Evangelical Identity Revisited: A Conversation with Historians David Bebbington and Gregory Wills

Albert Mohler:          Who gets to define the word evangelical? This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues, and the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host, and President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Albert Mohler:          Defining the nature of evangelicalism has proved to be a more difficult task than some might expect. As a matter of fact, it has been one of the central preoccupations of the evangelical movement from its inception. Furthermore, defining evangelicalism has proved to be something of a struggle for those both inside and outside the movement. It’s time we take an updated look at the question of evangelical identity.

Albert Mohler:          David Bebbington is Professor of History at the University of Sterling in Scotland. He took his degrees at the University of Cambridge, and in recent years has been known as one of the preeminent church historians in the world today. He was, from 2006 to 2007, President of the Ecclesiastical History Society. In the studio, I want to welcome Dr. David Bebbington.

Dr. Bebbington:        Thank you very much indeed.

Albert Mohler:          Professor, as you look to your own research, I’ll tell you from this side of the pond, one of the things that comes as the most immediate interest, where you get cited most often is on the issue of evangelical identity. How is it that you began this project yourself of seeking to define evangelicalism? As a historian, how did your interest land here?

Dr. Bebbington:        It arose because I decided I wanted to write a book on evangelicalism in modern Britain, specifically Britain. But in order to write a history of what happened from the 18th century, through the 19th, 20th centuries, I had to define what I was talking about. So I asked myself, what is evangelicalism like, not just at one point in time, now for example, but over time, in the 18th, and 19th, and 20th centuries. What characteristics has the movement possessed at all those junctures? That’s how the notion generated itself.

Albert Mohler:          I think, as I look, now, at your research, but quite frankly at an entire library of research that has come up in the English-speaking evangelical world, I think it’s fair to say that the issue of evangelical identity is a permanent problem. It is an ongoing challenge. It’s something of an evangelical obsession. Why is that so?

Dr. Bebbington:        Evangelicals have to know who evangelicals are, and they don’t have an institution to which they all belong which tells them. If they were all Catholics, they’d have their own Catholic church with the Vatican at its heart, a magisterial to give them authoritative teaching. There is no equivalent, apart from, of course, the Bible. And different people have, over time and over place, had different understandings of the scriptures, so there’s been scope for variation of opinion about what is the authentic boundary of legitimate interpretation of the scriptures. That is bound to be so as people try to wrestle with the Bible, and some move beyond the boundaries that other people think are legitimate.

Dr. Bebbington:        It’s very important, I think, that people do try to retain loyalty to the scriptures over time, and therefore it’s not surprising that some challenge others and say, “You’ve stepped over the mark.” I think that’s why the issue is a constant perennial hot potato.

Albert Mohler:          And it will ever be so, I think. But let’s go to Great Britain, to the U.K. Let me ask you, how did the word evangelical come into the common vocabulary, in terms of the British world?

Dr. Bebbington:        In the 18th century, the movement associated with John Wesley and George Whitfield was very strong in Britain, just as it made a huge impact on the States in the Great Awakening. In Britain, the normal term for all those who were associated with this Great Revival movement was Methodists. Didn’t just mean the followers of John Wesley, it meant everybody who was associated with revival. In the Church of England, in the Old Descent, Baptists included, and also hose people we now think of as Wesleyan Methodists.

Dr. Bebbington:        It’s only at the very beginning of the 19th century that the term evangelical comes in to replace Methodist as the overall term for these groupings. The reason is that they said, “We want to preach the message of the gospel.” Evangelical is the adjective coming from gospel, so when they wanted to announce their loyalty to gospel, they said, “We’re evangelical.” Their critics took it up. Their critics, in the Church of England, tended to call themselves the orthodox. So the big debate, interestingly, in the first decade to the 19th century in Britain was the orthodox versus the evangelical, not the way in which the issue has been defined in subsequent generations.

Dr. Bebbington:        But evangelical became a lasting term for those who emphasized Bible, and cross, and conversion, and activism, which I would see as the constants over time.

Albert Mohler:          So in the German speaking world, the word evangelical basically means protestant.

Dr. Bebbington:        Absolutely so, it’s the term that’s been used traditionally, from The Reformation onwards, [foreign language 00:05:19], in order to express what the protestant reformation was about. But this is, of course, because it saw itself, with a great deal of justice, as trying to express the gospel message of the New Testament, too. So in a sense, it’s equivalent, but of course, the word evangelical was coined in the later generation, and was molded by different cultural context.

