Is the word “Evangelical” worth keeping?

Is the word “Evangelical” worth keeping? October 4, 2019

Over at The Atlantic  Alan Jacobs interviews Thomas Kidd on Evangelical Has Lost Its Meaning: A term that once described a vital tradition within the Christian faith now means something else entirely.

Jacobs comments:

This transformation of evangelical from a theological position to a “racial and political” one is not just bad for serious Christians; it’s also a prime driver of the increasing hostility of liberals to religion in almost any form. Those who have insisted on yoking (a very vague notion of) God and (a very specific account of) country may soon find themselves dispossessed of both. Just before the past presidential election, I argued that the proper response to those who have stolen our religious identity is to “steal it back.” But since then, I have come to doubt whether that’s possible. This strange and inadvertent conspiracy of Trump supporters and journalists may have put an end to a useful term that once described a vital tradition in the Christian faith. The question of who is and who is not an evangelical should matter to everyone concerned with American politics and the American social order; it matters especially to those who wonder how we got here. But it might not matter much longer.

Here’s what I say about “evangelical,” in the preface to the second edition of my Evangelical Theology:

I think it is fair to say that the election of Donald Trump as US president has also led to something of an identity crisis over the word “evangelical.”[1] Sadly, the “evangelical” label has become so broad as to be practically meaningless. The designation “evangelical” can include a diverse group encompassing prosperity preachers, conservative fundamentalists, and even progressive expressions of Christianity that push the boundaries of orthodoxy. In its nakedly political sense, the word “evangelical” is associated with the civil religion of white middle America, and their anxieties over demographic and cultural changes in the USA. That is not what I wish to identify as as a self-confessed evangelical. The widening net for what counts as evangelicalism has led one friend of mine, Dr. Gerald McDermott (Beeson Divinity School) to abandon using the term “evangelical” as a self-reference and to use instead the term “orthodox” to contrast himself with other versions of Christianity. However, I am not yet ready to surrender the term “evangelical” to either the religious right or to progressive Christians. For a start, renaming this book Reformed Catholic and Missional Theology is too much of a mouthful and the marketing peeps at Zondervan Academic would never go for it. On top of that, I think the term “evangelical,” in its true biblical, historic, and global sense, as described for instance by the Bebbington Quadrilateral, as an entity that brings different traditions together, is actually worth preserving. As pastor-theologian Michael Jensen writes: “It is worth telling the story of the evangelical movement because it is one of the great stories of our age, and it has so much that testifies to the power of Jesus Christ in it. It is worth standing in this heritage because it is intellectually rich and yet powerfully convicted of gospel truths. It offers a spirituality that is profound, and it compels people to do extraordinary things to help others.”[2] So irrespective of who CNN or MSNBC think counts as an evangelical, I’m sticking with the word, critics can pry it from my cold dead hands. I hope this updated volume is a continued defense and thoughtful explication of what it means to be an evangelical Christian.

[1] Mark Labberton (ed.), Still Evangelical? Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological Meaning (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2018); Craig S. Keener, “Why I Almost Left Evangelicalism,” Christianity Today. 24 January 2018. Accessed 29 January 2018.

[2] Michael Jensen, “Evangelicalism: A Word worth Keeping.” Eternity. October 2015. Accessed 20 Jan 2018. See also the round-table discussion featuring Russell Moore, Kevin De Young, and Mika Edmonson featured at TGC Accessed 20 Jan 2018.

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