My Photo

« On learning from Leon Kass, and "a more natural science" | Main | "The Literary Practice of Belief" and my response »

May 29, 2010


Jason Clark

Great review. With regards to the suggestion by Kidd for the Holy Spirit, that is something Bebbington himself addresses (as do some other church historians). In that conversion requires the work of the Sprit (Bebbington claims this and his work is peppered with explanations of the role of the spirit in conversionism)

So more a question for you than Kidd, what do we gain be moving the Spirit out as a 5th element to Bebbington's quadrilateral? And how does that sit with critiques of Bebbington (Haykin in particular and the push to see evangelicalism within puritanism), and non charismatic evangelicalism?

Caleb Maskell


Thanks for these thoughts.

First let me clarify. Kidd's corrective of Bebbington is not that the "Bebbington Quadrilateral" excludes the work of the Holy Spirit. As you rightly point out, Bebbington's descriptions rely heavily on a Christian understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit in several ways, not the least of which is conversion. Bebbington's argument does not "ignore" the Holy Spirit as a crucial piece of the Christian imagination.

Kidd's argument is, I think, meant to expose something else about a renewed concern for the work of the Holy Spirit. Among 18th century (mostly American) evangelicals, he sees a emergent philosophy of history contingent on the work of the Holy Spirit in divine Providence which is also intimately enmeshed in the concrete details of human life. One might call it a kind of Christian Hegelianism. In the 18th century, this concern had deep implications for the practical interpretation of everything from politics to divine healings to terrible accidents to weather patterns. Kidd's calling this out is an attempt to get at the wider matrix of belief, philosophy, rhetoric, and experience of God that ties evangelical self-interpretation together and provides the glue for the transatlantic evangelical community. To speak of "conversionism" or "activism" or even "biblicism" and "crucicentrism" is to articulate a kind of assumption about the work of the Holy Spirit that needs to be understood as cosmologically significant, forming the very foundation of 18th century evangelical belief. Apart from a living, active, powerful God with a plan for the unfolding of history in all of its provincial particularity through the providential agency of the Holy Spirit, the center does not hold.

I think that Kidd is quite right to emphasize the significance of the Holy Spirit as God's omnipresent historical agent in the evangelical consciousness. I think that there are many strands of continuity between Puritanism and 18th century Evangelicalism--but where is there not continuity in history!--and so Haykin's meta-point must be taken seriously. I have not read Haykin except on Jonathan Edwards, so I can't comment specifically on his work. However, in a general sense, I will say this: In the midst of continuity there is always change. Just as Puritanism changed over time--and indeed was BORN wildly diverse--there is very limited value in trying to reify the "best" of Puritanism and show it to be in continuity with the "best" of evangelicalism. Usually such attempts are polemical, designed to show where the "best" of a movement was abandoned by less noble elements. In the case of those who try to read Puritanism and Evangelicalism in continuity, the hero is Jonathan Edwards and the villain is almost always Charles Finney! While one can argue the relative merits of both, it is a fallacy to suggest that the Edwardsean evangelicalism was much like Puritanism; the context was far too different.

I am rarely interested in the polemical aspects of these conversations and I believe that the most interesting dynamics of these movements is rarely typified by their "Great Men." "Great Men," just like "Great Movements" become idols far too quickly to reveal the truth of the matter in any meaningful sense. What intrigues me is the philosophy/theology of history and the way that that is interwoven with self-understanding "on the ground." Who do people believe that they are? What is the ultimate significance of their lives and how do they relate to it in practical ways? What does the action of God look like in the world? I think that paying particular attention to the role of the Holy Spirit in the historical development of the evangelical social imaginary will be deeply instructive as to the answer to the above questions and more.

Jason Clark

Tnx Caleb.

Bebbington's response to Haykin is interesting. He concedes that evangelicalism can be pushed back into Puritanism some way, with some activism and missional activity. The main thing he sees as different now, is that the issue of assurance was far more complex than he portrayed and that agency issues around enlightenment, need reading against economic issues.

But with regards to his quadrilateral, he still thinks it holds and the place of the Spirit is such that the Wesleyan witness of the Spirit was mirrored in ‘quest of the age’ for certainty (Haykin, P427).

With regards to agency, and Hegelian historicism, I like Kidd's thesis. If we are to rescue evangelicalism from being a product of the enlightenment or consumer voluntarism, understanding the move of the Spirit is vital, and worth being seen as a distinctive.

Where human agency and anthropology meets our understanding (or lack) of salvation history, is the nexus of many current emerging ecclesiologies, for good or ill.

