Who’s a “Real Evangelical?”

Who’s a “Real Evangelical?” September 7, 2014

I had to laugh when I read a comment here (responding to one of my blog posts) calling me a “fauxevangelical.” The prefix “faux-” means “fake.” I’m not sure why the commenter didn’t just say “fake evangelical.” Maybe he thought calling me a “fauxevangelical” was less offensive and/or made him sound more intelligent.

In any case, this was just the most recent on a long series of accusations that I’m not a “real evangelical”–whatever that means.

Why do I care? Well, for one thing, there are people whose job it is to categorize and label theologians. Take Patheos for example. Do I belong here–on the “Evangelical Channel”–or on the “Progressive Channel?” There are publishes who prefer only to publish evangelical scholars (although they may occasionally step out of that mission and publish something by a non-evangelical if his or her book is judged to make a contribution to evangelical thought). Many colleges, universities and seminaries will only hire evangelicals.

But beside and above the economic reasons for it, I insist that I am an evangelical because that’s my identity. I may add qualifiers, as most evangelical scholars do, such as “postconservative” or “progressive,” but I never mean that I am something other than evangelical.

My whole professional life and before that began has been wrapped up in my evangelical identity. I’ve expressed how and why here many times before so I won’t belabor that or repeat all that history.

So is there any standard or universal definition of “evangelical?” In my book The Westminster Handbook to Evangelical Theology (Westminster John Knox Press) I listed and describe six distinct meaning of “evangelical.” The one I mean when I call myself “evangelical” is provided by Mark Noll and David Bebbington–the so-called “evangelical quadrilateral”–four hallmarks of being evangelical.

Noll and Bebbington assume they are talking about Protestants who take Christian orthodoxy seriously–trinitarian Christians who believe in justification by grace through faith alone.

Added to that, to make one “evangelical,” are: 1) conversionism, 2) biblicism, 3) crucicentrism (cross-centered devotion and preaching), and 4) activism.

Evangelicals are (mostly) Protestant orthodox Christians (orthodox as defined by the Nicene faith in the deity of Christ and the Trinity and by the Reformation solas) who believe that authentic Christian existence necessarily includes being converted to Christ–an experience (whether felt as an experience or not) of transformation from a life of sin and self to a life of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ through which one is brought by the Holy Spirit into “new creation” (justification and regeneration). In other words, nobody is “saved” by being born into a certain nation-state or family or church or through any sacrament or ritual without personal commitment to Christ.

Evangelicals are also people (I won’t keep repeating “mostly Protestant orthodox Christians…) who have a special regard for the Bible as God’s written, inspired, authoritative Word whose authority stands above tradition and experience–the highest “court of appeal,” so to speak, for faith and practice. Some evangelicals think the Bible must be “inerrant” to be authoritative, but they disagree among themselves about what “inerrancy” means. I agree with those who define the Bible’s perfection as “perfect with respect to purpose” (e.g., John Piper). Evangelicals also have a special relationship with the Bible as not only a textbook of correct doctrine but also as God’s living Word to be read devotionally–a sacrament, if you will, of God’s gracious love.

Evangelicals are also people who bring nothing to God in their “hands,” so to speak, but cling only to the cross as their sole hope in life and death (for having a living relationship with God that includes forgiveness and acceptance). Evangelicals have a special place in their hearts and minds and worship and devotion for the cross. The atonement of Jesus Christ is proclaimed and trusted as humanity’s only hope for peace with God and for a meaning filled life in relation with God. For evangelicals the cross, the atonement of Jesus Christ that happened there, is the centerpiece of devotion and proclamation.

Evangelicals are also people who believe in and practice Christian activism to approximate the Kingdom of God among people through missions, evangelism and social action. They disagree among themsleves about the best means and possible ends (within history as we know it before Christ returns), but they agree as evangelicals that God calls them to be active in the world for the cause of God.

I do not think Noll’s and Bebbington’s quadrilateral is exhaustive or even sufficient. I suspect they would agree. These are hallmarks, but exhaustive traits or characteristics. For example, I would add (and I hope they would as well) that being evangelical necessarily includes belief in Christ’s bodily resurrection and bodily return in glory.

What being evangelical does NOT necessarly include is a literalistic interpretation of the Old Testament. Evangelicals have always disagreed among themselves about how best to interpret the creation accounts in Genesis and how to reconcile them with modern science. They have always disagreed among themselves about how best to interpret the prophets’ proclamations of a coming messianic reign on earth. They have always disagreed among themselves about how to read the Old Testament in terms of Christ–whether Christ is typified in the Old Testament or not. What I mean is: Is the primary meaning of certain passages in the Old Testament Christ or is Christ appropriately read back into the Old Testament by Christians? There has never been consensus among evangelicals about Old Testament interpretation. That is not a litmus test of evangelical identity. Never has been–in spite of fundamentalists’ claims.

When someone calls me a “fauxevangelical” I know I am dealing with one or both of two things: someone who doesn’t know me well (hasn’t read very much of what I’ve written) and/or a fundamentalist.

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