Some people doubt evangelicalism exists—it’s too fractured to be called an -ism. And in the last year the value of the label has been fought over more vociferously than ever. What is “evangelicalism”? Is it even a useful concept anymore?
I believe it is still a useful concept, and I’ll tell you why: there’s a little something called “biblicism” which, thankfully, is still recognizable in basically all sectors of evangelicalism. It’s weakened in some places and under threat in all, but I still see it as a unifying center for evangelicalism.
I just wrote study questions for 43 “devotionals” written and presented by evangelical Mobile Ed professors. They hail from many different institutions, and these institutions most certainly have their differences. These men inhabit discrete positions on various theological spectrums. But when they were asked to briefly exposit particular Bible passages, they just did it. They explained the text, illustrated it, and applied it to their expected hearers. They acted like the text stood over them and not they (or any tradition) over it. They were all “biblicists” of one kind or another.
I have various theological disagreements with certain Mobile Ed professors; it’s impossible to agree with anyone on everything. Some of those disagreements are pretty important, and I think I’m right—and, yes, I think they’re wrong. But as I sat and read their brief expositions, I was truly heartened. I was reminded that despite our differences we share something impossibly valuable and rare on this planet: a reverence for and trust in and desire for obedience to God’s words in the Bible. And I got the sense that if our differences for some reason came out, each of us would have the same impulse: go back to the Bible. That’s an excessively important baseline to share.
The Bebbington Quadrilateral
Most of the evangelical chattering class has accepted David Bebbington’s “quadrilateral” as an adequate definition of evangelicalism: 1) biblicism, 2) crucicentrism (the centrality of the cross), 3) conversionism, and 4) activism. I certainly could not improve on this list. But I’ll observe that I never notice a professing Christian’s “activism” and think, “That person must be an evangelical.” I do notice crucicentrism, the placing of the greatest stock in the necessity of Christ’s blood atonement for sin. I do notice conversionism, the insistence that regeneration issues in a noticeably transformed life, most likely beginning with a conversion experience. And I do for sure notice biblicism, which is a bit hard to define—but is, I think, the most important of the four identifying marks of evangelicalism, because the other three rest on it. We wouldn’t know Jesus died for our sins, we wouldn’t know we need to be converted, without God’s words telling us.
I’ve tended to follow John Frame’s view, which he calls “something close to biblicism” (see his oft-cited article in Westminster Theological Journal 59). “The term ‘biblicism,’” he acknowledges, “is usually derogatory.” It usually means someone who denies the value of truth outside the Bible, or someone who thinks the Bible serves as a “textbook” for science or politics, or someone who doesn’t value creeds or tradition, or someone who lifts “prooftexts” out of their contexts to build his or her theology.
But a carefully calibrated biblicism—a Reformation-era sola Scriptura biblicism—avoids these errors. It “avoid[s] opposing sola Scriptura to human reason as such,” Frame says. It has an important place for tradition and creeds. It seeks to be always reforming Christian practice and belief to the scriptural norm without “rebuild[ing] the faith from the ground up.” That’s why we just celebrated the 500th anniversary of the “Protestant Reformation,” not the “Protestant Revolution.” Biblicism is just the church insisting on listening to God.
Biblicism by degrees
There is no doubt that Scripture plays an important role in various non-evangelical Christian traditions, and there is no universally agreed upon measuring stick for how much biblicism a church or denomination or theological tribe has to have in order to count as evangelical. I think, honestly, I know it when I see it; I know it in my bones.
But you may have different bones, so let me suggest a practical test, one you might apply to your own Christian tradition: what is your group’s first impulse when questions come up that the Bible could possibly answer? If you were to ask people in your church a question you think the Bible answers, to what authority would they first appeal? Tradition and science and even the zeitgeist may all be right about something; they are all, I think, appropriate “authorities” to bring in on certain questions. But a biblicist tradition tends naturally to appeal first to Scripture as often as possible. It’s our norming norm.
And here’s another test: what kind of overall facility in using the Bible does your tradition tend to give people who are formed by it? Say this to five someones in your church: “Does the Bible have anything to say about rosary beads? Go.” See what passages, if any, they come up with on this question of piety (hint: I think the answer is in the Sermon on the Mount). Questions of major importance to Western societies are also answered by the Bible.
- Should people cohabitate?
- Do I have to pay my taxes when some of the money goes to things I disagree with?
- Are there races, and if so, is any superior to another?
Does the rank and file in your Christian tradition have the impulse to resort to Scripture and the ability to do so?
I won’t say the Bible speaks with equal clarity and fullness to every major question being asked in our news cycle today. Politics frequently focuses on finding the best means to agreed-upon ends (peace and economic prosperity, for example), and the Bible tends to speak to the ends more directly than to the means. It calls for wisdom and prudence and attention to the shape of God’s creation in the latter. But where the Bible does speak, does your Christian tradition help them listen?
Evangelicalism and biblicism
There was a lot of talk a few years ago about whether evangelicalism is a “center-bounded set” or a “circumference-bounded set.” In other words, does it have clear boundaries around the edges so we can know who’s in and who’s out, or does it just have central truths that people can be either closer or further from affirming?
I think we all recognize that only God can make ultimate judgments: “Before his own master he stands or falls, and God is able to make him stand” (Rom 14:4). I think my readers will agree that it’s God’s categories of “sheep” and “goats” that matter in the final analysis, not our human-created categories.
But the biggest reason I am where I am on the evangelical spectrum is because I want God’s words to be a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. I want my Christian tradition to push me in every way possible to live and walk and grow in that light.
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now works at Faithlife as a Logos Pro. His most recent book is Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (forthcoming, Lexham Press).
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