I could go through and trace the common accepted academic definitions of “evangelicalism.” They are out there. There are some great contemporary historical treatise on the subject. But that would be detractive and be an adventure in missing the point. Well, shoot. . . I suppose I will go on this adventure, but only giving the cliff-notes.
David Bebbington’s Evangelicalism
David Bebbington has created what has become the most accepted definition of Evangelicalism out there today. It is often called “Bebbington’s Quadrilateral.” Here are his four main criteria of what it means to be evangelical (it’s hard to know when to capitalize this darn word):
- Biblicism: Don’t you love that word? This simply means that evangelicals take the Bible seriously as the authoritative word of God.
- Crucicentrism: Try to pronounce that! This is a focus on the centrality of the cross of Christ and its atoning value for mankind. For evangelicals, the cross is the central event of all theology.
- Conversionism: Evangelicals believe that people need to have some type of conversion “event” where they accept/trust Christ as their Lord/God. In other words, without a true conversion to Christianity, people are lost.
- Activism: Evangelicals are, well . . . evangelical. We believe that the Gospel needs to be spread in definite encounters through the various cultural means.
Book Recommendation: The Dominance of Evangelicalism by David Bebbington
While I believe that the characteristics of Bebbington listed above are all true, I am going to hopefully extend and (if possible) simplify our understanding of Evangelicalism by breaking it up into three areas: 1) Evangelical Doctrine 2) Evangelical Actions, and 3) Evangelical Attitude. All three are necessary to understand Evangelicalism as both a twentieth-century American Christian movement and as an historic representation of Christianity.
1. Evangelical Doctrine
Evangelical doctrine is simple and straight-forward: Evangelicals center on the person and work of Christ and the authority of Scripture. Most of the details are left open for debate.
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Evangelicals believe that Christ is the second member of the Trinity, eternally sharing in the one Divinity. He became fully man in order represent man. In this, Evangelicals are Nicene and Chalcedonian Christians, believing in the central confessions of the Council of Nicea (325) and Chalcedon (451).
Evangelicals also believe in the authority of Scripture as God’s revealed word to mankind. While there is some debate as to whether inerrancy (the belief that the Scriptures do not have any errors, historic, scientific, or otherwise) is central to the evangelical confession, there is no debate about the authority of Scripture.
Other than this, evangelicals come in all shapes and sizes. Evangelicals can believe in young earth creationism or be theistic evolutionists. We can be Calvinists or Arminians. We can believe in padeo-baptism or believers-only baptism. Evangelicals distinguish between essentials and non-essentials, cardinal doctrines and secondary doctrines. We have a concentric circle of importance, like this represented below.
This does not mean that evangelicals believe that non-essential issues are non-important issues. Indeed, evangelicals such as myself can hold very strongly to secondary doctrines and defend them with great resolve (as I do with Calvinism and complementarianism). But, when push comes to shove, we know that, as Paul said to the Corinthians, there are issues of “first importance” (1 Cor. 15:1-3). If this is true, it is like Reese Bobby said to his son Ricky Bobby, “You can come in second, third, or forth. Heck, you can even come in fifth.” Suffice it to say, while my Calvinism and complementarianism are important to me, they are certainly not in first place. I will not break fellowship with you if you don’t agree with me on secondary issues. You have the right to be wrong!
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This is in contrast to some traditions who have very long lists that you have to commit to in order to be accepted into their fold. For example, Roman Catholicism has a very long official catechism that has an all-or-nothing price-tag. Fundamentalism has a very long list of spoken and unspoken rules and doctrines. Here is a comparison chart (I love charts! . . . although loving charts to not essential to evangelicalism):
Notice how the creeds and confessions almost invariably grow extensively. The original creeds of the church, such as Nicea and Chalcedon list the essence of Christianity (the regula fide or “rule of faith”) and could fit on one page. Now the Roman Catholic catechism is nearly one thousand pages!
Further Reading: Essentials and Non-Essentials in a [somewhat lengthy!] Nutshell
Related to this is the fact that evangelicals believe that there are degrees of certainty in our beliefs. In other words, not only are some doctrines more important than others, we are more sure about some things and less sure about others. We have a gradation of conviction based on the clarity of God’s revelation. This chart might help:
For example, I am much more certain about the universal sinfulness of mankind than I am as to what the “mark of Cain”is in Genesis 4:15 (which I have no clue what it is and neither do you!). And although I believe in both, I have a much greater degree of conviction that Christ rose bodily from the grave than I do that the millennium is a future event (premillennialism) rather than an idealic or perpetual reality (amillennialism).
The point is that evangelicals have a doctrinal heirarchy and our theology is essentially Christocentric.
2. Evangelical Actions
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Bebbington talks about this when he describes a key aspect of Evangelicalism as being evangelical. Evangelicals believe it is necessary to share the faith and call on people to “convert.” Evangelicals believe that if people don’t trust Christ for the forgiveness of sins, they are destined to the eternal judgement of God.
But a key aspect of evangelical actions is that not only do we engage with individuals, sharing the Gospel with them, but we engage in society and the world illustrating God’s universal redemptive purpose. The universe and all that it contains, even on this side of eternity, is the Lord’s and needs to be redeemed in many ways. Whether it be commerce, entertainment, love, sex, leadership, education, science, or politics, it is the Lord’s and is enjoyed most fully in recognition of him.
In our actions, Evangelicals are not separationists. Think of it this way (and forgive me for pointing out the obvious): when people become Christians, we don’t have a state that is a Christian land that we move them to (although I think many of my Texas buddies think that that is precisely what Texas is!). We stay in our own respective countries and states. Likewise, evangelicals don’t separate and start their own communities, armies, telephone companies, pharmacies, and airlines. We don’t create an us/them dichotomy. All things are God’s and when people engage in all activities, they are doing so due to the grace of God. Evangelicals recognize this and work hard within the industries that are God’s to begin with. We don’t have to start Christian Taco Bells to compete with the “secular” Taco Bells.
