taking the words of Jesus seriously

Some years ago, a long-time friend of mine was asked, at the last minute, to take part in a radio debate. At the end of the programme the producer thanked her for her contribution, and then made a memorable comment, “If you’d not been able to make it, the next person on our list was one of those awful evangelical people.”

I grew up evangelical. I am an evangelical. That’s why I find this kind of story exceptionally painful to listen to.

The terms ‘evangelical’ and ‘evangelicalism’, alongside the act of ‘evangelism’, are rooted in two New Testament Greek words; the noun euangelion which means ‘good news’ and the verbeuangelizo meaning ‘to bring or announce good news’. In classical Greek an euangelos was a messenger of joyous good news (all three forms of the word were formed from the Greek ‘eu’ meaning ‘well’ and ‘angelos’ meaning ‘messenger’ (or angel)). Euangelion and euangelizo are often translated into English in the New Testament as ‘gospel’.

Any encounter with evangelicalism, therefore, should always be to experience the kind of good news that stirs your soul and pours the oil of joy into the grind of everyday life. To that end, Jesus built relationships with a vast array of ordinary people. He loved being with them and, in calling them to follow him, he constantly acknowledged the burdens of life that they struggled with and reassured them with his gentleness. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest…for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28-30). That’s good news! Indeed, the only groups that Jesus ever chose to seriously critique were the various religious leaders who included themselves but chose to exclude others from the always-given welcome and embrace of God.

In recent years, however, the term ‘evangelical’ has often become a word of revulsion in the media, and even left many of its own adherents wrestling with their allegiance to it. Andrew Walker for instance, who is an evangelical and Emeritus Professor of Theology, Culture & Education at King’s College, London,   with the “fad-driven, one-dimensional spirituality of modern evangelicalism”.

So, what has gone wrong? It seems to me that it would be foolish not to explore the breakdown between our raison d’être and our public perception. As the saying goes, there is no smoke without fire.

David Bebbington, Professor of History at the University of Stirling, is widely known for his 1989, easy to remember, thumbnail, definition of evangelicalism,  first set out here. It’s often referred to today as the ‘Bebbington Quadrilateral’.

“There are four qualities that have been the special marks of Evangelical religion, ” he writes. “Conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be called crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Together they form a quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism.”

Together, these four key theological characteristics or distinctives – the centrality of conversion as a life changing event, an activism built around a concern for sharing the faith, a recognition of the absolute authority of the Bible, and a focus on Christ’s redeeming work of the cross – have come to receive wide and ongoing acceptance in both academic and popular circles and to define evangelical convictions and attitudes. They have become a kind of gauge to mark evangelicalism apart from other forms of Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox theology and ecclesiology.

In the debate, which has resulted from the recognition that all is not well in the camp, many of the adherents of evangelicalism increasingly choose to preface their ownership of the label in an attempt to qualify the terms on which they accept it: conservative evangelicals, charismatic evangelicals, open evangelicals and progressive evangelicals to name but a few. Many openly confess to wondering whether ‘evangelical’ has become such a pejorative term that they should abandon it, at least in casual self-identification. Perhaps most interesting are post-evangelicals, who, as their title reveals, are at one and the same time, anxiousness to distance themselves from evangelicalism but equally keen to keep on publically acknowledging where they came from!

If nothing else, evangelicalism is on a theological journey, with varying, often strongly opposed, but constantly evolving expressions or manifestations of faith and theology.

Does Bebbington still work?

The question is, therefore, with the growing diversity of evangelicalism, can Bebbington’s four priorities still provide a valid or adequate basis for the movement? Do they need to be challenged, altered, deepened or added to? Do we have to recognise that evangelicalism is more than one movement? Or, is it time to move away from our desire to define ourselves by trying to articulate what sets us apart from other branches of the Christian body?

In one sense, none of this is new. Evangelicalism has always been pluralistic. The label ‘evangelical’ is a bit like the term ‘football’. No one has a monopoly on its use. It has never been exclusively owned by any specific group. Ever since its rise in the eighteenth century – in the era of Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and the Wesleys – it has been used as a label to describe various conflicting beliefs and practices spanning a wide theological and ecclesiastical spectrum, and its meaning has often been hotly contested and disputed.

One early, but ongoing example of this spectrum of understanding is the freewill/determinist divide between the Arminian theology of John Wesley and the Calvinism of Jonathan Edwards. For Wesley, salvation, which he considered is available to everyone, is built around the voluntary choice of the individual to accept God’s gift of grace. For Edwards, salvation is the predetermined gift of faith, given by God to those who have been chosen by him for eternal life. Equally, also by God’s just judgment, those who have not been chosen are left in their hardness of heart.

This, often bitter conflict, stems from two entirely different, polarized views of the person of God, of humanity and the fall, of the Bible and conversion, of the cross and salvation, and of the shape of the Church’s mission.

Now, in the 21st century, the term ‘evangelicalism’ is becoming even more disputed, with a growing number of, often discordant and divergent definitions. Perhaps we need a new set of priorities which will transcend our groupings and enable us to negotiate the future? A question which brings us right back to Bebbington.

