What Is Evangelicalism?

Whenever I am asked where I am coming from theologically, I state that I am an evangelical Christian. However, since not everyone understands that term, it might be worthwhile to ask just what comprises being an evangelical.

While an entire thesis could be written on this topic, and it is often acknowledged by evangelicals themselves that it is not always easy to arrive at a fully agreed upon definition, allow me to take a stab at it here. And let me do it mainly by citing leading evangelicals.

One noted evangelical, D. A. Carson, spent a chapter on this issue in his 1996 book The Gagging of God. He noted what a fluid and amorphous creature evangelicalism is: “Giving a definition to evangelicalism is not only difficult, but is growing even more difficult as a wider and wider group of people apply the label to themselves. It may be, as some have suggested, that the term will eventually so lack definition as to be theologically useless…”

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Gagging of God, The by Carson, D. A. (Author) Amazon logo

Indeed, I note that he will have a brand new book appearing at the end of this month called, Evangelicalism: What Is It and Is It Worth Keeping? Anything by Carson is worth getting and this new volume looks to be well worth obtaining.

But getting back to his older volume, he there offers this proposal – after canvassing a wide range of options: “I hold that ‘evangelical’ and ‘evangelicalism’ are most helpful when they are held to their etymology in the evangel, ‘the gospel [God] promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son’ (Rom. 1:2-3), on the assumption that such an ‘evangel’ is held with firmness and sincerity of heart. In this light, evangelicalism as a movement must be seen to be determined by its center, not by its outermost boundary – and even that center must, in the light of its own confession, constantly be held up to the examination of Scripture.”

After noting the complexities involved in defining the term, English evangelical Alister McGrath offered this working definition in 1996: “[M]ost evangelicals and well-informed observers of the movement would suggest that evangelicalism is essentially colligatory, in that it finds its identity in relation to a series of central interacting themes and concerns…” These are: a focus on the person of Christ, the “identification of Scripture as the ultimate authority,” an emphasis on conversion or the “new birth,” and a concern for evangelism.

Other lists can be mentioned. George Marsden (back in 1984) offered these five points: the Reformation doctrine of the final authority of Scripture; the historical character of God’s redemptive activity as recorded in Scripture; salvation by faith in Christ alone; the importance of evangelism; and the importance of a spiritually transformed life.

And earlier, back in 1974, Richard Quebedeaux listed three “major theological principles”: the reliability and authority of Scripture, the need for a saving faith in Jesus Christ, and the urgency of seeking the conversion of the unsaved.

In the same year Carl F. H. Henry wrote: “Evangelical Christians are thus marked by their devotion to the sure Word of the Bible; they are committed to the inspired Scriptures as the divine rule of faith and practice. They affirm the fundamental doctrines of the Gospel, including the incarnation and virgin birth of Christ, His sinless life, the substitutionary atonement, and bodily resurrection as the ground of God’s forgiveness of sinners, justification by faith alone, and the spiritual regeneration of all who trust in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ”.

Another evangelical, New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg, put it this way in 1997: “We define Evangelicals as theologically conservative Protestants who make the truthfulness, authority and relevance of the Old and New Testaments central to their worldview, who have come to experience salvation from sin through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and the forgiveness he offers on the basis of his death on the cross, and who believe in the importance of actively sharing that faith with others”

English historian D.W. Bebbington offered this four-fold definition back in 1991: a belief in conversionism; the importance of activism; the place of biblicism; and the centrality of the cross. And this is how the National Association of Evangelicals (2000) put it in their Statement of Faith:

1.    We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.
2.    We believe that there is one God, eternally existent in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
3.    We believe in the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, in His virgin birth, in His sinless life, in His miracles, in His vicarious and atoning death through His shed blood, in His bodily resurrection, in His ascension to the right hand of the Father, and in His personal return in power and glory.
4.    We believe that for the salvation of lost and sinful people, regeneration by the Holy Spirit is absolutely essential.
5.    We believe in the present ministry of the Holy Spirit by whose indwelling the Christian is enabled to live a godly life.
6.    We believe in the resurrection of both the saved and the lost; they that are saved unto the resurrection of life and they that are lost unto the resurrection of damnation.
7.    We believe in the spiritual unity of believers in our Lord Jesus Christ.

One of the more recent “lists” is provided by John Stackhouse in 2001. He says: “First, evangelicals believe and champion the gospel of God’s work of salvation and particularly as it is focused in the person of Jesus Christ. . . . Second, evangelicals believe and champion the Bible as the uniquely authoritative rendition of God’s Word in words to us. . . . Third, evangelicals believe and champion conversion as the correct way to describe God’s work of salvation in each Christian and as a reality to be experienced, not merely affirmed. . . . Fourth, evangelicals believe and champion mission as the chief goal of Christian life on earth. . . . Fifth, evangelicals believe and champion these four elements of the generic Christian tradition in ways that other traditions do not.”

