What, Exactly, Is an Evangelical?

Scot asked a good question last week: How come people who are clearly not evangelical keep getting upset about what evangelicals do? He asks this in response to the semi-furor around Rob Bell’s (seemingly off-handed) remark to a newspaper reporter about why he abjures the “Evangelical” label.

Like many others, Rob has felt disenfranchised from the term “evangelical” because of the political activity in that name, as well as the general cultural distrust of that word, detailed in the book, unChristian (and others).

What’s interesting right now is watching younger Christians alternatively embrace and shun the label “evangelical,” which has been happening a lot longer than people have been wrangling over “emergent/-ing.”  In fact, there might be some parallels between the two.

Looking back now, I wish that those of us in the emergent movement would done some brand management about 5-7 years ago.  We called it a conversation, because it was, and we held the name and even the logo with an open hand.  No trademarks or copyrights — more of an open source mentality ruled.

But that didn’t serve us well.  Our theological opponents outflanked us (to the right) — first the academic types, like Al Mohler and David Dockery, then the crazies, like Ken Silva and Lighthouse Trails — and, having outflanked us, they defined us.  So now the popular definition of emergent among anyone right of center seems to be that emergent has forsaken truth, de-deified Jesus, and use pages of the Bible to line our bird cages.  All lies, of course, but the internet noise around such things is now to loud to overcome.  (Notably, Rob Bell has also repeatedly said that he’s not emergent, even though those listed earlier in this paragraph don’t believe him.)

So I can see why Scot and others fight for the term “evangelical,” against both the apathy towards that term of people like Rob and the popular use of the term in the media.  Personally, I have never considered myself an evangelical, though many others do consider me one, but I can understand those who embrace that term and their loyalty to it.

Interestingly, Scot uses the following definition, taken from a book by evangelical scholars,

an evangelical is a Christian Protestant for whom the central ideas
are the leading authority of Scripture, the necessity of personal
conversion, the centrality of the death of Christ on the cross as a
substitutionary atonement
, and the importance of a life of active
following Jesus, seen in such things as Bible reading, prayer, church
attendance, and deeds of compassion and justice.

I’ve added italics around what I consider the most curious phrase.  I get every other point, but does one really need to submit to an Anselmic interpretation of the crucifixion event to be an evangelical?  That seems odd to me, since I know lots of Weslyans and Anabaptists who are fiercely evangelical, but think of the atonement through other lenses.

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  • Dan

    Um, Anselmic? As if the notion of substitutionary atonement did not exist prior to Anselm? As if the high priest laying hands on a lamb and confessing the sins of the people and then slaughtering it was not a pretty clear example of a substitutionary sacrifice on the day of atonement? As if Christ, as stated in Hebrews, enters the temple with his own blood having completed a once-for-all sacrifice is void of the notion of substitution?

  • Dan

    Forgot. To the question at hand, Scot’s definition is probably pretty fairly representative. Authority of scripture, conversion, cross, sanctified living art pretty much standard planks for most who consider themselves evangelical.

  • Panthera

    Tony, thank you.
    American conservative Christians come much closer in their structures and thought to the most conservative Islamic and Jewish groups of the Middle-East than to the non-conservative American and non-American Christians otherwise to be found in the West.
    And this, I think, is where the ‘young’ Evangelicals are a sliver of hope for the rest of us Christians.
    First, a very large part of their lives were spent dealing with the consequences of the Bush#43 disaster. Too young to remember the Reagan years but old enough to have grown up in the financially secure and happy Clinton years, they may not be Democrats, ever. They are not, however, beholden to the Republican party as their elders were.
    Second, thanks to the very brave sacrifices of homosexual Christians who risked physical harm and suffered enormous financial and social hurt at the hands of the conservative Christians, there is hardly a young Evangelical who doesn’t know several gay people. He or she can compare their real world knowledge of these gays (many of whom they know to be good Christians) to the hateful words pouring like running filth from a sewer about them from the older Evangelicals. Another disconnect between reality and the older generation and one which can not be tucked away.
    Third, they have no personal investment in the Culture Wars of the 1960’s. They really don’t understand why their older comrades harbor such hatred for LBJs great society because they don’t feel that Negroes are inferior to everyone else. And, yes this is very relevant because the strongest hate driven Evangelical mania still comes from the Deep South. Where I am right now, actually. Sigh.
    By the by, even if the emergent movement had cast everything in stone (a contradiction in spirit, to say the least), the hateful ones would still have cast you as Satan incarnate. Just take a brief look at the nastiest comments you find here, their ‘worst’ barb is to assume you must be gay or you wouldn’t be an apologetic for us.
    Now, the naive assumption that these people would respond to reason was a mistake in my eyes. If reason held sway with the older conservative Christians, they wouldn’t be actively oppressing gays or knee-jerk supporting the Republicans.
    Seems to me, as long as they insist they are the only true Christians and all the rest of us, including the Catholic Churches aren’t, well, all we can do is walk separate paths.
    So where do we go from here?

