Defining Evangelicalism?

Defining Evangelicalism?
by
Michael J. Iliff
(Any errors below are all mine)

What follows was first written back in 2007 (ish) and I’ve reproduced it here with a few changes in the hope that it makes sense. Some of the references might be a bit dated and some of the links are (sadly) no longer available, but, the point is to show that recent articles (or blog posts) on trying to define Evangelicalism is nothing new.

Evangelical[1] is, or can be, difficult to define, particularly when it has been suggested[2] that the term be dropped.  The word, whilst retaining a much older meaning,[3] has become so broad – it is said – to be of little or of no real value, and as regards any historic definition, become almost meaningless.  Evangelicalism is seen to be in crisis – at least definitionally. Is there any basis to this?  When one considers just a few titles[4] there is the impression of crisis. The evangelical umbrella has continued to widen, with several theologians, or popular figures, such as Clark Pinnock,[5] and Steve Chalke,[6] still[7] broadly viewed as evangelicals. They continue to write for evangelical publications, even though they have moved away from historic[8] orthodox teaching.

In 1992 Michael Horton[9] wrote,

‘Labels are often confusing, especially when the jar’s content changes. Grape juice can become vinegar over the years in the cellar, but the label doesn’t change with the changes in the substance.  The same is true of the term “evangelical.”’[10]

Evangelicals are finding it increasingly difficult to define themselves. Horton writing, again in 1992 said,

‘A number of evangelical leaders met at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School near Chicago two years ago for the purpose of defining the term “evangelical”, but many left as confused concerning what that label comprehends as they were when they arrived. It is becoming increasingly difficult to say what an evangelical is and is not.’[11]

John R de Witt[12] lists seven particulars of Reformed evangelicalism, rather than the Quadrilateral David Bebbington[13] suggests describing Evangelicalism as a whole.  de Witt calls this The Reformed Faith, not Reformed Evangelicalism.  Nevertheless, those of the Reformed Faith are Evangelicals, but not all evangelicals are Reformed.  For Reformed Christians the word ‘evangelical’ is packed with historic and Biblical meaning rather than an academic description[14] of a particular religious movement beginning in the 18th Century.  The distinction is between the reality of the evangelical movement, and Evangelicalism as understood by the Reformed Churches.  De Witt’s seven points are:

    1. The doctrine of scripture.
    2. The sovereignty of God.
    3. The grace of God.
    4. The Christian life.
    5. The law and gospel.
    6. The kingdom of God.
    7. Preaching.

Evangelical Times ran a series[15] of articles with the title ‘What is a Reformed Church’.

The Reformed Evangelical position is well summarised by the five Solas of the Reformation.  These are, “Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Soli Christus, Soli Deo Gloria”[16]. I don’t believe Reformed Evangelicalism can be summed up and categorised in quite the way David Bebbington describes Evangelicalism as a whole.  In 1977 Evangelical Times printed an article[17] that tried to answer the very same question that is being asked today in 2022 – What is an Evangelical? It’s been an ongoing problem for Reformed Evangelicals.  Lloyd-Jones addressed this same problem of definition in 1971 at the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students – reprinted as late as 1992.  Under a subheading, ‘Succumbing to the Ecumenical Spirit’, we read the following,

‘…there is the … danger… of being so broad, so wide, and so loose that in the end we have no definitions at all.  As I see things today, this is perhaps the greater danger because we are living in what is called the ecumenical age.’[18]

In 1996 The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (ACE) issued ‘The Cambridge Declaration’[19] calling Evangelical churches to repentance and a return to Reformation theology.  The Alliance, although primarily American,[20] through Evangelical Times published[21] the ‘Declaration’ in full, taking up a centre page spread.  Restating the “five Solas” it lamented the current condition within Evangelicalism. The opening statement of the ‘Declaration’[22] describes churches as dominated by the spirit of the age and changes to how evangelical is defined.

Whatever happened to the Reformation[23] urges readers ‘to turn to the theology of the Reformers’,[24] and is described as more ‘hard-hitting and to the point’[25] than other books and ‘as the title indicates, the problem with modern evangelicalism is its complete abandonment of all the Reformation stood for.  It has cut its ties with the Reformation and is like a ship adrift on stormy seas’.[26] With no clear alternative ‘Evangelical’ will continue to be used albeit with a defining hyphenation.

