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?