According to author, researcher, and historian David Bebbington, an Evangelical is marked by four distinct characteristics, which form a quadrilateral: conversion, activism, biblicism and crucicentrism (Focus on the cross and atonement). Conversionism, that is conversion of souls unto Christ, could be the single value from which evangelicalism was derived. Bebbington writes, “Conversions were the goal of personal effort, the collective aim of churches, the theme of Evangelical literature”. Conversion of the soul swung at the root of sin, and therefore sin was the result of the unconverted person or people. “A converted character,” Bebbington writes, “would work hard, save money and assist his neighbor.” .
The second characteristic Bebbington notes is activism, which I will right about in more detail. Activism seems to set evangelicalism apart other protestants and high church groups. It is William Marsh who wrote, “An Evangelical believer is a man who believes in the fall and its consequences, in the recovery and its fruit, in the personal application of the recovery by the power of the Spirit […] the Evangelical will aim, desire, endeavor, by example, by exertion, by influence, and by prayer to promote the great salvation of which he himself is a happy partaker.” . Activism appears to be the fruit of conversion. For evangelicals the goal of conversion was the activity of converting others. How one is converted, through what process, prayer or form of baptism, Evangelicals quickly diverge; however, these two characteristics form the foundational identity of the Evangelical movement.
If conversionism and activism form the foundation of Evangelicalism, then what supports and upholds this foundation? Jason Clark comes into conversation with Bebbington on this topic. Clark writes, “Protestant reformers, having left behind doctrines of assurance, suffered resultant anxieties about their personal salvation. If the church was no longer able to dispense an assurance of salvation, how did someone know they were saved?” […] For Bebbington it was this new anxiety, and focus on the doctrine of assurance, that generated the activism that was distinct to Evangelicals.” Prior to the Reformation, the church held the power of assurance among the collective psyche. Post Reformation we see a shift from external authority to internal experience. Previously the church had been the guiding sign post for ones life, and the symbol of ones conversion. However, the Reformers needed a new sign; a sign that generated from one’s life rather than the church.
Enter here the initial rumblings of the symbiotic relationship between Evangelicalism and capitalism. Clark writes, “Initially for Evangelicals, and dominant for them, was the desire for inner spiritual renewal of the self around an identity in Christ. Yet that social imagination for the self eventually atrophies and becomes a market imagination within capitalism.”  Clark pauses before continuing his mapping of Evangelicalism, but sets the stage for Max Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic.
The final two characteristics of Evangelicalism are biblicism and crucicentrism. If conversionism and activism form the collective identity of Evangelicalism, then the bible is the mortar holding this identity together. Of course this is dialectical relationship – scriptural interpretation leads to a fervent activism for conversions. Likewise, Evangelical focus on winning souls unto Christ reinforces biblical interpretation. Further, the movement’s distinct mission for winning souls, informs the hermeneutical and preferential approach to scripture. Primacy was given to the New Testament and mainly the Gospel of John and the Pauline letters, which heavily substantiated the first two characteristics of Evangelicalism.  Evangelicals historically held to varying views of biblical inspiration, but all venerated the bible as God’s primary revelation, replacing the void left by a lack of clerical authority and Church polity.
Finally, crucicentrism is biblical interpretation, which centers around Christ’s atonement, the cross and its salvific function for humanity. Bebbington writes, “The Atonement eclipsed even the incarnation among evangelicals […] To make any theme other than the cross the fulcrum of a theological system was to take a step away from Evangelicalism.”  Biblical interpretation centered around the cross, and the cross gave legitimacy to the Bible’s authority.
I am curious how Bebbington’s work has shifted in a postmodern world, specifically post 1980. My question is, does the mythology which drove the expansion of Western Evangelicalism hold water, and provide the container and mechanisms needed for personal and social transformation. In 1975 Carl Jung wrote, “Myth is pre-eminently a social phenomenon: it is told by the many and heard by the many. It gives the ultimately unimaginable religious experience an image, a form in which to express itself, and thus makes community life possible.”.  Depending on who you ask, Evangelicalism is somewhere between a death-spiral and a renewal process, but it is undoubtedly in the throws of transformation. The question remains, will a new myth elevate from the collective unconscious to give Western society, even Evangelicalism, a transformational way forward?
9. Edinger, Edward F. The New God-Image: A Study of Jung’s Key Letters Concerning the Evolution of the Western God-Image. Chiron Publications, 1996. 46.
