Monday, 27 October 2008

An Interview with David W. Bebbington

Neil Dickson, the convener of the Brethren Archivists and Historians Network and editor of the Brethren Historical Review, interviewed Bebbington in early 2003 concerning the state of the historiography of evangelicalism. You can read the entire interview here.

Here are a few excerpts from the interview:

Given the emergence of this new evangelical historiography, what do you see as its strengths?

...But another strength of this evangelical historiography is its strong insistence that you must not only look at religion per se, but you must look at religion in its total setting, look at religion in the setting of society. You must be willing to engage in class analysis of people who went to church. You look at religion in terms of its setting in the world of ideas, so you see theology as part an evolving intellectual pattern, which can be analysed in terms of the history of ideas. What that means is that the evangelical movement is set within its real context, how people really lived in the social and intellectual world of their times. There must be no artificial segregation between the sacred and the profane which was not part of the reality of people’s experience at the time.

Dickson: If we can turn to your own writing for a moment, you have claimed that the defining characteristics of evangelicalism are conversionism, crucicentricism, activism and biblicism. How well do you think the recent literature has sustained what has sometimes been called the ‘Bebbington quadrilateral’? Do you see it as in need of revision or do you still stand by what you wrote fourteen years ago or so?
Bebbington: If you’re writing about anything, you have to know the thing you’re writing about, so there was a need for some sort of definition of what evangelicalism is. The most obvious way of defining it is to take definitions current at a particular point in the past time, and use the way in which people defined the movement at the time. If a person is described as an evangelical, then the person is an evangelical. However, that obvious method does not work. That is because at any one point in time, some people claimed to be evangelicals and other people said they weren’t! And that’s true not just on the liberal side but also on the fundamentalist side. In the inter-war period in Britain, there were lots of liberal evangelicals who insisted that they were evangelical, but conservative evangelicals said they weren’t! And there were some fundamentalist evangelicals, who were very insistent they were the only evangelicals, but some liberal evangelicals said they were not evangelicals. So there are exclusions. You therefore have to have some supra-historical criteriology for determining who you are supposed to be studying. The way to do that is through some model of characteristics built up over space and time which provides a common essential core. That’s what the model of four characteristics is designed to do. It does reflect reality, I think, in large measure from the 1730s right up to the present day, in the western world generally, and therefore I am inclined still to defend it. If you don’t have it, you’ve got to have something that is its equivalent, and I’ve seen no better.
Let me suggest one or two ways in which people have proposed its improvement. One way is to add individualism as a fifth characteristic. I don’t agree with that because a very large number of evangelicals have been extraordinarily communitarian—communitarian in the sense that they’ve placed enormous emphasis on the centrality of the family in Christian nurture, transmitting the faith down the generations, in their emphasis on the Christian church itself. A lot of evangelicals have placed as much emphasis on the doctrine of the church at some times and in some places as many so-called High Churchmen. After all, Edward Irving was an evangelical—he came up with the Catholic Apostolic Church and you can’t get a more elaborate ecclesiology than that…
Dickson: The Brethren too.
Bebbington: Absolutely! Brethren ecclesiology is fundamental to their existence and that’s not just a matter of theory. It’s also a matter of practice—mutual support and mutually acknowledged leadership is of the essence of Brethrenism. So I don’t think you can get away with individualism as being a defining characteristic because a lot of evangelicals have not been.
Another objection that people have made is: well surely some Roman Catholics fit the definition. I’m very happy with that. If Roman Catholics fit the definition, then I’m happy to call them evangelical Catholics. What is more, a lot of Catholics are themselves these days happy to call themselves evangelical Catholics, and if they’re happy I certainly don’t want to deny them the privilege of using the term. There’s even an organisation based in Dublin which is called Evangelical Catholics. They accept these four emphases as being distinctive and important, at the core of their faith.
The third objection that’s been raised is: well aren’t you allowing some evangelicals to be heretics if they fit that typology of four characteristics? Couldn’t they actually deny some aspects of Christology, for example, and still under your definition be evangelical? Well my answer to that is, yes again I accept this impeachment. There are such things as heretical evangelicals. The most obvious instance are the Oneness Pentecostals in the Appalachians of the United States. They actually began by engaging in a distinctive baptismal practice—that is to say baptising in the name of Jesus only—and because their theology is largely determined by that practice, they came up with a sort of Jesus Unitarianism, accepting only that the second person of the Trinity is God,. There’s no distinct first person, there’s no distinct third person. Now that is heresy according to Christian tradition, the councils of the Christian faith, and in the last resort I would say, the Gospel of John. Nevertheless, the Oneness Pentecostals, like almost all Pentecostals, fit the fourfold typology. I’m not prepared, therefore, to say that they are anything other than evangelicals, but I do want to say that they are heretical. I’m therefore perfectly prepared to admit the category of heretical evangelical—it’s not surprising, for there are heretical High Churchmen, there are heretical Roman Catholics and so on.
So, so long as you accept that there are those qualifications that can be made because of the nature of reality, I’m very happy with the quadrilateral still.

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