When I was teaching at TEDS in the 1980s and 1990s there was a serious conversation among some, especially John Woodbridge and D.A. Carson, who were aligned with a few others across North America, about who was and who wasn’t an evangelical. That is, there was a discussion of what constituted a true evangelical.
At TEDS one of the defining issues was “inerrancy,” so I asked Kenneth Kantzer if it was necessary to be an evangelical and he said to be a “consistent” evangelical one needed to believe in inerrancy.
I spent hours reading books about evangelicalism in those days. In fact, I still have over three feet of books on this topic on my shelves. By the time I was done I had a firm conviction that there was no one who got to decide on these issues. No single person got to decide. About the best one could do was to ask Christianity Today to decide. Or get Billy Graham or John Stott to decide. They were at odds over some of this so it didn’t happen.
It still has happened, though a few have put their hands on the table. Including David Bebbington’s book, who argues for Bible, cross, conversion, and active Christian service. Roger Olson once said an evangelical is someone who loves Billy Graham. The Gospel Coalition side of the ledger has pressed a kind of Calvinism into the meaning of the term, and it has used the importance of major thinkers/pastors/theologians as the embodiment of evangelicalism. Notably, Tim Keller, D.A. Carson, and John Piper, along with younger names like Kevin DeYoung.
The term has fallen apart for many of us.
David Fitch, my colleague, in his new book The Church of Us vs. Them examines the collapse of the term and his approach is how ideologies are formed, reformed and unformed. He thinks the “banners” of evangelicalism have collapsed by their use to antagonize. Fitch’s book is an important contribution and reminder of how what we think is important can quickly become an empty signifier, devoid of meaning, and little more than a political, religious slogan. When everyone claims inerrancy and then has different readings of Scripture and how best to live, one must ask if inerrancy has become empty. If it is little more than a covenant path marker of faithfulness how valuable is it? Fitch explores other topics, including things like millennium and conversion.
Along comes Thomas Kidd, Who is an Evangelical?, and he in some ways falls into the hands of David Fitch’s consternation over the collapse of the term by defining evangelicalism by the very banners Fitch thinks are collapsing. So, here is Kidd’s basic definition followed by a more summary form:
Evangelicals are born-again Protestants who cherish the Bible as the Word of God and who emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.
His summary, after a light sketch of the history of the evangelical movement, comes at the end of his book:
What, then, makes an evangelical an evangelical? Evangelicals’ political behavior is important, and it has a troubling history. But at root, being an evangelical entails certain beliefs, practices, and spiritual experiences. Historically, evangelicals are a subset of Protestant Christians. They see conversion and personal commitment to Jesus as essential features of a true believer s life. They cherish the Bible as the divinely inspired Word of God. They believe that real Christians have a personal relationship with God, mediated by the guidance of Scripture and the power of the Holy Spirit. They aspire to act on those beliefs by praying, attending worship services, witnessing to the lost, studying the Bible, going and sending people on missions, and ministering to the “least of these.” Partisan commitments have come and gone. Sometimes evangelicals have made terrible political mistakes. But conversion, devotion to an infallible Bible, and God’s discernible presence are what make an evangelical an evangelical.