Bebbington, Viola, and the redefinition of evangelicalism

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The British historian David Bebbington is usually credited with devising the standard definition of evangelicalism. I came across it again today in Frank Viola’s compilation of blog posts [amazon:B008A80EA0:inline]. Viola very briefly summarizes Bebbington’s definition in order to explain what he means by “beyond evangelical”:

Biblicism—being Bible-centered, which would include the belief that the Bible is the Divinely inspired authority for life and faith; it is trustworthy and sufficient.

Conversionism—being conversion-centered, which would include the need for being converted to Jesus Christ.

Crucicentrism—being cross-centered, which would include emphasizing the death of Jesus for salvation.

Activism—being activist-centered, which would include living the Christian life, evangelizing, and helping those in need.

Viola accepts this definition but argues that those who have moved “beyond evangelical” have added “four additional notes”.

First, beyond evangelical means being Christ-centred, by which he appears to mean going beyond the traditional evangelical focus on the cross. Christ is affirmed as “supreme, preeminent, sovereign, the center of biblical revelation, and the practical, living head of the church”.

Secondly, it means being Resurrection Life-centered, which again appears primarily to be correcting an over-emphasis on the cross. It means that God’s people “can live in the foretaste of our future resurrection”, not just as individuals but corporately.

Thirdly, it means being Body Life-centered. For those who have gone “beyond evangelical”, church is no longer just a place where the individual Christian life is sustained and directed but is “Christ existing as community”.

Fourthly, it means being Eternal Purpose-centered. This “goes beyond the saving of lost souls and making the world a better place”; it transcends the dichotomy between evangelism and social action. “The eternal purpose is primarily by Him, through Him, and to Him.”

If this is “beyond evangelical”, it is not very far beyond evangelical. I imagine that a lot of unremarkable evangelical churches would be surprised to find that beliefs and practices that they take for granted mark them out as “beyond evangelical”. But Viola certainly highlights the failure of Bebbington’s description of an older evangelicalism to capture the positive significance of Christ’s resurrection for the life of believing communities.

What I think is still missing here is any sense of the narrated existence of the people of God. The Bible still functions merely as a source of reliable instruction for “life and faith”. Christ is thought of as an abstracted person: he died so that people might be saved, he has been made head of the church, he exists as community, but he has been entirely removed from the story of Israel, entirely removed from history. What we have is Christ existing as community in the vast empty space between creation and “our future resurrection”. This is a gross misrepresentation both of human experience and of the biblical story in which the word “gospel” (euangelion) finds its meaning. In my view, any movement that claims to be “evangelical” or beyond has to demonstrate that it understands the narrated historical dimension to its biblical self-understanding.

Andrew, I agree with your addition to Viola’s list.  I may not end up with some of your conclusions, but I feel to disembody the Christian story from Israel is sadly, a missing element to the core of what it means to be the people of God.  To be sure, you have done your part in “beating this drum.”  I appreciate you. r

Thanks, Frank. Nice to hear from you. We agree because this post was based on the book to which you provided a link! I’m very much with you on your positive extension of modern evangelicalism, and you’ve got some very good material in the book.

My critique, which is a general one and not particularly aimed at you, is that this sort of “beyond evangelicalism” still has not made the effort to integrate into its self-understanding the narrated dimension of New Testament thought. I noticed a passing reference to “narrative” in the book, but that was all. The book aims at progress by transcending the various dichotomies of left and right, etc. No bad thing. My argument is that evangelicalism needs to progress by shifting from theology to history. It’s interesting, I think, that you quote Wright for his political and theological views but not for his exegetical and historical work, which forms the bulk of his output.

The bit about the Eternal Purpose (one of the keynotes) takes in the narrative of Scripture. References to my larger work on this are mentioned in the eBook several times.

The narrative must be rooted in Jesus Christ and His story, I feel, and God’s Eternal Purpose in Him. Since the eBook is deliberately short, it points to where I and others have expounded the four keynotes.

I’m encouraged that more Christians are getting a glimpse of that epic Purpose in our time and having their identities shaped by it.

Thx. again for the shout out.


Psalm 115:1