Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Defining Evangelical

It appears that we have a new topic line, how to define evangelical. Is it a politically tinged term? Is it a term of theological narrowness? The reality is, there are many different definitions. Consider the title of a book edited by Donald Dayton and Robert K. Johnston -- The Variety of American Evangelicalism. Originally and IVP book, it's now published by the University of Tennessee Press.

Don Dayton has made a career out of challenging the definition of this word. He believes that Reformed theologians have gotten too much control over the term, and he wants to add in Wesleyan and Pentecostal variations. The reality is, there are many definitions.

So, I begin with Karl Barth, a "Neo-Orthodox" theologian of the previous century. Barth published a book late in life called Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (Eerdmans, 1963). Consider this definition of evangelical theology:

The qualifying attribute "evangelical" recalls both the New Testament and at the same time the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Therefore, it may be take as a dual affirmation: the theology to be considered here is the one which, nourished by the hidden sources of the documents of Israel's history, first achieved unambiguous expression in the writings of the New Testament evangelists, apostles, and prophets; it is also, moreover, the theology newly discovered and accepted by the Reformation of the sixteenth century. The expression "evangelical," however, cannot and should not be intended and understood in a confessional, that is, in a denominational and exclusive sense. This is forbidden first of all by the elementary fact that "evangelical" refers primarily and decisively to the Bible, which is in some ways respected by all confessions. Not all so-called "Protestant" theology is evangelical theology; moreover, there is also evangelical theology in the Roman Catholic and Easter orthodox worlds, as well as in the many later variations, including deteriorations, of the Reformation departure. What the word "evangelical" will objectively designate is that theology which treats of the God of the Gospel. (p. 5).

Note that final phrase -- evangelical theology, treats "the God of the Gospel." Evangelical theology is that which finds its roots in the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. This definition is not political nor party affiliated. It is rooted instead in the gospel, which to some degree has received interpretation through the Reformation theologians and their descendants -- but that is not to exclude expressions in other forms of Christian faith.


Anonymous said...

wow, so complex. I thought I knew what it meant.

I was going to say I used to be an athiest evangelist to my wife. She didn't budge an inch. She may have me down for the count now.

David Mc

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Somewhere John Howard Yoder gives a Barthian definition of evangelical. Then he says, "In the United States, some also use the term to mean people with a particularly intense concern for biblical authority and many have placed me in that category. I have not troubled to dispute that."

I always loved that Yoder could find ways to say "that's your hang-up with labels, not mine" and still "not trouble to dispute it."

Evangelical=gospel centered. As a historian, Bob, you know that originally the term meant "Protestant." Then it was used to distinguish Lutherans from Calvinists ("Evangelical" vs. "Reformed"). Then it was associated with the Wesleyan-Whitefield revivals in England and the Great Awakening in the US. In the 19th C., the evangelicals dominated the ranks of abolitionists, first wave feminists, workers against child labor, and pacifists. Only after the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy does "evangelical" take on a cultic conservatism.

I identify with the earlier definitions, but not with the modern U.S. form of "evangelicalism."