Mark Noll on the Definition of Evangelicalism

Evangelicals Book NollOver at Religion and Politics, Eric C. Miller talks with historian Mark Noll about the definition of evangelicalism.  Noll is the editor of a recent book on the subject (co-authored with George Marsden and David Bebbington) titled Evangelicals: Who They Have Been, Are Now, and Could Be.

Here is a taste:

R&P: Your co-editor David Bebbington famously defined evangelicalism according to four theological tenets—conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism—that most of the subsequent historical work has responded to in some way, including several chapters in this book. Why has it been so influential?

MN: The “Bebbington Quadrilateral” identifies four characteristics—and I want to emphasize that he is very serious about calling these characteristics rather than pitching them as an a priori definition—that gave structure to his 1989 book, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain. I think the reason why the fourfold characteristics became so important is that there is a considerable body of historical literature and—particularly since the rise of the Christian Right in the United States—a considerable body of media attention that together have called out for a definition that is relatively simple and transportable for different purposes. As someone who appreciates with some dissent the characteristics, that is in part a good thing, but the negative effect may be to over-simplify evangelicalism and to ease out some of the real complexities that come with its study, either historically or in the contemporary world. So, in short, I think Bebbington provided a straightforward, direct, exportable language that could be used in many different discussions—more, I think, than he originally intended in his book.

R&P: One potential critique that arises throughout the text—in Darren Dochuk’s essay, for instance—states that evangelicalism is not merely a theological category, but that it is profoundly shaped by the times and places in which it operates. To what extent can we think of evangelicalism as a situated cultural product rather than a precise set of religious beliefs?

MN: That’s an excellent question that gets at the nub of the definitional difficulties. I try to explain in the introduction to the book that, considered abstractly as a certain kind of Protestant Christianity, evangelicalism appears relatively simple and makes a lot of sense. Dochuk’s observation, however, is that many strange phenomena inhabit the history of evangelical groups. One of these from our own time is that some people who are regarded as evangelicals use that word to describe themselves, and some others don’t. Another is that political pundits often use the term in very different ways than religious historians do. Several of our essays point out that, when it comes to affirmations of belief and practice, or to theological orientation, the most evangelical demographic in the United States is African American churchgoers. And, as all political observers know, African American churchgoers have been strongly Democratic in their electoral preferences. That reality makes complete sense if you are trying to label the group based on the characteristics that Bebbington outlined, but it makes no sense if you are trying to label them based on the practical alliances, networks, and grids of communication that link groups together, or how these are discussed in our media. Dochuk’s comment is the kind commonly made by an empirical historian—one who is interested in splitting rather than lumping—in reference to –ismterms like evangelicalism.

R&P: Kristin Kobes Du Mez writes—in an essay adapted from a piece published on this site—that evangelical Trump support is largely traceable to a militant strain of evangelical masculinity. Is this aggressive, “warrior Christianity” consistent with evangelical belief?

MN: First I would say that her characterization, like Hamilton’s, makes a lot of sense in the religious-political environment of the last 50 years. The broader question is whether the traditional evangelical characteristics that Bebbington identified naturally or organically or inevitably point in the direction that Du Mez identifies. There are numerous questions, I think, about that conclusion. It’s been the case throughout the history of Christianity that women make up the majority of the constituency. Evangelical Protestantism has had a tradition of gender differentiation, and quite a few of the evangelical and fundamentalist denominations do not allow women pastors, for example. But that is a very different thing than the valorizing of militarism and macho masculinity. My own sense is that Du Mez is accurately reporting on developments coming out of the 50s and 60s—the polarization of politics, the polarization of culture, and conflicts over issues in the public sphere that have become aligned with certain evangelical emphases. She is describing a late twentieth and early twenty-first century American phenomenon that would only be marginally or partially observed in evangelical movements at other times or places.

Read the entire interview here.

The Imaginary Turn in Evangelical Scholarship

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Historian David Bebbington

Martin Spence is Associate Professor of History at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  He is writing for us this weekend at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in New York City.  Enjoy his latest post.  –JF

This roundtable was the closest to my own research interests, and has thus provoked my longest response!

