David Bebbington described Evangelicalism (as opposed to Catholicism and/or Eastern Orthodoxy) as characterised by these four qualities: biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism. In this post, I want to reflect on what may be some strengths and weaknesses in these distinctives, as expressed variously throughout Evangelicalism.
Biblicism is a posture that gives priority to Scripture as a guide for Christian faith and practice. The other sources for theology (from the ‘Wesleyan Quadrilateral’) tend to be Reason, Tradition and Experience. The central strength of this priority is that without the scriptural story forming our thinking and acting, we can create versions of faith that look suspiciously like us. The content and themes of the Bible, climaxing in the person of Jesus and his Gospel of the Kingdom of God, keep us from being blown around by current fashions, interests and trends. The weakness comes when the priority of the Bible is seen to be not only over but against things like Reason, Tradition and Experience. Systematic theology, for example, uses reason to formulate statements of doctrine that are as logically coherent as possible. Church tradition keeps us accountable to the insights, interpretations and experience of the past, not so we cannot change, but so that when we do, we are aware of how and how much and in what way we are doing so. Experience likewise comes to the table, both to call our thinking and acting to be practical and practice-able, but also generates new questions for us to consider. So the best kind of biblicism is a humble biblicism that is integrated with and draws from Tradition, Reason and Experience. Evangelicalism can benefit from other traditions here.
Crucicentrism focuces on the Atoning work of Christ on the cross, dying in our place for our sins. The strength of this is that it prevents Christ from being reduced to a mere moral example. Luther also saw the cross as normative for all Christian thinking about God, seeing the suffering, forgiving Christ as the perfect revelation of God, as opposed to the high and lofty ‘theologies of glory’ that may be intuitive to reason and imagination, but nonetheless utterly reframed by the Cross. The weakness comes when the Cross is not only central, but overshadows the birth (Incarnation), ministry, temptation, resurrection, ascension, Spirit and return of Christ. Overly focusing on the Cross can reduce the gospel to being mainly or only about sin being forgiven, which leaves other themes panned out of frame, such as the cosmic redemption of all creation, Jesus’ identification with our trials and temptations, his wisdom, his victory over death, empowering presence and coming judgment. So the best kind of crucicentrism will have a Cross that is integrated with the rest of the Gospel story. Again, other traditions than Evangelicalism have strengths to offer.
Conversionism is characterised by a passion to see as many individuals as possible hear, respond to, and be transformed by the ‘good news’ of Christ. The strength here is that conversionism guards against Christianity being reduced to effectively a social programme or soup kitchen. Christians believe that the real way to change society is (as Miroslav Volf has said in sociological language) to create transformed social agents, or (as traditional Christian language would put it) to call people to repent of their sins and join Jesus’ kingdom project to transform the whole world. The weakness here comes when efforts to convert individuals leads to the neglect of meeting other human needs. If indeed the kingdom of God is about the healing of the whole creation, then this needs to be an essential part of Christian ‘evangelism’ or ‘mission’. Once again, evangelicalism will do well to take cues from other traditions here.
Activism is characterised by a passion to bring Christian values and ethics to bear upon actual life. The strength here is that it guards against Christianity being effectively a set of ideas and beliefs. Christianity is an active, prophetic faith, that must be courageously acted out in all of life. The weakness comes when our activism is either impatient or lazy. Impatiently, we can ‘force’ our views and values upon people, rather than doing the hard intellectual and relational work for our words and actions to be heard or accepted. Lazily, we can narrowly focus in on or take action about the same issues that we feel most confident or comfortable with. Evangelicalism has in recent times known for damning, voting, rallying and otherwise acting ‘against’ a few (predictable?) things, and we need the wisdom, passion, breadth, and resources of other traditions to make our activism better.