Dr. Bebbington:        Interestingly … Sorry.

Albert Mohler:          No, just moving from Germany, then, to the United Kingdom, it’s more tightly defined in the British context as revivalistic. In the Church of England, a more low church approach. It included many nonconformists and all the rest. But the word was in common usage in the 19th century. You have the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury arguing that he no longer knows what an evangelical is, but he says, “We once did know.” You have Charles Spurgeon, during the downgrade controversy saying it’s [inaudible 00:06:13] to use the word evangelical and to refuse to define what it means.

Albert Mohler:          If you cross the Atlantic and come to the United States during the same period, the word evangelical is not a contested word; it does become so later on. So what we have in the United States is the emergence of a movement, largely after World War II, that picks up on the same word. Do you see a line of continuity, in the English-speaking world of evangelicalism, between say the word evangelical and the movement associated with it in the U.K. and then moving over to the evangelicalism to is now so much a part of the American religious landscape?

Dr. Bebbington:        Yes. I see great continuity over time and place. That is to say, in the 19th century, there was a great deal of exchange and mutual recognition between those who described themselves as evangelicals in Britain and in America. They formed, in fact, a single cultural phenomenon. They read each other’s books, so that they actually reviewed each other’s books. They thought the same thoughts at roughly the same time. That remained so in the 20th century.

Dr. Bebbington:        The so-called neo-evangelicals that sprang up from the 1940s onward in the United States were recognized by evangelicals in contemporary Britain as being their spiritual brothers and sisters, and that bond has remained so ever since. John Stott, after all, a leading British figure in the evangelical movement, is enormously respected in the States. That’s a sign of the continuing rapport, the continuing unity of the movement in the English-speaking world.

Albert Mohler:          If we step back for a moment, the issue of definition just looms large. In your book, in 1989, entitled Evangelicalism and Modern Britain: A History From the 1730s to the 1980s, you suggested four markers of evangelical identity. They were, just to use the four words you provided, Biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism. Would you define those terms for us and tell us how you came to that analysis?

Dr. Bebbington:        Certainly. Biblicism means an emphasis on the Bible. That means not an emphasis on something other than the Bible as the supreme authority in religion. It means that the Bible is not put alongside the tradition of the church, or alongside human reason as the authority that guides how you behave. Scripture is supreme.

Dr. Bebbington:        Cross, that’s very much an emphasis on the message of Jesus Christ crucified being the very heart of the gospel, that people need to repent and believe, and at will, be saved through the cross of Christ. It is a soteriological concept. It’s based on how we are saved, the cross is the means, and that’s always been the constant message of evangelicals.

Dr. Bebbington:        Conversion, this is not something that should remain outside the individual. The individual needs, actually, to change to become a Christian. That’s what conversion is, to embrace the gospel that is proclaimed, to take the atoning work of Christ into his or her own life.

Dr. Bebbington:        Activism is the consequence of that. If you believe that you are saved, then you want to bring that message of salvation to others. So activism means evangelism, but it also means commitment to the welfare of others, because that, too, is a scriptural injunction. That’s how I see these four markers, which have been consistent over time.

Albert Mohler:          So just to use your markers here, and to apply them fairly, where you would find any of those markers absent, you would say there is no evangelicalism?

Dr. Bebbington:        I would say that evangelicalism in its fullness is not there, and therefore, in the last resort, yes, evangelicalism is not there. At certain times in the past, certain groups that have been evangelical have moved over time towards making some of these attributes fuzzier, and have therefore ceased to be evangelical. For example, in the early 20th century in Britain, there was a section of evangelicalism within the Church of England, which called itself liberal evangelical, and gradually became more and more concerned to emphasize its anglican identity, decreased over time its evangelical identity, eventually merged with the mainstream of the Church of England, and ceased to be distinctively evangelical, yes.

Albert Mohler:          Well, the markers you provided became something of a definitional standard used in many books, and in much teaching and conversation about evangelical identity. Well, the book was published 21 years ago, so from that vantage point, I want to come back to you and ask, do you still think of evangelicalism in terms of this definition? Would you add something, take anything away? How do you think this definition ages, say, over the last two decades?

Dr. Bebbington:        To my enormous surprise, it seems to have been accepted in many parts of the world, other than the bit of the world which it was created. It was designed just to affect Britain, because I didn’t actually know when I wrote that book bout anywhere other than Britain, and it was designed to reflect the evidence for Britain over time. But because of the unity of the evangelical movement, most markedly in the English-speaking world, but increasingly over the rest of the world too, it does seem to me that those four markers reflect the reality of the evangelical movement of the United States, and throughout the world.

