"Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." - Jerome

Monday, September 17, 2007

I don’t think that word means what you think it means.

Lately I've been wondering: what does “evangelical” mean?

In reading up on the subject, people have been called evangelical in 3 different historical time periods with 3 different meanings:
1. 1500s - “Evangelical” was almost universally synonymous with Lutherans. As the split appeared between the followers of Calvin and the followers of Luther, most of the former took the label of “Reformed” and most of the latter took the appellation of “Evangelical.” Yet, some Reformed would also refer to themselves as evangelical, as this merely identified themselves with Luther’s recovery of the gospel. [Hence, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America claim the label of evangelical, meaning little of what is meant today]

2. 1700s - “Evangelical” refered to the new religious furvor associated with the Wesleys and Whitefield in the Methodist revival movement in England. The emphasis of the “evangelicals” was on personal conversion and an experiential response to the gospel (John Wesley described it as a “strange warming”). Evangelicals often insulted the Anglican establishment by preaching the need of conversion (the gospel) to baptized church members.

3. 1900s - After the 20s and 30s revealed the inadequacies of mere “Fundamentalism” in its blunt, militant, separatist reaction to theological liberalism, the neo-evangelicals adapted some of the revival techniques of the Second Great Awakening attempting to be “nice fundamentalists.” In America, this movement was most commonly associated with Billy Graham and Harold Ockenga, a Baptist and Presbyterian respectively and in England with Martin-Lloyd Jones and John Stott, a separatist Methodist Calvinist and an Anglican minister respectively. Yet after these leaders, evangelicalism began to focus on the same fundamentals that all Christians share, and ignore distinctives.

D.G. Hart recently wrote an entertainingly controversial book where he contends that “evangelical” means little more than “someone who likes Billy Graham.” Some may have an affinity for J.I. Packer, but his Reformed Anglican views offend many separatists, and some like Christianity Today, though it is derided by many a purist. Even the doctrine of "faith alone" is questioned as a necessity by the keepers of the gate. In an increasingly post-Graham world, the loose alliance of people may shatter between those who often like to "take their ball and go home" in regards to denominations. Hart voices the opinion of some Reformed and most Lutheran theologians who like their distinctives and rather not abandon them. Hart claims the term is no longer meaningful or useful in historiography as those called evangelicals will have no common identity after Graham and now that evangelistic revivals have fallen out of favor.

While I agree with much of Hart‘s criticisms of “generic evangelicalism,” and bad theology coming from revival evangelism, I think he might be a little too harsh on “the e-word.” I am not quite ready to abandon the term “evangelical” as long as it can be an adjective describing a general alliance, rather than noun conveying a lowest common denominator. In other words, the depths of Christian spirituality are found in its traditions, be they Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican or pietist/puritan. These traditions can come together in common cause, for the gospel. But in doing so, they should not lose the depths of the spiritual insights gained by the Reformed focus on the doctrines of grace, or the Lutheran/Anglican sacramental spirituality, or the puritan communion with God through the word. If they lose these distinctions, they run the risk of becoming irrelevant while chasing relevancy and dull while “sharpening” our gospel message.
So check out Hart's book if you want your assumptions challenged, though most will not agree with his solutions, his diagnosis is important to contend with...


Aaron said...

Best post ever! Well, darn good anyway. I stopped being interested in using the e-word when I said Pentecostals are not evangelicals because they do not identify closely with sola fide in my view. A good friend of mine successfully took me to task on that and said they are indeed, evangelicals (Because Mark Knoll said so). So then I decided much like you that depending on whom you talk too.... well... "I don't think that word means what you think it means". I have found it to be more meaningless because I do not see a way to nail down a definition. Other then you like Billy Graham and you like to talk about your feelings, especially your feelings about Jesus. So call me what you will, but I do not use the word much if I can help it. Words ought to mean things.
Awesome post!

Mom N said...

Interesting. Evangelical has been used, re-used, misused, condemned and re-invented. I think the meaning has been lost in the rebirths, still births and aborted births. We need a new "label." Any ideas?

scott gray said...

historical definitions are fascinating, but not often contextually relevant. maybe defining 'evangelical' begins by focusing on common ground, common meaning. what is your understanding of 'evangelical?'

Jared Nelson said...

I don't know that it matters what my view of evangelical is. I first believed it was an affirmation of salvation by grace alone through faith alone, but now that many think Stone-Campbell adherents are admitted (who historically have rejected sola fide) I don't know that it means much past not-mainline-liberal (except when it does). ETS only requires Biblical innerrancy and the Trinity, which would really allow Catholic, Orthodox, and conservative Protestant.

Hart quotes someone before the modernist/fundamentalist controversy saying evangelical including most Reformation influenced faiths (Reformed, Lutheran, Episcopal, Methodist, Baptist, Congregational) but not Disciples of Christ, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. I would like to see evangelical mean adherence to sola fide, but I don't get to define it.