Moving forward to June 2005 in Evangelicals Now, evangelicalism appears to be no further forward.  Jonathan Stephen[27] writes,

‘…there is currently a huge crisis in evangelicalism …the term itself has become virtually meaningless. Virtually every conceivable religious deviation can now shelter under the umbrella of evangelicalism, if it so wishes’.[28]

However, it does appear that Dr Bebbington’s[29] four-point definition[30](Bebbington’s Quadrilateral) has become a commonly used umbrella term, even though many Reformed churches may find it a difficult and unsatisfactory category, as it falls short in addressing the distinctiveness of Reformed churches. Evangelical then, has a much longer history than what is presented to us in the Tele-evangelism found in America. You’ll get no argument from me about continued vigilance over usage and commentary on its abuse, but I see no reason why historic Evangelicals should abandon it. However, we, Evangelicals, should perhaps, be more careful how we use and abuse it ourselves and continue, or switch to, maybe, hyphenating it as ‘Reformed’ – Evangelical.

As a late addition: In 2006 Geoff Thomas gave two lectures in Rugby on Evangelicalism (Especially Part 2). Both well worth a listen. Evangelicalism: What’s in a Name – Part 1 & Part 2. ‘I’m not going to give it up because other people have abused it (Geoff Thomas Part 2).’ In fact you’d be much better off listening to these two lectures by Geoff! The links for these work.

[1] According to Strongs: G2097 εὐαγγελίζω – euaggelizō – yoo-ang-ghel-id’-zo

From G2095 and G32; to announce good news (“evangelize”) especially the gospel: – declare, bring (declare, show) glad (good) tidings, preach (the gospel).  Translated Preach/Preaching & Gospel/Good News

G2098 εὐαγγέλιον – euaggelion – yoo-ang-ghel’-ee-on

From the same as G2097; a good message, that is, the gospel: – gospel.  Translated Gospel.

For a more comprehensive definition see Thayer.  Available on e-sword.

[2] See Hart, D. G.  Deconstructing Evangelicalism: Conservative Protestantism in the Age of Billy Graham.  2004.  Baker Academic.  Grand Rapids.  R. C. Sproul has been heard to say the same, but no reference is available at this moment.

[3] Iain Murray writes: ‘Evangelion (that we call the gospel) is a Greek word; and signifieth good, merry, glad and joyful tidings, that maketh him sing, dance and leap for joy.  So Tyndale wrote in 1525, and at the same period all who so thought became described as ‘gospellers’ or, less commonly, as ‘evangelicals’.  Over two hundred years later it was the latter term that was to pass into more permanent usage at the time of the ‘Evangelical Revival’.  That it did not do so earlier is largely due to the fact that all the churches of the Reformation were ‘of the gospel’ in their creeds and confessions.  By the eighteenth century, however, while the profession of the national churches in England and Scotland remained orthodox there were many pulpits from which no gospel was heard and when the evangel was recovered a term was necessary to distinguish its preachers from others: they were the ‘evangelicals’.  Murray, Iain H.  Evangelicalism Divided.  2000.  The Banner of Truth Trust.  Edinburgh. p. 1.

[4] A small selection of titles: Armstrong, John.  (Ed.)  The Coming Evangelical Crisis.  1996.  Moody Press.  Chicago; Armstrong, John.  (Ed.)  The Compromised Church.  1998.  Crossway Books.  Wheaton; Glover, Peter C.  The Virtual Church and How to Avoid it.  2004.  Xulon Press; Johnson, Gary L. W. & Fowler White, R.  (Eds.)  Whatever Happened to the Reformation?  2001.  P & R Publishing.  Philipsburg, New Jersey; MacArthur Jr, John F.  Ashamed of the Gospel: When the Church Becomes like the World.  1993.  Crossway Books.  Nottingham; Murray, Iain H.  Evangelicalism Divided.  2000.  The Banner of Truth Trust.  Edinburgh; Phillips, Richard.  Turning Back the Darkness.  2002.  Crossway Books.  Wheaton.

[5] Pinnock holds to and promotes the doctrine of Open Theism.  For a larger treatment of this topic see: Ware, Bruce.  in Johnson, Gary L. W. & Fowler White, R.  (Eds.)  Whatever Happened to the Reformation?  2001.  P & R Publishing.  Philipsburg, New Jersey. P. 95 – 131.