9 responses to “Capitalizing Evangelicalism”
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Michael, thanks for detailing the defining traits of Evangelicalism to the degree you did. I agree with your statement near the end where you describe a wide range of opinions about the future of Evangelicalism. If you had to predict, what do you think the future holds for the movement? Also, do you think “activism” has shifted in the conservative side of the movement away from social action toward politics as a new version of activism in this day? This second question comes from own desire to better understand the political motivation by some rather than personal involvement in serving communities in real and personal ways.
Roy, that’s a great question. I believe all living things move through a life, death, and rebirth process – that’s what the imago dei is at its core. But when things refuse to die, that’s when rebirth isn’t possible (thinking of John 12:24 and the grain of wheat symbol). I see Evangelicalism refusing to die, as is often the case with established religion (here thinking of the sociological concept of ideal types and Max Weber’s religious organizational development of cult, sect, and church). When a religious organization becomes overly established, charismatic “cults” rise up as a renewal process. I think we’re seeing that now, but it likely only be visible in hindsight.
Deep, brother, deep! I appreciate the reflection on the book. I love your question at the end as well. Have you ever read JC Ryle by chance? He is an interesting read as he is preaching in England in the 19th century, more or less warning that Church that unless they change their ways, they will lose their way. (See “Practical Religion”). In many ways, I would say that the questions he was facing in the 19th century we are facing here today in American. My personal opinion? Christendom is slowly on the way out, but I am confident the true Church (perhaps in a various form) will prevail.
What do you think? A spiral of death or life?
Eric! I haven’t come across JC Ryle before, but I’ll give him a look. Yeah, like I mentioned to Roy, I believe all living things, including the church, move through a life, death, and rebirth process. I agree, it will be reborn, but likely in a nearly unrecognizable form. Unless life is pruned, it doesn’t produce fruit, and dies alone. Evangelicalism as it is now seems to be dying on the vine. Perhaps this isn’t judgement, but simply the way of things.
Michael: Of the four main tenants that Bebbington delineates to define an Evangelical, crucicentrism captures my attention the most. It’s true that the eastern orthodox tradition puts more emphasis on the incarnation and less on the atonement than the west. It has always interested me to see how this different emphasis plays out in the life of church. How it effects evangelism is fascinating. Of course, the incarnation and the atonement (Christmas -vs- Easter) are not in competition with each other; it is ‘both-and’ and not ‘either-or’. I wonder how this emphasis will play out in our own culture in our time? Nice post.
Troy, I like that reflection and how you bring together the opposites of Eastern and Western orientation. I see Christmas and Easter is the liturgical reenactment of the first two movements of the hero’s journey (life and death). We could image that the Easter encapsulates the third movement of return, but I think I see this movement more at Pentecost, and the descension of the Spirit. What can you image the hero’s journey has to offer Evangelicalism specifically?
thank you Michael for your in-depth discussions of the quadrilateral. I loved your intellectual engagement and the application into the final question.
“The question remains, will a new myth elevate from the collective unconscious to give Western society, even Evangelicalism, a transformational way forward?”
I think Evangelicalism in America has been transforming American Christianity into something different, not sure if it is way forward and backward or some other way. I’m curious, Can you share more of your thoughts on what is means to move in a transfomational way forward as Evangelicalism in America?
That’s a great question. If I knew, I’d be a rich man. I do believe it is in Evangelicalism’s DNA to live opposed to cultural and religions systems. This served a great purpose in renewing Protestantism and birthing the Gospel in modernity. However, I think in its older age, Evangelicalism cannot continue to be the agent of change it was in its youth. Whether Evangelicalism likes it or not, a season of diminishment is needed. It has lived well, and if it is to continue being an agent of change, it will need to learn to die well. Thought?
Want to know why Capitalism and Evangelicalism have been bedfellows for the last 100 years in America? Take a gander at Kevin Kruse’s “One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America.”
This is an eye-opening read to the modern blending of consumerism, capitalism, conservatism, politics, and religion.
And yet, for as easy of a target as Evangelicalism is for those that were never Evangelical or those that are post-Evangelical, the blending of money, government, power, and religion is nothing new. This history of the Catholic Church laid the foundation for the ascent of the Protestant Reformation. The selling of indulgences to support the lifestyle of the Papacy and the building of Vatican City could parallel the Hobby Lobby, Bible Museums, and Walton family company.