Evangelicalism suffers from its strengths. And that is a weakness that I have to be willing to live with.
(Warning: Emergers—those of you who dispise labels: hold your nose as you read. You will grow accustomed to the smell.)
What does it mean to be Evangelical? What is the sine qua non of Evangelicalism?
There is no easy answer to this as the semantic domain of the word is usually predefined due to personal history, culture, and other subjective baggage. For some, “evangelical” simply means “liberal fundamentalist.” To the media, it is the Republican party at prayer. To Fundamentalists, it means “compromise.” To the Reformed covenantalist, it means “Tim Lahaye.” To former Evangelicals, it means canned presentations of church, cooperate liturgy, and cliché Christianity with Kirk Cameron as its head. To the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, it represents a traditionless group of vigilante Protestants who exemplify and carry the burden of the same follies as its founders, the Reformers.
However, these are all expedient definitions that don’t catch what the spirit of Evangelicalism is all about. In other words, these are perception-based descriptions of what some Evangelicals do and how certain Evangelicals express their beliefs. But expedient definitions are a tool of historical revisionists that, while important as a barometer, have no place in a foundational understanding of what is being expressed.
Let me explain with an illustration:
Take America. Take the United States of America and have people describe what it means to be an American. Do you think that there will be a monolithic voice that accurately describes “American”? There could be, but when people attempt to use expedient definitions, here is what you will get when asked “what does it mean to be American”:
Americans are rich people.
Americans are arrogant rich people.
Americans are greedy arrogant rich people.
For a different spin, try this: America is the land of opportunity.
Or as Bono would put it, “I like the idea of America and am a fan of the idea. But I don’t like American policy” [at least as it was under Bush].
However, America is built upon certain principles that allow freedom. This freedom allows for greed or opportunity. This freedom has no mandate upon particulars of expression. It does not require one political party or another. Even though people will think and say really stupid things, we believe that the principle of freedom—freedom of speech in this case—is more important than making sure people all think deeply. There is a center or an anchor to America. There are American ideals and values. There is still the “idea” of America, even though it does not always find good and “proper” expressions. It is our job as Americans to continue to instill these values—these anchors—in the coming generations so that America does not get redefined due to expediency. We do this by teaching and reminding others of what the “idea” is. (Oh how much this is needed today.)
It is the same with Evangelicalism. Since I deal with theology and history every day, I am continually thinking about these principles of Evangelicalism. I am ever engaged in the “idea” of Evangelicalism and the principled anchors that must be understood so that the idea remains in tact. Once the “idea” is lost, so is the form of expression which the idea is supposed to follow.
So, what is the “idea” of Evangelicalism?
Like the idea of “America,” I have argued thus far that Evangelicalism has a stable ethos (mindset) that goes beyond the name. I know that to be called Evangelical means many different things to many different people. But I am trying to avoid the “What does Evangelicalism mean to you?” type of approach to allow people to see where I believe Evangelicalism is grounded.
Historically, if my conception of the “idea” of Evangelicalism is correct, Evangelicalism did not start with Billy Graham, Carl Henry, or Martin Luther, but with the Apostles. Evangelicalism does not claim any particular denomination or period in history. It is not an American, Western, or Eastern distinction. Evangelicalism is representative of an idea or an ideal.
In short, I believe that Evangelicalism will be found anywhere that the Gospel is at the center and where there is a conviction that it must be proclaimed, not simply lived.
Let me put a few post-it notes on my forehead to get some things out of the way:
- Do I believe that you have to be Evangelical to be a Christian? No.
- Do I believe that you have to be Evangelical to be a good Christian? No.
- Do I believe that you have to call yourself an Evangelical to be evangelical? Nope.
- Do I believe that you have to be a Protestant to be Evangelical? Post-reformation, yes I do.
Allow me, however, to expand on the last one. I do believe that there are those from other traditions (Catholic and Orthodox) that display many characteristics of Evangelicalism and are very evangelical (notice the small “e” and the large “E”). Bradley Nassif is someone that I would consider an evangelical Orthodox, but he is not Evangelical. Same thing with Peter Kreeft as a Roman Catholic.
But this just side-steps the question, “What is an Evangelical?”
