Tuesday, February 26, 2008

What is this thing called Evangelicalism?

In the 1970s, when I became a Christian, people were already asking the question, “What is an Evangelical?” In the context in which I lived at the time, Europe, the answer was really quite simple. It meant “Protestant.” But that did not solve the matter. I did have to come back to my native land.

Arriving in the USA and heading off to a seminary (known to some as “saint school”), I found the same question being asked. The answers given at the time were historical or theological in nature. They were also inconclusive.

I still ask the question. Why? Because there are so many people who want to crawl under this umbrella with whom I discern very little commonality of belief or practice. Wheaton College defines the modern term this way:

There are three senses in which the term "evangelical" is used today as we enter the 21st-century. The first is to see as "evangelical" all Christians who affirm a few key doctrines and practical emphases. British historian David Bebbington approaches evangelicalism from this direction and notes four specific hallmarks of evangelical religion: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. A second sense is to look at evangelicalism as an organic group of movements and religious tradition. Within this context "evangelical" denotes a style as much as a set of beliefs. As a result, groups as disparate as black Baptists and Dutch Reformed Churches, Mennonites and Pentecostals, Catholic charismatics and Southern Baptists all come under the evangelical umbrella-demonstrating just how diverse the movement really is. A third sense of the term is as the self-ascribed label for a coalition that arose during the Second World War. This group came into being as a reaction against the perceived anti-intellectual, separatist, belligerent nature of the fundamentalist movement in the 1920s and 1930s. Importantly, its core personalities (like Harold John Ockenga and Billy Graham), institutions (for instance, Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College), and organizations (such as the National Association of Evangelicals and Youth for Christ) have played a pivotal role in giving the wider movement a sense of cohesion that extends beyond these "card-carrying" evangelicals.
(To read the entire article, click here).

There really isn’t a lot of help there, is there? Maybe we can understand this a little better if we recognize that the word often has an adverb attached to it. Very often people (in the USA) refer to something they call “broadly evangelical.” Now we’re getting somewhere – I think. Why do I think that? Because I can look at the wide array of theological systems (and non-systems!), and the worship and lifestyle practices of those claiming to be “broadly evangelical” and note that, in fact, very little is meant by the term. Mormons lay claim to the mantle as easily as do Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, various Church or Christ groups, and myriad other groups. The Emerging Church” claims what is left after evangelicalism and mainstream denominationalism finish off our spiritual sensibilities. I have no problem at all confusing broadly evangelical groups with liberals, heretics, and generally mixed-up folk.

So, what to do? You can call me a Christian, or a Protestant, or a Calvinist (that’s a definition waiting for another essay).
Those are just a few of the many names I have been called! I would prefer it, however, if you didn’t refer to me as either evangelical or broadly evangelical.

How about you?


Matthew said...

From Luke 18: "And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: 'God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.' But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, the sinner!' I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted."

Curt said...

Matthew, since you didn't leave an email address to which to reply, I will ask in this forum what it is you intend for readers to understand by your Biblical quotation.

Matthew said...

Many people who you refer to as being "evangelicals," "broadly evangelical groups," or "liberals, heretics, and generally mixed-up folk" most likely include people that Christ call his own, and are your brothers and sisters. While I may disagree with many of them on many issues also (as do we), pointing fingers at them is only drawing black lines along Christ's body that serve no purpose but to attempt to divide what should ideally strive to seek at least as much unity as is realistically possible.

Your comments show disdain for those in Christ's own body thatyou would rather not identify with, many who scripture indicates are your brothers, and you seem to exalt yourself above some of them. As this very scripture would support, good theology (and even it's practice!) is not the sole thing that pleases God, it is just one ingredient that alone is not enough.

I personally would prefer to let Christ separate "the wheat and tares" on his own day, because we as mere humans, with very poor judgement, will separate them incorrectly and damage his harvest in the process (Matthew 13). I hope you too will see that the distinctions it appears you are making are only damaging to others and do little more than to divide.

