Biblical scholars and systematic theologians usually grab the headlines during contemporary debates over evangelical identity. Church historians are called to testify as even-handed observers who place the debate in context. But this context itself is often the stuff of legendary dispute among historians. David Bebbington's Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, published in 1989, has set the terms of theological discourse by describing the historical context from which the modern movement emerged. In time for the book's 20th anniversary, a team of renowned scholars has published The Advent of Evangelicalism, where they reflect on Bebbington's vast influence and challenge several of his most controversial claims.
Reviewers have described Evangelicalism in Modern Britain with the common buzzwords that denote a must-read volume, such as "classic" and "magisterial." As Timothy Larsen notes in his chapter on the book's reception history, Bebbington's quadrilateral has become a standard definition of evangelicalism. Even Christianity Today, considered an authority on the movement for decades before Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, frequently appeals to the marks of biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism. Indeed, Larsen concludes that Bebbington's four pillars "have no rival anywhere near as influential or popular and are unlikely to be replaced by an alternative structure any time soon."
But the quadrilateral is practically a side note to one simple, straightforward sentence by Bebbington that has stirred much controversy: "Evangelical religion is a popular Protestant movement that has existed in Britain since the 1730s." Bebbington goes so far as to argue that the transatlantic revival of this period "represents a sharp discontinuity in the Protestant tradition." In other words, Bebbington sees evangelicalism breaking with the Reformation as it adapted to the Enlightenment, then Romanticism, and finally modernism. In his analysis, John Locke's epistemology lurks behind John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards where we might expect to find Martin Luther and John Calvin. According to Larsen, Bebbington "made as significant and substantial a contribution to scholarship as the author of any book could ever hope for, in the ambitious way that he related church history to other forms of history and wider cultural developments."
As several of the contributors to The Advent of Evangelicalism make clear, biblicism, crucicentrism, and conversionism can be plainly found in the Puritans and continental pietists who predated the 1730s. So Bebbington's argument for discontinuity stands or falls on activism motivated by a new type of assurance. "The activism of the Evangelical movement sprang from its strong teaching on assurance," Bebbington writes in Evangelicalism in Modern Britain. "That, in turn, was a product of the confidence of the new age about the validity of experience." Then Bebbington drops a bombshell: "The Evangelical version of Protestantism was created by the Enlightenment." He draws a clear contrast between the evangelicals and their Puritan predecessors. "Whereas the Puritans had held that assurance is rare, late and the fruit of struggle in the experience of believers, the Evangelicals believed it to be general, normally given at conversion and the result of simple acceptance of the gift of God."
Regarding this point, Garry Williams delivers perhaps the strongest response to Bebbington. Williams, academic dean and tutor in church history and doctrine at Oak Hill Theological College in London, examines Edwards's Religious Affections. He argues that it does not depend on Enlightenment epistemology for counseling believers on how to find assurance of salvation. Rather, Edwards appeals to the biblical teaching that genuine believers act out of love despite trials that test their faith. As for Wesley, Williams does not deny that his teaching on the "spiritual sense" draws language from its Enlightenment times. But there is a big jump from relevance to dependence.
"The leitmotif of Bebbington's work is the claim that evangelicalism has always been fashioned by its contexts," Williams writes. "In principle that is an unobjectionable claim, but it is quite another step to say that evangelicalism was 'created by' one of its contexts."
In his voluminous writings, Bebbington variously describes evangelical activism as evangelism, prayer meetings, social reform, philanthropy, preaching, and pastoral care. However, this is hardly the stuff of innovation in Christian history. But Bebbington also cites foreign missions, a surprisingly and shamefully late development closely associated with the emergence of modern evangelicalism in the 1730s. Should this one criteria alone mark evangelicalism as a "sharp discontinuity" from the Reformation, Puritanism, and pietism? Williams does not think so.
The Advent of Evangelicalism advances the discussion because Bebbington took the time to respond. Occasionally he concedes that his book could be tweaked in response to these challenges, even to his key point about assurance. "A type of assurance deriving from contemporary thought was not the single hinge of the door into evangelicalism," Bebbington allows. But he is not easily bowed. "Despite the justified criticism of the treatment of assurance in Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, it may still be the case that the common (though not universal) greater confidence in knowing God among evangelicals, for example in the Wesleyan doctrine of the witness of the Spirit, was a counterpart of the charismatic quest of the age for greater certainty. So many of the features of evangelical faith and practice during the eighteenth century, and for long afterwards, bore the stamp of the Enlightenment. Though not created by the Enlightenment, evangelicalism was embedded in it."
The debate over assurance illustrates how historical interpretation so often shapes theological discourse. If evangelicalism did not appear on the religious scene until the 1730s, then detractors gain a key point in their argument that novelty undermines credibility. If the Enlightenment created evangelicalism, then perhaps the movement should be re-created or abandoned altogether in our postmodern era. If inerrancy first emerged as evangelical dogma amid modernism in the 19th century, then less stringent definitions of biblical authority should be accepted. If, however, evangelicalism extends back to the Reformation and beyond, then the movement's identity and coherence depend on its doctrinal continuity with earlier eras.
With Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, Bebbington helped rescue evangelical history from the backwaters of fleeting reactionary movements. He has shown how leading evangelicals engaged meaningfully with the intellectual trends of their day. But noting evangelicals' gift for contextualizing the gospel should never sever them from their spiritual inheritance, as Timothy George observed in his foreword to The Advent of Evangelicalism.
"At its heart is a theological core shaped by the Trinitarian and Christological consensus of the early church, the formal and material principles of the Reformation, the missionary movement that grew out of the Great Awakening and the new movements of the Spirit that indicate 'surprising works of God' are still happening today."
Collin Hansen is a CT editor at large and author of Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists.
Copyright © 2009 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Previous Christianity Today articles related to David Bebbington or the history of evangelicalism include:
When Evangelicals Ruled | Between 1850 and 1900 evangelicals dominated the English speaking world, says David Bebbington. (June 1, 2006)
Where We Are and How We Got Here | 50 years ago, evangelicals were a sideshow of American culture. Since then, it's been a long, strange trip. Here's a look at the influences that shaped the movement. (September 29, 2006)
The Rise of the Evangelicals | Evangelicalism was once a tiny reform movement, one that was amazingly successful, says Mark Noll. (June 9, 2005)
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