What makes someone “evangelical?”

What makes someone “evangelical?” October 12, 2011

Yesterday I listened to two fine presentations by a notable and influential evangelical scholar.  They were about the necessary marks of authentic evangelical faith.  He discussed three broad groups of evangelicals in Britain and America since WW2: the broad coalition evangelicals centered around Billy Graham and his ministries (including the National Association of Evangelicals), the neo-Puritan evangelicals (which seemed to me to be those I have called here “neo-fundamentalists”), and the “Bebbington-quadrilateral evangelicals.”  The first group tended to play down the importance of doctrinal orthodoxy and include as many born-again Christians as possible among the ranks of the evangelicals.  The second group has capitalized on what is perceived as doctrinal drift among the first group and has emphasized Reformation (mostly Reformed) orthodoxy as crucial to evangelical identity.  The third group views evangelicals as marked by four (or five) common features (family resemblances): biblicism (broad defined), conversionism, crucicentrism and activism (mostly evangelism).  I have added respect for the Great Tradition of Christian orthodoxy to that list.

But the speaker argued that what all these various groupings of evangelicals have in common is one thing: insistence on the born again experience as necessary for authentic Christian existence such that we (evangelicals) are the only real Christians going to heaven.  The neo-Puritans add thick doctrinal orthodoxy to that (drawn mostly from the magisterial Reformers and Protestant orthodoxy).  But even they, the speakers argues, are mainly concerned about preserving and protecting the centrality and cruciality of the born again experience.

This explains, he argues, why there was so much across-the-board condemnation of Rob Bell’s inclusivist proposal in Love Wins.  While Bell stopped short of endorsing all out universalism, he did open the door to salvation without conversion (e.g., in a postmortem opportunity).  This, the speaker argues, explains the deep and broad negative reaction to Love Wins among evangelicals.  Any hint of opportunity for salvation apart from a conversion experience in this live threatens evangelicals’ commitment to the necessity of a born again experience.

Thus, this speaker is arguing that ALL evangelicals (well, there may be a few exceptions) recognize AT LEAST ONE BOUNDARY around evangelicalism: the necessity of a born again experience.  Anything that threatens that is anathema.

This blog is dedicated PARTLY, at least, to exploring the reality of evangelicalism and evangelical faith.  This is an interesting proposal from an astute scholar of evangelicalism who has taught in two evangelical institutions for twenty-some years.  My own thought is that while evangelicals do want to preserve and promote the born again experience (however exactly conceived–whether instantaneous or a process) many, especially when pushed, admit that such an experience may not be necessary for reconciliation with God (salvation as forgiveness).  I know many evangelicals who, when pushed on the matter, admit that Old Testament “saints” were and are saved without anything resembling evangelicals’ born again experience.  Then, when asked to reflect on that, many are willing to admit that God may have ways of saving the lost we know little or nothing about and that may include imputing righteousness to them without an explicit born again experience such as we have and promote.

This raises many questions.  Are only evangelicals saved?  Is salvation limited to those with a born again experience?  If so, how are the Old Testament people of God saved?  What about the Jew or God fearer with Abrahamic faith who died one month or one year after Jesus’ death and resurrection without ever hearing of him?  Are all the unevangelized automatically hell bound?  Can an unevangelized person have a born again experience?  Must he or she?  These are crucial questions for evangelicals to consider.  They’re not new questions, but I doubt there are many, if any, new questions.

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