Dr. Bebbington:        I am much heartened by the fact that an increasing number of people seem to be thinking that. I’m astonished, I’m surprised, I’m delighted. If that can be a reflection of the reality in other parts of the world, I think it’s very valuable to stress that that is the reality.

Albert Mohler:          When you look at that definition and those four markers, I guess the one that strikes me is the Biblicism, as the one that probably has been the [inaudible 00:12:08] for more controversy. When you look at the scene right now in the U.K., in the British scene, both in England, and Scotland, then add Wales, to what extent is the issue of Biblical authority being argued and debated all over again?

Dr. Bebbington:        In Britain, the question of Biblical authority has been debated pretty consistently over time. The boundaries of evangelicalism, that area, have varied over time. I would want to say that an emphasis on the authority of scripture is crucial to mark out evangelicalism. Some people would probably want to downplay that a little bit in now day.

Dr. Bebbington:        Those in British evangelicalism at the present time who want to emphasize the cruciality of the experience of the living God, and stress experience to a greater extent might want to say, “Well, the Bible provides us with a framework into which we pour our experience,” but might be less keen on the propositional form of the scriptures as providing authoritative texts. I think that that’s probably where we’re at.

Dr. Bebbington:        There’s one major strand within British evangelicalism, especially with Church of England, wants to stress propositional revelation, the very words of the scriptures or authority, they want to insist on that very strongly. But some of those who want to stress experience rather more, want to play that down. I think that’s where we’re at in Britain.

Albert Mohler:          We hear the same debate here, of course, in the context of the United States. But look at these four markers. As much as Biblicism, and Biblical authority, to use your term, Biblicism, has remained very much a touchstone debate. It seems to me that looking to the future, understanding that that one is not going away, that the issue of conversionism may be the touchstone for much future debate. Because right now, it appears to me, and giving the data among younger evangelicals, this whole idea of conversionism is being rethought. And quite frankly, there are some who are wondering, in an age of religious pluralism and such diversity of conversionism is actually something to which they are committed. Do you see that in the U.K. as much as we observe that now in the U.S.?

Dr. Bebbington:        Well, I have encountered people who say the sign of authentic Christianity is belonging to a Christian community. Now, the extent to which that involves a decisive change of the individual is sometimes played down in those circles. I think certain circles, association with the emergent church movement, which I think is even stronger on this side of the Atlantic, would probably say that. So yes, you’re right, I think there will be debate over the significance of conversionism over the coming years.

Albert Mohler:          Having read David Bebbington’s book some time ago, and considering his definition of evangelicalism, I found it really interesting to prod him, and to talk about what he sees now, from a vantage point of over 20 years of the book’s publication, in terms of those four distinguishing marks of evangelicalism. I had a couple of other thoughts as well. I mean, after all, this is written in a book having to do with evangelicalism in Great Britain. To what degree is this definition transportable to the United States, and to the larger issue of evangelical identity as a joint project in the English-speaking world? I thought it’d be good to bring in another voice, so we’re going to welcome another historian to this conversation.

Albert Mohler:          I’m now joined in the studio by Professor Gregory A. Wills, who is Professor of Church History at the South Baptist Theological Seminary, and Director for the Study of the Southern Baptist Convention. He, too, has made the issue of evangelical identity, and the history of the evangelical movement a keen issue of his own research and writing. I have to ask you, Professor Wills, when you listen to Professor Bebbington, and you look to his four marks and his contribution to the definition of evangelicalism, well, what do you think?

Gregory Wills:           Well, the first thing that strikes me is just how sensible these four characteristics are, that this, I think Dr. Bebbington has captured, in a remarkably compact form, the enduring characteristics of evangelicals, of the last 250 years or so. A second thing that strikes me is that three of the characteristics are a part of self-definition. That is, evangelicals have described themselves as persons committed to the authority of the scriptures, committed to the necessity of conversion, and committed to the centrality of the cross in redemption. The fourth characteristic, activism, however, is not generally part of the self-description. It’s what they do, but they don’t generally define themselves this way.

Albert Mohler:          Well, you know, you say that, however, I would say in terms of American evangelicalism, I think of the struggle to define this new movement, back in the period right after World War II, with people such as Harold John Ockenga, and Carl F.H. Henry, and all the rest. I think of Carl F.H. Henry’s book, Calling for Evangelical Demonstration, he was actually calling for, I think, activism to be more of a hallmark issue of evangelical identity.