Five scholars of American Evangelicalism explored the shift of Evangelical studies toward understanding Evangelicalism less as a community united by concrete, discernable beliefs (a la David Bebbington’s famous quadrilateral), and more as an “imagined community,” constructed through affections, affiliations, and self-fashioning.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez (Calvin University) introduced the theme, and  Devin Manzullo-Thomas (Messiah College), Lindsey Maxwell (Gulliver Preparatory School), Hilde Løvdal Stephens (University of South-Eastern Norway) and Daniel Silliman (Valparaiso University) followed-up with particular studies.

On the one hand I found myself in full agreement with the panelists. In my book Heaven on Earth: Reimagining Time and Eternity in Nineteenth Century British Evangelicalism I wrote  that Evangelicalism “can be described as one of the eighteenth century’s several new ‘imagined communities.’”. Meanwhile, in an article in the Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology back in 2012 I argued that “the bestowal of Evangelical identity comes not through historians or other observers measuring individuals and communities against such a set of predefined characteristics…but rather by the self-determining authority of the Evangelical Leviathan itself, which silent yet ineluctably confirms or rejects constituents by relentlessly and almost impenetrably complexly subjecting them to its unspoken protocols of mutual appraisal and authentication:  [Martin Spence “Unravelling Scottish Evangelicalism (Part One)”. Scottish Bulletin of Theology 30.1 (Spring 2012), 30-50]

So yes and amen to the panelists’ central insight. I enjoyed much of what they had to bring to the table.

Yet I found myself wanting to register some dissent.

First, there was the unfortunate Bebbington-bashing that has become somewhat de rigueur at church history conferences that I have attended in the United States.

On this occasion Kristin du Mez contended that by privileging the beliefs of Evangelicals over their social and cultural attitudes, Bebbington (along with Noll, Marsden, Noll and Thomas Kidd) are in some ways supporting a culturally conservative, politicized Evangelicalism. Her point was that by defining Evangelicalism as primarily a theological movement, these historians imply that the political and cultural elements of the movement are extraneous to an undefiled “real” Evangelicalism. They thereby excuse Evangelicals of their cultural and political sins by telling its critics to overlook these aspects and focus on beliefs, not practices.

In as much as this can be construed as a call to provide an integrated account of theology and socio-cultural identity (perhaps of the kind attempted by Matthew Avery Sutton in American Apocalypse) I am all for it. We should not be Nestorians: in Christian history beliefs and social-cultural-political actions exist in hypostatic union. And I agree that Bebbington, Marsden et al did not consciously pursue the “imaginary turn” and may thus, to some degree, appear a little old-fashioned in their methodological assumption to those scholars alert to more avant-garde theoretical approaches to religious identity formation.

But to see Bebbington and Marsden as fortifying the Age of Trump seems far-fetched. After all, they would no doubt be counted among the elite “faculty lounge” who dissent from the current socio-political views of the majority white American Evangelical community. David Bebbington could more plausibly be accused of wanting to make Britain Gladstonian again than of aiding and abetting American Evangelical nationalism.

Of course, the assertion that these historians are blind to the cultural-political realities of the movement is also itself somewhat of a caricature. It is true that this may not be the dominant paradigm of their scholarship, but George Marsden has always argued that Evangelicalism is not just a set of beliefs, but also a “transdenominational community with complicated infrastructures of institutions and persons which identify with ‘evangelicalism’;” while David Bebbington’s Evangelicalism in Modern Britain is a forensic study of a variety of Evangelicalisms at work in modern British history.

Indeed, any time that Bebbington comes up in discussions among American religious historians, I am left wondering whether anyone has actually read more than the first few pages of the book from which his infamous quadrilateral is culled. It is true enough that Bebbington maintains an unflinching loyalty to his definitional matrix that some might think rigid and inflexible. But it only takes up a couple of pages of his opus magnum, and there can be no doubt that Bebbington is well aware of the intricacies, particularities, and varieties of Evangelicalism across time and space. Indeed, anyone who has been supervised, examined or politely interrogated by him after a conference paper will attest that he rarely lets an over-generalization live.

