What is an Evangelical? Prototypes

A very good article by Roger Olson proposes another dimension of defining who is and who is not an evangelical, and it has to do with finding prototypes. I’m game for a discussion of this.

The entire blog post by Roger is worth your reading, but here is a clip:

Thus, I argue that evangelicalism, like Pietism, charismatic movement, “New Age,” etc., etc. refers to a category that can only be defined in terms of prototypes that constitute a center. I would put Noll’s and Bebbington’s four hallmarks at that center and with them Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley. What did those men have in common that was not as noticeable among most of their peers in Protestant Christianity? I would say those would be biblicism, conversionism, crucicentrism and activism. And I would add to that a tendency strongly to defend the Great Tradition of Christian orthodoxy (broadly defined). Yes, to be sure, there were others who displayed the same characteristics, but they especially stand out as the prototypes of the Great Awakenings of the eighteenth century that gave birth to the modern evangelical movement.

Narrowing “evangelicalism” down to the post-WW2 “evangelical movement” (which is mostly what I write about and insist on being included in), I would again look to prototypes such as the five hallmarks above and prototypes such as Billy Graham, the National Association of Evangelicals, Harold John Ockenga, Christianity Today, Carl Henry, Fuller Seminary, Wheaton College, Billy Melvin, Eternity, World Vision, etc., etc. This way of “defining” evangelicalism and “evangelical” allows fluid boundaries (if they can be called boundaries at all!). How close to the prototypes are certain entities (people, organizations)? is the question. The Lutheran theologian was not far from right, if far at all, when he suggested that an “evangelical” (in the sense we all meant) is someone who loves Billy Graham. Of course, he did not mean, and nobody in the room assumed he meant, anyone who simply likes Billy Graham as a person is an evangelical. He meant, of course, we all knew—anyone who ardently desires to emulate Billy Graham and/or looks up to him as a prototype of modern, authentic Christianity in terms of his basic beliefs and approach to Christian life (conversion, devotion, evangelism, holiness of life, activism in seeking to change the world “for Christ,” etc., etc.).

Now, I fully realize, this approach to defining (!) “evangelical” and “evangelicalism” will never satisfy those who are out to manipulate those concepts for their own gain. But it is the most reasonable approach; all others have far greater problems.

I tend to think most people look at the world either in black and white, either-or terms or in terms of degrees, that is, appreciating ambiguity as embedded in the nature of things (or at least in our knowing). Black and white thinkers who are allergic to ambiguity will have great trouble with Lakoff’s and my approach. I simply think they are stuck in a relatively immature stage of mental development. I have no problem with their setting up organizations and patrolling their boundaries. That’s their business. I don’t have to belong to any of their organizations. But when they start treating “evangelicalism” as one and themselves as the boundary setters and patrollers I have great trouble with that. I will call them either disingenuous or uninformed.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Mike M

    “Disingenuous.” At best. Good rant.

  • J.L. Schafer

    Does C.S. Lewis qualify as an evangelical prototype?

    Evangelicals seem to love him. But if they actually knew in greater detail some of the positions that he held…

    And then there’s Bonhoeffer…

  • mike h

    I don’t know. It seems that we spend an inordinate amount of time and effort to define who’s ‘in’ and who’s ‘out.’

  • scotmcknight

    JL Schafter, I’m with you on both Lewis and Bonhoeffer — neither was an evangelical as it is now defined. Orthodox faith and evangelicalism are not the same, though many seem to think so.
    mike h, If I read Roger Olson right he’s not trying to be an “in or out” kind of thinker but one who chafes when the term is defined too narrowly. Having said that, “evangelical” is narrower than “Christian” and “orthodox.”

  • Ric Hudgens

    The neglect of Charles Finney as a crucial prototype along with and whole “other” lineage of Evangelicalism that is not part of the conservative Princeton-New Evangelical-Christianity Today stream is always telling. The now old debate between Bernard Ramm’s “The Evangelical Heritage” (1973) and Donald Dayton’s “Discovering an Evangelical Heritage” (1976) continues.

  • mike h

    Just reflecting on the intro: “A very good article by Roger Olson proposes another dimension of defining who is and who is not an evangelical, and it has to do with finding prototypes.”

  • scotmcknight

    Ric, #5, Roger’s examples are post WWII. I suspect he’d see Finney as one prototype. But, yes, you are right: many define the Wesleyan heritage off the map.

  • http://kingdomtravelin.com Tom Foley

    Why is “disciple-making” missing from the list of characteristics of an “evangelical”? And if I may make a huge (?) leap in my logic, does it then follow that Billy Graham, Wheaton, and the rest bear some (much?) of the burden that “evangelical” churches are ‘warehouses of converts’ rather than makers of disciples who make disciples?
    And no, C.S.Lewis would not be among the “evangelicals”, perhaps thankfully

  • nate s.

    Tom #8, I think “disciple-making” isn’t on the list of characteristics because evangelicalism has a tendency to focus on “conversionism” (as Olson calls it).

  • Merv Olsen

    Billy Graham has always been into discipleship.

    I am one of his TV converts from 1965 and joined a Bible believing church on his advice – there I was discipled.
    Like many other world evangelists BG believed in and promoted discipleship as part of his evangelistic work.

    It’s not fair (amongst Australian Baptists anyway) to say, Tom, that “evangelical” churches are ‘warehouses of converts’ rather than makers of disciples who make disciples.

  • Ric Hudgens

    Scot #7 Yes, and that Wesleyan elision means that post-WWII alternative evangelical prototypes like E Stanley Jones never make it on the map. If Jones rather than Graham had been the evangelical model we would have had a very different understanding of what “evangelical”means.

  • Marshall

    It seems to me that a “movement” ought to be defined in terms of motion in a direction, or “momentum”. That sort of thing necessarily involves a dynamic mass of people; a “prototype” has the same basic problem as a “boundary” … too static. “Center” does have the advantage of fuzziness, but it might as well be the center of a quite stationary institution.

  • Marshall

    … and probably you can’t tell if you’ve had one until a generation later, at which time all proposed prototypes will be found to be at least deeply flawed and sometimes quite illusory. Prospering by grace, not works.

  • http://www.naturalspirituality.wordpress.com Howard Pepper

    As a long-time former Evangelical, now Progressive Christian, I still follow evangelicalism as I can… I’m curious if others think that positions toward evolution and the literal vs. mythological understanding of Gen. 1-3 is one key dividing line? It seems maybe a majority (or close) of self-identified Evangelicals would say you can’t be “evangelical” if you believe in evolution or DON’T believe in a literal Adam and Eve. Am I off?

  • http://divinesalve.blogspot.com David Miller

    Wesley was definitely an 18th-century evangelical, but, even though Olson, an Arminian evangelical, wants to include Wesley as a prototype for 21st-century evangelicalism, Wesley was no biblicist. See Randy Maddox’s excellent and brief essay on “How Wesley Read the Bible.” — http://catalystresources.org/issues/381Maddox.htm


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