I am an Evangelical . . . a “Historic Evangelical.” Meaningless, I know. But let me respond to many of you by taking the next step in putting some flesh on this proposed new name for an old tradition.

Reason for the Change:

1. Evangelicalism has lost its meaning in most circles today. “Evangelicalism” means both everything and nothing at the same time. It is fast becoming identified as a movement of political agendas, entertainment, health-wealth theology, radical separatists, and white Americans. While there are a great many Evangelicals who should not be identified with these characteristics holding the fort, remodeling is happening from the outside and no one asked for permission. These things happen.

2. The Emerging Church showed some potential and promise, but has, as of late, began to define itself as a movement holding hands with compromise. I understand that there are emergers such as Scot McKnight and Dan Kimball who are not compromising, but, while I admire and respect their continued battle in the emerging church, I don’t think that they can rescue it from irrelevance and heresy.

3. Evangelicalism ironically seems to have lost the ability to reform. It is ironic because Evangelicalism has traditionally found its identification in the roots of the Great Reformation whose principled admonition to the future church was semper reformanda (always reforming). Often to be deep in the theology of Evangelicalism means being deep in an unqualified sixteenth century anti-Catholic (Roman) polemic. This needs to be rethought based upon the current state-of-affairs and a humble recognition that while the Reformation was necessary we should not find all our roots in its soil.

How “Historic Evangelical” looks Evangelical:

Twentieth-century Evangelicalism sought to distance itself from the increasingly radical perception of “Fundamentalism.” Theologically, while Evangelicalism retained the essentials of the Christian faith that Fundamentalism originally defended against liberalism, it was broader in the non-essentials. In other words, Evangelicals could differ with regards to issues such as baptism, eschatology, and election, and remain united in the essential core doctrines of the Christian faith that were identified by our roots in the Reformation and beyond. Among these doctrinal distinctives was Christology (who Christ is and what he did), the sinfulness of man, justification by faith alone, the nature and ultimate authority of Scripture, and theology proper (the Trinity, the eternality of God, etc.).

As well, Evangelicals distinguished themselves from Fundamentalism as being more culturally “liberal.” Evangelicals sought to engage the culture with the assumption that culture itself is amoral (neither good nor bad). Engaging the culture meant involving oneself in culture in order to incarnate Christ in all places. This meant that Christians should not surrender the universities, politics, science, or market place of ideas over to the world, but instead reclaim them. Evangelicals also distanced themselves from many of taboos of Fundamentalism such as smoking, drinking, dancing,, and the like. Evangelicals saw many of these issues as adiaphora (not spoken of in Scripture) and therefore as matter of conscience rather than precept.

Evangelicalism has a great tradition with regards to the need for every believer to know Scripture. Evangelicalism is a movement based in Scripture and has believed that Scripture is the ultimate authority for the believer. It should therefore be read, taught, and preached with great (even alarming) passion. Historic Evangelicalism would continue with this passion.

Evangelicalism has also been a missional movement. This is vitally connected to the above characteristics. Evangelicals are focused upon bringing the message of God to the lost. Evangelicals seek to make disciples of all nations and believe that this is the primary mandate of the church.

How ”Historic Evangelical” might differ from Evangelical:

Ecclesiology: Evangelicalism retained many of the anti-traditionalistic tendencies of Fundamentalism. This free-church mentality sadly and unnecessarily has evidenced itself as a movement with no ecclesiastical roots. Evangelical churches, for example, look plain and uneventful. In fact the assumption was the more boring the architecture the more biblical the Church. Any traditional liturgy was not only hard to find in an Evangelical church, but looked down upon by many. Of course this produced a liturgy of its own which now bears the weight of its own tradition. Nevertheless, it is often hard to convince Evangelicals of the need and value of tradition and liturgy. I believe that this is both unnecessary and somewhat destructive. Evangelicals should not be anti-tradition since tradition and liturgy, used and evaluated correctly, are powerful means of teaching and worship. To distinguish yourself by a traditional liturgy or magnificent architecture does not need to be equated with cultural irrelevance, but can communicate meaningful ecclesiastical distinction. Every organism is distinct in some way; the church should be the same. Therefore, the Ecclesiology of Historic Evangelicalism would engage all the senses, encouraging tradition and liturgy as a means of teaching and worship.

It should also be recognized that Evangelicalism has many characteristics of the Enlightenment that are not healthy for the Church. The Evangelical modernistic individualism needs to be replaced with a deeper longing and commitment to community. The Body of Christ is a single organism that forms a community of dependent members. Evangelicalism has suffered due to its denominational isolationist mentality and its assumption that a Christian can properly grow outside the larger community.

Bibliology: While I am an advocate of inerrancy (”reasoned inerrancy“), I believe the designation has run its course and no longer is valuable as it might have been. I prefer that we simply say “the Bible is true.” The rest would have to be battled out through hermeneutics (which is where the issue ultimately lies anyway). Therefore, I submit that we no longer identify so closely with the term ”inerrancy” as we once did.