Second, despite the claims of the panelists to break out of old paradigms, it was noticeable that their discussion focused almost exclusively on white American Evangelicalism. In one sense, this is no less than they said they were doing. Since the premise of the imaginary turn is that we must break Evangelicalism into its constituent parts in order to map its particularities and self-constructions, it is certainly a legitimate project to discern and dissect the affinities and protocols of the white American Evangelical community.

Yet given that the scholars wanted to propose a new methodological approach to the study of Evangelicalism to replace the old one, they perhaps needed to recognize that one great selling point of the older paradigm was and is its internationalism: it has proffered trans-national categories of religious belief and piety that transcend place and time. I would argue that any new methodological approach must deliver no less. I am not saying that the imaginary turn cannot do this, but that by only giving examples from American scene, the global serviceability of the imaginary turn was left unproven by the panel. The imaginary turn cannot simply be the justificatory foundation for more studies of the subculture of contemporary white American Evangelicalism. I enjoy such studies as much as anyone and long may they continue; but I sense that there is a danger that the imaginary turn also becomes an inward turn. We need to be careful how we imagine our imagining.

Mark Noll Defines Evangelicalism

NollHere is a taste of the esteemed evangelical historian‘s article at the blog of the National Association of Evangelicals:

The conceptual challenge from scholars poses a more basic challenge than the simplistic equation of evangelicalism and right-wing politics. In 1989 the British historian David Bebbington provided a succinct definition in his book, “Evangelicalism in Modern Britain,” that has been widely referenced. That definition identifies evangelicalism as a form of Protestantism with four distinct emphases:

  • conversion, or “the belief that lives need to be changed”;
  • the Bible, or “the belief that all spiritual truth is to be found in its pages”;
  • activism, or the dedication of all believers, especially the laity, to lives of service for God, especially in sharing the Christian message far and near; and
  • crucicentrism, or the conviction that Christ’s death on the cross provided atonement for sin and reconciliation between sinful humanity and a holy God.

While many have employed this definition to good effect, others have pointed out difficulties. Most obvious in an American context are divisions created by race. Along with many white Protestant groups that have embraced these four characteristics, so have many African Americans. Yet the American reality of slavery, followed by culturally enforced segregation, means that whites and blacks who share these religious emphases share very little else, as Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith demonstrated in “Divided by Faith.” An evangelicalism that includes both blacks and whites might make sense in very narrow religious terms, but far less in the actual outworking of American history.

A broader historical challenge has recently come from Linford Fisher of Brown University in the substantial article “Evangelicals and Unevangelicals,” published in Religion and American Culture, which argues that “evangelical” has often meant less, and sometimes more, than the Bebbington definition. From the time of the Reformation and for several centuries, the word usually meant simply “Protestant” or, almost as frequently, “anti-Catholic.” During the 18th century revivals associated with George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and the Wesleys, “awakened” believers in Britain and America did not use the word too frequently. When they did, it meant “true” or “real” religion as opposed to only formal religious adherence.

Linford then documents the way that after World War II, former fundamentalists embraced the word as they sought a less combative, more irenic term to describe their orthodox theology and their desire to re-engage with society. Organizations like the National Association of Evangelicals and the wide-ranging activities of Billy Graham popularized the word. In the process some Pentecostals, Lutherans, Mennonites, Christian Reformed and others who had not been associated with the main body of America’s earlier “evangelical Protestants” were now glad to join in using it to describe themselves. At the same time, other Protestants who had thought of themselves as evangelicals began to avoid the word as designating something too close to fundamentalism.

Read the entire piece here.

“Christian Politics?”: Week Two

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Yesterday I taught the second of four 90-minute classes on Christian politics at West Shore Evangelical Free Church in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.  Read my summary of Week One here.

If you recall, in Week 1 I explained five ways in which Christians have thought about politics–past and present.  We discussed Anabaptism, Lutheranism, the African-American Church, Calvinism, and Catholicism.

This week we asked: “How have American evangelicals practiced politics, especially in the last fifty years?