  • nathan

    my question is “why?”
    why wasn’t there more “brand management” of the emergent label?
    was it the hope that people were really going to try to be “generous”?
    was it miscalculation that maybe the evangelical world was more “Robert Webber” than “D.A. Carson”?
    was it the hope that the disfellowshipping impulse of evangelicals had been corralled into the SBC as they were and are still tearing each other apart now that they have no “Bible haters” to lynch left?
    it may not be worth it to analyze to some, but i find it a fascinating question…
    how did this label of “emergent” become a new tool in the box of “shame/control/repression/allergy to honesty” in the religious discourse of evangelicals?
    it’s quite a feat to be added to the “boogeyman” list:
    the media

  • nathan

    oops…sorry, i forgot “the gays”

  • Panthera

    You forgot ‘gays’.
    They really hate us, especially when we happen to be Christian.

  • Panthera

    Drat, sorry, Nathan.
    By the time my comment had wangled its way through the horribly twisted and evil convolutions of the gotcha! system, you’d already posted.
    Tony, can’t you folks at beliefnet do something about this interface? If there is one constant to the postings here, regardless of political or religious or sexual orientation, it is that we all truly despise this interface.
    Nearly as much as it hates us. And it is winning.

  • Adam

    Thanks for raising this question Tony.
    I too noticed how the definition which Scott describes as “big tent” sees it necessary to define the centrality of the death of Christ on the cross – as substitutionary atonement. Many in the evangelical world have been rightly questioning this narrow definition as the totality of what occurred on the cross.
    Another thing that was curiously lacking was any mention of the resurrection in that definition. The cross means nothing if it is not followed by the resurrection.
    Why shouldn’t a “big tent” definition of evangelical simply reproduce the core constitutes of the early kerygmatic statements such as:
    “… if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom. 10.9)
    “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.” (1 Cor 15.3-4)

  • Panthera

    Now, I personally believe in the physical resurrection, but have my reservations as to whether this is the sine qua non of Christ’s redeeming me from my sins.
    The potential for abuse is, after 2000 years, hardly to be denied…
    Isn’t it, mustn’t it be enough that He died to free us?
    Perhaps it’s because, as a gay Christian I get whaled on from both sides, but especially from the conservative Christians or maybe it is simply my distaste for requiring proof to justify one’s faith…but I’d base Christianity on the simple acceptance that we accept Jesus as our personal savior and the expression of our Christianity through the manifestation of the fruits of the spirit.
    Pretty much puts me at odds with conservative Christianity à la Americainaise…

  • Actually, according to St. Paul’s own writings, it is not enough that Christ simply died. Paul makes the statement that if Christ was not raised then we are still in our sins (i.e. bondage).
    The cross and the resurrection are two sides of the same coin. I don’t think they can be seen apart from one another which is why the definition that Scott quoted seems lacking.

  • Panthera

    I have my problems with Paul, and that is one of them. His ‘by any means necessary’ approach to building a break away sect led to many statements and decisions which took Christianity away from Jesus’ two commandments and solidly into the hateful nastiness which is the conservative Evangelical-fundamentalist-Bible-thumping-gay./bashing conservative face of Christianity today.
    I believe Christ rose from the dead, I just don’t see the logic in saying this perfects our salvation. Either He was or He was not God’s Son, sent to redeem us. The qualifier seems a cheap sop to the faithless, frankly.

  • cp

    I just find it interesting that we cling to labels that must define specifics about what we believe. To some extent it’s helpful in discourse, but to the person who does not consider her/himself a Christian, it must seem odd to hear the word “evangelical”. To me, based on my past and present, it sounds freakish. Though I would consider myself a Christian, I’d NEVER call myself an evangelical. It sounds like a word too based on what one thinks others should do. Again, I acknowledge that I bring a lot of filters to my view. Just sharing my reactions to the word.

  • “It is a calque (word-for-word translation) of the Greek word εὐαγγέλιον, euangelion (eu- “good”, -angelion “message”)”
    end quote
    In short, anyone who speaks of our redemption through Jesus’ sacrifice is, literally, an evangelical.
    Of course, the term as well as my Christian religion is currently being held hostage by those hatefilled American Christians who define their love of God through hatred of the Other. Especially of homosexuals, although the transgendered, women and everybody else whom they can oppress and declare sub-human comes in for their depraved hatred, too.