Gregory Wills:           And that’s right, with the neo-evangelical movement in the post World War II era, there’s an emphasis upon a specific kind of activism, of social concern especially, engaging the culture broadly.

Albert Mohler:          Right.

Gregory Wills:           But of course, going back to the beginning of the evangelical movement, the activism was primarily manifested as missions, as evangelism, as organizing the churches for missionary labor.

Albert Mohler:          So where you find evangelicals, according to that definition, you find people who are committed to the authority of scripture, who are committed to the centrality of the cross, who are committed to conversionism, and thus to evangelism in the missions, and we’re busy people. They’re out there, active, they’re sending, they’re going, they’re building, they are establishing, they’re teaching.

Albert Mohler:          Well, let me just ask you, and not as an historian, but now as an observer of evangelicalism today, does this still fit?

Gregory Wills:           Yes, it does. There are always movements on the margins, movement to the margins, efforts at redefinition. But this still fits, this still works. Evangelicals are still committed to the authority of the scriptures, to the centrality of the cross and redemption, to the necessity of personal faith and conversion for salvation, and still very active.

Albert Mohler:          Yeah, but you say that as if these issues are not controversial.

Gregory Wills:           They are controversial, and there’s constant criticism from within and from without at every point here.

Albert Mohler:          All right, so if we’re talking about the issue of evangelical identity, I just want to ask you both now, to what extent is this an appropriate, indeed even necessary and inescapable evangelical preoccupation? Dr. Bebbington?

Dr. Bebbington:        I think it is inescapable, in that people need to know who they are. And because opinions vary about what authentic Christianity is, and that has been so over time and space, there are going to be different points of view about where the boundaries have to be drawn in relation to evangelicalism. Some will say that it is accepting the scriptures in one form, and some will say we have to ensure that a certain particular interpretation is uniform. Others will say no.

Dr. Bebbington:        I think, also, it’s important to register that the Bible marker is not just about the authority of scripture. It’s also about actually using the scriptures devotionally. It’s about the scriptures as a spiritual source of nourishment. And it can be that that will be a debated area, too. Do we have to have daily Bible readings, personally? If we cease to do that, do we cease to be an evangelical? Some people would say so.

Dr. Bebbington:        So there are, as it were, behavioral characteristics associated with these markers, as well as intellectual, and some of those are debatable as well.

Albert Mohler:          You know, when you look at these four words, they are just four singular words, and as a theologian, I look at that and I have to tell you, I’m pretty frustrated, because to define evangelicalism in terms of four words, I want to tell you, Dr. Bebbington, I don’t think I can come up with four better words than these, and certainly with what these words are getting at in terms of the essence.

Albert Mohler:          But it seems to me the greatest controversies right now would not be so much over these words, but over how we’re going to define these words. What really is a proper Biblicism, a proper attachment to and acknowledgement of scripture? What really is required in terms of crucicentrism? I mean, for instance, Dr. Bebbington, in the British context, there have been intense debates of those who are denying substitutionary atonement, and those who are arguing for it. Clearly, I believe that a notion of a substitutionary atonement is simple to the gospel, but there are many in Great Britain who have been arguing that they are evangelicals, but they not only draw questions about a substitutionary atonement, they openly deny it.

Dr. Bebbington:        That is true. Let me say first that this is a historian’s definition, not a theologian’s definition-

Albert Mohler:          This is true.

Dr. Bebbington:        … therefore, phenomenological. That is to say, it is based on observation of how the movement has existed over time and over space, and therefore, in a sense, I leave it to the theologians to get on with this debate, and I then record their behavior retrospectively. It is, in a sense, beyond my province to decide this. However, I’m lay preacher too, so a little bit of me wants to say, well, there are certain things that are important, such as substitutionary atonement, which I do strongly believe and wish to see on the evangelical agenda.

Dr. Bebbington:        However, I cannot bring myself to say as a historian that if somebody downplays substitutionary atonement, and yet nevertheless stresses the cross, for example by adopting a different point of view, Christus Victor for example, as one of the major participants in recent British debates, has done, then I cannot say that phenomenologically that excludes him from the evangelical movement. It may be that I think he’s wrong and I wish to persuade him that he’s wrong, but phenomenologically, as a historian, I’m not going to say he’s out.

