Monday, May 15, 2017

Evaluating the Bebbington Quadrilateral

The Bebbington Quadrilateral denotes the four qualities that David Bebbington claimed are characteristic of [the Old] Evangelicalism, as described in his book Evangelicalism in Modern Britain A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London, UK: Unwin Hyman, 1989). In the book The Advent of Evangelicalism: Exploring Historical Continuities (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2008), various scholars interacted with Bebbington's thesis that Evangelicalism, as described having these four characteristics, originated in the 1730s and in the First Great Awakening in that era. The last chapter was a response by Bebbington to the diverse essays which interacted with his thesis, often critically. It is interesting to read Bebbington's response, to see how he dealt with critiques of his thesis and to observe whether it holds up to scrutiny.

The four characteristics of Evangelicalism are (1) Activism, (2) Conversionism, (3) Biblicism, and (4) Cruci(o)centrism. On top of that, Bebbington had asserted a discontinuity between the Puritans and the Evangelicals concerning the issue of assurance of salvation, an assertion that generated quite a lot of push-back from the various contributors to the book The Advent of Evangelicalism.

In his response, Bebbington modified his thesis to a certain degree. On the issue of assurance of salvation, Bebbington virtually concedes the point to his critics, while stating that "it seems likely that the predominant view on the subject in the seventeenth century was less confident than what was normally professed in the eighteenth" (Bebbington, "Response," in The Advent of Evangelicalism, 421-2). In his response, Bebbington rejects the identification of the notion of "activism" as indicative of Puritanism or any movement prior to Evangelicalism by focusing on an important distinction of Evangelicalism: the emergence of multiple interdenominational agencies (Bebbington, in ibid., 419, 427). On the issue of Biblicism and Crucicentrism, Bebbington focuses on the fact that Evangelicalism was all about making things simple and only for the purpose of salvation, with a corresponding downplaying of theology as an academic discipline, and of right order and discipline in the church (Bebbington, in ibid., 428, 30). On the issue of Conversionism, Bebbington focuses on the issue of revivals, and the idea and heightened expectation of revivals that permeates Evangelicalism.

While Bebbington's response focuses on his response to his critics, we can read in his response how he might have modified his quadrilateral in order to more clearly describe Evangelicalism. The almost 2-decade old definition is in line for an upgrade, and I will attempt such an upgrade in light of Bebbington's response. Instead of merely stating a belief in "activism," we should say that Evangelicalism is marked by interdenominational activism, and a downplaying of denominational difference in lieu of a unified evangelical witness. Instead of merely a belief in "Conversionism," we could say that Evangelicalism is marked by a heightened belief in and discourse of revivals. Instead of holding to Biblicism, we could say that Evangelicalism is marked by an instrumental view of doctrine and a downplaying of academic theology and theological precision. Instead of holding to Crucicentrism, we could say that Evangelicalism is marked by a focus on the doctrine of salvation and anything related to the doctrine of salvation with a de-emphasis of other theological loci.

Thus, the new "quadrilateral" can be listed as follows:

  1. Interdenominational Activism
  2. Heightened belief in Revivals
  3. Instrumental view of doctrine
  4. De-emphasis on anything not related to soteriology

It seems to me that besides new criterion number two (Belief in Revivals), which is one more of degree than of kind, the other three seem to be valid distinctives of Evangelicalism. Evangelicals of any stripe have little concerns over denominational issues, with some even attacking "denominationalism" as an evil. Evangelicals also tend to have an instrumental view of doctrine and truth, and always ask for practicality. Even those that are not anti-intellectual do not see the beauty of truth just for the fact that it is true, but that everything must be able to be put into practice. That is probably why the Doctrine of God and the Trinity are not of major importance among many Evangelicals, although Evangelicals tend to continue to preserve the orthodoxy bought and fought for by the early church.

And lastly, Evangelicals do tend to emphasize soteriology, which is why many conservative Evangelicals today can be Calvinist in soteriology yet they reject Calvin's view of baptism and the Lord's Supper. It is all about people "being saved," but what happens after salvation is of less importance in getting it right. Thus, Evangelicals will fight over getting the Gospel right such that those who get the Gospel wrong are excommunicated, but not even a tenth of that militancy will be displayed on the views of baptism and discipleship, much less church governance.

In lieu of the topic of revivals, I think it is better to focus on Evangelicalism's view of conversion as a punctiliar salvation event which marks a person's salvation. This view precludes children converted in the womb or in early childhood, and makes the focus of salvation about experiencing a "Damascus Road" type experience and less on a person's confession of faith. That is why Evangelicals love to hear about conversion testimonies. Evangelicalism does not really have a category for professing believers who do not have this experience of the new-birth, but yet claim to be Christians (except perhaps "unbelievers"?). With this view of conversion as a repetition of Paul's Damascus Road experience, the Quadrilateral could be recreated anew, as follows:

  1. Interdenominational Activism
  2. Conversion as experience
  3. Instrumental view of doctrine
  4. Soteriological primacy

[And on this note, it can be seen why I am not an Evangelical. I do not believe in interdenominational activism, conversion as necessarily an experience, neither do I hold to an instrumental view of truth and doctrine, nor the primacy of soteriology over all other doctrines.]

