When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
— Lewis Carrol, Through the Looking Glass
Few words have come to be more worthless than the word “evangelical.” The current political climate has leached out any theological meaning the word might have, and replaced it with political content. This makes certain conversations in the Episcopal Church (TEC) difficult. The moment you say “evangelical,” your listener has been led down certain thought paths to other words like “bigot” and “racist.” There are people with evangelical theological convictions who are bigots and racists, and Evangelicals have used the Bible and a twist on theology to support their racism, but there are no necessary connections between those theological convictions and bigotry and racism.
It is the theological convictions that I and others who share them want various parties in TEC to understand. It is hard to shake the notion these convictions are not actually understood by many clergy and lay people in TEC. Perhaps a new word is needed to cover these convictions, but either way, the desire is that decision makers, administrators, preachers — anyone who interacts with those of us who have these convictions — will take them into account, and not run roughshod over them (and us).
David Bebbington’s Quadrilateral remains an excellent starting point to understand these core theological perspectives. The four sides in question are Biblicism, Crucicentrism, Conversionism, and Activism. Naturally, there is a wide range of content these words have across the spectrum of people who share them. It would not be possible to give a definition that would satisfy all, and I have my own sense of the essential content of each. For example, the idea of Biblicism for someone on the Fundamentalist (another unhelpful word) end of the theological spectrum will be very different for someone on the “Progressive evangelical” (two unhelpful words put together) end. The essential point would be the place of the Bible in the whole Christian life — belief and practice.
The center of Biblicism is the primary nature of Scripture for Christian life and practice. There is not space here for a full discussion of the hermeneutical and exegetical considerations at play. We cannot rehash the 16 and 17th century’s arguments over sola scriptura. What must be said is that no idea, no practice can be considered apart for Scripture. A different quadrilateral — John Wesley’s fourfold Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience — is helpful. Tradition, reason, and experience are God-given parts of our work towards understanding God and God’s purposes. The Bible must be first and controlling. Too many sermons use the Bible as a springboard to talk about whatever the speaker wants to talk about, rather than doing the work of understanding what that passage might have to say. To use a nautical metaphor, Scripture must be the rudder that turns the ship of Christian belief and practice.
If there is some tension over the place of the Bible in the current life of TEC, that tension is an order (or two) of magnitude greater for the idea of atonement. Crucicentrism, at its heart, is about atonement. Again, we cannot discuss all the theories of atonement available. Simply put, the world, indeed, the cosmos, is broken. Humans share in this brokenness. And there is no way out of this brokenness except through the cross of Jesus. Jesus’ death did something. The cross is a scandal. The Apostle Paul says, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). No one likes to admit they are wrong, but this goes far deeper: we must say we are broken. Without this admission, you are asking the impossible; you are asking to find life among the dead. The nursery rhyme about Humpty Dumpty puts it well, “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men, couldn’t put Humpty together again.”
This leads to the third side of the Bebbington Quadrilateral: Conversionism. In the traditional revival context, this is often expressed as a “conversion experience,” often an emotional event in the life of the person that can live with them the rest of their lives. Others go through cycles, doubting the reality and/or efficacy of the experience. There are those who, try as they might, never experience anything earth-shattering. Nevertheless, many people, in one camp or another, speak of a change that occurs: addictions are cured, behavioral patterns change, relationships change, deepen, and heal, a deep peace is found.
While it can be difficult to assess precisely what form conversion takes, or to identify a particular, unmistakable point at which it occurred, the main point here is that God can change you at the very depths of your being. This change is so great that no less metaphor than coming to life from the dead is sufficient to express it. For many it has a spectacular starting point and for others it is a seed planted that takes many years to sprout. This change is not optional for the Christian. Whether sudden or gradual, we all must be converted.
Finally we have the criterion Bebbington called Activism. In our activist world, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that Christian activism is not a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” kind of effort. This action flows from the first three areas. The Bible gives direction to our action; the cross levels the ground that all of humanity stands on, keeping us humble in our work; conversion reminds us that we cannot accomplish anything without the power that God supplies. Then in bold action we stand in this mysterious space and work for justice and peace, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit prisoners, and preach the gospel of Jesus’ kingdom founded on his death and resurrection.
I appeal to you who stand in other places to understand the four areas as you deal with those of us who hold them in pride of theological place. Know that if you do not start from the Scriptures, preach the necessity of the cross, call the Holy Spirit to change us, and call us to action grounded in the three, you will find that we cannot follow you. If you do, however, you will find no greater allies in the work of the disciple in the Jesus movement.
Charlie Clauss is a technical support representative for a company that builds humidification equipment.
I like this article.
Thank you for these words, although there are questions in my mind and of course I don’t claim to know all the answers ! (1) Did not Jesus speak of God’s forgiveness during his ministry, before his death ? Did not a Psalmist speak of it also – e.g. in Psalm 103, ….and other parts of the Scriptures likewise ? (2) Was Abelard’s understanding of Atonement – “love so amazing, so divine” – and similar understandings wrong ? (3) What is the fate of the vast majority of humankind, today and way way back into the past – including related… Read more »
This is a good article from an historical perspective and correction to much misunderstanding. I need to point out that the merger of evangelical with conservation is not primarily a liberal distortion, it primarily driven by current evangelical leaders identification with the extreme political right and surveys that consistently show people who self identify as evangelical strongly support conservative causes.
What the author could have made more of is that it was classical evangelicals in England and then the US who lead the fight against slavery. Then explain how many of their grandchildren became racists and many voted for Trump.
My tactical mistake is the attempt to reclaim the word “Evangelical” when what I really want to do is highlight the theology behind the word, theology I believe is a necessary (but not sufficient) part of Christianity. Theology that has been discarded by large segments of the mainline. A broader history would certainly help to understand the original meaning. I would resist entering a discussion of current politics – it is hard enough to explain why so many Christian – who would have understood themselves to be Evangelicals – in the antebellum years (and not just in the South) defended… Read more »
Thanks for your comments