We began by defining evangelicalism using the Bebbington Quadrilateral: Biblicism, Crucicentrism, Conversionism, and Activism.  This proved to be a very fruitful conversation.  I taught about 120 people this morning (in 2 sections) and nearly all of them believed in the theological tenets of the Bebbington Quadrilateral.  But only a small percentage ( roughly 25%?) use the word “evangelical” to describe their faith.  In both hours I had people ask me to distinguish between an “evangelical” and “fundamentalist.”

I then offered a quick history lesson focused on why so many conservative white evangelicals in the 1970s began to worry about the decline of Christian culture.  We touched on the separation of church as defined by the Supreme Court in 1947Engel v. Vitale (1962), Abington v. Schempp (1963), changes to American immigration policy (Hart-Cellar Act of 1965), the relationship between segregationism and evangelical libertarianism, Roe v. Wade (1973), Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), and the religious liberty debates of the last twenty years (“Merry Christmas,” Johnson Amendment, Ten Commandments in courthouses, etc.).

I then introduced the political playbook devised by the Religious Right in the 1970s to deal with these social and cultural changes.  The playbook teaches:

  1. America was founded as a Christian nation
  2. America’s status as a Christian nation is in jeopardy
  3. We must “reclaim” or “restore” America to its Christian roots
  4. We must do this through electoral politics by electing the right people who will, in turn, pass the right laws and appoint the right judges
  5. We will win back the culture for Christ
  6. If this happens, we’re not really sure what we will do next, but we do know that God will once again be happy with the United States.

When I talked about #6 above I emphasized how evangelicals have not thought very deeply about politics.  Many evangelical leaders have no idea what they will do if the proverbial dog catches the proverbial bus.  This, as Ronald Sider described it, is the “scandal of evangelical politics.”

Here is what I told the class they could expect in Week Three:

  1. The current evangelical political playbook, as written over the course of the last fifty years, privileges fear over hope, power over humility, and nostalgia over history.
  2. We will then ask: “Are these healthy or biblical ideas (fear, power, nostalgia) from which to build a truly evangelical approach to politics?

Stay tuned.

Should We Retire the “Bebbington Quadrilateral?”

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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.

On the Possibility of Quitting Evangelicalism

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At some point last Tuesday night I wrote the following tweet:

I wrote this after I read a tweet from Christian culture warrior Tony Perkins announcing that 81% of American evangelicals voted for Donald Trump.

The following day I wrote a piece for the syndicated Religion News Service that began with this line: “As someone who once called himself an evangelical….”

My tweet and RNS piece has resulted in dozens of tweets, messages, and e-mails from evangelical Christians.  Some of them have told me that they are abandoning the label “evangelical” to describe their religious identity.  Others wrote to urge me not to leave the fold.

I have given this a lot of thought.  Anyone who reads this blog knows that I have always had a rather uneasy relationship with American evangelicalism.  Some of this stems from the fact that I spent the first fifteen years of my life in the Catholic church and have been shaped and formed by its social teaching.  Much of it stems from the way that evangelicals have sought power and influence through politics in a way that has, in many ways, hurt their public witness and, at times, equated the kingdom of God with the United States of America.

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I have been a strong critic of Donald Trump.  They also know that I have been deeply disappointed that so many of my fellow evangelicals have gotten into bed with this monster.

Yet I remain an evangelical in terms of theological conviction.  In this sense I am a David Bebbington evangelical.  I embrace his formulation of evangelical faith, the so-called “evangelical quadrilateral“–biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism.

Will I continue to use the label “evangelical” to describe myself?  Probably.  But I will do so carefully and cautiously.  I have no plans of leaving my evangelical congregation and will continue to work within the evangelical community to help my fellow believers think more deeply about what it means to be a Christian citizen in democratic America.  (And you can bet that the subject of history and historical thinking will play a role in that work).

I realize, now that some of the emotion that has subsided, that to quit evangelicalism is to abandon a significant part of my responsibility and calling as a public scholar.

Stay tuned.  I hope to flesh this all out in the coming weeks and months here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

*The Secularization of the Academy* Turns 25

It all started in 1990 with a conference at Duke on secularization and the academy.  (At the time I was a first year divinity school student.  The internet did not exist yet and I had no idea that this conference was happening and even if I did hear about I probably would not have cared). The conference proceedings were edited by George Marsden and Bradley Longfield and published in 1992 as The Secularization of the Academy.