Before I answer I want to make something clear. Evangelicals have tradition. Evangelicals have a lineage. Many Evangelicals would mistake origins of their identity as having roots in the Reformation. This is not true (or, at least, it is a very poor and misleading way to express it). Evangelicals have roots that go through the Reformation, not begin in the Reformation. It is important that we view ourselves as such.
Evangelicals are not Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox, not because we believe that they are all going to hell (that would be more in line with Fundamentalists), but because the central component of Christianity—the Gospel—we believe is more fully and properly carried and distributed by Evangelicals. In this sense, I have no problem saying that Evangelicalism, properly defined, is a better representation and a more faithful succession to the Apostles.
For the Evangelical, it is the Gospel and its proclamation that is central.
Distinctives vs. Norms (who we are vs. what we do)
Let me express something here and try to be as articulate as I know how. There is a difference between what we call traditional “distinctives” and “norms.” A distinctive represents the sine qua non (“without which not”) of something. Evangelicalism has certain distinctives that, if taken away, would quickly erode the essence. Norms, on the other hand, are patterns that the distinctives take.
Problems arise when those on the outside and on the inside begin to blur the lines between the two and norms replace distinctives. What I am trying to do here is distinguish and identify the distinctives of Evangelicalism so that the norms do not create an Evangelical passport.
- Evangelical: Gospel proclamation is the primary mission of the church.
- Essential Christianity: The foundation of the Gospel is found in the person and work of Christ, not peripheral issues such as mode of baptism, use of alcohol, issues of eschatology, or whether one believes in a literal six-day creation.
- Faith alone: The person and work of Christ finds life only through our faith in Him alone.
- Scripture alone: The Bible is our only infallible rule of faith and practice. Bible knowledge and teaching are essential to knowing the character and will of God. Institutions and human authorities are necessary and deserve great respect, but will always be imperfect.
- Progressive: Evangelicalism does not make camp around anything but the person and work of Christ. Expressions of the faith can and should vary from time to time and culture to culture. In this Evangelicalism (and the Gospel) are highly adaptive. There is no one particular Evangelical liturgy.
Parenthetical answer to an objection: But the church has not always been these things! How can you say that Evangelicalism finds its roots through the Reformation and in the historic Christian faith when the historic Christian faith has not always believed in distinctives such as “Essential Christianity” or “Progressive”? I agree that the church has not always viewed itself as progressive. I also agree that the church has not always done a good job at focusing on the essentials while allowing freedom in non-essentials. But, as an organism, the church goes through “life stages.” At times, the church has been unbalanced and narrow, not unlike that of a know-it-all teen. But once the teen grows out of this, he or she has both learned and matured though this. It becomes a necessary part of their maturation and development of wisdom. But most importantly, the more mature form of the person is still the same person with the same DNA. It is the same for the church. (For more on this, go here.)
Out of the distinctives listed above come particular norms. Unfortunately, people inside and outside of Evangelicalism mistakenly identify the norms as the distinctives. The norms may be normative only for a particular tradition in Evangelicalism (e.g. Baptist Evangelicals, Presbyterian Evangelicals, Non-Denominational Evangelicals, American Evangelicals, etc.) or for a time and place in history and therefore should have little bearing on the spirit or “idea” of Evangelicalism. However, this is where things get blurred (and why I write this).
- Belief in Inerrancy
- Evangelistic crusades
- Sinner’s prayer
- Evangelistic tracts
- Jesus paraphernalia (WWJD bracelets, bumper stickers, etc.)
- Mega Churches
- Gospel invitation at the end of a service
- 45-minutes-plus sermons
- Expository Preaching
Each of these norms express patterns that many, if not most, Evangelicals have taken. Many are based in and founded on their beliefs. For example, Evangelicals like crusades because of their distinctive of Gospel proclamation. However, having crusades is not necessary to be Evangelical. As well, most Evangelicals are Republicans, not because it is a flag that we must plant, but because they believe that the ideals of Republicans are more congruent with their distinctives than other political affiliations. However, it is not necessary to be a Republican to be an Evangelical, it is just a norm at this time.
These norms are neither good nor bad in and of themselves. They are simply expressions that are found in the common cultural liturgy of Evangelicalism today, especially in America.
My main point here is to help identify the central components of Evangelicalism without focusing on the norms. As well, I want people to understand that American Evangelicalism as a set of norms cannot always be equated with Evangelicalism. It is but one of its more prolific expressions.