Have we moved on?

Volumes have been written in critique of the ‘Quadrilateral’. I’m not going to attempt to repeat, or summarise, them here. Such an undertaking would be impossible to do justice to. Instead, my observation is this. In the quarter of a century that has come and gone since Bebbington’s work, the advance of New Testament scholarship and development of hermeneutical principles, alongside innovative missiological lessons learnt through our engagement with society and from other expressions of Church around our ever shrinking world, have moved our understanding on.

Take four examples – one each from the Quadrilateral’s four principles:

Conversionism – often described as a commitment to preaching a ‘new birth’ experience; a life changing event whereby, as Bebbington suggests, a person receives or achieves a confidence (faith) in the deity, sanctity, and salvific capacity of Jesus.

In the 1980s, I enjoyed the privilege of working with Billy Graham on various occasions. On one occasion, when I was a presenter of Songs of Praise, for BBC TV, Dr. Graham and I found ourselves left to spend most of a day together in New York because of a problem getting a camera crew to us – probably a frustration to him but an extraordinary opportunity for me!

Graham, of course, was the master of the use of the call to conversion; indeed he shaped it. His famous invitation to “just get up out of your seat” and “receive the gift of eternal life from Christ who calls you” was eventually imitated by countless others. However, Billy explained to me, with a smile, that his wife Ruth, who remained an active Presbyterian despite her husband being one of the world’s most famous Baptists, had a very different view of life and the journey of faith. She had never believed that a conversion experience was necessary for everyone, though she was happy to recognise its positive impact in the lives of some. Ruth, he explained, could not remember a time when she was not a Christian; a ‘crisis conversion’ experience just did not fit with her understanding of faith.

More than this, today a large majority of people within the evangelical family are perhaps increasingly coming to an understanding that the transformational power of Christ must be holistic rather than simply ‘spiritual’; systemic as well as personal, and corporate as well as individual.

Activism. Bebbington notes that evangelicals tend to focus on the transcendent spiritual needs related to eternal salvation. This emphasis, he says, dictates an activism centred around the proselytising of the ‘unsaved’. In contrast, mainline protestant faiths tend to prioritise the satisfaction of more immediate, physical needs such as hunger, shelter and social justice issues. However, the holistic theology of a growing number of evangelicals – with its emphasis on integral mission and whole life formation – stands in contrast to an activism which is simply centred on soul-saving. Without trying to create an ‘either or’ polarisation it is the difference between a primary focus on ‘life after birth’ and ‘life after death’.

Biblicism. William Tyndale, the great 16th century Bible translator, is famously quoted by John Foxe in his ‘Book of Martyrs’. He records Tyndale’s declaration to a priest visiting his local parish church in Gloucestershire, England: “If God spares my life…I will cause the boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scriptures than thou doest!” Tyndale was gripped by the idea of the Bible being easily accessible to ordinary people in language they could understand. He deliberately set out to write a Bible which would be accessible to everyone. It became his life goal.

Almost 500 years later, the Bible is mass produced. We’ve made access to it fast, convenient and easy; both on paper and online. Ironically, however, perhaps the challenge remains stubbornly exactly the same. The Scriptures have been democratised and put into the hands of the people, but how many of us – including evangelicals – have the tools to ‘know’ them; the resources to really understand and make sense of them?

At the beginning of the 20th century, inspired by DL Moody’s preaching, two wealthy Chicago businessmen compiled and published a collection of 12 books which became known as  Written by conservative evangelicals – one third of the essays dealt with issues of biblical inspiration, with the goal of protecting Christianity from modern empiricism and specifically the new higher criticism of scriptural texts and liberal theology.

Chief among these defences was what became known as the verbal, plenary inspiration of the Bible that produced an absolute inerrant scriptural text, as well as a strong opposition to any and every other view than their stated orthodoxy. This soon became the litmus test of acceptable evangelical faith. Indeed, according to BB Warfield, of Princetown Seminary, anyone who did not accept the specific doctrines set out in the Fundamentals “forfeits the right to be called a Christian.” By the 1920s, in the USA, evangelicalism and fundamentalism had become synonymous.

Still today, although this form of fundamentalism has never left the evangelical tent, for many other evangelicals, such an approach to the Bible appears over-simplistic and over-literalistic. It feels arrogant, not to mention misguided, to claim that evangelicalism takes the Bible more seriously than the rest of the Church. Instead, it seems to be our responsibility to recognise the quality of much of the good biblical theology produced by Christians of other traditions, as we explore the question ‘how should we understand and interpret the scriptures correctly and how does inspiration work through the humanness as well as the ‘God given-ness’ of the text?’. Indeed, for many, rather than a denial of the Bible’s authority, the engagement with such questions is the very act of placing yourself under that authority.

Crucicentrism. Bebbington argues that the way crucicentrism is prioritised in evangelicalism is unique even when compared to other forms of Protestant Christianity. “For evangelicals, ” , “the power and credibility of Christianity as a whole hinges upon the metaphysical events leading up to, surrounding and proceeding from Christ’s death on the cross.”

