What is Evangelicalism?

I happen to be a Protestant evangelical. While most Christians at least should know what that means, surprisingly, many do not. Indeed, I have even lectured to evangelicals in various classes, only to have some of them ask me what an evangelical is!

The answer one gets to this question of course partly depends on who is doing the asking. To the secular left and much of the mainstream media, evangelicals are fightin’ fundie theonomists who want to take over the world and put to death all renegades.

Um, no, not quite. So just what comprises an evangelical? A thesis could be written on this topic alone – and I am sure many have been. Even evangelicals themselves admit that this can be a bit tricky to fully pin down. Indeed, Robert Johnston’s comment that “agreed upon definitions of evangelicalism are difficult to find” may be an understatement.evangelicalOr as Alister McGrath has put it: “It is notoriously difficult to give a precise definition of evangelicalism”. And then there are those who think it is a perilous project to even attempt to identify the boundary markers of evangelicalism. Stanley Grenz for example spoke about the dangers of “setting theological boundaries for the evangelical movement.”

However, this issue is important and needs to be explored more closely, even if a definite answer might elude us. So let’s see what we can come up with here. One evangelical, D. A. Carson, spends a chapter on this issue in his 600-page The Gagging of God. In the chapter, “The changing face of Western evangelicalism” Carson notes 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.”

After canvassing a wide range of options, he offers this proposal: “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, McGrath offers this working definition of evangelicalism: “[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 offers 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.

Richard Quebedeaux lists 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. Evangelical stalwart Carl F. H. Henry says this:

“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, Craig Blomberg, puts it this way: “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 offers this four-fold definition: 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 puts 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.

Another definition is provided by John Stackhouse: “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 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. That particular discussion will have to be set aside here however.

In spite of the flux, the fluidity and the ever 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 to simplify issues, for my purposes, an evangelical can be defined as someone who, among other things, holds supreme allegiance to Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, and holds to a high view of Scripture. Of course such a definition may simply have raised more questions than it has answered.

But if I were asked to define myself, and/or evangelicalism, something like what I have offered here would have to suffice.

[1350 words]

10 Replies to “What is Evangelicalism?”

  1. Thanks for that as usual clear article, Bill. Although some new or young evangelicals might not be able to enunciate it clearly, I think a belief in justification by faith only is an essential tenet for an evangelical. The authority of Scripture and the centrality of Christ are also essential of course. The true conversion of the individual is also necessary for one to be called an evangelical.

    Many other things grow out of the authority of Scripture and an understanding of Christ’s work, such as a rejection of sacerdotalism. Sacerdotalists can be godly people, but they can hardly be called evangelicals.

  2. Hi Bill

    Thanks for the good read. Just a thought to add to the discussion. I done a study on this some time ago and my understanding was that a evangelist should be viewed in the light of there authority/office they hold. One who is called to the preaching of the gospel e.g. a pastor, minister, missionary etc, is an evangelist. The ‘flock’ then are not called to evangelise, but to witness. In light of everyone’s 3 fold office as prophet, priest and King, we do not have the authority to preach, but to share. This definition then changes the mentality of how we interact with those around us.

    Just reassessing my conclusions based on your article, and wondering if you could interact with the comment and if you came across anything similar in your research?

  3. Bill
    Thank you ever so much for that….early in my walk I had a prophet come up to me and tell me that he saw in me the mark of an evangelist, needless to say I was quite puzzled at the time as I had no desire to get up on any kind of soapbox, public speaking is just something I won’t/can’t do and the typical TV evangelist really turned me off

    Not wishing to argue with God I prayed at the time that if that was my cross to bare so be it, I would surrender to it but He had to make it happen according to His will.

    Now with your definition what has happened in the interim makes a whole lot more sense and I get it and feel a lot better about the label


  4. The Anglican (although not evangelical) theologian John Macquarrie wrote on the nature of God (omniscience, immutability, and so forth) in his Principles of Christian Theology in the 1960s. It is interesting that evangelical theologians are currently considering the same matters, and I would be interested in their conclusions.

  5. Bill,
    The issue of what evangelical was settled back in the Reformation; In essence a system of doctrine encompassed by The Shorter catechism, or The Heidelberg Catechism or the 39 Article of the Anglican church. Since the church in general has drifted far from its moorings you have collected a wide varieties of opinions of what it is, some of them are good. A high view of scripture is important, unfortunately this has been muddied by modern translations which omit important words; for example the NIV no longer has the words heretic or heresies. This has helped fan the flames of anti-evangelical doctrines today. Anyway there’s my 2d worth.

  6. I do not consider so-called “progressive evangelicals” or “postconservative evangelicals” to be evangelicals at all. They have simply hi-jacked the evangelical tag in an attempt to hide that they are, in essence, at least heterodox if not outright heretics. They claim to hold Christ as central (although even this is doubtful as they seem to pick and choose the bits of Christ they like and forget the rest), but they certainly don’t hold a high view of Scripture. Indeed, many are in reality soft-postmodernists: there may be absolute truth but how can we know what it is?

    Any evangelical wanting to remain faithful to evangelicalism would do well to stick to reading the Bible for themselves and the teaching of Henry, Schaeffer, Packer, Carson, Geisler and friends… Read these guys and you’ll quickly learn who you can and cannot trust.