Albert Mohler:          I think it’s a very good observation that there’s a distinction between the way a historian would define evangelicalism and the way a theologian might contend for a definition of evangelicalism. I think there’s a third dimension to this, and that is out in popular culture, and for instance in the media, there is an even more ambiguous understanding of who is an evangelical. One of our major news magazines ran a story on leading evangelicals that included two Roman Catholics, as if that wasn’t confusing enough. You have the whole issue of the Newsweek Magazine in 1976 declaring the Year of the Evangelical, and seeming to be unable to define what it is this was the year of. So we do have this whole situation out there where I am regularly asked about evangelicalism by folks in the media who seem to think it’s more a mood than even a movement. It’s about attitudes, and perhaps even moral convictions, or even political ambitions, more than about theology.

Albert Mohler:          Dr. Wills, to what extent is that a peculiarly American phenomenon?

Gregory Wills:           Well, in some respects, it is. It goes back to our own history. It’s paralleled in Great Britain. The two religious movements in both countries have drawn on each other a great deal. But in our own country, for example, the early liberals called themselves evangelicals. Shailer Mathews, Harry Emerson Fosdick, William Sloane Coffin, all called themselves evangelicals. In fact, if you asked them, on these four items, “Are you a Biblicist,” they would say yes, “Are you a conversionist,” they would say yes, “Are you crucicentric,” absolutely, “And are you activist,” yes.

Gregory Wills:           So this points out the very difficulty that you’re talking about, how you define these things, and what do you mean when you say Biblical authority, and the centrality of the Bible, and personal faith? So you can’t entirely use that as the definition, there are also institutional identities. And here is where I think we have to push, in terms of defining evangelicalism. It’s not just these characteristics, but it’s also your institutional identifications.

Gregory Wills:           So for example, in America, we have the division within American denominations between a liberal, a progressive party, and a conservative or fundamentalist party, ultimately resulting in schism in most American denominations.

Albert Mohler:          You know, as you look, David, to the British and Scottish context, you have certain statements that were at least intended to settle the question of evangelical identity. I think of the Keel Statement, the Nottingham Statement, and others, adopted by what were generally associations of churches and parachurch organizations. In the United States, we have analogies to that directly. Everything from statements of our evangelistic associations and denominations, to efforts to use something like the Lausanne Statement, and then, of course, the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy that emerged in 1978.

Albert Mohler:          It just appears to me, as a theologian, that the necessity of this attempt to define the movement is just going to be absolutely front and center, so long as we’re going to try to use the word, because otherwise, it’s like it becomes meaningless.

Dr. Bebbington:        Well, can I pick up your illusion there to the Lausanne Covenant?

Albert Mohler:          Yes.

Dr. Bebbington:        This was adopted in 1974 at the first international conference on the evangelization of the world. One of its successor conferences takes place this fall, in fact. It’s about to happen. That was the first one, in ’74, and it produced a covenant which expressed the faith of evangelicals in a confessional form, but also went into what evangelicals have as their Christian obligations at some length. That would be the most common ground of unity amongst evangelicals in Britain, and in many other parts of the world. I think it would perhaps be more a question at issue in the United States. I wait for instruction on that.

Dr. Bebbington:        But in Britain, that would be central. So much so, that interestingly enough, in Dublin, in Ireland, there arose a group of Roman Catholics just afterwards who, affected by the charismatic renewal movement, became evangelical by conviction, according to my phenomenological definition. That is to say they began to emphasize the Bible, having Bible study groups, and believed that conversion was crucial. They adopted the Lausanne Covenant as their confessional statement. There was a group of evangelical Catholics. Now, by my book, phenomenologically, they are evangelical, although they are also loyal Roman Catholics.

Albert Mohler:          And that would demonstrate that your word Biblicism does not necessarily mean anything like the solo scripture, affirmation of the reformation, but some recognition of the centrality and importance of the scripture.

Dr. Bebbington:        Yes, slightly stronger than that. It means the supremacy of scripture, which these evangelical Catholics would affirm, not withstanding their loyalty to The Vatican.

Albert Mohler:          Dr. Wills, when you come to the United States, we’ve had such things as evangelicals and Catholics together, we’ve had different kinds of movements, we’ve had events and personalities, quite frankly, that have drawn great attention to the issue of evangelical definition. Where do you see this going, Greg?

Gregory Wills:           Well, I think of the movement of the parachurch campus ministry leaders, a large group of them in the 70s who began to question the depth of their own evangelicalism and joined the Orthodox Church, think of David Howard, who made the same transition to Roman Catholicism-

Albert Mohler:          More recently Francis Beckwith.

