Stepping Outside Evangelicalism?

November 5, 2010 — 7 Comments

First released in 1989, David Bebbington's Evangelicalism in Modern Britain has become one of the standard texts relating to the history of the evangelical movement. It has not reached its place of esteem without provoking some significant criticism (see, for example, Kenneth Stewart's 2005 article in Evangelical Quarterly). Chief among the grievances are Bebbington's quadrilateral of evangelicalism and his assertion that evangelicalism has no cogent history per se, earlier than the mid-eighteenth century. Heavily influenced by the spirit of its age, argues Bebbington, the evangelical movement was "an adaptation of the Protestant tradition through contact with the Enlightenment" (loc. 1395) adding that, "the conviction that the pattern of cause and effect, the scientist's natural assumption, underlies all phenomena was to pervade Evangelical thinking long into the nineteenth century" (loc. 1555). This wedding of an emphasis on the innovations of science, specifically inductive reasoning and the empirical method, with the theology of the day led to evangelicalism's most novel development, the doctrine of assurance.

Prior to this period, the consensus among dominant theologies was that a believer could not "know" for certainty the condition of her salvation in the same way that one might "know" that if it was raining out side he would get wet. It was possible, however, to get a general sense of one's state by observing the works of his life. A believer growing in sanctification, it was held, would show that in the way she lived her life. The doctrine of assurance, however, claimed that such certainty was possible because it could be evidenced not only by outward works, but by an inward "sense." In this way, the doctrine of assurance was seeking to align itself with other sense-derived Enlightenment movements. Here, however, proponents like John Wesley were adding a sixth, innate "moral sense" to the five sense drawn upon by scientists (see locs. 1315-1316).

The doctrine of assurance is important because two of Bebbington's four characteristics of evangelicalism flourished under it. Conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed through the act of turning in repentance from sin to faith in Christ, and Activism, the strong emphasis on leading other people to instances of conversion, are both rooted in the firm principle that, "once a person has received salvation as a gift of God, he may be assured, according to Evangelicals, that he possess it" (loc. 259) and, hence, "Evangelicals were animated in their outreach by the expectation that salvation was widely available" (loc. 1567).

What I find particularly interesting to me personally and professionally is Bebbington's use of "Crucicentrism" to describe Evangelicalism's focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross. The focus of Christ crucified as the fulcrum for Evangelical theology is so strong that Bebbington feels compelled to assert that any to make any other theme more dominant than the cross is to "take a step away from Evangelicalism" (loc. 473). I've recently been becoming more and more aware of the effects of Evangelicalism's focus on propitiatory atonement. It often leads to a denigration of the resurrection, that singular event through which God both accomplished and promised the restoration of all Creation to an eternally sinless state.

In terms of discipleship, an exclusive focus on the atonement of the cross often leads to a kind of survivor's guilt. We lament, along with Paul, in the sin we still commit even as we understand the sacrifice endured that we might not remain in our sin. Our discipleship often lacks hope and instead turns into at attempt to atone for the atonement. We dress this up in flowery language and say that our good works are motivated out of "gratitude for what Christ has done on the cross," but often that gratitude is intellectual assent to the understanding that we ought to be thankful.

I am beginning to explore what discipleship rooted in a theology of hope based on the resurrection might look like. Does this, as Bebbington asserts, put me outside of Evangelicalism? I don't know. Perhaps. If it does, where does that leave me? 

Anderson Campbell

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  • Clifford Berger

    Eddie, the doctrine of assurance (“eternal security”) is most prominent amongst Baptists, more so even than other evangelical groups. Any thoughts as to why that might be so?

  • Chris Marshall

    “Our discipleship often lacks hope and instead turns into at attempt to atone for the atonement.” Really well said, Eddie. This is something as I read it in Bebbington, I immediately thought of you and your project. The relationship of grace and discipleship, putting away the pride of a kind of asceticism in earning our sanctification in light of the cross. You got me thinking.

  • Russ Pierson

    Excellent article, Eddie. I love that you underscored the doctrine of assurance and I enjoyed your musings about the implications of “a theology of hope based on the resurrection.” Great stuff! Lots to ponder.

  • Rodger McEachern

    Eddie – good stuff![that's a theological word isn't it?] Resurrection I would think enables hope, and assurance in several ways. One way would be the vindication of Christ’s death on the cross, another is that it is the first fruits of the new heaven and earth…and one that I particularly am encourged by [personally and as I teach etc] is that with the cross and the giving of he Spirit it is a pledge and guarantee that God is 100% reliable and trustworthy.

  • Joe Burnham

    Depending on the validity of the Lutheran tradition as dominant theology, I’d have to disagree with this statement: “Prior to this period, the consensus among dominant theologies was that a believer could not ‘know’ for certainty the condition of her salvation in the same way that one might “know” that if it was raining out side he would get wet.”Assurance isn’t an Evangelical invention, rather, it’s at the very heart and core of the birth of Lutheranism. Luther’s struggle was embedded in his inability to see himself as righteous before God, and this was as a monk that surpassed the righteousness of all monks. He did everything the church in his day told him to do, yet had no assurance, which troubled him greatly.His conclusion was that assurance comes, not from anything we see in ourselves or from an inward sense, but from the completely external Word of God, a Word that comes directly to us in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and through the reading of Scripture and preaching of the Word.Obviously this then plays into a Lutheran take on the other four characteristics of Evangelicalism.

  • Joe Burnham

    On another line, your reflection on a theology rooted in hope and resurrection placing you outside of Evangelicalism very much resonates with me … simply because I wonder if I’m taking the same journey outside of Lutheranism (or at least what Lutheranism is today).

  • Rodger McEachern

    The focus of Christ crucified as the fulcrum for Evangelical theology is so strong that Bebbington feels compelled to assert that any to make any other theme more dominant than the cross is to “take a step away from Evangelicalism” (loc. 473). I believe he is right to make this claim…yet such focus on the cross is not just an 18th century innovation..but indeed true for all evangelical faith from the apostles to Augustine to the Reformers, the evangelicals Bebbington writes about and so on. solus Christus and sola gratia Calvin and Luther emphasizes and this was taken up by the Puritans and Pietists alike…against a semi-pelagianism that was like a sediment in some medieval Catholicism [in in 20th century Christianity]. Interestingly Count Zinzendorf once said that, ‘we are reconciled to God not by our own works, not by our own righteousness, but wholly and solely by the blood of Christ,’ [Iain Murray, The Puritan Hope, 133]; and Bebbington with others links the Moravians as having a large influence upon the Welseys. I agree with Eddie that the atonement of Christ [the cross] is more than propriation for sin, but it is not less, Yes the cross at times has been cheapened, and without the resurrection [and the work of the Holy Spirit] would be foolishness or a scandal, yet it is the ground of our assurance [more so than experience], and thus can become a huge motivator for Christian living and mission [Bebbington's links with activism and to conversionism]. Thanks guys for helping think through some of this. Talk to soon!((tags:dmingml)) #dmingml