Is Orthodoxy a Necessary Feature of “Evangelical?”
I was recently asked if I agree with church historian David Bebbington’s “quadrilateral” of features of evangelical Christianity. They are, not necessarily in the right order,: biblicism (a special regard for the Bible as the inspired Word of God written and authoritative for everything related to salvation), conversionism (belief that an authentic Christian life and salvation begin with a decision to repent and trust in Jesus Christ alone), crucicentrism (a special emphasis on the cross of Christ involving belief in the atonement), and activism (evangelism and social transformation).
For the most part I have taught Bebbington’s (and Noll’s) quadrilateral here and elsewhere, but at one point I began to think it takes something for granted that we can’t take for granted: basic Christian orthodoxy: belief (however infantile or broken) in the deity and humanity of Jesus Christ (incarnation), the Trinity, salvation by grace alone, and the resurrection and return of Jesus Christ (including the empty tomb and real parousia). In other words, for me, when I need to decide whether a church counts as evangelical, I look for basic Christian orthodoxy PLUS the four “sides” (features) of the Bebbington Quadrilateral.
Of course, for me, personally, I look for more features that aren’t necessary for evangelical identity. Both David and I are talking about who’s evangelical and who’s not.
A few years ago David and I had lunch together and talked about all this. He disagreed with me about the necessity of basic Christian orthodoxy. He said something to the effect that requiring it would make many of the people he goes to church with not evangelical because they don’t understand the Trinity. We didn’t have time to discuss that further and I didn’t want to argue, so I let the matter drop. But it has arisen again-from another source.
My response to David would have been that I don’t think we are talking about individuals but churches. Sometimes individuals, sure. For example, some years ago there was a discussion about whether Tony Campolo counted as evangelical when he published a book in which he argued that there is a little bit of Christ in everyone. He appealed to church fathers Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria. Then there was a discussion among evangelical leaders about whether T. D. Jakes is an evangelical because of his language about the Godhead (“three manifestations” rather than “three persons”).
Another response I would have had to David, had we had more time, is that I’m sure some of the laypeople with whom he attends church (in Scotland) don’t have all four features of his quadrilateral. But I’m sure his church does.
Personally, I’m not as concerned with deciding whether a person is authentically evangelical (although there are cases I know of such as the Unitarian theology professor who told me he’s evangelical!) as I am with deciding whether a Christian church or organization is evangelical. I would begin by asking the leaders of the church (pastor[s], deacons, elders, whoever) about the National Association of Evangelicals’ statement of faith. If they don’t agree with it, where and why? Then I would look at their statement of faith if any. If it’s basically orthodox but rejects, say conversion as necessary for authentic Christian existence, then I would question its full evangelical identity.
The one feature of the Bebbington Quadrilateral that worries me the most is “crucicentrism.” There is no doubt that all evangelicals USED TO emphasize the cross and the atonement, but in recent years, not so much. I have noticed a distinct downplaying of the atoning death of Jesus Christ in much evangelical preaching and teaching and writing.
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