The Bebbington Quadrilateral denotes the four qualities that David Bebbington claimed are characteristic of [the Old] Evangelicalism, as described in his book Evangelicalism in Modern Britain A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London, UK: Unwin Hyman, 1989). In the book The Advent of Evangelicalism: Exploring Historical Continuities (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2008), various scholars interacted with Bebbington's thesis that Evangelicalism, as described having these four characteristics, originated in the 1730s and in the First Great Awakening in that era. The last chapter was a response by Bebbington to the diverse essays which interacted with his thesis, often critically. It is interesting to read Bebbington's response, to see how he dealt with critiques of his thesis and to observe whether it holds up to scrutiny.
The four characteristics of Evangelicalism are (1) Activism, (2) Conversionism, (3) Biblicism, and (4) Cruci(o)centrism. On top of that, Bebbington had asserted a discontinuity between the Puritans and the Evangelicals concerning the issue of assurance of salvation, an assertion that generated quite a lot of push-back from the various contributors to the book The Advent of Evangelicalism.
In his response, Bebbington modified his thesis to a certain degree. On the issue of assurance of salvation, Bebbington virtually concedes the point to his critics, while stating that "it seems likely that the predominant view on the subject in the seventeenth century was less confident than what was normally professed in the eighteenth" (Bebbington, "Response," in The Advent of Evangelicalism, 421-2). In his response, Bebbington rejects the identification of the notion of "activism" as indicative of Puritanism or any movement prior to Evangelicalism by focusing on an important distinction of Evangelicalism: the emergence of multiple interdenominational agencies (Bebbington, in ibid., 419, 427). On the issue of Biblicism and Crucicentrism, Bebbington focuses on the fact that Evangelicalism was all about making things simple and only for the purpose of salvation, with a corresponding downplaying of theology as an academic discipline, and of right order and discipline in the church (Bebbington, in ibid., 428, 30). On the issue of Conversionism, Bebbington focuses on the issue of revivals, and the idea and heightened expectation of revivals that permeates Evangelicalism.
While Bebbington's response focuses on his response to his critics, we can read in his response how he might have modified his quadrilateral in order to more clearly describe Evangelicalism. The almost 2-decade old definition is in line for an upgrade, and I will attempt such an upgrade in light of Bebbington's response. Instead of merely stating a belief in "activism," we should say that Evangelicalism is marked by interdenominational activism, and a downplaying of denominational difference in lieu of a unified evangelical witness. Instead of merely a belief in "Conversionism," we could say that Evangelicalism is marked by a heightened belief in and discourse of revivals. Instead of holding to Biblicism, we could say that Evangelicalism is marked by an instrumental view of doctrine and a downplaying of academic theology and theological precision. Instead of holding to Crucicentrism, we could say that Evangelicalism is marked by a focus on the doctrine of salvation and anything related to the doctrine of salvation with a de-emphasis of other theological loci.
Thus, the new "quadrilateral" can be listed as follows:
- Interdenominational Activism
- Heightened belief in Revivals
- Instrumental view of doctrine
- De-emphasis on anything not related to soteriology
It seems to me that besides new criterion number two (Belief in Revivals), which is one more of degree than of kind, the other three seem to be valid distinctives of Evangelicalism. Evangelicals of any stripe have little concerns over denominational issues, with some even attacking "denominationalism" as an evil. Evangelicals also tend to have an instrumental view of doctrine and truth, and always ask for practicality. Even those that are not anti-intellectual do not see the beauty of truth just for the fact that it is true, but that everything must be able to be put into practice. That is probably why the Doctrine of God and the Trinity are not of major importance among many Evangelicals, although Evangelicals tend to continue to preserve the orthodoxy bought and fought for by the early church.
And lastly, Evangelicals do tend to emphasize soteriology, which is why many conservative Evangelicals today can be Calvinist in soteriology yet they reject Calvin's view of baptism and the Lord's Supper. It is all about people "being saved," but what happens after salvation is of less importance in getting it right. Thus, Evangelicals will fight over getting the Gospel right such that those who get the Gospel wrong are excommunicated, but not even a tenth of that militancy will be displayed on the views of baptism and discipleship, much less church governance.
In lieu of the topic of revivals, I think it is better to focus on Evangelicalism's view of conversion as a punctiliar salvation event which marks a person's salvation. This view precludes children converted in the womb or in early childhood, and makes the focus of salvation about experiencing a "Damascus Road" type experience and less on a person's confession of faith. That is why Evangelicals love to hear about conversion testimonies. Evangelicalism does not really have a category for professing believers who do not have this experience of the new-birth, but yet claim to be Christians (except perhaps "unbelievers"?). With this view of conversion as a repetition of Paul's Damascus Road experience, the Quadrilateral could be recreated anew, as follows:
- Interdenominational Activism
- Conversion as experience
- Instrumental view of doctrine
- Soteriological primacy
[And on this note, it can be seen why I am not an Evangelical. I do not believe in interdenominational activism, conversion as necessarily an experience, neither do I hold to an instrumental view of truth and doctrine, nor the primacy of soteriology over all other doctrines.]