Should We Retire the “Bebbington Quadrilateral?”

latin evangelicals

Timothy Gloege, author of Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism, thinks that we should.

Historian David Bebbington has suggested that evangelicals believe in conversion (being born-again), biblicism (the need to base one’s faith fundamentally on the Bible), the theological priority of the cross (Jesus died for sinners), and activism (the need to share one’s faith with others).

Gloege writes:

When proposed thirty years ago, Bebbington’s definition was a valuable steppingstone. It pushed historians to ask new questions and research new groups. But the findings of that research also revealed the definition’s flaws. Its characteristics simply do not translate into identifiable patterns of belief and practice. (If they did, why isn’t evangelical Wheaton College’s statement of faith exactly four points?) It’s not a definition, but a prospectus for a theological agenda.

Consider the definition at work. To be evangelical, we are told, is to believe in “conversion.” But is conversion a uniquely evangelical idea? It’s not even uniquely Christian; Muslims convert too. Rather, they are appealing to a particular experience of conversion. And how is an evangelical conversion measured? That’s the rub. It’s been the cause of evangelical consternation for two centuries.

But conversion’s unmeasurable quality is what makes it useful for insiders. It allows them to state (or strongly infer) that only unconverted, ‘nominal,’ evangelicals supported Trump. Apparently, a vote for Trump is evidence enough? Meanwhile, evangelical Trump voters declare that by withholding support, never-Trump evangelicals have demonstrated their faithlessness. Liberal evangelicals also have a calculus of conversion that excludes their conservative rivals. “Conversion” acts as a theological weapon that muddies the definitional waters; it’s not an analytical category.

“Biblicism” functions similarly. Imagine a political scientist defining Republicans as “those who take the Constitution seriously.” Who would accept this transparently partisan statement? And yet many people today accept that evangelicals are “biblical,” while everyone else…isn’t? This is how former megachurch pastor Rob Bell and popular author Rachel Held Evans ceased to be evangelical: not because they quit the Bible, but because they came up with “wrong,” (thus “unbiblical”) answers about hell and being gay. “Biblicism” is evangelical gerrymandering.

Like using water to define Kool-Aid, Bebbington’s definition confuses common, ill-defined, features of Protestantism or Western Christianity for evangelical particularities. Evangelicals love it because they can do theology—make theological claims—under the guise of analysis.

Gloege adds:

A definition should connect to a movement’s most salient features (what sets it apart), and help us understand how they developed. Does “the theological priority of the cross” capture something uniquely evangelical? (It doesn’t.) Does it explain why white evangelicals tend to harbor a deep suspicion of the federal government and embrace free-market capitalism? Why policing sex and sexuality is such a priority (except when it isn’t)? Does it connect the dots?

The Bebbington Quadrilateral does none of these things; rather it offers theological slogans that make respectable evangelicals feel better about themselves. Rather than spur self-reflection, it lets evangelicals ignore hard questions, while the movement they helped conjure burns down the country.

I am probably one of those “respectable evangelicals” who want to “feel better about themselves,” so I guess I should keep thinking about this some more.  Whatever the case, I appreciate Gloege’s attempts to historicize the term.

In my forthcoming book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald TrumpI assume the Bebbington Quadrilateral is the best way of defining evangelicals.  On one level, Gloege is right.  Conversionism, biblicism, crucicentrism, and activism, when considered alone, are features that one can find in many religions and Christian traditions.  But when you bring them all together it still seems like you do have something that is unique.

Moreover, people who believe in conversionism, biblicism, crucicentrism, and activism have taken all kinds of positions on social issues. Gloege knows this.  They have been abolitionists and slaveholders, socialists and capitalists, supporters of strong government and defenders of states rights, defenders and opponents of gay rights, revolutionaries and reactionaries.  Is there room in American evangelicalism for Roy Moore and Jim Wallis (21st century politics)?  William Wilberforce and Robert Dabney (slavery)?  John Wesley and John Witherspoon (American Revolution)?

In the evangelical church I attended thirty years ago there was much diversity on social issues.  The same thing is true about the evangelical church I attend today.  But in both churches our differences were (are) aired under the umbrella of a shared understanding of a faith defined by something very close to Bebbington’s Quadrilateral.  I know there are people in my evangelical church today who supported Donald Trump from the moment he came down the escalator in Trump Tower and announced his candidacy.  I also know that there are people in my church who would have voted for Roy Moore if they lived in Alabama.  All of these people believe in the tenets of the Quadrilateral and some of them lead lives of devotion to God that put me to shame.  Some of my readers might wonder how this is possible.  I do as well.  But I have hope that because my fellow evangelicals believe in an inspired Bible, or a conversion (“born-again”) experience that results in holy living, or the command to share their faith with others, they can be persuaded that racism or nativism or Trumpism may not be the best way to be “evangelical” in this world.  Perhaps they can be convinced, with the Holy Spirit’s help, that they have ignored large chunks of the Bible that don’t conform to their political views.  Perhaps they can be convinced that personal holiness is something more than just casting the right vote.  Perhaps they can be convinced that rabid support for Roy Moore or Donald Trump hurts their Christian witness.