Of course, there are evangelicals and there are evangelicals. While many contemporary evangelicals have disassociated themselves from older fundamentalists, newer evangelicals may seek to distance themselves from more traditional evangelicals, such as Carl Henry or J.I. Packer. Called “progressive evangelicals” or “postconservative evangelicals” these thinkers seek to reassess some common evangelical traditions and understandings.

Many of these thinkers have been looking afresh at questions about the nature of God, for example. Indeed, questions associated with God’s immutability, impassibility and the extent of his foreknowledge have become hot topics of debate within evangelical circles lately. Then too there is the whole question of postmodernism and the evangelical interaction with it (or reaction to it). That debate is growing, as is the literature about it.

In spite of the flux, the fluidity and the somewhat changing nature of this beast called evangelicalism, there still remain some common assumptions and/or parameters. For example, to a large degree, there is a common feature found in all the above definitions and listings, namely the centrality of Christ and Scripture.

Thus, perhaps at the risk of over-simplifying matters, an evangelical can be defined as someone who, among other things, holds supreme allegiance to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and holds to a very high view of Scripture.

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7 Replies to “What Is Evangelicalism?”

  1. Most evangelicals wouldn’t know what characteristics describe themselves! I know I didn’t until only a few years ago.
    Adam Elovalis

  2. Excellent summary, Bill. For a long time I wondered what the much-maligned Evangelical was. Almost all of what you say describes my Pentecostal parents to a T! And actually it ought to describe every believer. What is left of Christianity if you don’t hold supreme allegiance to Jesus Christ as Savior, cling to the Scriptures as the unchanging Word of God and emphasise the evangelisation of this world? It would be a pretty empty belief!
    Dee Graf

  3. It may be overly simple but I always thought an evangelical was someone who: “Believed the Bible and strove to live by it through the grace of God.”
    Kylie Anderson

  4. Bill, I appreciate you writing this piece.

    I myself am part of movement, if you like, amongst Catholics. That is the charismatic renewal. I was 19yo when I experienced what I would describe as being dunked in the Holy Spirit, and then found myself with the gifts of tongues, boldness and latter prophecy etc. etc. For a typical Catholic, this was very exciting but I had a lot to learn.

    The one challenge I have for “evangelicals” is the position of “scripture alone”. It has always amused me (just being honest) that very intelligent Christians still embrace this entirely illogical doctrine.

    I guess Luther had to include it, otherwise, he would not have been able to make a clean break with ”other” authorities.

    Clearly in the 4th century when the final canon of scripture came to be formalised through the discernment of the authorities (bishops) at the time, we see the dynamic inter-play of Tradition and Scripture.

    Christ himself is the Word of God made flesh and he shares his authority with his church.

    How one can elevate the “text” of scripture above Christ’s living breathing body (the church) and its authority…eludes me. It reminds me, a little, of the way Islam treats the Koran.


    Luke McCormack

  5. Thanks Luke

    I tend to trash comments by either Catholics or Protestants who seek to have a go at each other, but it is only because I know you that I have allowed your rather sectarian remarks through. As I have said before, I don’t indeed to repeat the wars these two sides have been fighting, and both camps have hundreds of websites where people who want to engage in this can go to.

    But a few responses if I may. There is nothing “illogical” about the doctrine of sola scriptura. And maybe there is a very good reason why intelligent Christians embrace it. It flows from what Scripture itself teaches us. And as I have stated before, all Protestants who have a high view of Scripture also know that there is a place for tradition, reason, and so on as we approach Scripture. No one approaches Scripture completely alone, in a vacuum, and without help of some kind.

    The Bible is infallible but we are not. And of course Protestants think fallibility extends to every one of us, the church, as well as popes, whether or not they are speaking ex cathedra. And given Catholic history with plenty of contradictory pronouncements coming from Rome, the Papacy, and the Magisterium, your case is hardly airtight as well. Thus we all come to the Word with our finite and fallen condition, but depend upon the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth, as Jesus says in John 14 & 16.

    We should have a very high view of Scripture because Jesus and the disciples had such a high view of Scripture. Indeed, the whole of Scripture tells us repeatedly how important the written word is. Without the written word we would have very little to go on – even in terms of assessing Jesus and his works.

    And of course the fourth century bishops did not formalise Scripture as such. The NT canon was basically recognised, not voted on, and it was regarded as authoritative very early on.

    But as I say, for those who want to engage in anti-Protestant polemics (or anti-Catholic polemics) please go elsewhere.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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