Those Pesky Evangelicals

Those Pesky Evangelicals October 7, 2019

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.

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  • Wade Stewart

    The definition of evangelical sometimes gets narrowed unnecessarily. One example is over biblical inerrancy. If your view of inerrancy does not include a literal view of creation, you are excluded from the orthodoxy in some circles.

    I think a better view of evangelical may be to define it as those who are committed to spreading the Gospel, because that is how evangelism is defined. And there are those in all walks of Christianity who spread the Gospel. And unfortunately, there are those who do not feel that this is a priority.

  • azbuckeye

    As Scot says, no one person gets to decide, as no one person is the head of evangelicalism. The identification has become so large and assumed by so many independent organizations and used by so many authorities, it now defies definition. Billy Graham is gone. Christianity Today, as a religious version of a merged The Atlantic & Woman’s Day, speaks mostly for itself and those few remaining fans of Jimmie Carter. Also detracting from any ability to write a definition is the gulf between belief and practice among those calling themselves evangelical.

  • susyflory

    I no longer want to be labeled an evangelical because of the political baggage, although my core beliefs line up. I think we need a new descriptor that eschews a connection to American politics.

  • Jerry Shepherd

    I believe Kidd has framed it well.

  • David Moore

    Scot,

    I talked to Wayne Grudem about whether most would consider John Stott an Evangelical due to his embrace of annihilationism. This was 1991 and I was working on my thesis about conditional immortality. The Evangelical Affirmation statement, as you well know, had come out a few years prior. It said the traditional view of hell was the Evangelical one. When some objected by saying that John Stott would no longer be counted among them as Evangelicals, the sentiment moved to not so much writing off Stott as an Evangelical, but by calling him an inconsistent Evangelical. For my money when you have to modify words, you know as Lewis said about Christian that the word is losing its meaning.

  • The way I understand the history of the term “evangelical” Carl Henry fabricated it to describe the type of Christians he wanted to appear by shaming fundamentalists, not Catholic and not liberal Christians, into becoming politically active. That’s all he meant by the term. But Henry thought all “evangelicals” would be socialists and was very disappointed when the Moral Majority captured his group. The term “evangelical” really applies to the shrinking number of socialists who still consider themselves Christian.

  • I am done with the term evangelical. It is defined so widely and generally, at least on the NAE website, that it calls virtually every Bible-believing Christian an evangelical, regardless of whether one wants to be one or not. But in the public eye, it has become such a narrow, exclusive crowd defined (and lived) by factors beyond the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s no wonder there is confusion about what an evangelical is. But if I were to say that I am an evangelical, more than half the population would shut down and stop dialogue with me instantly, especially over the last couple of years. It’s a bankrupt term that’s lost its meaning and usefulness, so I’m done with it.

  • AHH

    A piece of Kidd’s phrasing comes close to triggering my idolatry alarm:
    devotion to an infallible Bible
    I don’t think any non-member of the Trinity should be described as an object of our devotion.

    How about something like “commitment to the Bible as a trustworthy guide for following Jesus”?
    To me that (in addition to the “us vs. them” attitude) is what distinguishes fundamentalism from evangelicalism; the former makes the Bible central while the latter makes Jesus central (with the Bible as a vital tool pointing to that center). So, to the extent one cares about the evangelical label (I have mostly given up on it myself due to its hijacking by neofundamentalists and by right-wing politics), we should resist such a fundamentalist positioning of the Bible in a definition.

  • Al Cruise

    What is a evangelical ? What are the first things that come to mind to those who are not. Anti gay rights, anti abortion, complementarian, politically conservative, climate change deniers , suspicious of all non white immigration and gatekeepers are white males. Before of trying to redefine themselves evangelicals first need to understand how others see them. For evangelicals their theology is their culture not their faith. They can stay the same but must be content with becoming a small exclusive sect .

  • Joel Smith

    How does any of this matter? American evangelicalism is a wasteland. The majority of evangelicals are mired in the moral apostasy of Trumpism and most evangelical pastors and leaders who recognize the problem remain silent. It is hard to see how American evangelicalism recovers.

  • Christiane Smith

    the Moral Majority and the 700 Club were formed to gain political power, I have no doubt

  • Christiane Smith

    ‘moral apostasy’ is a good term for trumpism . . . . . how trumpism has poisoned the power of evangelical witness is a terrible thing for the Church

  • Marshall Pease

    Excellent summary imo except I wonder what “Protestant” means in this context. Evangelicalism isn’t a protest movement against RC or EO. Roger Olson and others insist on mixing in (Reformed) tradition, but (again imo) Evangelicalism in the style of Bebbington should be seen as its own thing. (Also most definitely not what would be more correctly called Fundamentalism, but I gave up on that one long since.)

  • Marshall Pease

    “commitment …” … Excellent. The way I put it to myself is, I have to take it _seriously_. All of it. A guide, also a challenge to my understanding.