Then, in 1994, came Marsden’s magisterial The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Unbelief.  Three years later Marsden expanded the postscript of this book and published it as The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship.

Now, twenty-five years later, Books & Culture is running a symposium on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the conference that started it all.  Marsden, Longfield, James Turner, Darryl Hart, and David Bebbington have written reflections.  Mark Noll introduces the symposium here,

Here is a taste of Turner’s response:

That collection of essays opened a debate that sizzled for 20 years. What counts as “secularization”? What brought it about? What gains did it bring to higher education? What losses did it inflict?

The question of gains turned out to have easy answers. In an ever more pluralistic America, a de-facto Protestant establishment ruled even state universities until about 1900; all sides in the debate agreed that dismantling it came none too soon. When students and faculty might profess any faith or none, the once-universal imposition of Protestant chapel services is a corpse no one wants to disinter. Likewise, all accepted that religiously committed colleges and universities may continue to set standards of faith and behavior in line with their beliefs. Finally, everyone agreed that denizens of secular campuses, public or private, should be free to pursue any religious—or anti-religious—activity, so long as the institution remains even-handed in facilitating their doings. The debate thus revealed consensus on how secularization should express itself institutionally—and wide agreement that, in creating this new framework, secularization liberated American higher learning from a past it had outgrown.

The question of losses, however, proved neuralgic. Should faith—or religious intellectual traditions—play any role in research in now-secular disciplines? Some of America’s most distinguished Christian scholars, including Marsden, argued for a limited rollback of secularization here, insisting that Christian perspectives (like feminist ones) could enrich research for all scholars. Skeptical opponents saw instead new religious fetters on reason, and they strenuously defended secularized knowledge against non-rational pollutants. These arguments grew sharp, even heated.

Vigorous though the latter debate was, it is unclear to me today how much it mattered. Religion has won a certain autonomy in the secular academy. More scholars now than two decades ago treat faith as a first-order phenomenon that cannot be reduced to biology or sociology. But Christian professors (in contrast, say, to feminist ones) have not proven adept at drawing on Christianity to propose new methodologies or fresh lines of research in their disciplines. Nor have Christian colleges and universities spent much capital egging them on.

Such Christian scholarship as exists today (beyond biblical and theological studies) lies in the humanities and humanistic social sciences. (Methodist astronomy, anyone?) And arguments around it have lately been drowned out by wailing over the “crisis” of the humanities. If all humanistic learning is to give way to scientific research and technical training, what’s the point in arguing about the Christian piece of it?

The fascinating debate set off by The Secularization of the Academy begins to seem a relic of a moment that has flown.

Should Christian Historians Make an Appeal to Providence in Their Work?

More providential history:

In Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past I argued that providence is not a helpful tool when it comes to the historian’s job of interpreting the past.  

Over at the blog of the Gospel Coalition, Justin Taylor has written a post summarizing the way that five Christian historians have approached this topic. He apparently saw fit to include me on this list, along with Tom Nettles (one of my former teachers), Carl Trueman, Harry Stout, Timothy Larsen, and David Bebbington.  Thanks!

Taylor’s post makes for some interesting reading. Here is how he summarized my view (which he takes from Why Study History? For whatever reason the book is not listed in the bibliography).

John Fea (Messiah College) shares this perspective. “Providence,” he writes, “is a theological idea that is directly related to the character and behavior of God. History, however, is a discipline that seeks to explain the character and behavior of humans as they lived through time.” According to Fea, “providence is an unhelpful category in the interpretation of the past.” It belongs in the toolbox of the theologian but not that of the historian.
Fea builds his case theologically. God’s providence is an inscrutable mystery, and human interpreters are finite and fallible. Therefore, “Christian historians would do better to approach their task with a sense of God’s transcendent mystery, a healthy dose of humility, and a hope that one day soon, but not now, we will all understand the Almighty’s plans for the nations.”
Fea’s plea is that writers of providential history “resist the temptation to bow to the gods of modernity—gods who want to scientifically decipher the workings of the divine and claim to know, with a degree of Enlightenment certainty, the will of a sovereign God who created the modern world and will end it when he sees fit. Until then, we see through a glass darkly.”

