Does the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) say I am an evangelical or not?
I was saved when I was thirteen years old by believing in Jesus as my Lord and Savior and confessing this in private prayer with my Sunday school teacher in the Nazarene Church. When I went to college I began attending a “Bible church.” Right away I was taught the doctrine of the Trinity and thus that Jesus is God. I had never heard of that in my previous church or its Sunday school class. So, I believed in the doctrine of the Trinity for the next twenty-two years.
Then my personal Bible study caused me to undertake a very in-depth study of this subject that resulted in me changing to believing that the Bible says only the Father is God and Jesus is my Lord and Savior, but neither Jesus nor the Bible says Jesus is God.
Due to this research, twenty-six years later I published a 600-page book that I wrote about it, citing over 400 scholars. I then created a pseudonym for this book—Servetus the Evangelical. I chose “Evangelical” because I knew that many evangelicals would not only deny that I am an evangelical but a Christian as well because I no longer believed in the doctrine of the Trinity and therefore that Jesus is God.
The Roman Emperor and 316 bishops of the Catholic Church had determined at its so-called First Ecumenical Council, the Council of Nicea in 325, that Jesus is “very God of very God.” That is, Jesus is co-equal to God the Father in every way. So, the bishops set forth this proposition in their Nicene Creed which utters several anathemas (cursings, thus condemned to hell) upon those who disagree. And this view that Jesus is fully God has held strong in Christendom ever since, including during the Protestant Reformation. Yet the Reformers’ battle cry against the Roman Catholic Church was sola scriptura, meaning “scripture alone” is the deciding factor in determining correct Christian theology.
So, what is an evangelical? More importantly, what is a Christian?
George Marsden, in his classic book published in 1982 and entitled Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925 (p. 3), defines “American ‘Evangelical’ Christians” as “people professing complete confidence in the Bible and preoccupied with the message of God’s salvation of sinners through the death of Jesus Christ.”
Alister E. McGrath, a leading evangelical theologian in the UK, says in his 1998 book entitled Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought (p. 348) that evangelicalism is “the movement, especially in English-language theology, which places emphasis upon the supreme authority of Scripture and the atoning death of Christ.”
So, evangelical authorities George Marsden and Alister McGrath define an evangelical exactly the same way: a person who emphasizes the authority of the Bible and that Jesus died to take away our sins.
David W. Bebbington is a professor of history in Scotland and a visiting professor at Baylor University, where my son graduated. Bebbington is known for his definition of evangelicalism that is called the Bebbington Quadrilateral. (It follows Methodist Albert Outler’s 1964 characterization of John Wesley’s theology as the Wesley Quadrilateral.) Bebbington set it forth in his book entitled Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: From the 1730s to the 1980 that was published in 1989. Bebbington’s four points are as follows in his order, except I have slightly altered some of his language for the sake of simplicity:
- Biblicism: regarding the Bible as the ultimate authority for faith and practice
- Crucicentrism: a focus on the atoning work of Jesus on the cross
- Conversionism: the belief that human beings need to be converted
- Activism: the belief that the good news about Jesus be expressed in social action
The NAE says on its website that due to confusion among researchers, not to mention the media, regarding the definition of evangelicalism, it sought to define this word by joining with LifeWay Research in conducting “a two-year, multiple-phase research project with input from numerous experts” that included sociology researchers and evangelical theologians, naming many of them. The NAE/LifeWay Research arrived at a similar set of four points that Bebbington did without placing them in the same order. They are online at nae.net/what_is_an_evangelical/ as follows:
- The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
- It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
- Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that removes the penalty of my sin.
- Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal life.
The NAE then explains, “Those who strongly agree with all four statements will be categorized as evangelical.” As I stated above, many evangelicals will claim that I am not an evangelical. I disagree, and according to these four points set forth by both Bebbington and the NAE, they agree with me that I am an evangelical. For I subscribe wholeheartedly to all four of these statements by Bebbington and the NAE, but with some reservation about the NAE’s last statement. It does not address the condition of Old Testament saints nor people during any age who never heard of Jesus Christ.
I maintain that the doctrine of the Trinity and so-called “deity of Christ,” meaning Jesus is God, are not in the Bible. Since both Bebbington and the NAE say the Bible is the ultimate authority, then that trumps Catholic Church councils in the fourth century that formulated the doctrine of the Trinity and thus the deity of Christ.
I have been a serious Bible student since my teens, a professing evangelical Christian for fifty-five years, and a keen observer of church creeds and Christian doctrinal statements for decades. I must say that I am not impressed with this effort by Bebbington and the NAE to define evangelicalism. I think it is good that they limited the points as they did. And those four statements certainly are essential to evangelicalism. However, they lack a very important element that must be included in defining any Christian, regardless of sect. It is that to be a Christian, and thus an evangelical, a person must verbally confess Jesus as “Lord.” I take this to mean that it includes both verbal profession as well as some degree of living a life according to the teachings of Jesus as evidence that he is such a person’s Lord. There has been some debate about this in evangelicalism; but the Bible is clear that genuine Christians make Jesus their Lord.
But these four statements lack other important elements that need to be included as well. Chief among them is Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. This belief emerges in the book of Acts as the main precept that Jesus’ disciples preached about him. Moreover, I believe the literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus is the foundation of Christianity, and without it, there never would have been any Christianity. Also, those disciples proclaimed evangelistically that it was necessary for people to not only believe in Jesus Christ but also to repent of their sins. And those early Christians explained that repentance and faith were necessary for God to forgive people of their sins. That is the ultimate goal for people, that God forgive them of sins and give them eternal life.
After the NAE lists on their website Bebbington’s four statements that define an evangelical, to which they subscribe, then the NAE says evangelicals are “focusing simply on the core convictions of the triune God, the Bible, faith, Jesus, salvation, evangelism and discipleship.” Notice that they add something very significant that is not included in either Bebbington’s four statements or theirs. It is that the “core convictions” of evangelicals includes belief in “the triune God.”
National Association of Evangelicals—MAKE UP YOUR MIND!
(Listen to Christian philosophy professor Dale Tuggy interview me for 45 minutes on February 12, 2016, about this post at http://trinities.org/blog/podcast-126-what-is-an-evangelical-with-kermit-zarley/.)
(To see a titled list of over fifty, two-three page posts (easily accessible) about the Bible not saying Jesus is God, click here.)