Gregory Wills:           … Francis Beckwith. You have, over the decades-

Albert Mohler:          Who, by the way, was President of the Evangelical Theological Society when it happened.

Gregory Wills:           That’s right, that’s right. And evangelicalism is insufficient. I think that’s one of the things that this indicates. Evangelicalism, by itself, is not sufficient to sustain a robust Biblical faith. You need more than that. Of course, one of the things that you need is a New Testament church. There must be an ecclesiology. And as I look at the history of American evangelicalism, there is a great weakness here. I am hopeful, as this weakness has been given some attention in recent years, that perhaps we will begin to address that. But the jury’s still out.

Albert Mohler:          You know, as we are in this room together, and in this studio having this conversation, we are, not by accident, three Baptists, who are approaching this. I do have to wonder, and this is no matter of small interest, if we brought in people from other denominations, if they would share that concern about the vulnerabilities of the parachurch nature of evangelicalism. I think it was clearly necessitated by the fact that the conservatives lost control of the denominations, especially in terms of the old mainline, and had to forge some kind of new way of working together.

Albert Mohler:          But at the end of the day, all this conversation serves to remind me of why I am by conviction a Baptist. Because when I look at those four words, the word that is missing to me is something like congregationalism, and the life of a congregation. I think the detached evangelicalism, either in an individual or an institutional basis, an evangelicalism that is detached from the life of the church that takes on a continuing parachurch identity, I think it’s made not only institutionally vulnerable, and theologically unstable, I think it’s missing something that is crucial to Christianity, and I hope to evangelicalism as well.

Albert Mohler:          That said, Professor Bebbington, does it make sense in your context?

Dr. Bebbington:        In Britain, it’s very marked that a lot of the literature read by evangelicals in all denominations is the same. It is most marked in Sunday school literature, which is almost all produced by the Scripture Union. It therefore cannot be distinctive of any one denomination. It has to be the lowest common denominator. The result is, it seems to me, a total neglect of ecclesiology, which is a serious risk for evangelicalism. This sort of literature, therefore, has to be supplemented by other literature.

Dr. Bebbington:        Aye, rather warm to your suggestion of congregationalism for a sociological reason, that is to say many sociologists nowaday are pointing out that the scriptures are read in community, and the community actually acts as a molding factor on the interpretation of the scriptures, and that is an extra factor that contributes to the promotion of spiritual health under the authority of the scriptures. So I’d love to add that, however, phenomenologically, I still return to my earliest point that one cannot say that that is a distinctive marker of evangelicalism in our day or in the past.

Albert Mohler:          Greg, what do you think?

Gregory Wills:           Well, I agree with that. It has not been a distinctive marker of evangelicalism. But again, this points at the weakness of evangelicalism, and it has been basically a necessity of the movement that it de-emphasize ecclesiology, attend to the lowest theological common denominator as Professor Bebbington said. But again, I believe that’s a weakness in the movement, and it can be corrected. A parachurch ministry, for example, can make one of their points of emphasis teaching on the church, preparing and equipping these campus Christians to be involved [crosstalk 00:31:59]-

Albert Mohler:          And making clear that it is not a church.

Gregory Wills:           Exactly.

Albert Mohler:          And that there’s a necessity of discipleship for these young believers, indeed for all believers, to be actively involved in a life in the congregation, and accountable within the convenanted community.

Dr. Bebbington:        Can I add an autobiographical remark there? When I was at the University of Cambridge as a student, I was a member of the Christian Union. That is to say, a body associated with Ivy, as it would be called in the United States, an undenominational evangelical movement which is excellent in bringing people to faith, and indeed in nurturing them. I was also a member of the Robert Hall Society, the student Baptist society, which encouraged churchmanship. Take us 30, 40 year on, quite a lot of the people who are involved in the Christian Union are no longer active in communities of faith. The great majority, not all, but the great majority of those who are also in the Robert Hall Society are active in communities of faith, and often they’re leaders. I think that that substantiates that quite [inaudible 00:32:57].

Albert Mohler:          It has been a privilege to think in public together. Well, thank you for joining me for this conversation, and I’ll look forward to doing it again.

Albert Mohler:          Well, this much is clear, you get two historians in a room, and you’re going to have a very interesting conversation. I thought the energy between Professor Bebbington and Professor Wills was really interesting. David and Greg are two scholars, and what I really noted in terms of this conversation was their passion for the subject matter as what you might call participant scholars. They’re not only historians who were interested in evangelicalism, as they both make clear, they are both evangelicals.