Curt said...

Comments anyone?

Curt said...

For any who may be interested, I just found this review of a book titled, "Promise Unfulfilled: The Failed Strategy of Modern Evangelicalism."
It can be found at http://tinyurl.com/2hfarw.

Zan said...

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

or not sweet. My comment is this:

Jesus knows the hearts of man. Regardless of the label we live by. I only know that I am HIS. Label away, world!

The Boisverts said...

I agree with Zan.

I also agree with Matthew.

The only label I hate being called is: "religious." That term encompasses too much, even Wiccans can be considered "religious" so I do bristle at that term.

I prefer to be called a Christ-follower.

G&V said...

So, what is divisive about an intellectual discussion of the theological or doctrinal landscape? Further, there is no ad hominem attack in Curt's message; only a critique of certain beliefs.
People have gotten far too squeamish about intellectual discourse for fear that it may offend or divide. In truth, it is Christ and His Gospel which is the most divisive and offensive thing, to the world, in history. He said so.
We must not fear or reject hearty debate, so that some may be rescued from "vain philosophies".
Divisive is possibly as overused and nearly meaningless a term as evangelical and its derivatives.
Oops, that was offensive! (G)

The Boisverts said...

G & V- Jesus said that Him and His gospel would cause offense and division. Not the body of Christ.

Curt said...


Please consider the following quote in the context of our current discussion.
QUOTE BEGINS - The farther the pulpit strayed away from the absolute authority of Scripture the larger the exodus to the parking lot—never to return. The trend in the pulpit continues as does the exodus. The result? The mainline is no longer the mainline; evangelicals have taken their place.

Even a cursory examination of the current fads within evangelicalism shows a shocking trend. Those once characterized by strict adherence to the authority of Scripture are starting to walk in the footsteps of their mainline counterparts. The Emergent Church (which seems to gain strength daily) is characterized, to a great extent, by the same propensities as those who led mainline Protestantism into oblivion. Consider just one example.

Rob Bell is, without question, one of the most vocal of the Emergent leaders. In his book, “Velvet Elvis,” he considers at length the importance of biblical doctrine in today’s church. While stressing continually his love for the Bible, his commitment to Scripture and his “orthodoxy,” he uses an extremely troubling illustration that contradicts his claims.

In Bell’s theology you look at Bible doctrine either as a brick or a spring. A brick is hard, unbending, unmovable and static. He berates those who hold this view of doctrine as being out of touch, legalistic and rigid. On the other hand, a spring is pliable, moving, dynamic, constantly changing—it’s almost alive. He then relates this to a trampoline. The springs allow someone on the trampoline to bounce and move. Now, it’s nice to have all the springs in place, but in reality you can remove several of them and still be able to bounce.

This is his view (and the view of the Emergent Church generally) concerning Bible doctrine. Doctrine is not primarily to be understood but merely studied. To question, to discuss and to debate is the end—not discovery and proclamation. It would be nice to be able to truly “know” doctrine and to have it all in place, but it’s not necessary. A spring here or there can be removed without hurting the trampoline. In other words, the Virgin Birth is important, but not vital. The whole concept of how a person is really justified may never be completely understood so, as long as you love Jesus, you’re in.

This attack on the authority of Scripture is much more dangerous than that of the liberals who destroyed the mainline denominations. Why? Because it’s much harder to discern. It’s cloaked in the language of evangelicalism, but under the cloak is the doctrine of doubt rather than confidence in the biblical witness. For Bell and others, it seems that questioning Scripture is more important than understanding it. We’re left with essentially the same message as classic theological liberalism, but wrapped in different packaging. - QUOTE ENDS.

THE URL FOR THE ENTIRE ARTICLE IS HERE: http://www.townhall.com/columnists/BobBurney/2008/02/29/will_evangelicalism_go_the_way_of_mainline_protestantism?page=full&comments=true

The Boisverts said...