Defining Evangelicalism at the Conference on Faith and History: Part Two

For part one of this series click here.

After Darren Dochuk offered this thoughts on the Bebbington Quadrilateral, Mark Noll of Notre Dame University took the lectern.  It was fun watching these two giants in the field–Bebbington and Noll–debating the history and definition of evangelicalism.

Noll argued that there was no such thing as a monolithic movement known as “evangelicalism.” (Yes, you read that correctly!)  The term is not helpful when it comes to writing historical narratives.  Noll preferred to say that many Christian groups have certain evangelical “traits,” but it is very difficult to think about some kind of unified movement.  He thought that Bebbington’s Quadrilateral was a helpful tool for identifying these “traits” or “essences,” but could not bring himself to embrace the idea that evangelicalism exists.  Throughout the talk and the Q&A that followed, Noll suggested that many Catholics, for example, exhibited evangelical commitments to the authority of the Bible, the centrality of the cross, and the need for evangelism, but they historically have had little in common with folks like Billy Graham.  When John Wilson of Books & Culture asked the panel how African-American conservative Protestants fit into the discussion, Noll concluded that they were a vibrant Christian movement who shared evangelical traits, but were not part of any specific movement known as evangelicalism.  He concluded: “There is no such thing as evangelicalism and David Bebbington has provided the best possible definition for it.” Needless to say, this brought loud chuckles from the audience.

Bebbington began his remarks in response to Noll by saying “I have a firm principle: Whatever Mark Noll says is right.”  He then went on to argue with Noll’s claim that evangelicalism does not exist. Bebbington said that evangelicalism exists because evangelicals have thought that evangelicalism exists.  It was another great laugh line.  But despite the humor, Bebbington was basically challenging Noll to explain organizations such as the National Association of Evangelicals or magazines such as Christianity Today who have taken the label “evangelicalism” seriously.

In response to Wilson’s question about African-American evangelicals, Bebbington argued that most conservative Protestant African-American churches uphold the four prongs–biblicism, activism, conversionism, crucicentrism–of his Quadrilateral.  They could thus be viewed as part of evangelicalism.

Following Noll, Molly Worthen offered her thoughts on Bebbington’s Quadrilateral.  Rather than focus on the more traditional theological definition of evangelicalism, Worthen wanted to push Bebbington to consider a more social or cultural definition.  She argued that evangelicalism is defined by anxieties over the relationship between faith and reason–anxieties that are inevitable in a movement that lacks no real ecclesiastical authority.  How does one form a movement without an appeal to reason or a magisterium of some type?  Bebbington largely agreed with Worthen on this point, but still clung to the theological components of the Quadrilateral to define the movement.

Worthen then wondered if Bebbington’s Quadrilateral was still useful now that the center of evangelicalism had moved to the Global South.  I wish that there was more conversation on this issue because it is a very important one.

Worthen ended her talk by suggesting that evangelicalism is not going away anytime soon.  She may be right, but I have also found that many of my students at Messiah College do not identify with the term.  Some of them have never even heard of it.  Several tweeters who teach at Christian colleges tended to agree.  This leads me to wonder just how long the term (or the movement) “evangelicalism” will last.

In the end, perhaps Noll is correct.  Evangelical “traits” such as the New Birth, evangelism and social action, the centrality of the cross, and a belief in the authority of Bible are not going away anytime soon.  But what about evangelicalism?  This session made me wonder if “evangelicalism” is really little more than a movement founded by Baby Boomers in the wake of World War II that has just about run its course.

For example, the college where I teach–Messiah College–is certainly evangelical in essence, but it is also diverse enough–both in terms of student body and faculty–that it does not seem to identify with “evangelicalism” in the way that a place like Wheaton College might identify with the term or the movement.  While some of our students and faculty might find a theological and ecclesiastical genealogy in the organizations and churches affiliated with the National Association of Evangelicals or Christianity Today or Billy Graham, others come from Anabaptist, Pentecostal, theologically conservative or moderate mainline Protestant, or even Roman Catholic backgrounds.  Messiah is a very evangelical place.  It strongly adheres to the authority of the Bible, the belief that Christians should be sharing their faith and addressing social problems, the centrality of the Cross, and the need for conversion (although not everyone would completely endorse a belief in the New Birth).  But is it part of a movement known as “evangelicalism?”  Maybe.