  7. Thanks Bill.
    I rarely comment on this website these days, but this matter is close to my heart.
    I agree in essence with what Adrian and Andrew have posted, and I would point out that “evangelicalism” was/is well defined by the IVF doctrinal basis under the heading “Evangelical Belief” back in the 1940s, under the influence of the late Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones.
    Positively, it adheres to the Divine inspiration, supreme authority infallibility, inerrancy of Holy Scripture (the Old and New Testaments) in all that it affirms.
    It affirms God’s infinite transcendence, holiness, power, sovereignty and rule, over all affairs of His creation, and in the affairs of men in particular;
    It holds to the Trinity; the full Deity of Christ, His miracles, His offices of Prophet, Priest, and King, His substitutionary death and bodily resurrection, His ascension, and coming again in glory;
    it holds to the absolute necessity of the new birth by a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit, of justification by faith alone, of the necessity for salvation of repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ, of the Church as the company of God’s elect people, regenerated by the Spirit.

    It rejects mediating views of inspiration and the admission of errors in Holy Scripture;
    It rejects “new revelations of the Spirit” whether private or through some ‘johnny-come-lately’ prophet or leader;
    It rejects the atonement as a mere “moral influence” or example;
    It rejects all forms of sacerdotalism and “ex opere operato” views of the sacraments;
    It rejects the claims of Rome in respect of the papacy, the priesthood, the church hierarchy, the adoration of Mary etc.
    It rejects the deviations and unbelief of so-called liberal theology in all its forms.
    This is historic evangelicalism. If this seem to some to equate evangelicalism with “Calvinism”, then so be it. The term arose first in the 1530s when it was applied by its enemies (then the Roman Catholics) as a sneer regarding their adherence to “Scripture alone”. It became standard during the Evangelical Revival to describe those who accepted the message preached by Whitefield and other leaders within the Church of England – Venn, Grimshaw, Walker, Romaine, Simeon, etc. – Calvinists all.
    However, we have seen in our day evangelicalism decline so seriously under the impact of Biblical criticism, evolution, post-modernism, Arminianism-cum-open theism, etc. that much of it is not even recognisable by historical standards. The historic evangelical publishers (Baker, Zondervan, Eerdmans, Marshalls), can no longer be relied on the way they could once be; evangelical societies and seminaries such as the ETS or Fuller Seminary have now become inclusive in a away that their founders would never have allowed.
    The “emerging church” claims to be within the evangelical fold, but when its leaders (e.g. Rob Bell) asserts that the notion that God gave up his Son to the cross is just Divine child abuse and should be rejected with abhorrence, they show themselves as not evangelicals in any sense at all, but simply modern heretics.
    I could go on, but this will suffice. Here I stand!

  8. About 7 years ago, I wrote an article on the difficulty of determining just what constitutes an evangelical for the Salt Shakers magazine. This was subsequently modified and posted on the Creation Ministries site (http://creation.com/evangelical-litmus-test) and my views on this issue are expanded in that document.

    I’m currently in the UK for several months and so don’t have access to my library over here, but in the article above, I do cite a specific reference to page 173 of Marsden’s book ‘Fundamentalism and American Culture’ where a cartoon was reprinted depicting the ‘slide’ from Christianity to Atheism as being a series of descending steps. Those ‘steps’ were: the Bible not infallible, man not made in God’s image, no miracles, no virgin birth, no deity of Christ, no atonement, no resurrection, agnosticism and, finally, atheism.

    Marsden also analysed how during the 75-year ‘battle’ between the liberals and fundamentalists between 1850 and 1925, the liberal camp would ‘redefine’ the meaning of many of the basic Christian doctrines not by debating the doctrines themselves, but rather by changing what the words meant. So, for example, if you asked a liberal whether they believed in the resurrection, they would say “Yes” – the only problem was that they had changed the meaning of the word such that it did not refer to a physical resurrection! It was because of this confusion created by the redefinition of words that the ‘litmus test’ for a fundamentalist in the 1920’s was a belief in the Virgin Birth as it was difficult to redefine that specific doctrine.

    This technique of redefining words is even more rampant today. The term ‘fundamentalist’ has long since moved from someone who believes in a literal reading of Scripture to being a pejorative term, but we also can cite the high-jacking of many other words. Two such obvious examples are ‘gay’ and, in the context of this topic, ‘evangelical’. The very fact that Bill has written this article is, to my mind, proof that the word ‘evangelical’ has already been successfully hijacked by the liberal left. The net effect of this hijacking is that it has become an all-but-useless term in defining a person’s beliefs.

    The thesis I expound in the article cited initially is that if we are to continue to use the term ‘evangelical’, then the current ‘litmus test’ to define the word should be a person who accepts a straight reading of Genesis 1-11. Even ‘inerrancy of Scripture’ is no longer adequate because the term ‘inerrancy’ has also been high-jacked because, for example, theistic evolutionists would claim they believe in inerrancy – provided you ‘reinterpret’ what Scripture says! The reality is though that however much the theistic evolutionists try to use words to defend their position, they have taken the first of the descending steps to atheism as depicted in the cartoon mentioned above in Marsden’s book.

    Seven years on from my initial article, I still maintain my ‘litmus test’ to define an evangelical is valid, but wonder whether the issue has become academic and that the fight for the word ‘evangelical’ has already been lost. We could coin a new word – but that will suffer the same fate while the secular left retain their vice-like grip on the media and the theological left retain their equivalent hold on the theological colleges.

    However, regardless of the battle over words, it is imperative that those people who do subscribe to what I would call a ‘traditional evangelical’ position do not water down their own doctrines and continue to highlight the inadequacy of the liberal position.

    Roger Birch

  9. After finishing a blog discussing my own evangelicalism, I ran across this article that does use twice as many words – but many more references – to well explain what I have had on my mind. Mine is in line for publication (I try to write a couple of days in advance) and will not garner a large audience, but it most certainly holds Jesus as Savior, scripture as truth and eternal souls as focus. Thank you for sharing. As as after thought, I’ve borrowed your graphic – with a link back to this article. If in appropriate, please let me know and I will not use it.

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