Stretching the Quadrilateral, Pt. 1: Biblicism v. Tradition

A now classic definition of evangelicalism is “the Bebbington quadrilateral”. In his 1989 book Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, historian David Bebbington listed four defining marks of the movement:

  • Biblicism – that is, a regard for the Bible as the sole authority in Christian life and theology
  • Crucicentrism – that is, a strong focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross
  • Conversionism – that is, a strong emphasis on the need for personal spiritual conversion through embrace of the Gospel
  • Activism – that is, a belief that one’s Christian faith must make an active impact upon one’s life

For those familiar with it, it’s easy to take Bebbington’s definition for granted or to feel a bit sick of it. But I think it remains hard to argue with, both in the US and the UK.

Recently, at our Davenant UK Convivium, my venerable colleague Alastair Roberts made the observation that the Bebbington quadrilateral can go some way towards explaining why evangelicalism has had a conflicted response toward the advent of “theological retrieval” (which was the focus of our UK Convivium – the keynote audio is available here).

Theological retrieval is, in brief, a movement in the last decade or so in which evangelicals have come to realise that they have neglected much of the theological reflection of church history, particularly from the Reformation and earlier, and so have set about retrieving what has been lost. The retrieval movement, however, enters something of a conflict with evangelicalism (or an apparent one at least) because it can be seen to have its own quadrilateral, and each point comes into direct tension with those of Bebbington’s. The retrieval quadrilateral could be summarised thus:

  • The importance of tradition–this comes into tension with biblicism
  • A focus on the doctrine of God–this comes into tension with crucicentrism
  • The need for spiritual depth–this comes into tension with conversionism
  • The importance of contemplation–this comes into tension with activism

I asked Alastair for permission to write up some further reflections on his shrewd initial insight, to which he graciously agreed. I am indebted to him for all that follows. My plan is to write four posts, offering reflections on each of the above tensions. First: biblicism v. tradition.

Biblicism v. Tradition

Evangelicals are, by definition, Bible people. We stress the sufficiency, inerrancy, and perspicuity of Scripture–and rightly so. To the extent that we regard ourselves as heirs of the Reformation, we regard ourselves as defenders of sola Scriptura. We reject the importance given to personal experience by charismatics, the importance given to reason by liberals, and the importance given to tradition by Roman Catholics.

The theological retrieval movement, however, has called for a renewed view of the role of tradition. This is not to say a new view–but rather, a view which (so the retrievalists say) is simply that which our Reformation forefathers held in the first place–a view which has Scripture as the ultimate authority, but which give a certain, subordinate kind of authority to reason and tradition.

Now, when many hear “tradition”, what they immediately think of are what might be better called “customs” or “ceremonies”–liturgical practices like the sign of the cross, kneeling etc. Whilst the retrieval movement has certainly involved reconsiderations of those kinds of things, “tradition” in this context usually actually means traditions of interpretation–that is, ways of exegeting Scripture and doing theology which were common throughout church history until fairly recently. This misunderstanding can often lead to people talking past each other, with sceptical evangelicals misunderstanding what retrieval-minded folk mean when they talk about retrieving tradition.

So, for example, standard theological practice from late antiquity (c.4th-6th centuries) was, when doing theology or exegesis, after having examined the text, to begin with what the Church Fathers and ecumenical councils of the 1st-3rd centuries had said. Our modern evangelical habit, however, is to come to treat every act of exegesis as if we are coming to the text for the first time, and not to allow prior theological commitments to direct our interpretation. When we turn to outside sources for further help, rather than going to the riches of the Fathers, the medievals, and the Reformers, we go to modern commentaries which are highly focussed on questions of manuscript variations, word studies, archaeology, authorship etc.

Evangelicals, then, buck against the return of tradition because it runs the risk that we won’t simply interpret the text right in front of us. The fear is we become too concerned about what “the Fathers” said, or Aquinas, or Calvin, or whoever, rather than what Scripture says. But, for Protestants, deferring to tradition has always been a matter of deferring to tradition to the extent that tradition aligns with Scripture.

The Reformed Approach to Tradition

One of the earliest Reformed confessions, the First Helvetic Confession, penned mainly by Heinrich Bullinger in 1536, lays this out very clearly.

Article 1 affirms Scripture as “the Word of God” and “the most perfect ancient philosophy”. So far, so good–a very evangelical definition.[1]

Article 2, on the interpretation of Scripture, then states that “The interpretation of this [holy Scripture] ought to be sought of itself, so that it is to be its own interpreter, guided by the rule of love and faith”. So: Scripture interprets Scripture–again, very evangelical. But this Scripture-by-Scripture interpretation is guided by something else: the rule of love and faith.

What is the rule of love? In short, I think it’s what Augustine talks about in his work On Christian Teaching: that the aim of all our teaching is the “double love of God and neighbour” (Book I.86)–a summary and reflective statement on the whole purpose of the law given by Christ himself (Mk. 12:28-34), as well as the apostle Paul (1 Cor. 13), which, crucially, is not spelled out directly anywhere in the Old Testament.[2] Rather, it comes from a “tradition” of interpretation and reflection upon the text.

What is the rule of faith? I take it to refer to the basic summary of Christian belief which is not spelled out in any one portion of Scripture, but rather drawn together from the Scriptures as a whole. Christians have been calling this “the rule of faith” since the second century AD. Irenaeus of Lyons uses it in his two great works Against Heresies and On the Apostolic Preaching. It means a tradition of settled reflection upon and interpretation of Scripture.

Returning to the First Helvetic Confession: after laying out its belief on Scripture and its interpretation, the Confession then regards the next most important thing as to lay out its view of the Church Fathers. Article 3 reads:

“From which sort of interpretation [of Scripture], so far as the holy fathers have not departed from it, not only do we receive them as interpreters of the Scripture, but we honor them as chosen instruments of God.”

The Reformed attitude here, then, was to receive the Fathers to the extent that they have not departed from Scripture. Tradition, then, is not something pitted against Scripture, but something brought under it. However, Bullinger makes a very strong statement about the priority of the Fathers in interpretation: they are not mere interpreters, but chosen instruments of God. Their role, as the first interpreters of the Gospel after the Apostles, with a historic task of codifying and passing on the faith, was a unique one, worthy of due deference.

Reconciling the Bible and Tradition

Another of my colleagues, Joe Minich, remarked a while ago that we tend to think of the Church Fathers instead as the Church Babies–nascent and immature, worthy of being outgrown. But this is simply not the historic Protestant attitude toward them.

We can understand why evangelicals, without commitment to Scripture, have been sceptical of tradition. But our historic disposition toward tradition is not actually something which Scripture itself demands of us. This is why I remain ultimately positive about being an evangelical these days: I think that our tradition (and yes, it is a tradition!) contains the internal logic to be able to sort itself out here. Rather than pitting the Bible against tradition, we can develop a biblical view of tradition.

Next time, we’ll consider the second tension which stretches Bebbington’s quadrilateral: crucicentrism vs. the doctrine of God.

This is part one of a four part series on evangelicalism and theological retrieval.
Stretching the Quadrilateral, Pt. 2: Crucicentrism vs. The Doctrine of God

  1. All quotations from the First Helvetic Confession taken from Reformed Confessions of the 15th and 16th Centuries in English Translation, Vol. 1 1523-1552, trans. James T. Dennison Jr. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008), 342-352.

  2. Augustine, On Christian Teaching, trans. R.P.H. Green (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 27.


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