Defining Evangelicalism at the Conference on Faith and History: Part One

I spent a lot of time thinking about evangelicalism this weekend.  It was the focus of several high-powered panels at the biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History.  One of those panels was focused on David Bebbington’s “Quadilateral” of evangelical faith.  In his book Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, Bebbington defined evangelicalism using four “isms”: conversionism, biblicism, activism, and crucicentrism.  After twenty-five years, three prominent interpreters of American evangelicalism–Mark Noll, Molly Worthen, and Darren Dochuk–sought to reflect on the continued usefulness of the Quadrilateral.  At first I found it a bit odd that three historians of American evangelicalism were called upon to critique a book about British evangelicalism, but after listening to the entire session I am willing to admit that the Quadrilateral is, at the very least, a transatlantic concept.

Since this session was so rich, I have decided to cover it in several posts.  So let’s begin with Darren Dochuk’s thoughts on the Bebbington quadrilateral.  Dochuk, the author of From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism, suggested that we expand the quadrilateral to include the eschatological system of premillenialism, the power of the Holy Spirit, and Christian community or fellowship.  (When I tweeted some of Dochuk’s remarks, someone on my feed mentioned that Thomas Kidd, during a session on Bebbington’s book at a recent meeting of the American Society of Church History, had also suggested adding the Holy Spirit to the Quadrilateral ).
While a concern with the last days, a reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit, and a commitment to community are all traits that have historically characterized evangelicals, Bebbington argued, contra Dochuk, that these traits do not characterize all evangelicals and thus should not be added to the Quadrilateral.
Bebbington argued that not all evangelicals have embraced a premillennialist or dispensationalist eschatology.  For example, many evangelicals have been postmillennialists.  Rather than waiting for Christ’s return to establish his earthly millennial kingdom, postmillennialists believe that we are living in the kingdom and need to work hard at spreading the gospel and solving social problems as a necessary prerequisite for Christ’s return. In other words, there will be no 1000 year earthly reign of Christ following his return.
I think Bebbington is right here.  In fact, the view that evangelicals were eschatologically diverse has been around since a slew of historians in the 1970s and 1980s, including Dochuk’s own dissertation adviser George Marsden, criticized Ernest Sandeen’s reductionist argument in The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millennarianism, 1800-1930.  If we are going to add premillennialism to the quadrilateral we need to exclude folks like Charles Finney T.T. Shields, J. Gresham Machen, and William Jennings Bryan from the evangelical fold.
Bebbington also suggested, contra Dochuk, that not all evangelicals were keen upon tapping into the power of the Holy Spirit.  This is a tricky one.  On one level Dochuk is right.  All evangelicals believe in the power of the Holy Spirit and its influence in their lives.  But, as Bebbington pointed out, not all evangelicals give it a prominent emphasis in their theology in the ways that Pentecostals or the adherents to the Holiness movement might.  
There are many evangelical groups–the twentieth-century dispensationalists who taught at Dallas Theological Seminary come immediately to mind–who have been cautious about embracing the full power of the Holy Spirit in their lives and congregations. Many evangelicals, including Jonathan Edwards and some of the early fundamentalists, were skeptical of spirit-empowered religious enthusiasm, speaking in tongues, or the “baptism of the Holy Spirit.”  Many evangelicals who wanted their hearts to be “strangely warmed” (to quote Wesley) got out of the spiritual kitchen when and if the Holy Spirit fire got too hot.
Finally, Bebbington suggested, contra Dochuk, that “community” or “fellowship” should not be considered a defining characteristic of evangelicalism.  Were evangelicals concerned with this kind of togetherness?  Of course.  But evangelicalism was also very personal and individualistic.  
I have argued elsewhere that evangelicals tend to be so interested in community today precisely because evangelicalism is such an individualistic approach to Christian faith.  We actually had a good discussion about this the other day in my History of American Evangelicalism class.  
 Stay tuned for more posts on this session.