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Is Evangelicalism Reformed? The consequences

The position of radical discontinuity in evangelicalism in the 1730s cannot be historically confirmed and is theologically dangerous, for it leaves us with the impression that Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley are the fathers of evangelicalism. The result of this controversial position is that Wesley’s Arminianism could then no longer be viewed as aberrational theology within a solidly Reformed movement. Instead, Reformed and Arminian theology would be given equal status in the origins of evangelicalism, as is often done today. [Joel R. Beeke, “Evangelicalism and the Dutch Further Reformation,” in Michael A.G. Haykin and Kenneth J. Stewart, eds., The Advent of Evangelicalism: Exploring Historical Continuities (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2008), 168]

In closing, I wish to step out of the realm of history by commenting briefly on the consequences of this possibility for evangelical self-understanding. If we think that evangelicalism began in the 1730s, then Wesley and Edwards become its most important fathers. This means that evangelicalism was from its origin equally divided between Reformed and Arminian theology. Neither could claim to be the mainstream doctrinal position. In this sense it is easy to see how Bebbington’s analysis serves to give a strong foothold to Arminianism within the evangelical movement by making foundational one of its most noted proponents. If, however, we reconsider the origins of evangelicalism and find that it is a Reformational and Puritan phenomenon, then the picture looks very different. (Gary J. Williams, “Enlightenment Epistemology and Eighteenth-Century Evangelical Doctrines of Assurance,” in ibid., 374)

The movement spearheaded by John Wesley, notwithstanding his predilection for antiquity, was undoubtedly novel. The historian cannot dismiss it as an aberration, because it was numerically the largest sector of the evangelical movement in Britain. (David W. Bebbington, “Response,” in ibid., 424)

Despite the theological polarity over free will, there was generally a remarkable degree of mutual respect within the diverse ranks of the evangelicals. They had a sense of belonging to a common movement in which their united proclamation of the new birth transcended doctrinal differences. … Methodists were full participants in the Evangelical Revival. Their contribution ensured that the movement as a whole was in many respects discontinuous with earlier Protestantism as well as in other ways continuous with it. (Bebbington, "Response," in ibid., 425)

Let me mention a few things, therefore, which I put into the categories of non-essentials.

One is the belief in election and predestination. Now I am a Calvinist; I believe in election and predestination; but I would not dream of putting it under the heading of essential. [Martin Lloyd-Jones, What is an Evangelical? (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1992), 87]

Is Evangelicalism Reformed? Or rather, is Evangelicalism the overarching set in which we can fit in the Reformers, the Puritans, and then the heirs of the First and Second Great Awakening? That is a historical question with important implications for believers' self-identity. If one is Reformed, is one necessarily an Evangelical? Are Evangelicals the set that comprises all true Christian believers who believe in the biblical Gospel, as many people seem to think so today?

While I am sure there are others who have investigated this issue, David Bebbington has brought the issue of the origins of Evangelicalism into the modern spotlight in academia, with his 1989 book Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. In this book, Bebbington stated that Evangelicalism has its origins in the 1730s and especially through the prominent leaders of the First Great Awakening: George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley. Evangelicalism (the "Old" version, not the "New Evangelicalism" of the 1950s) can be described as possessing four distinct traits: Conversionism (a focus on the necessity of each person to individually turn to Christ in faith for salvation), Activism (a commitment to participate with God in his saving mission in the world), Biblicism (a devotion to the Bible as the Word of God written for all of faith), and Crucicentrism (a focus on Jesus Christ and the substitutionary atonement of Christ for sins) [David W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London, UK: Unwin Hyman, 1989), 5-17]. In the early 18th century, a new movement came into being that came to be Evangelicalism, a new distinct movement that was not present prior to the 18th century.