Caleb Maskell

Thanks Jason

Haykin and Bebbington are definitely debating the historical presence of issues and priorities that were important to many Puritans and all 18th century evangelicals.

However, their argument around chronology seems to be attempting to locate evangelicalism in culture based on a set of universalizable ideological and theological priorities. I have a pretty strong disagreement with that methodology for two reasons.

First, it would be hard to make the case that the four elements of the Bebbington quadrilateral were not present in many iterations of Christianity over the history of the Christian church. This case could be made in the earliest churches and among many of the 12th and 13th century Catholic monastic orders as well as preaching sects that were named heretical. Thus, the implication of a universalizing definition is that "evangelicalism" can be found in various places throughout the history of Christianity. Os Guinness explicitly made this claim in an interview with First Things about the "Evangelical Manifesto" in which he argued that evangelicalism is an "impulse" which is deeper than any other category present in Christianity...deeper than orthodoxy, deeper than catholicity, etc. (You can read the interview here: Guinness is rightly defending evangelicalism against exclusive alignment with the crypto-fundamentalism of the post-1950s American sort, but he uses an historical hydrogen bomb to make his defense.

My guess is that Bebbington is not trying to make a claim as strong as the one that Guinness makes, given his extensive attention to the historical contingencies and shifts that were present at the rise of the evangelical movement, the very contingencies that enabled the movement that established Guinness's evangelical heritage. Bebbington wants to name Evangelicalism as a historical movement, not as a universal impulse. However, in arguing over where Evangelicalism fits as an outgrowth of Puritanism, it seems to me very important to pay attention to the ways in which individuals of the time aligned themselves, not where they _seem_ to fit, based on the categories that were of particular interlocking value at the beginning of the self-denominated Evangelical movement in the 18th century. While the drawing of hard historical boundaries between movements is almost never a good idea, it does raise a red flag for me when historians are invested in locating the presence of the ideology of one (usually favored) movement in the fabric of another (usually favored) movement. This strikes me as a "best of both worlds" scenario which tends to underplay the complexities, (wide) margins, and rough edges that are present in each.* Trying to make, say, William Ames into an evangelical that self-denominated evangelicals would recognize is a move that must either do violence to Ames's self-conscious Puritanism, the evangelicalism that came after him, or both. This is not to say that Ames was not useful to evangelicals, but simply different from them.

Second, the Bebbington Quadrilateral works very well to describe a wide-scale, pan-Protestant, transnational movement in the 18th-20th centuries. However, it seems to me that that evangelicalism was held together by far more than the theological priorities proposed by those categories. Indeed, the way that Bebbington's categories were used by evangelicals in the 18th and 19th century was largely regulated by a social, cultural, and intellectual context that defined the boundaries of their explorations. In the absence of that regulative context, the meaning of the categories changes substantially. Consider for example the fundamental difference between the Bebbingtonian principle of "biblicism" to Jonathan Edwards, Edward Irving, and Billy Sunday. This is a difference that is almost entirely established by their subjective relationships to shifting sets of epistemological assumptions. The very content of the concept of "biblicism" is subject to radical change over time based on shifts that have nothing to do with the content of Bebbington's identifiers, even among self-proclaimed evangelicals.

The temptation to universalize categories must be avoided, because when change over time happens, the only remaining option is a narrative that locates the "high-point" of evangelicalism wherever one's particular sympathies lie. For some historians, Jonathan Edwards was the high-point, for others it was William Wilberforce or Richard Allen or Charles Finney or Billy Graham or even Aimee Semple McPherson. It strikes me that none of this is adequate, because it contributes to the idolization of the past as well as narrowing the imagination of future possibilities. Students of Christianity must be content to learn from all elements of the Christian past, as well as to criticize it, taking it to be the movement that it said it was, and not trying to retro-fit it into categories that are more familiar.

As far as "rescuing evangelicalism" goes, I am not convinced that such a project is worth the energy that it would take to even get started. I am all for vital, passionate, risk-taking, mind-renewing, worship-centered, self-critical Christianity. In some cases, evangelicalism has represented that, and in other cases it has represented the opposite. The reason for this (to paraphrase Mark Noll's argument in the activism chapter of "The Rise of Evangelicalism") is that evangelicalism never intended to be a fully-orbed culture, but rather a way of believing about the world and God's role in it that overlaid on top of whatever the dominant cultural scene happened to be. Evangelicalism often exerted a profound influence on that cultural scene, but rarely sought to radically change it, except via the revitalization of individual hearts through conversion. This meant that evangelicalism could spread quickly; it was generally consonant with--and thus didn't pose a threat to--the world as it was. Evangelicalism's non-threatening single-mindedness about conversion limited its range of expression when it came to challenging the assumptions of the dominant culture. 

