Evangelical Christianity: A Guide for the Perplexed
As a life long evangelical Christianity and alleged scholar-expert on the subject, I am concerned (to put it mildly) about the widespread confusion in culture and society, spread especially by journalists, about the subject.
This blog was begun with the intent of, among other things, elucidating the true meaning of “evangelical Christianity.” That after I noticed a definite trend in American culture and society toward serious confusion about it.
There is no “THE evangelical church.” Evangelical Christians are not a monolithic block. There is real diversity among evangelical Christians. Evangelical Christianity is not uniquely American. Evangelical Christianity is not a “bounded set” category but a “centered set” category. Evangelical Christianity has absolutely nothing to do with politics. Some evangelical Christians are monarchists (especially outside the United States) while others are republicans; some evangelical Christians (even in the United States) are politically and socially liberal and others are socially and politically conservative. Evangelical Christianity is not defined by the political leanings of the majority of people who identify as evangelical Christians. It is defined by its historical prototypes, common historical beliefs and spiritual practices. Historians and theologians, especially historical theologians, define “evangelical Christianity.”
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
Evangelical Christianity has deep roots, but most church historians and theological historians trace its modern roots back to the Great Awakenings of the 1730s-1740s and the early 1800s. It was and is a spiritual movement within the greater Christian collective that emphasized and emphasizes 1) the unique authority of the Bible in all matters of “faith and practice,” 2) the necessity of conversion involving a decision of faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord for authentic Christian existence, 3) salvation only through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ with special emphasis on the cross event, and 4) the call of God on every Christian’s life to tell others about the gospel and invite them to accept Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord through repentance and faith. I will add that all true evangelical Christians accept the basic doctrines of Protestant Christian orthodoxy: the deity and humanity of Jesus Christ (incarnation), the triunity of God, salvation by grace alone through faith, and the virgin birth, bodily resurrection, and eventual return of Jesus Christ. All evangelical Christians embrace the biblical and Christian orthodox worldview that includes miracles, not as “violations of laws of nature” (David Hume’s disastrous definition of “miracle”) but as God’s sovereign suspension of the normal workings of nature for a good, divine purpose, sometimes in answer to prayers.
Some evangelical Christians add to these evangelical essentials doctrines such as “the rapture” and “the inerrancy of the Bible,” and “young earth creation.” These tend to be evangelicals who either were or are self-identified “fundamentalists.” Fundamentalists are normally (with some exceptions) part of the world wide evangelical movement, but many evangelical Christians are not historically, spiritually, or theologically fundamentalists. The American evangelical movement split apart in the 1940s – between fundamentalists and “neo-evangelicals.” Beginning in the 1970s many leading fundamentalists such as Jerry Falwell began to call themselves simply evangelicals and have for the past approximately forty years done their best to capture the evangelical “flag” for themselves and deny the authentic “evangelicalness” of non-fundamentalist evangelicals.
Historically, evangelicals have not been committed to any specific, worldly political program, ideology, or platform. Historically, evangelicals have not been committed to any specific form of church government. Historically, one can find evangelical Christians in almost all Christian denominations recognized as Christian by the World Council of Churches (and many outside the WCC).
The American mass media, both news-related and entertainment-related (and the line between the two has become increasingly blurry), tends to treat the most socially and politically conservative evangelicals as the true representatives of evangelical Christianity, almost never noting that evangelical Christianity is a spiritual and theological movement and identity that is world wide and not unique to America. The majority of evangelical Christians reside in the Global South and Asia.
Not all evangelical Christians call themselves that; it is a type and not a label. Some evangelical Christians call themselves that only because their particular denomination includes the word “evangelical” in its name (e.g., the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the ELCA) which in many cases is simply because of the European, mainly German, use of the word “evangelical” (e.g., evangelisch) for “Protestant” or “Lutheran.”
The above is a very quick and abbreviated overview of evangelical Christianity; more detail about the subject can easily be found in the writings of church historians such as Mark Noll, George Marsden, David Bebbington and theologians Donald G. Bloesch, Stanley J. Grenz, and Roger E. Olson. My The Pocket History of Evangelical Theology (InterVarsity Press) would be a good place to start.
*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment only to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).