Monday, 8 September 2008

Beyond Bebbington: The Quest for an Evangelical Identity

The title of this post is also the title of a recent article written in the autumn 2008 edition of the quarterly journal Churchman. The author, Brian Harris, principal of Vose Seminary (formerly the Baptist College of Western Australia), has written a piece concerning the relevance of Bebbington's quadrialteral for the twenty-first century context. He asks several interesting questions, the central one being:

'is contemporary evangelicalism characterised by the priority placed on conversionism, activism, biblicism and crucicentrism, and if so, is this a valid characterisation of both belief and practice?'

B. Harris, who recently completed a PhD interacting with the thought of Stanley Grenz and the nature and future of evangelical identity, believes that other descriptors might prove more accurate and desirable for contemporary evangelicalism. He argues that contemporary evangelical communities 'might be better characterised as being a community of "passionate piety"'. I will leave the reader to assess whether or not his argument is persuasive in applying that particular descriptive term to contemporary evangelicalism.

My reason for writing about this article by B. Harris is because I think his title is misleading. His real difficulties concerning the Bebbington quadrilateral appear to be with the way in which others apply it to contemporary evangelicalism. The quadrilateral is a combination of priorities which _have been_ the special marks of evangelical religion. Claiming, therefore, that we need to get beyond Bebbington needs to be qualified or rewritten. One alternative title for his article might be: 'Getting Beyond the Application of Bebbington's Quadrilateral to Contemporary Evangelicalism'.

Bebbington's quadrilateral has its difficulties (see an earlier post here), but one of the things that The Emergence of Evangelicalism has shown is that the quadrilateral remains relevant to the interpretation of evangelical religion in the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries. Whether or not this is true for the twenty-first century context remains to be seen.


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