Albert Mohler:          I think by any measure, this was a conversation worth having. As a matter of fact, time and again in this conversation, we came back to the fact that this is an inescapable and unavoidable issue. It is nonsensical and irresponsible to talk about evangelicalism or to try to speak of evangelicals, or to present an understanding of evangelical conviction without being clear about what we’re talking about. The definition of terms is always very difficult. It’s one of the chief intellectual challenges of the Christian life, is to be very clear that we’re using words in a very careful way. The stewardship of this word is a vital issue for the evangelical movement and its own integrity, and its future.

Albert Mohler:          You know, the issue of evangelical definition, was greatly assisted, I have to say in retrospect, by the historical definition offered by David Bebbington. He made a singular contribution. You know, it’s interesting to note, every once in a while, in writing a book, or even an article, and some other kind of intellectual contribution, an author or an individual can make a contribution that comes in unexpected ways. I have to wonder if David Bebbington had any clue 21 yeas ago that when he offered that four word definition of evangelicalism, it would have such staying power, it would be so transportable, and eventually even so influential. It’s hard to find a work on evangelical identity that doesn’t begin, or deal in a substantial way with David Bebbington’s four words. I thought it was really important to have this conversation, and to update it after 20 years and more of the publication of that book.

Albert Mohler:          But I think it’s also very important for us to look at those four words once again, as we think not only about the history of evangelicalism and the rather permanent predicament of evangelical definition, I think it’s important that we look to the future, and frankly take a very honest assessment of the present.

Albert Mohler:          Let’s look at those fou words series. The first one is Biblicism, there is no doubt, says David Bebbington, that where you find evangelicals, you find a very high view of scripture. But as he acknowledged, the definition of that high view of scripture is a difficult thing to nail down. It’s a controversial thing. You look back in history of American evangelicalism, look at the history of the controversy over the word inerrancy, of the necessity of the Chicago Statement that came in 1978, of the emergence of the, indeed, international council on Biblical inerrancy. And look at the controversy, going all the way back to the Battle of the Bible and all the rest that became a matter of such evangelical concentration in the 1970s.

Albert Mohler:          Well, now look at the present. It’s all back. We have voices calling for evangelicals to forfeit the doctrine of inerrancy. And indeed, we have websites and rather well known evangelical figures who are suggesting that the claim of Biblical inerrancy actually puts evangelicals at an intellectual disadvantage, puts us in a theological and intellectual cul de sac. It is, some have said, an intellectual disaster.

Albert Mohler:          Well, I think the real disaster would clearly be any surrender of biblical authority, any step back, or any compromise of the affirmation of the Bible’s inerrancy. It’s back. In the British scene, it is the same. There are concessions and compromises of the Biblical authority, Biblical inspiration, Biblical inerrancy, infallibility, and now, yes even now in this post-modern age, there are big questions being asked by some evangelicals about the existence and meaningfulness of proposition to truth. If there is no propositional truth, if words are not adequate vehicles to convey meaning, if verbal inspiration is not our affirmation of the Bible, then I have to assert that I do not believe evangelicals will be able to hold on in any meaningful way to that first word, Biblicism, with any integrity or credibility.

Albert Mohler:          The second word was conversionism, and again, looking historically, no doubt evangelicals have been the people defined by the fact that we believe persons must come to a saving analogy of Jesus Christ to be saved. We understand that there’s a before and after that is defined by the Apostle Paul so clearly, in terms of the Old Man and the New man in Christ. We come to understand the necessity and the neutrality of conversion, in understanding how it is that an individual comes to be saved.

Albert Mohler:          Even when evangelicals have differed over the background doctrines to understanding the order of salvation, evangelicals have stood together when it comes to understanding the necessity of conversion. But let’s consider the present moment. There are significant compromises of the exclusivity of the gospel. There are some claiming evangelical identity who are suggesting that there may be, in other world religions, outside of Christ, either or both when it comes to this affirmation, either redemptive or revelatory goods. Well, that’s a dangerous thing, to say the very least. You’re talking about a significant compromise, not only of a word in the evangelical definition, but of the gospel itself.

Albert Mohler:          What we have emerging in so many evangelical circles are affirmations sometimes of something that could only be called universalism. But more often, something that is more properly called inclusivism. The idea that persons are actually saved through Christ, but not through the necessity of a personal knowledge of Him, of a profession of faith in Him, of the very essence of what we define as conversion.