  • Greg

    I think, to answer Scot’s question, a lot of us come from evangelical backgrounds in one way or another. So while we wouldn’t self-identify as evangelicals, its still part of our history, so we hate watching it self-destruct. Also, in my experience, although I don’t self-identify as an evangelical, when people find I’m a Christian the evangelical stereotype is usually the one people reference first, particularly when I can’t give a mainline or Catholic denomination I’m a part of. So people who aren’t evangelical get upset about it I think because that’s the image people are seeing and that’s the image we’re having to fight against all the time.

  • Coming from not only an evangelical, but a fundamentalist background (but that’s in the past, trust me), I would say YES: the definition Scot gave is completely accurate. The overwhelming VAST majority of evangelicals I have contact with don’t even know there are other theories of atonement. And those who are aware probably think holding to another theory of atonement is enough to get a ticket to hell. Really.

  • ben w.

    As an evangelical, I resonate with Scot’s definition. I recognize that there is a fullness to the atonement that is more than simply penal substitutionary atonement, but I would argue that it can never be less. So I’m fine with evangelicals who would stress other aspects (christus victor, moral example, etc.) but I would want to challenge anyone who could not say that the substitutionary aspect of Christ’s forgiveness played any importance in their worship and witness. Thus, Scot’s definition is not a denial that other aspects to the Cross exist (for example, see Stott, the Cross of Christ, pg 109 – or the whole book for that matter!), but simply the affirmation that penal substitution is a defining mark that evangelicals hold in common.

  • yeah tony,
    i felt the same way reading scot’s post. why “substitutionary atonement”? of course, maybe we should laud the loss of “penal” in that definition!!

  • dustin germain

    phil johnson and the guys at team pyro wrote a blog about this very thing. rob bell got creamed, to say the least.

  • Alan K

    Let’s keep it simple. An evangelical is one who believes the evangel.

  • Alan K

    Let’s keep it simple. An evangelical is one who believes the evangel.

  • Joey

    Tony, you might consider differentiating between Substitutionary Atonement and Penal Substitutionary Atonement. If you generalize enough all theories of atonement can be viewed a substitutionary even if they lack all of the legal mumbo-jumbo. Cristus Victor, for instance, is Jesus being our substitutionary victor – the victor in our place since we are unable to attain victory over death on our own. If you can get beyond that Scot’s definition is a bit more palatable.

  • Tony,
    In your definition, which I think is spot on, you seemed to only have a problem with the term “substitutionary atonement” (maybe only questioning the “substitutionary” part). I have problems with almost all of this definition. To me, the term “authority of scripture” implies a systematic theology based on superstition about supernatural origins of the texts, and a type of coercive thought control designed to deflect critical questioning. Authority of scripture seems just as creepy and cult-like as the atonement language.
    Are the other elements of Evangelicalism (like authority of scripture) out of bounds for questions, or are those items you’ve already questioned and now decided to assert your assent to those conclusions. To use a term you’ve used before, are you willing to “land the plane” on those issues, but not on the issue of atonement.
    Thanks again for continuing your inspirational blog!

  • Edward Green

    Certainly on this side of the pond Evangelical has a wider meaning. Especially if the word ‘Open’ is placed before it.
    I would hope to be both Evangelical and Catholic, and also Reformed in the sense that I see the Church as requiring continual Reformation. I certainly value personal conversion, the central role of scripture, the lived christian life, and would see Christ’s whole incarnation; birth, life death and resurrection, as substitutionary – representative, on our behalf and in our place.
    However I also value the historic creeds, liturgy, narrative (or tradition) of the Church, and the Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist as essential for the Christian life. I would also claim that the western churches other 5 sacraments flow out of those 2 sacraments.
    But I am most certainly not a Protestant. I do not protest against the Church of Rome. I fellowship, pray, serve, with and for Roman Catholics, even if we cannot share bread together.

  • matt

    “I have my problems with Paul”
    Panthera there was this guy in the early church who had problems with Paul, he also didn’t like the Old Testament, his name was Marcion, he was a heretic.

  • Theodore A. Jones

    The fact that the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is derived from the OT is the indicator that this doctrine is false. For according to the authority of the Scripture 1 Cor. 2:6-8 the true reason for Jesus’ crucifixion could not have been understood before he was crucified or he would not have been crucified.

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