doubt, even Jesus in himself is not simple. But perhaps, in some ways, he is more accessible than a remote God in heaven. Particularly in his lifetime.

    5) So that even an Evangelical Christocentric theology, for example, still has some heuristic usefulness? And even some fidelity to the Bible itself?

    6) And even some relevance to your own interest in the “flesh”?

    7) Though admittedly, I personally would not be eager to defend many other Evangelical fundamentals.

  6. Or is Kent more concerned not so much with christocentrism, as crucicentrism? A particular moment in the life of Christ.

    Still, is even the crucial image say of the suffering servant, the moment of suffering for our religion, really that central to Evangelicalism? Which often teaches that Christianity brings not so much suffering, but instead brings “prosperity”?

    Granted, Evangelicalism does like to suggest that the death of Jesus is the central salvific moment. But that would be common to most Christian theologies.

    On a different subject: to be sure, the conversionalism of Evangelicalism, ignores the narrower Catholic interpretation of The Great Commission. That only Popes and priests can really teach the words of God. Though of course here is it in line with the foundations of Protestantism itself. Which founded itself on the asserted right of common individuals – people other than Popes – to define and teach the word of God. As long as those teachings were consistent with scripture.

    Admittedly though, any excessive conversionalism, that would seem to give religious authority to almost anyone, would ignore an important passage in James. Where James tells us that “not many of you should become teachers.” Because “we all make many mistakes.”

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