Albert Mohler:          That third word, crucicentrism, well of all the words mentioned, that one may be the one that is, right now, suffering the greatest compromise. When you look at the open denials of the substitutionary and sacrificial nature of the atonement. When you find some even who would identify themselves as evangelicals who are describing a substitutionary theory of the atonement as being either unnecessary, or even immoral. Some who are championing language, suggesting that a claim of substitutionary atonement is basically a presentation of what has been called divine child abuse.

Albert Mohler:          I think when it comes to crucicentrism, we’re sewing some very definite compromises. And I think if you look to the future, we’re going to see that this is one of those issues that, in confrontation with the larger intellectual world, it is going to be more and more costly. We’re going to find out if evangelicals are willing to pay that price.

Albert Mohler:          That third word is activism. Bebbington said, where you fond evangelicals, looking back into the 18th and 19 centuries in Britain, and now expanded into the 20 and 21st centuries. I don’t know, not only in Britain, but throughout the English-speaking world, throughout time and space, as he put it, when you find evangelicals, you find people who are active, you find Christ followers who are engaged, and energetic, they do things. He mentioned that the missionary movement is the most tangible evidence of that. But you look at evangelicals, and you see an organization, an institution, a movement. You see denominations and churches that have established educational institutions, ongoing conferences, facilities, orphanages and adoption ministries, any number of charitable works and efforts to remedy human ills and human pain. You see hospitals, and clinics, and medical missions, and all the rest.

Albert Mohler:          Activism is indeed a mark of evangelicalism, but it’s a mark that, of course, is not limited to evangelicals alone. When you look at Biblicism and conversionism, and crucicentrism, you would understand that those really are unique markers of evangelicalism. I would argue that activism is necessary, but not necessarily unique. I think some of the most interesting conversations to be had among evangelicals in the future, I think they will center on this last word, activism. How is it that we tie this activism in a way that is clearly, clearly connected to the gospel.

Albert Mohler:          How do we hold to those first three words, Biblicism, conversionism, and crucicentrism as I have listed them here, and understand how those lead directly into activism, the right kind of activism, an activism that will glorify God, serve human needs, reach people, and honor the gospel and the centrality of the gospel.

Albert Mohler:          You know, I go back to that conversation, and I was very pleased by something that took place just in the natural order of conversation. I threw out my desire, indeed conviction, that there should be a fifth mark. I called it congregationalism, just to match the verbal structure of David Bebbington’s definition. I didn’t mean by that that it has to be a stipulated form of church government, although I am an ardent congreagationalist. I mean that the church has to be central. There has to be an ecclesial representation of evangelicalism.

Albert Mohler:          I would argue, and this has been noted by many others as well, that the parachurch nature of the evangelical movement in America has been one of its strategies, but one of its weaknesses simultaneously, because parachurch organizations, in the end, do not turn out to be long term capable of the stewardship of the mission that is entrusted to them that should be indeed entrusted and acknowledged in the church. After all, it is the church that Jesus Christ established. It is the church, He said, that will prevail even against the gates of hell. It is the church that describes His people. So when we’re looking for evangelicals, I certainly hope you find evangelicals deeply committed to the local church, deeply involved in the life of the church, and to be honest, far more concerned for the health of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ than for a movement, even a movement as important to us as evangelicalism.

Albert Mohler:          Thanks for joining me for Thinking in Public. I hope you’ll go to my website at albertmohler.com for a wealth of information and resources that are available to you, updated daily. I hope you’ll also follow my Twitter feed, at Twitter/AlbertMohler. For more information about the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to our website at SBTS.edu. I hope you will want to know more about Southern Seminary, about its programs, and about all that is going on on this campus. We’d invite you to become a part of it as well.

Albert Mohler:          I want you to know about one particular program in conference coming up, it’s known as Refo 500. On September 27th through 28th of 2010, Southern Seminary is pleased to host the first North American Conference for Reformation 500, a global project to direct attention toward the year 2017, and the quincentenary, the 500th anniversary of the inauguration of The Reformation. It’s going to be a good conversation. It’ll be a conference that’ll bring together scholars, and pastors, and students, and all persons interested in what it would mean to revisit the meaning of The Reformation for today. To find our more, go to our website at sbts.edu.

Albert Mohler:          Thank you again, for joining me in Thinking in Public. Let’s do it again.