[Tweet “For if one is truly an evangelical, they don’t start their own movie studios, education systems, and music industries.”]
Again, so far this seems self evident, I know. But it is not always the case. For if one is truly an evangelical, they don’t start their own movie studios, education systems, and music industries. When such things happen, this is due to a more fundamentalistic mindset of separationism rather than an evangelical mindset of redemption. If a school goes bad and no longer recognizes God, we don’t kick the dirt and start our own school in protest by default, but we do everything we can to get an evangelical representation in that school. That is where we can do the most good. If the world talks about sex and enjoys it, we don’t shut up about it and act as if it is a necessary evil. When those without God are advancing in medicine to help people control depression, we don’t leave science in their hands as if science was not God’s to begin with. When Hollywood is making movies that bring about entertainment and laughter, we don’t create our own movies that bring about education and sadness. God owns entertainment and he created laughter. He is pretty good at it.
In other words, evangelicals see themselves as those whose actions are engaging in the world redemptively, not separating from it. We show how life is best lived with a recognition of God’s design. We show how commerce is God’s and how generosity brings about more satisfaction than hoarding. We show how monogamous marriages are so much more fulfilling than sexual promiscuity. We show how to enjoy alcohol in moderation rather than abuse it as a destructive escape mechanism that fuels depression. We show how there is a time to laugh, cry, and mourn with a great hope that transcends everything we do (1 Pet. 3:15). In short, we show how the earth and all that is in it is so much more satisfying when we listen to and believe the One who made it. We spread the word that God does not tell us to keep from sin in order to make our lives miserable, but to make it completely fulfilled.
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3. Evangelical Attitude
Finally, we come to attitude. Evangelicals have an attitude of grace and mercy, both to ourselves and to others. The opposite of an evangelical attitude is one that is prideful and haughty in spirit. It is not only that we stay in the world, but that we are engaging others who don’t think or act like us with grace.
If there is an evangelical creed out there, it is this: “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity” -Rupertus Meldenius. This expresses a general disposition that evangelicals have of conviction and passion mixed with grace and love. It is so easy to have one to the neglect of the other. It is so easy to choose to be a kingdom of priests or a holy nation (Ex. 19:6 and 1 Pet.2:9). It is very hard to do both. Funamentalists have conviction, but often lack grace (holiness without priesthood). There is an old saying: What is an evangelical? A nice fundamentalist! Why? Because evangelicals believe very deeply, but this conviction is accompanied by grace. Because we recognize how much God is our only hope, we can’t look down our nose at others.
Further Reading: “Four Characteristics of Legalism”
As well, evangelicals don’t go to the opposite extreme and take on a liberal anything-goes approach. Though we have great understanding of sin and how hard of a battle it is, we don’t say it doesn’t matter what you believe or how you behave. It does. We can look at the world and its sexual perversion, destructive selfishness, and neglect of hard work and stand up against it. Yet we do so with the attitude that outside of God’s grace we would be caught up in the exact same destructive patterns as those who we seek to help. And we also know that we are pretty messed up ourselves. We are, at best, sinners coming to the aid of other sinners.
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Of course, I would hope that we would all strive to be more evangelical. Indeed, there are so many of these things that all Christians would agree with. After all, don’t all Christians believe that we should be gracious. No one is trying to create a Christian state (that I know of), and I don’t know of anyone who would separate with someone else if they don’t agree with them on what the “mark of Cain” is all about (although I am sure they are out there). But evangelicalism is different. These three hallmarks, doctrine, action, and attitude, are not just the periphery of what evangelicalism attempts to be after their morning devotionals, they represent the essence of what it means to be an evangelical.
I know a lot of people and organizations who claim to be evangelical, but do not meet the qualifications as I have described them. I don’t normally name names in my blogs, but I think that this is important right now, so please forgive me. People like John Macarthur, Ken Ham, Albert Mohler, James White, Norman Geisler, Roger Olson, Wayne Grudem, Rachel Held Evans, Tony Jones, Hank Hanegraaff, Richard Muller, and Ray Comfort, many of whom I respect a great deal and have learned so much from, are not really evangelical (at least in attitude), are they? I am open to correction here. (And I know that not all of them would necessarily claim the name “evangelical” in the first place.) Heck, just about all my hard-line Calvinistic brothers and sisters would not fit the bill!
But there are so many of out there who I do think are truly evangelical. I think of people like Charles Swindoll, Billy Graham, Michael Horton, Darrel Bock, Tom Schreiner, Justin Taylor, Thomas Oden, Dan Wallace, Dan Kimball, Justin Brierley, Os Guinness, Scot Mcknight, Mark Noll, Mary Jo Sharp, Ed Komoszewski, Mike Licona, and Paul Copan. It is interesting that most apologists tend to be more evangelical as it is their mission to defend the essence of Christianity, leaving the details to the theologians!
I think the word “evangelical” has lost so much of its meaning that it had in the 1940s and 50s. Maybe it is time for a new designation. After-all, when people hear the word “evangelical” they think a variety of things. Some have no clue what it means. Others think that it is another word for closed-minded fundamentalists. Some think it means “liberal Christian.” Or what about those who think it means “the Republican party at prayer” or homophobic Christians?
There will never be a perfect word that does not get tainted. Some would just rather get rid of any descriptive handles altogether. But we need to have a way of distinguishing ourselves. I am not sure what the solution is, but, for now, this is what I believe to be a proper understanding of the word “evangelical.”
What do you think? Do you agree with these three aspects of evangelicalism/Evangelicalism?
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
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. He can be contacted at [email protected]