I also believe that Evangelicals come dangerously close to a Bible centered theology (Bibliocentric) rather than a Christ centered theology (Christocentric). As James Sawyer once put it, “Evangelicals have the holy Trinity: the Father, Son, and the Holy Bible.” This needs to be the scandalous exception rather than the glorified norm. While the Bible is the unique voice of God, it is not the end of our pursuits and it is not God.

Discipleship: There would be more emphasis placed upon the need for theological discipleship. While Scripture is our primary source for theology, reading Scripture alone does not necessarily produce good theology. This education emphasis would be based in an irenic method of teaching, helping people to understand all theological positions, historic and contemporary, so that they might make informed and intellectually honest decisions with regard to their beliefs. In the end, the intellectual shallowness that has plagued our ranks for the last century would be replaced with an informed and God-glorifying use of our mind.

Apostolic Succession: This might seem to be my most radical change, but its principled aspirations are nothing new to Evangelicalism. As I have said before (see The Evangelical Epidemic of Theological Accountability), I believe that a major problem in the church today (particularly in evangelicalism) is the lack of accountability. I believe that leadership (especially the office of the pastor) needs to have a requirement of apostolic succession. This involves a more serious and involved ordination process. I don’t believe that this “succession” necessarily needs to be conceived as a succession in person (such as is found in Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism), but a succession in teaching. In other words, those who are in leadership need to be ordained into ministry as those who are approved by and held accountable to those who have gone before them. This accountability regulates the teaching of the church, ensuring that the teaching finds its roots in the teaching of the Apostles (the Scriptures). Obviously, this succession in teaching cannot (and should not) be divorced from succession in person, but any attempts to justify a person’s Apostolic authority primarily based upon their ability to trace their lineage through a succession of persons without a succession of teaching is getting the cart before the horse.

Insufficient Names:

Emerging: I believe that this name neither has historic dignity nor pastoral sensitivity (explained below) for the importance of the situation.

Christian: While this would be great, the last two thousand years have made it insufficient to communicate what it aspires to say.

Protestant: No good. Places too much focus on the battle of the sixteenth-century which, while important, does not define everything we are and miscommunicates a highly polemic state of affairs.

Reformed Evangelical: Now, this is a good one! But, alas, this will not work. While I could call myself a Reformed Evangelical, this narrows this tradition unnecessarily to those with a Calvinistic bent.

Christ-Follower: Some in the Emerging Church attempted to use this name, but it is more a description of the word “Christian” which attempts to simplify the tradition. Inevitably it suffers the same fate of obscurity of both Evangelical and Christian.

Missional: To me, this lacks dignity as well as being too focused on one particular distinctive. But I recognize this charge could also be made against “evangelical.”

Post-evangelical: I don’t like this for two reasons: 1) Has no lasting value since “post” is a designation based upon the previous state of affairs (but hey, what do I know, we still call ourselves “Protestant.” 2) It communicates an anti-evangelical stance.

Orthodox Evangelical: While this communicates much of what I would like to communicate, it identifies too closely with the Orthodox Church that has its own rich, yet very distinct, traditions.

Evangelical Catholic: “Catholic” simply means universal. Evangelicals are catholic Christians, but not “Roman” Catholic. It would be nice to reclaim this designation, but it just ain’t going to happen. Too much baggage.

Why “Evangelical”?

It could be that “evangelical” is a word that is spoiled beyond use, but I am not ready to go there for two reasons. 1) I still believe that its usage in the mid-nineteenth century has left the biggest footprint in the field of the principles that are the most important. 2) It is a pastoral approach to change. It is (or should be) a well-known axiom in the field of pastoral ministries that when one pastor replaces or succeeds another pastor he should not immediately set his agenda to clean house through changes that would be perceived as too radical. He needs to be sensitive to the traditions of the congregation and, if change is necessary, take it slowly and adopt methods of change that are as subtle as possible. I think that a name change such as “emergent” or “post-evangelical” that says “We are really different” is unwise. I believe that it discredits those who are still Evangelicals with integrity as well as discrediting the history of the movement. We don’t need to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Why “Historical”?

There needs to be more emphasis on the roots of our faith. I believe that while we need to find identification in the Reformation, we need to follow the Reformers’ example and discover that our roots go much deeper. That is why I like to say that our roots are not in the Reformation, but go through the Reformation. We must seek to show Evangelicals how we are part of the historic Christian faith going back to the early church. Each Christian should be able to trace the Christian faith through the successes and failures of those who have gone before us with sensitivity and pride, knowing that God is the God of history and he has never abandoned His church. This will enhance our accountability, broaden our community, and dignify our worship experience as we join hands with the entire Church, both living and dead, local and universal, visible and invisible.

Well, this certainly does not cover everything, but it is a good start. And since this blog has become entirely too long for a blog, I will now leave and wait for the comments. Go easy on me. :)

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

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