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David Bebbington

Defining "Evangelical"

Part 1 in an occasional series.

Editor's Note: Rumor has it that somewhere in the US, there's an asylum for scholars and journalists—rigidly segregated, of course—who've been driven mad by the attempt to define "evangelical." They are not unruly patients for the most part, but now and then fierce arguments break out and the contesting parties must be separated.

Undaunted, the National Association for Evangelicals, in conjunction with LifeWay Research, formulated a new "evangelical beliefs research definition" intended to facilitate "accurate and consistent use among researchers." A press release in November 2015 spelled out the definition and its aims, which can be found on the NAE website.

In the meantime, in the midst of a wild US presidential campaign, the term "evangelical" is popping up right and left, meaning more or less whatever the speaker or writer in question wants it to mean.

This seems like a propitious moment, then, to ask some people who have thought long and hard about the subject (while still retaining their sanity) what they make of the NAE/LifeWay Research definition. With this issue, we're initiating an occasional series to do just that. Leading off is historian David Bebbington.

Unfamiliarity with evangelicals has led to their misrepresentation over the centuries. They have commonly been supposed, for example, to be unreconstructed biblical literalists or habitual hell-fire preachers. So it is invaluable that the National Association of Evangelicals has taken pains to produce a definition that can be taken up confidently by researchers. Evangelicals, according to this formula, are those who can strongly affirm four statements about the Bible, evangelism, the cross, and faith in Christ. It is gratifying that the statements, according to the NAE press release, "closely mirror historian David Bebbington's classic four-point definition of evangelicalism." That historian is especially pleased that the new way of describing evangelicals includes emphasis on the cross, an element often missing in efforts to label the attributes of evangelicals in the past.

The new way of describing evangelicals includes emphasis on the cross, an element often missing in efforts to label the attributes of evangelicals in the past.

The definition, however, concerns itself with beliefs alone. Whereas the so-called "Bebbington quadrilateral" includes behavior as well as belief (reading the Bible as a devotional aid, for example, or engaging in active evangelism), here every statement is about what evangelicals believe. That is inevitable in providing a checklist of qualities to be discovered by enquiry over the telephone. Social science researchers cannot be expected to observe whether a professed evangelical believer actually reads the Bible or commends the Savior. Nobody could quibble with so necessary a limitation in the definition.

The checklist is also very satisfactory in limiting itself to trying to elicit what evangelicals actually believe, not specifying what they ought to believe. It is phenomenological, not normative. That feature is shared with the quadrilateral. Its author has normally preferred to call it a characterization rather than a definition because it is professedly merely descriptive, not prescriptive. The identification of what evangelicals ought to believe can best be left to creeds and theologians or even to the Bible itself.

Another welcome feature is that one of the statements takes account of the conversionism of evangelicals without restricting conversion to the instantaneous or conscious varieties. Evangelicals are expected merely to "trust in Jesus Christ alone." Yet the statement goes beyond the requirement of trust to stipulate that "Only" those who do so receive eternal salvation. Here there is reason to pause. Evangelical missionaries in the 19th century, though often believing that idolatry excluded its practitioners from salvation, sometimes came to suppose that the question of the salvability of the heathen had a different solution. Thus David Livingstone held in his later years that the ultimate destiny of unbelieving indigenous people was an issue that must be left unresolved.[1] Many 20th-century evangelicals were similarly disinclined to pronounce categorically on the fate of the unevangelized. John Stott declared that "the most Christian stance is to remain agnostic on this question."[2] Billy Graham, still happily our contemporary, frequently affirmed that the only way to heaven is through Christ, but equally during his later ministry he disavowed the view that those who had not heard the gospel would definitely be unsaved.[3] Livingstone, Stott, and Graham contended that those who trust in Christ receive salvation, but they did not insist that "Only" those who trust in Christ receive salvation. Perhaps the word "Only" could have been dropped with advantage from the last of the four statements required of evangelicals. Clause four of the British Labour Party's constitution long caused its members immense heart-searching. It may be that clause four of the NAE definition will prevent some evangelicals of stature from wholeheartedly endorsing it.

1. Brian Stanley, The Bible and the Flag: Protestant Missions and British Imperialism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Leicester: Apollos, 1990), p. 66.

2. John Stott in David L. Edwards with John Stott, Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1988), p. 327.

3. Grant Wacker, America's Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation (Belknap Press/Harvard Univ. Press, 2014), pp. 200-02.

David Bebbington is professor of history at the University of Stirling and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

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