It does not take much thought to realize the implications of the Bebbington thesis for Christian self-identification. In the collection of essays edited by Michael Haykin and Kenneth Stewart, contributors Joel Beeke and Gary Williams pointed out the obvious implications concerning how Arminianism is to be perceived if the Bebbington thesis is to be upheld. In his response, Bebbington plainly states that [Wesleyan] Arminianism is indeed part of Evangelicalism, and points out how Evangelical Calvinists and Evangelical Arminians cooperated in Evangelical enterprises and outreaches. That Evangelical Calvinists have historically regarded the Calvinisism/ Arminianism issue as a non-essential issue is further proved by Martin Lloyd-Jones in his book What is an Evangelical?, where Lloyd-Jones equated "Evangelicals" with "believers" and therefore held that Arminian Christians who believe in the Gospel are "Evangelicals" since they are indeed saved. In other words, it seems that the implications of the "controversial position" Joel Beeke detests is indeed what Evangelicals have always held to. (I guess Beeke has to decide whether he wants to identify himself an "Evangelical," since the Bebbington thesis has some merit along that line)

Ideas and theories have practical implications, and are not limited to academia. That it takes some time for ideas in academia to trickle down to the ground is definite. The only "impractical theories" and "abstract castles in the sky" present are those that deal with things that have little if any relation to reality; everything else is practical if one actually thinks about them. Here, the practical implications of the Bebbington thesis concerns not only a believer's self-identification, but also the status of Arminianism. If one identifies as an Evangelical, it is not possible, given the Bebbington thesis, to claim Arminianism as heresy. Rather, Arminianism must be seen as a minor doctrinal error, about as errant as differences in one's views concerning the Millennium.

It is because of this understanding of history, among others, that I do not identify as an "Evangelical," but rather as Reformed. I hold to the Canons of Dordt and therefore am precluded from considering "Evangelical" as a valid self-label, even apart from all other considerations. Perhaps if Bebbington's thesis trickle towards the church then we can get a greater self-understanding among Christians.

Puritanism and Neo-puritanism

But what is omitted from this canon of Puritan literature [by the Banner of Truth –DHC] is just as revealing as what is included.

Missing are the doctrinal works of Richard Baxter that promote a ‘neonomian’ doctrine of justification, a Grotian theory of atonement, and a minimalist, ecumenical creed; the writings of Roger Williams, who believed that the restoration of true churches would have to await the emergence of end-times apostles; the works of John Milton, the great Puritan poet, who defended divorce, freedom of the press and regicide, and was almost certainly Arminian and anti-trinitarian in his later life; the political writings of the Levellers, including the separatist John Lilburne and the Baptist Richard Overton; the Arminian works of John Goodwin, one of London’s lading Puritan pastors in the mid-seventeenth century; the visions of prophetesses like Anna Trapnel; the antinomian tracts of influential figures like Tobias Crisp and John Eaton; the scores of books published by the General Baptists.

[John Coffey, “Puritanism, Evangelicalism and the Evangelical Protestant Tradition,” in Michael A.G. Haykin and Kenneth J. Stewart, eds., The Advent of Evangelicalism: Exploring Historical Continuities (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2008), 261]

What is Puritanism? The movement promoted by Martin Lloyd Jones and then the Banner of Truth Trust is called "neo-Puritianism" only because it seeks to recover the "Puritans" for today, yet they choose and select only the works they think are worthy to be reproduced. That is certainly good in a certain sense, since not everything that the Puritans wrote were good. Yet, if someone were to derive their knowledge of who the Puritans were and what Puritanism was about purely from the Banner of Truth republished books, they would probably not get an accurate understanding of what Puritanism actually is.

Thus, many people might have the idea that Puritanism is about moving deeper into godly living based upon true doctrine. In other words, now that the first and second generation Reformers have gotten the Gospel right, subsequent generations of believers in the Reformed Church, both the Puritans and the Dutch Further Reformation, were all about working out how to apply the orthodox Gospel in godly piety. Certainly, nobody would want to minimize the doctrinal advancement of subsequent generations of the Reformed Church on doctrine, but rather the impression is given that the focus of such subsequent movements in Puritanism was on practice and piety. Thus the question was, "Having gotten justification by faith right, what things ought to be done in order that we might live to glorify God?"

Such a portrait of Puritanism is however wrong. On the one hand, Puritanism is a much more diverse movement, and Anglicans like Archbishop James Ussher are doctrinally in the Puritan camp. Thus, it is not true that Puritanism was all about godly living. Rather, the only thing that can be said definitively about Puritanism is that it was committed to further reform of the Church [Crawford Gribben, The Puritan Millennium: Literature and Theology, 1550-1682 (Studies in Christian History and Thought; Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2008), 8], not that it was about godly piety. Neo-Puritanism may be good for the church, but it is not the same as Puritanism. Again, the republished books by Banner of Truth Trust are good and edifying, but they cannot be counted on to accurately portray what Puritanism actually is.

