Extract from Chapter 9. CALVIN, A. M. TOPLADY and THE BEBBINGTON THESIS by Paul Helm
Introduction: the suffix
David Bebbington's thesis is that evangelicalism is a phenomenon beginning in the early decades of the eighteenth century. He offers four essential qualities that together 'form a quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism': conversionism, activism, biblicism and crucicentrism. Each of these features was present in earlier eras of Christianity, but in a novel development they come together in the early part of the eighteenth century, in the British Isles, to form 'evangelicalism'.
The suffix 'ism' on each of these terms adds to the exactness of the thesis and as a result both exposes it to empirical refutation and also protects it against such refutation. It adds precision, because according to the thesis not only are each of these features essential to evangelicalism (another term that also shares the suffix), indeed form the essence of evangelicalism, but also each of these features is capable of being stated, if not by an exact definition, then by a set of necessary conditions that come close also to being sufficient conditions. Like vegetarianism, liberalism and cubism, Bebbington's four features embody an expectation of precisely characterizable, if not exactly definable, conditions. They also suggest, what Bebbington may not intend, the presence of a strong self-awareness on the part of the new evangelicals that they are in the vanguard of a novel Christian movement. We need to keep in mind both these features, the possible overexactness of the thesis, and the issue of self-awareness, in what follows.
Rather surprisingly, as Garry Williams points out, despite the prominence of the four 'isms', Bebbington reckons that it is a fifth factor, the more optimistic and introspection-free doctrine of assurance that he believes is characteristic of the Revival, that is the new element, and that this gave rise to activism, the only really distinctive feature of 1730s evangelicalism when compared with its earlier relatives. No evidence is offered as to why such assurance leads inevitably to activism. Perhaps the connection is regarded as being self-evident. But it is far from being that. After all, it could be claimed a priori, in a parallel fashion to Bebbington's claim that such confident assurance could lead to an 'I'm all right, Jack' attitude, to complacency and indifference towards those who lack it. In what follows, I shall ignore this slimmed-down version of his thesis and keep the four 'isms' in mind. In any case, I reckon that there is plenty of evidence of eighteenth-century evangelical saints wrestling with their doubts and fears; we shall touch on some of this evidence later.
Paradoxically, the suffix also fortifies the thesis against empirical refutation. For it denotes a step change. To anticipate a little of our discussion, it is not at all difficult to show that John Calvin believed in religious conversion. He believed that he himself was converted, and that others needed conversion. He tells us (see below), in his characteristically modest and self-effacing way, how he himself came to be converted and how important it was. In his preaching and teaching he told his hearers of the need for conversion. It is true that for Calvin conversio was a term used not to denote a bounded, shortish period of radical religious change but a lifelong reorientation of the self. We must not, however, confuse the word and the thing. Calvin believed both in the need for conversion and in the need for conversio. But did he believe in conversionism? Or (not quite the same question, as we have learned), was he a case of conversionism without believing it?
Either question is a much harder one to answer, at least as Bebbington presents it. While Bebbington recognizes the presence of continuities between evangelicalism and earlier Protestant traditions, the presence of the suffixes make it easier for him to stress discontinuity than might otherwise be the case.
A scholar is entitled to regiment his field of enquiry as he wishes if he believes that what he is doing will yield explanation and illumination. Nonetheless, one might complain that Bebbington's approach is a rather unhelpful one, if not an unfair one. For in the field of religion, and of religious belief, and particularly in the study of changes in religious belief, almost invariably we are dealing not with step changes but with gradual, incremental shifts. When does a belief in the need for conversion become a case of conversionism? Clearly there are many important differences between John Calvin and, say, George Whitefield. Yet each believed in the need for conversion. What made Whitefield a conversionist and Calvin not one?
Does David Bebbington tell us? It is not clear to me that he does. For his answer to that question has to indicate that there has been a stepwise change between Calvin and Whitefield. What would the evidence for that be? It becomes a relatively easy task to discover that a person believes it is important for him not to eat meat. But is this vegetarianism? It is relatively easy to show that a person believes in the need for conversion. But is this conversionism? Bebbington's claim that it is not, or may not be, insulates his thesis (it seems to me) from empirical refutation.
What lies ahead
In this chapter I shall attempt to discuss some of these questions further by doing two things. First, I shall look, fairly briefly, at the case of John Calvin (1509-64) in the light of Bebbington's four 'isms'. And then I shall examine, at a little greater length, the case of Augustus Montague Toplady (1740-78), an undoubted 'Calvinist'. ...