What's Evangelicalism?

I will continue my attempts to reflect on evangelicalism by starting with the opening sentence of my article on evangelicalism for the Stone-Campbell Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2004).
I write:

Evangelical: Term used to identify conservative Protestants who distinguished themselves from fundamentalism in the mid-twentieth century.

Well, I think I wrote that -- it's possible that the editors added that in! From there I note that originally the term was used to designate Protestantism as a whole, noting its roots in the Greek euangelion (good news). I also note that in 19th century America the term continued to be used to identify Protestants in contrast to Catholics and new religious movements such as the Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists. It wasn't really until the mid-twentieth century that the term came to be used in a more restricted party designation -- focusing not only on Protestantism, but more specifically conservative Protestantism.
Thus, when I use the term evangelical for myself, I'm not using it in the sense of a conservative party label, but something more broadly. It has to do with a commitment to hearing the voice of God in Scripture, a reception and commitment to live according to the grace of God revealed to humanity in Jesus Christ. It is a faith profession that lacks the political edge, but instead commits me to living and proclaiming the good news that God is present with us in Jesus the Christ!
Rob Johnston, in his concluding essay to the book The Variety of Evangelicalism (IVP, 1991) writes:
For all their variety and particularity, descriptions of contemporary American evangelicalism have a commonality centered on a threefold commitment: a dedication to the gospel that is expressed in a personal faith in Christ as Lord, and understanding of the gospel as defined authoritatively by Scripture, and a desire to communicate the gospel both in evangelism and social reform. Evangelicals are those who believe the gospel to be experienced personally, defined biblically, and communicated passionately. (Variety of Evangelicalism, p. 261).

Note that there is nothing political in this definition, except that it includes a commitment to social reform -- something it would share with the social gospel movement! As for the Bible, I see it as the authoritative witness to the gospel, but that doesn't mean I either taken every element literally or see it as being inerrant. But I do believe that I can hear God's voice present on its pages. So, when it comes to evangelicalism, I guess it all depends on your definition, and recognition of a family resemblance!


charles & jenny said…
This is a fascinating discussion. Personally I would describe my self as evangelical. Am I conservative, yes. However, I would steal the liberal title to describe how I work out the Gospel (or my salvation to borrow the verse). I believe evangelical has been redefined, perhaps by media, to be a group of Christians with strong convictions on political issues and sit on the pews and nod their head to the sermon. Their faith requires little, only to be go with the flow and group think. Thrusting your views on others is redefined as sharing the Gospel.

On the flip side, I think liberal has also become a dangerous umbrella. There is no such thing as heresy in today's world.. rather you can simply say you are being liberal. Maybe exploring religion. The boundaries are all gone, you are free to chase whatever you want. Of course the problem is when do you cross into being a "lost sheep" and simply isolated.

Fascinating stuff to think about.
John said…
I hold to my position stated earlier, that Evanglicalism in the United States has come to be a political label more than a religious label.

I believe that the religious component, to the extent it encompassed the 19th and early 20th Century theological description discussed earlier, has been virtually supplanted by the political content of the term. Hence, the term is meaningless in non-political religious discussions.

In America Calvinists, Baptists and Lutherans do not define themselves vis-a-vis each other by whether they are Evangelicals. While some Baptists may claim the label fundamentalist, American Lutherans for example, don't assert that they are Evangelical and not Reformed.

I believe that those Christians who claim the Evangelical label do not do so to differentiate themselves from other Christians but make it clear where they stand in the political spectrum, that is, that they are part of the Religious Right. They do this to distinguish themselves both as standing apart from other Christians who do not embrace the Religious Right and to stake a special position within the conservative political community - i.e., that their politics are based on solid conservative Christian doctrine and not mere socio-political leanings.

And the Evangelicals I have known do not joyously share their faith, but instead passionately preach their politics.

John said…

I couldn't agree with you more. Except, that I would never accuse a person of faith of merely nodding their assent to a sermon (not that it doesn't happen!?!). I have known many Evangelicals who engage issues of faith and doctrine and who would challenge errors and misstatements by a pastor. While they tend to be inflexible in matters of doctrine they are rarely "sheepish."

Another issue I have with Evangelicals, is that many I have spoken with speak of love as a concept but fail to express it in their interactions with others. It seems that doctrinal correctness is more important than compassion.

As for liberals, I agree, they often leave me feeling very uncomfortable with their willingness to adventure far from traditional Christian teachings and practices in their search for meaningful spirituality. The old heresies are the new heresies. It seems sometimes that nothing is sacred to a true liberal other than their own spiritual quest.

American style individualism has become a hallmark of faithfilled liberal spirituality.

I don't know that my own spiritual walk does not make others uncomfortable, so I shouldn't complain too loud.

And I claim the liberal label with some hesitation.

Anonymous said…
Why don't evangelicals risk or heed the warnings of Matthew 6?

"Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of people in order to be noticed by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven...

And whenever you pray, don't be like the hypocrites who love to stand in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they will be seen by people. I tell you with certainty, they have their full reward!

But whenever you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees from the hidden place will reward you.

The best kind of evangelism occurs when someone askes you "what makes so content?" or "what is the meaning of life?" are "are you afraid of this or that?". If they don't ask, perhaps they won't listen. There is a time for everything under heaven.

Heresy on the other hand makes me think of judgment, crucifixion, burning, ahh the good old days.

Liberalism makes me think of sheep too, and their freedom to graze and wander without walls or fences.

David Mc
John and all,

While I think that evangelical has become a politicized term -- used mainly by the media to define a particular segment of the population -- my own experience has been somewhat different. Being an alumnus of an evangelical seminary (Fuller)I have lived within the evangelical mainstream. I can say that evangelicalism is much more diverse that simply being a label for the religious right.

At least when I was at Fuller, most of the faculty were and I expect are Democrats. They might oppose abortion, but also oppose the war in Iraq, torture, the death penalty, etc. It's important to note that people like Tony Jones, Tony Campolo, Ron Sider, Jim Wallis, Shane Claiborne, are all political progressives, but confessionally evangelical. Even on gay marriage there is difference of opinion within evangelicalism. So, I go back to the definition stated -- it has to do with commitment to the Scriptures as norm, a commitment to Jesus as savior, and a commitment to share that faith with others. The politics is an add on, not the defining piece.

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