This Sunday I begin a course at my church titled “Christian Politics?”  It could get ugly.  But I chose to teach the course, and I am hopeful it will be civil and productive, because most of us in the classroom will share a common approach to faith.  Many of those who attend the class will trust me to lead them in a discussion of such a sensitive topic because, like them, I believe in the tenets of the Bebbington Quadrilateral.  We will differ on a LOT of things, but most of us will have a common commitment to faith and practice because we can point to a conversion or born-again experience, we believe Jesus died on the cross for our sins, we affirm the Bible as the word of God, and we think it is important to live our faith in an active way in the world that includes not just social action but evangelism as well. This shared faith will provide a kind of subtext for my class.  I call this subtext evangelical Christianity.  It is not a subtext I can expect when I teach in mainline Protestant churches or Catholic churches or in secular arenas.  It is not even a subtext that I can expect any more at the Christian College where I teach history.  In those places, I need to understand my audience in a different way and argue in a fashion that makes appeals to universal ideas or a broader understanding of Christianity.

OK, I am rambling now.  I may return to this later.  Please take these thoughts as half-baked.

9 thoughts on “Should We Retire the “Bebbington Quadrilateral?”

  1. Thanks, John. You are completely right that trying to focus on the gospel is a powerful goal (in any political climate!). That’s a very interesting thought that it could even be “subversive” in the church itself, at the rate (81%?) things are going. It’s when “the gospel” is used as code for “don’t talk about Trump/Charlottesville/gun violence/Ferguson/etc etc” that I was most discouraged – especially since I know both I and my brothers and sisters agree that “the gospel” is the only true hope for any of those things!


  2. It’s indeed unfortunate that churches, especially conservative ones, won’t get involved in politics. Christians should not abandon the world to sin; we should not insulate ourselves into a comfortable corner and be spectators to a society’s decline.


  3. Hi Annie: It was also a pleasure meeting you in D.C. And I really appreciated your question at the CFH panel.

    I think those churches who do not want to think Christianly about social and political issues are really doing their congregations a disservice. One one hand, I am encouraged by the fact that the leadership of your church wants to “focus on the gospel.” I am wondering if this will soon become a counter-cultural position in evangelical life and more and more evangelical conflate Christian witness with electoral politics. On the other hand, if the church does not help evangelicals understand how to think responsibility about public engagement and politics they will learn how to do it somewhere else–probably Fox News.


  4. I really appreciated this post. I found Gloege’s article quite helpful, especially since in this political climate it does increasingly feel like a cop-out to keep saying “not all evangelicals”. I was having a hard time articulating that even to myself, and Gloege’s article did a great job of that. But I absolute agree that there is some fundamental (no pun intended?) linkage between these four components and their salience for binding together those who share them, even across the political spectrum in the US (or anywhere). And I appreciate that you unpacked this a bit more. I’m THRILLED that your church is having a class like the one you’ll be teaching, and I hope that it’s richly blessed. My question is, what happens when churches _don’t_ want to take questions like these head on? Even when it’s done with the premise, such as the one you’re using, that we are united by these key tenets? I am now living in Scotland for my husband’s work, but in our church where I lived in the US before there was a low-grade refusal to acknowledge anything that seemed to overlap with politics. I spoke with my pastor and my small group (and some other individuals) on trying to start up some kind of devotionally-minded class or group or book study that took on the issues our country was facing, particularly after the election, and the way our faith related to it. Not only did this not materialize but some folks implied that my faith was lacking because I couldn’t “just” focus on the gospel. It was times like those that I was most tempted to ditch the term “evangelical”. Not because of our disagreement (though at times because of that too!) but because of the refusal to deal with it and even a spiritualization of this refusal. Do you think you would be as willing to “stick it out” among evangelicals if they did not have any willingness to have such a class as the one you are teaching?

    (By the way, it was wonderful getting to meet you at the panel at AHA!)

    – Annie Perez, UC Davis


  5. I would point out that Bebbington’s quadrilateral was used to describe evanglicalism in Britain. Think of Simeon, Spurgeon or Stott. Not do I think there is any claim that each of the four is uniquely ‘evangical’. Rather, the point is that it is the combination of the four which marks the evangelical.
    Here in Britain, the negative political associations which the term has aquired in the USA, and which it does not have here, had made the term more difficult to use.


  6. I agree that the Bebbington’s Quadrilateral is still useful. Tom Kidd’s addition of Holy Spirit unction and W. R. Ward’s emphasis on experiential mysticism have expanded the definition in helpful ways. Your comments show the appropriately flexible nature evangelicalism can have (as long as the baseline of faith essentials are there). I appreciate the approach you are taking with your church class and predict it will be a success.


  7. ps. The photo accompanying this note is perfect – classic revival !!!
    All emotion !!! No intellect !!! All intensely personal.


  8. This thought was not original to me, but I have been reflecting on this ever since it was shared.

    Revivalism – seems to me to be the definition of evangelicalism. The Wesley bros are key.

    Everything in Bebbington’s definition follows from that – all the emotional stuff – dramatic conversions, emotional responses to Jesus’ crucifixion, emphasis on literal readings of a now word for word inspired Bible and defined by only the King James Version, dramatic efforts to convert individuals.

    The evangelical response to Trump looks like an old time revival, the more one thinks about it.

    One is also prompted to think – did Jesus engage in altar calls and dramatic conversions? Was the Cross all there was to Jesus’ Good News? [resurrection, post resurrection teaching, ascension, gifting of the Spirit???]



  9. I wonder about “conversion” more fundamentally. Doesn’t this exclude most conservative Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Anglicans whom we ordinarily call “evangelicals”? They are not really born-again Christians, though they may try to squeeze into the label using weasel-words. Indeed, if you look to the congregants’ beliefs, I bet most Baptists think you can be a real Christian without a conversion experience, and I bet that’s even believed in their hearts by many people who grew up Christian but say they were born again on a particular day just because that’s what they’re expected to say.


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