And…He’s Out: A Riposte to Daniel Silliman’s Attempted Assault on Bebbington’s Quadrilateral

Daniel Silliman, news editor at Christianity Today magazine, recently took on some big leaguers without, alas, making much contact.

Silliman’s “An Evangelical is Anyone who Likes Billy Graham: Defining Evangelicalism with Carl Henry and Networks of Trust” (Church History [2021], 90, 621–643) tries to do a big thing by way of a small thing. The small thing he does is to research some of the correspondence surrounding the founding of the magazine he serves as a way into the agenda of the post-fundamentalist white American evangelicals who championed Billy Graham as their most public representative and who placed him at the top of the masthead of their new publishing venture. The big thing Silliman attempts to do is to leverage this little story into an overturning of a generation’s historiographical consensus around David Bebbington’s four-fold characterization of evangelicalism: crucicentrism, biblicism, conversionism, and activism. The small thing he attempts Silliman does reasonably well. At the big thing, however, he fails, and flails, spectacularly.

David Bebbington

First, credit where credit is due. Silliman has indeed turned up more detail than has heretofore been available to historians of this form of evangelicalism by exploring the archive of Carl F. H. Henry’s correspondence at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Those familiar with this episode—whether from George Marsden’s oeuvre on twentieth-century evangelicalism, numerous biographies of Billy Graham, or the magazine’s own regular anniversary accounts of its founding—will find few large surprises here. But the details are welcome, and particularly Silliman’s straightforward reckoning with the questions of racial justice and integration—an ugly theme in the story of evangelicalism long decried by Randall Balmer, who nowhere shows up in the notes.

Second, Bebbington’s so-called quadrilateral has long been under fire. (I myself have suggested alterations to it over the years, and I will do so again in my forthcoming Evangelicalism: A Very Short Introduction [Oxford University Press]). Silliman isn’t wrong, then, to ask questions of this influential paradigm. But one might expect that a device that has had such wide acceptance by so many experts would at least be outlined clearly and accurately, even respectfully. Yet Silliman doesn’t so much as list its points, let alone indicate the careful way Bebbington defined each point, the grounds for its inclusion, and the use to which this constellation of characteristics should be put historically. And Bebbington continues to find his quadrilateral useful in hundreds of pages of scholarship. Instead, Silliman grants himself permission to dismiss Bebbington’s influential heuristic as simply “bad.”

Third, Silliman makes mistakes along the way one wouldn’t expect of a scholar writing in Church History, whether identifying the British New Testament authority F. F. Bruce as a member of something called the “Brethen Church” (when those Brethren are notorious for eschewing the word “church”) or starting a paragraph with “The word does not seem to have been used as a noun until the 1800s” and then proceeding to give examples of “evangelical” being used as an adjective—only then to elide the crucial difference between “Nonconformist” and “evangelical” when the latter group, in the Evangelical Alliance, did indeed include members of the Church of England. This is pretty basic stuff for historians of evangelicalism whose purview is not entirely confined to the U.S.A.

Finally, and most crucially, Silliman swings for the historiographical fences and merely whiffs. In fact, he strikes out. 

First, he does not show that the evangelicals he studies are not properly and helpfully characterized by the Bebbington Quadrilateral. He seems never to have considered that this kind of Christianity is in fact what they are assuming as they work. Silliman asserts that his subjects do not invoke the quadrilateral or anything like it, but people rarely invoke what they take for granted. Instead, they proceed in a project like this by lines of affinity—which, yes, leaves them mostly grasping air when they want to nominate Arminians (!), from Methodists to Holiness folk to Pentecostals, since the CT founders are mostly ex-fundamentalists and fundamentalists were generally Presbyterian and Baptist and broadly Reformed in their theological outlook. Thus the CT founders reach out to only a fraction of the increasingly vast audience of Billy Graham fans. The “likes Billy Graham” criterion appears to be really not the main determiner of inclusion.

Much more problematic, however, is that Silliman never asks what it would mean to “like Billy Graham” in that context. It might mean that they are evangelicals pretty much as Bebbington has defined them, especially over against those with whom they differ and from whom they separate themselves. Indeed, their debate over the inclusion of Scottish professor James Stewart, perhaps the most eminent preacher of his era in the Church of Scotland, is precisely over two of Bebbington’s four points—namely, whether Stewart had adequate views of the atonement (crucicentrism) and of the inspiration of Scripture (biblicism)—and not over acquaintance with Billy Graham.

Second, Silliman does not offer either a replacement definition or a mode of definition for evangelicals. The closest he gets is to take this very particular moment in three centuries of global evangelicalism as somehow determinative for the whole story. As historian Tim Larsen puts the matter, “It is like trying to figure out what a ‘Catholic’ is by studying Spain in the 1970s and then deciding that your definition is that a Catholic is someone who is willing to defend Franco and likes bull fighting.” The Oedipal urge to kill Father Bebbington perhaps should be subdued at least until the next generation is ready to truly take over with viable alternatives.

Third, Silliman doesn’t even properly sustain his “liking Graham” thesis. As his account of the CT founders progresses, Graham fades almost into the background. Yes, he is known to everyone involved, but by the mid-1950s Graham’s widely reported Los Angeles and London crusades had launched him into fame such that he was, indeed, now the face of these “new evangelicals.” But liking or not liking him simply doesn’t show up in most of Silliman’s account as anything like a conscious, explicit canon of membership in the emerging CT circle.

George Marsden’s quip about evangelicals being those who like Billy Graham—or, as George later amended it, who liked him more than they didn’t like him—helps to identify, yes, these particular evangelicals, the white Americans emerging out of fundamentalism and seeking a “united evangelical front” against the mainstream Federal Council of Churches that purported to represent all Protestants in the United States.

To change the sporting metaphor, however, what that quip doesn’t do is even get in the ring to contend with Bebbington’s quadrilateral—or Tim Larsen’s pentagon, or my own hexagon—as ways to recognize this style of Protestantism, from the trans-Atlantic revivals of the eighteenth century to the global explosion of evangelicalism today. “Liking Billy Graham” doesn’t do the work necessary to knock out such a definition even for Silliman’s own subjects, let alone everyone else’s. As such, a modest but worthwhile project on the founding of Silliman’s magazine tries to punch ‘way above its weight. It should be happy to remain on the undercard, and let the likes of Bebbington, Marsden, Balmer, and Larsen duke it out in the main events.

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