My only suggestion would be to read Rob Bell's book before quoting another man's opinion on the book, ie. how he (Bob Burney) interpreted Rob Bell's views. I highly, highly doubt that Rob Bell would say "the Virgin Birth is important but not vital." I don't hop on bandwagons until I seek out the true information myself.
I'm sure Rob Bell was trying to get at the fact that the Word IS living and active and that one can be spoken to via the Word (through the Word), without knowing all of the head-knowledge and theology beforehand. (Ex: someone can read something in Ephesians for their first time reading the Scriptures, and they could receive Christ while reading His Word...they could have a life-changing experience but not know the Old Testament or about the Virgin Birth or any of that...hope I'm making sense.) At any rate, I suggest anyone who wants to form opinion on other brothers in Christ to see for themselves what that brother believes and preaches instead of trusting another's opinion about that brother.

Matthew said...

No, there is nothing inherently divisive about an "intellectual discussion of the theological or doctrinal landscape." But I do disagree in that it indeed seemed to me that there is an attack here on those who hold to "evangelical doctrine." I found very little in the post that clearly critiqued specific doctrine(s), so I have a hard time accepting that it is just a "critique of certain beliefs."

In short, I am not opposed to a discussion of how "evangelicalism" (a term we've yet to establish, let alone agree on) has erred. Instead, I voiced concern about the way, it seemed to me, people are being grouped together en masse and written off as simply "inferior Christians" if you will accept that they are Christians at all. If you do accept that they are Christians, than they are Christ's; if they are Christ's own, than who are you (or I) to call them names and want to distance ourselves from them as much as possible?

I do not say we all the same in beliefs, nor that we should pretend we are. But I personally as a 'protestant' do not balk at calling someone a brother or sister in Christ simply because they are Catholic, for example, though I personally object to many of the specifics of Catholic doctrine and practice. If they are Christ's, than we are in the same 'family.'

At the same time, this also does not mean I don't have issues with how and what of many things Anne Coulter, as a professed Catholic, says, for example. Christ be the judge; if she is His, than she is a sister. Plain and simple. His opinion matters a 'bit' more than mine, and he alone knows.

What it is I personally objected to was the name calling and writing off of other Christians whether you like them and all they do/believe or not. I objected to the seemingly mean-spirited way of saying "evangelical" is shorthand for "liberals, heretics, and generally mixed-up folk." If you or are in fact not heretics or generally mixed-up folks, it is solely by the grace of the Lord and of no work of your own, so why do you boast in yourself and show contempt for them?

At some point, it seems every strain of Christian belief thinks it is, if not the only true way, superior. Didn't Christ teach us humility? Arrogance concerning the purity of one's doctrine belief and contempt for others surely contradicts our faith, our fundamental reliance upon grace in all things, and any theology of our total depravity but for the Holy Spirit and his continual work of sanctification.

Let's not forget that the term Christian, the most common and broad term we have, began as a derogatory term, and is now one that umbrellas even more people you may wish to distance yourself from; it is associated with things such as the crusades...but few if any here are shying away from that rather 'broad' label. So if it is just about purity of association, why stop at evangelical? I fail to understand.

Again, drawing black lines about who are the "true Christians" or not, when scripture itself specifically says not to seems dangerous.

In truth we are all--doctrinally and practically--missing the mark to Love the Lord our God with the whole of our being while simultaneously loving our neighbors in a Christ-like fashion.

Likewise, we all should remember that scripture tells us put first things first--remove the planks from our own eye, and once that is accomplished, then offer to help remove the specs in our brothers eye.

Curt said...

I cannot imagine anyone having missed my point any more thoroughly. My target was not individuals within the groups that I mentioned. My point was that this once-understood term, "evangelical," is now used so widely, to describe such diverse groups, as to have no clear meaning. I for one, do not wish to be described by a term which can mean whatever anyone wants it to mean.

Christians, along with society in general, have gotten so overly-sensitive that it is impossible for us to speak the truth in love without someone complaining about being "hurt," and mortally offended. More about that, I think, next week.

tiger said...