On the other hand, it is a terrible historiography to sharply dichotomize between the first generations of Reformers and their spiritual heirs, as if they have radically different emphases and focuses. Luther and Calvin were concerned with godly living too (Luther against the Fanatics, and Calvin against the Libertines), while the Puritans of Reformed convictions were concerned about doctrine too (against Arminianism and Socinianism). It is not accurate to say that the Reformers reformed doctrine, while the Puritans reformed piety. Certainly, times change and challenges differ, but both the Reformers and the Puritans were resolute in combating both false doctrine and impiety. There is after all no true separation between right doctrine and godly living. Those who have one without the other are defective in both at best.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The "foolishness of preaching"

ἐπειδὴ γὰρ ἐν τῇ σοφίᾳ τοῦ θεοῦ οὐκ ἔγνω ὁ κόσμος διὰ τῆς σοφίας τὸν θεόν, εὐδόκησεν ὁ θεὸς διὰ τῆς μωρίας τοῦ κηρύγματος σῶσαι τοὺς πιστεύοντας (1 Cor. 1:21 -BGT)

For it is because in the wisdom of God the world did not know, through its wisdom, God, God was pleased through the foolishness of preaching to save those who believe. (1 Cor. 1:21. Own translation)

How does one translate the Greek genitival phrase τῆς μωρίας τοῦ κηρύγματος? Is it an objective genitive, subjective genitive, adjectival or reverse adjectival genitive? Therein lies part of the beauty of such Greek phrases, which cannot be translated into English, and many other languages, without an attempt to decide how the genitival relation between "foolishness" and "preaching" is to be understood.

Various English translations have translated the phrase differently. The KJV decided to leave the ambiguity as it is by just literally stating it as "the foolishness of preaching." The NIV and ESV and even the NKJV decided to resolve the ambiguity by interpreting the phrase as an objective genitive and thus interpret the phrase as stating that it is the content of the preaching that is foolishness to the world. But is that a correct interpretation of the phrase? Surely it is the most natural understanding in our modern scientific context, but is that what Paul is trying to convey to us?

We note here the larger context of the phrase as describing the means by which someone can come to know God. The world, utilizing the instrument of its own wisdom, has shown itself unable to come to know God. In contrast, the "foolishness of preaching" is the instrument that God uses so that sinners who believe can come to know God. That is the contrast the verse is putting forward. The world's wisdom, versus the "foolishness of preaching." The people of the world, her philosophers, utilize their thinking and their wisdom to create empires and ideology, and ultimately the entire modern world with the modern nation-state and science and technology. But despite the greatness of the world's wisdom, the world cannot come to know God.

The question for us then is whether the interpretation taken by many modern translations of the Bible is correct. Certainly, on a theological level, what is preached, the Gospel message, is foolishness to the world. Saying that it is the message preached that is the foolishness that saves, or saying that it the act of preaching that is the foolishness that saves, are both true. And certainly grammatically, there is nothing wrong with translating that particular phrase as an objective genitive instead of a subjective genitive. But which interpretation fits better for our text? Since the "foolishness of preaching" is contrasted with the world's wisdom, and thus the "wisdom of the world," it is better for the phrase "foolishness of preaching" to be a subjective genitive just like the phrase "wisdom of the world" is a subjective genitive. Moreover, does the world just throw propositions in an attempt to come to know God? Or rather, they engage in the act of reasoning using their reason in an attempt to come to know God. Likewise, just as the means of wisdom is thinking, so the means of "foolishness" must be an action as well, which corresponds to preaching.

The phrase in 1 Corinthians 1:21, the "foolishness of preaching," therefore in my opinion should be best translated as the "the foolishness of the usage of preaching." Certainly it is true that the mere act of preaching is an issue, since Greeks love orations and speeches. But rather, it is the act of preaching as the instrument for salvation that is foolishness to the world. For if you want to "make friends and influence people," and even more, save the souls of men, would anyone past and present consider preaching to be a valid means to bring a person to salvation? Sophists engage in orations to entertain their audiences with their eloquence. Philosophers engage in dialogues (e.g. the Socratic model) to convince people of their truth. Many people today prefer the use of drama and multimedia presentations to bring the Bible stories "to life." (Since when was the Bible ever dead?) But God has ordained the means of preaching unto salvation, foolish though it seems to the world.

As those called to proclaim His Word, pastors therefore ought to stand firm in their conviction of the necessity of biblical preaching, not for mere instruction but also to save souls. It is in the faithful preaching of God's Word, Sunday after Sunday, where the Holy Spirit will most certainly work in the hearts of its hearers. While God can use any other means, we should not think that our "ministry" in workplaces or elsewhere is any substitute for biblical preaching, and most certainly should not have the expectancy that God will certainly work in those extra-ecclesial gatherings. For pastors, the burden to correctly parse and proclaim our Lord's work is heavy when one pauses to see its importance, so let us not treat this lightly but seriously, so that we may handle such a privilege and responsibility with reverence and godly fear.

The Paradox of the Faith: 1 Corinthians 1:17-25, 2:1-5

On April 30th, I have had the privilege of proclaiming God's Word from 1 Corinthians 1:17-25, 2:1-5. It took some time for the sermon to be uploaded to Providence's website, so I have only checked it and found it recently. You can hear it here.