Today, many would claim, however, that although the cross of Jesus is central to our faith, it shares this centrality with the resurrection. “If Jesus rose from the dead, then you have to accept all that he said, “explains Timothy Keller in The Reason for God, “if he didn’t rise from the dead, then why worry about any of what he said? The issue on which everything hangs is not whether or not you like his teaching but whether or not he rose from the dead.”

The cross without the resurrection is not a victory, but a tragedy! Just one more, dead, would-be, Messiah. It is the resurrection that changes everything. As NT Wright puts it in : “people who believe in the resurrection, in God making a whole new world in which everything will be set right at last, are unstoppably motivated to work for that new world in the present.” The countless evangelical presentations of ‘the gospel’ (like this one for instance) that have emphasised the cross whilst downplaying or even ignoring the resurrection of Jesus are inadequate. And, what of the incarnation, the life, ethical teaching and example of Jesus? Imago Dei is as central as Missio Dei.

Looking to the future

So, what is the way ahead? Bebbington’s work to define evangelicalism is, in my view, no longer adequate. For the most part, huge swathes of evangelicalism have moved on from the over generalised articulations of his Quadrilateral in the terms that he defines them.

More than that, which section of the Church would deny the importance of the Bible, the significance of the cross, the need to actively demonstrate the good news of Christ or the importance of conversion – personal transformation – through the work of the Holy Spirit in its holistic sense; spiritually, social and emotionally? These priorities, which in the past some might have thought made us distinctive are, in reality, shared with the overwhelming majority of the Church around the world. The attempt to claim otherwise is not only arrogant, and alienating for the rest of the Church, but, in the final analysis, just plain wrong.

Twenty five years on, David Bebbington’s great service to us is that his Quadrilateral tells us about the way the world used to be, but not about the one into which we are heading. It is, of its very nature, a map of the past rather than a plan for future travel.

The solution, however, is not to develop a more sophisticated definition – some kind of 21st century evangelical pentagon, hexagon or heptagon. Though various attempts have been made to add to, or replace Bebbington’s components, my task here is different. In my view, the answer needs to be more revolutionary than this.

In Jesus’ day, the Jewish leaders were deeply divided; Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, Ultra-Zealots and Essenes. What was the right way to respond to the Roman Empire’s unwanted and unwelcome presence in Israel? Rigidity or compromise, aggression or retreat?

As ever, Jesus had different ideas. “You have heard that it was said”, he said, “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:43-45).

Later, Luke tells us that, as Jesus approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said,  “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognise the time of God’s coming to you.” (Luke 19:41-44)

History records that, tragically, rather than heeding Jesus’ revolutionary peace-making principles, the people chose to fight. Josephus, the famous 1st century historian, who was an eyewitness of all this, and appalled by the resulting carnage, explains that, many of the Jews within the besieged Jerusalem, in 70 AD, were more intent on fighting one another than on the enemy outside. The inevitable outcome was the sacking of the city, the destruction of the Temple, the mass slaughter of many of its inhabitants and the beginning of the longest ever exile endured by the Jewish people.

Change the scene to 16th and 17th century Europe. Following the Reformation, tension and unrest develop, and eventually outright battles were fought between Protestant and Catholic Christians which culminated in the Thirty Years War. The result was the beginning of the secularisation of Europe.

In a recent radio talk, Dr Jonathan Sacks analysed these ‘internal’ religious clashes, suggesting that as an outcome the general population do not so much lose their faith in God, but instead lost their faith “in the ability of people of faith to live peaceably together. When Jews started killing Jews, and Christians began killing their fellow Christians, people began to realise that this cannot be the way of God.”

The former Chief Rabbi concluded, “When conflicts within a faith cost lives within that faith, religion must cease to be the pursuit of power and become again what it was meant to be: God’s call to compassion for the powerless.”

Jesus said: Love one another

It seems to me that it is time for a paradigm shift which will move us away from the attempt to define ourselves over and against one another; the effort to caricature, then to dismiss and even to demonise one another. Only this recognition will allow us to finally abandon the impossible task of attempting to patrol the invisible boundaries of evangelicalism to ensure that they have not been breached. The approach to Christian faith which is about dichotomies and division – liberal and conservative, catholic and protestant, charismatic and reformed – belongs to the past.

The present way of defining ‘evangelical’ is too often divisive, even among those who own the term, let alone the rest of the Church. It prolongs an old worldview and plays to a tribalism which is inappropriate in our globalised 21st century world. Its definitions are too narrow, excluding, reductionist and inadequate in the light of the immense advances in New Testament understanding which shed light on the work and ministry of Jesus in context.

Lastly, and most fundamentally, it fails to take the challenge of Jesus, to all his followers in every generation seriously: “A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35).

So, what of evangelicalism and the future? What does it mean to belong to ‘One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church’? How will we demonstrate that to a watching world? And, how will we rise to the challenge of living out an evangelicalism of which it could be said, in the words of the angel who captivated the attention of those shepherds on a barren Galilean hillside two millennia ago, “Do not be afraid. [We] bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people”? (Luke 2:10).

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