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New Blog Series: Brethren Dialectical Theology

In their book Reclaiming Pietism, Christian Collins-Winn and Roger Olson cite an article by Donald Dayton entitled “The Search for Historical Evangelicalism,” in which they elucidate the distortion and the needed recovery of a balance between two paradigms within American Evangelicalism.[1] In the article, Dayton names the two paradigms of evangelical history: “One emphasizing its Puritan and Presbyterian roots, as in Protestant Orthodoxy and scholasticism, and the other emphasizing its Pietist and Pentecostal roots, as in the Wesleyan-Holiness movement.”[2] Olson categorizes these two paradigms as the “Puritan-Presbyterian paradigm” and the “Pietist-Pentecostal paradigm”arguing that while scholars like Dayton have named Pietism as an influence on evangelical identity, very little scholarship has been done. [3] Instead, evangelical’s Puritan roots have been explored to the exclusion, and often distortion, of Pietism.

Such is the dilemma of American evangelicalism—what is it? According to Olson and Collins-Winn, it depends on who you ask. The most widely used definition, and one employed by this next set of blog posts, is that of British historian David Bebbington. The “Bebbington Quadrilateral” provides a working definition of the movement by noting four qualities:

Conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible, and what may be called crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Together they form a quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism.[4]

Bebbington’s quadrilateral offers helpful criteria for current scholars to dialogue regarding evangelical—except that, for this blog, activism and conversionism will be collapsed down into a category titled “decision for Christ.”[5] Bebbington’s criteria have suffered modernistic reduction and have become hollow signifiers within American evangelicalism. The distortion is as follows:

Bebbington Criteria Distortion
Biblicism—Bible as Authoritative Biblical Inerrancy
Activism/Conversionism Personal Decision for Christ
Crucicentrism Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA)

While Bebbington’s quadrilateral clearly and convincingly communicates global, evangelical commitments, the distortions reveal baggage from the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the early twentieth-century. I would like to suggest that Brethren theologian J. Allen Miller (1866-1935) offers a helpful corrective. [Heck, I’m writing an entire dissertation on this stuff.] Miller’s “conservative-progressive dialectic,” to be further explored in a later post, provides a “third way” between the binaries of modern theology and the subsequent distortions. What Miller provides is seen in the following chart (along with the central distortion of Bebbington’s criteria):

Bebbington Criteria Distortion Miller’s Corrective
Biblicism Inerrancy Christocentric Hermeneutic
Activism/Conversionism Decision for Christ Conversionary Discipleship
Crucicentrism PSA Covenantal-Relational Model of the Atonement (CRA)

To better elucidate Miller’s contributions, his writings must be brought alongside current evangelical voices attempting to clarify the Bebbington quadrilateral. Such conversations will be the purpose of the next several posts. In all of this, Miller will assist the Brethren in their evangelical commitments by pulling in the dialectical streams of Pietism and Anabaptism.

Next Post: What is Pietism?

[1] See Donald Dayton, “The Search for Historical Evangelicalism,” Christian Scholar’s Review 23, no. 1 (September 1993): 12-33.

[2] Roger E. Olson, and Christian T. Collins Winn, Reclaiming Pietism: Retrieving an Evangelical Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 113.

[3] Ibid.

[4] D.W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Routledge, 1989), 3.

[5] This collapsing of “activism” and “conversionism” is borrowed from David Fitch’s work entitled The End of Evangelicalism? See David Fitch. The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission: Towards an Evangelical Political Theology. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011.

[6] See Christian Smith. The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2012.

[7] See David Fitch, End of Evangelicalism?, 2011. Fitch combines Bebbington’s “conversionism” and “crucicentrism” into a single category. While this is understandable, this paper makes the argument that activism and conversionism are better collapsed together—the response of a believer becomes a “decision for Christ.”

[8] See Brenda B. Colijn. “Incalculable Grace: A Covenantal-Relational Understanding of Atonement.” Paper presented at the annual meeting for the Wesleyan Theological Society, Northwest Nazarene University, Nampa, Idaho, March 7-8, 2014. Colijn, a Brethren elder and theologian, offers a Wesleyan-Pietist critique of the moral satisfaction and penal substitutionary models of the atonement.

6 comments on “New Blog Series: Brethren Dialectical Theology

  1. tinamhunt says:

    If I read all these and write some kind of response could I possibly get CEU’s? I’m certainly learning a lot!


    1. Jason says:

      Tina, you’ll need to take that up with your District Executive. Kris drives a tough bargain. 😉


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