Leaving questions of the benefits and limitations of a radically conversionist gospel aside, I have already noted that evangelicalism itself was built on the back of a kind of post-reformation enlightenment cultural model. I think we agree that we no longer live in such a culture, and so much the better. Descartes, Locke, Newton, Voltaire, and others are all old news intellectually and culturally. Whether or not one still appreciates the work of such seminal thinkers, it seems to me that we should not assume that the vital religion of a culture of 18th and 19th century common sense modernity will automatically be the right fit for our cultural moment. I have yet to see the fundamentals of evangelicalism distilled in such a way that separates it from its cultural context in the modernist grid, and frankly I doubt that it is possible. The second is that, even in its cultural moment, evangelicalism did not have the culture-critical tools at hand to speak with a unified prophetic voice about the things of the world that were not in conformity with the things of God's Kingdom. To use Mark Noll's trenchant construction, "the reason that evangelical anti-slavery failed was that there were so many evangelical slaveholders." This is obviously a different issue in the UK, but this is the vantage point from which I stand. ;-)

OK. Gotta stop for now.

* cf. "Empowered Evangelicals."

Jason Clark

I wrote a superb and insightful reply that took me 30 minutes. Seems it fell foul of typepads lamentable comment screening process!

Short version, I think Bebbington acknowledges antecedents, but tries to map Evangelicals a recent and self conscious movement without wanting to force methodical universals and typologies. Many historians see him as rich and complex in his analysis, and if he can't try to map something, I don't know who can :-)

Whilst he sees enlightenment epistemology as basis for much of his mapping, stating economics had little to do with it, he does in response to Haykin now state that this factor needs to be correlated too, which is what I am attempting to do.

I think Bebbington offers a traditioned understanding of the church, that is vital for people who want to discard evangelicalism with trite universalisms, and 'low points'. And Bebbington encourages me to explore the traditioned life for good and bad of evangelicalism and to see how that tradition is rooted in the renewal of the larger church, despite many of it's cultural captivities. And despite the hydroponic ecclesiolgies of many evangelicals and post-evangelicals/emerging church, evangelicalism has within is an ontological turn that could help find traction in mission in our new web 2.0 world. If not it's back to Rome or Canterbury for me like so many of my other friends (and Newman's story is salutary in that reading of evangelical history).

So a shorter and poorer comment I'm afraid :-)

Caleb Maskell

Thanks Jase

Sorry that your long reply got erased. That stinks. Down with Typepad.

I couldn't agree more about Bebbington. He definitely acknowledges antecedents, contingencies, and complexities! His work is richly descriptive and interpretively brilliant...indeed, he is one of the great historians of evangelicalism. His Quadrilateral structure leaves lots of room for subtlety. So, yes, three cheers for Bebbington and his excellent, pathbreaking work!

Where I differ from Bebbington--as well as from my estimable digital correspondent--is that I am deeply uncertain about the "ontological turn" in any conception of evangelicalism. As a cultural structure, I am not sure that it can be separated from its embeddedness in enlightenment epistemology, as well as a certain type of natural-rights individualism and an overburdened sense of attention to the particular moment...namely the moment of conversion. This problem calls into question any kind of ontologizing of the conception.

Furthermore, in the US context, the now-longstanding political entrenchment of most of "evangelicalism" in a highly contingent politics that baptizes what I view as the worst of American cultural bootstrapping in which the poor, weak, and disenfranchised are told to improve their lot by hard work and God's grace ALONE muddies these waters considerably. From where I stand, it is very hard to imagine "evangelicalism" being separated from this kind of political ideology, in spite of the great efforts of Ron Sider, Kristin Komarnicki and their confreres.

But, I do recognize that at least my latter concern is largely a problem particular to US politics. I am open to being _converted_ to the hope that you hold forth! Perhaps it is a case of "a rose by any other name..."

Thanks for the dialogue so far!

steven hamilton

question for you caleb: do you think we have lost our own sense of what you called a Christian Hegelianism (i.e., "emergent philosophy of history contingent on the work of the Holy Spirit in divine Providence which is also intimately enmeshed in the concrete details of human life")? and if at-present, we have, is that relatively good or have we lost something important?


Ha! Let me dodge that question by saying this: "Christian Hegelianism" is either not Christian or not Hegelian. Beyond that, I have no idea. I have opinions, but I'd never write them on my blog. Buy me a beer sometime...;-)

steven hamilton

"Buy me a beer sometime..."

ha, i think you can bank on that...

The comments to this entry are closed.