Book review: The Evangelical Quadrilateral Vols 1 and 2

Anvil journal of theology and mission

David W. Bebbington, The Evangelical Quadrilateral Vol 1: Characterising the British Gospel Movement and Vol 2: The Denominational Mosaic of the British Gospel Movement, (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2021).

reviewed by Philip Lockley, Cambridge

Some years after they split up, The Beatles issued a two-volume collection called Past Masters – an assemblage of singles and B-side songs that were otherwise difficult to get hold of, as they were issued separately from their influential LP albums. This two-volume book does something similar for the dispersed scholarship of a doyen of the history of British evangelicalism, David Bebbington – now emeritus professor of history at the University of Stirling. It gathers together 32 discrete journal articles and book chapters written between the 1980s and 2020s, almost all of which were previously published beyond the covers of Bebbington’s own influential “LPs”, including his best-known book: Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A history from the 1730s to the 1980s (1989).

The title phrase The Evangelical Quadrilateral comes from Bebbington’s most significant and lasting contribution to the study of evangelical Christianity: a four-fold characterisation of both the evangelical movement in general and evangelical Christians in particular. Bebbington first developed this way of describing who or what is “evangelical” in the early 1980s, bringing his idea to maturity in Evangelicalism in Modern Britain. For Bebbington, evangelicals are those “who specifically emphasize the four elements of the Bible, the cross, conversion and activism” (I:vii). While other Christians and their movements in history (or indeed the present day) might also prioritise one or more – say, the authority of Scripture or being actively missional – evangelicals are distinguished by their emphasis on these four together, and may be boundaried from other Christians by their combined scope.

In an introductory chapter to the two volumes, Bebbington offers a robust defence of the Quadrilateral from various attempts by other scholars to challenge, nuance or increase its parameters across the last three or more decades. It is a testament to the strength of the theory that it has held such explanatory power for so long. Both this Introduction and a wide selection of chapters across the two volumes reveal with admirable clarity how fields of research in the history of evangelicalism have developed from Bebbington’s pioneering effort to map the evangelical landscape.

The first volume in the collection deftly threads together focused studies of themes and movements from the mid-eighteenth to the early twenty-first century, as well as much of the English-speaking world. The second volume is more clearly structured by denominational categories, with clusters of two or more chapters devoted to Anglican, Methodist and Baptist themes or individuals respectively. Later chapters are brought together in less satisfying catch-all sections that span such contrasting subjects as the Brethren, Frank Buchan’s Oxford Group and the rise of Charismatic Renewal in Britain.

Bebbington’s book-length studies have consistently had an eye for the ways in which evangelicalism in any period or context responds to and absorbs the changing culture surrounding it. Here, then, are articles emphasising how eighteenth-century evangelicals were shaped by the Enlightenment, their nineteenth-century successors by romanticism and their yet more recent heirs by modernism and postmodernism, which Bebbington at points elides under the alternative term “expressionism”. In several chapters dated into the 2000s, Bebbington consolidates another argument first made in Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: that Charismatic Renewal within a range of evangelical denominations should be understood as a spirituality moulded by the “expressionist” culture of its times.

Elsewhere in these volumes, Bebbington offers focused studies of how single doctrinal themes such as eschatology, holiness and entire sanctification, and interests such as science and history, came to be viewed very differently in different periods of evangelical thought and culture. Likewise, chapters on the reception history of theological lodestars John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards offer rich insights on continuity and change in mainstream evangelical beliefs over several centuries.

Bebbington always writes with precision and authority. He has long attracted readers among non-academic yet interested audiences, especially contemporary evangelical believers themselves – and this collection deserves to do so too. Many of the articles and chapters here are based on extensive reading in manuscript archives and long-forgotten evangelical journals, and the insights from them are rarely dry. Yet the final chapter in Volume 1, on Evangelicals and Public Worship, 1965–2005, is especially fascinating for its source material: the author’s own notebooks recording observations of a vast range of church services that he personally attended over a period of 40 years. Across this time, Bebbington tracked extensive changes in sermon styles, liturgy, use of space, visuals and technology, music, women’s roles and leadership, and a host of behaviours by worshippers, especially reduced formality and more expressive prayer and sung worship. Bebbington recorded some worship contexts where such changes had been resisted. However, the evidence compiled points compellingly to Bebbington having himself lived through a distinctive era of changing evangelical culture. By narrating this history back to others who may well have lived through and forgotten it, Bebbington proves – as has his whole career – the value of history for evangelicalism. A past master indeed.

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ANVIL 39:2, November 2023

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