[6] This refers to the recent controversy over penal substitutionary atonement as expressed by Steve Chalke in his book The Lost Message of Jesus.  Reviews of this book are available by searching the ET & EN websites. Also see Evangelicals Now September 2005 for a review of ‘The EA Symposium – Conference on the Cross’ by Mathew Mason.  Mason writes, ‘it is also sad that EA appears willing to permit people who deny a core evangelical belief to continue as members’.  Available: http://www.e-n.org.uk/3129-Conference-on-the-cross.htm

[7] ‘The Evangelical Alliance has so far failed [at the time of my writing] to act with regard to Steve Chalke’.  EN Jonathan Stevens.  There is also no sign of this happening at the Alliance Website. Available: http://www.eauk.org/theology/headline_issues/atonement/atonement-statement.cfm

[8] See a previous footnote.  Three people in three different areas of theology will demonstrate this and why they compromise evangelical theology.  Briefly, the names of three people; John Stott on eternal punishment; Clark Pinnock on Divine Foreknowledge and Steve Chalke on the Atonement.  In addition to this, more recently, ‘The New Perspective on Paul’ (e.g. Bishop Tom Wright) has caused concern.

[9] The Rev. Dr. Michael S. Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of systematic theology and apologetics at Westminster Seminary California. He is the main host of The White Horse Inn radio broadcast and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He received his M.A. from Westminster Seminary California, his Ph.D. from Wycliffe Hall, Oxford and the University of Coventry, and also completed a Research Fellowship at Yale University Divinity School.  Dr. Horton is the author/editor of more than fifteen books.  Available: http://www.whitehorseinn.org/about.htm

[10] Horton, Michael S. ‘What is an Evangelical?’ Available: http://www.christianity.com/partner/Article_Display_Page/0,,PTID307086|CHID560462|CIID1415584,00.html.

[11] Horton, Michael S.  ‘Evangelical Arminians: Option or Oxymoron?’  Available: http://www.modernreformation.org/mr92/mayjun/mr9203oxymoron.html (21/04/03).

[12] de Witt, John R.  What is the Reformed Faith?  1981.  The Banner of Truth Trust.  Edinburgh.

[13] Bebbington, D W.  Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A history from the 1730s to the 1980s.  Routledge.  London and New York.  2000.  The four are: Biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible (e.g. all spiritual truth is to be found in its pages); Crucicentrism, a focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross; Conversionism, the belief that human beings need to be converted; and Activism, the belief that the gospel needs to be expressed in effort.  Pp. 2 – 17.  Or, as on page 3, Bebbington puts it: ‘Together they form a quadrilateral (the underlining is my Emphasis) of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism’.

[14]  Hart, D. G.  Deconstructing Evangelicalism: Conservative Protestantism in the Age of Billy Graham.  2004.  Baker Academic.  Grand Rapids.  Hart argues the popular usage of the word ‘evangelicalism’ is a modern academic construct.

[15] ET. November 1996 – February 1997.

[16] Or, scripture alone, faith alone, grace alone, through Christ alone, to the glory of God alone.  We may also add to this the TULIP acrostic.  Also see Appendix 2, The Cambridge Declaration for an elaboration of the Solas of the Reformation.

[17] Evangelical Times. July 1977. p. 15 & 4.  ‘Who are we?  What is an evangelical?  Tell us somebody please!’  This was a report on the NEAC conference of that year.  The report in ET began by saying ‘It comes up here, it comes up there, the issue comes up everywhere.  Some duck it, some face it.  Some dismiss it, some debate it.  It is the burning issue of: ‘what is an evangelical?’’

[18] Lloyd-Jones, D.M.  What is an Evangelical?  1992.  The Banner of Truth Trust.  Edinburgh.  P. 22.

[19] The ‘Cambridge Declaration’ is essentially a restatement of the five Solas of the Reformation.  The full text of this document is available at: http://www.alliancenet.org/CC_Content_Page/0,,PTID307086|CHID581262|CIID,00.html

[20] Now also has UK members on the council.

[21] Evangelical Times, December, 1996, p 12 – 13.

[22] See Appendix 2 for the Declaration in full.

[23] Johnson, Gary L. W. & Fowler White, R.  (Eds.)  Whatever Happened to the Reformation?  2001.  P & R Publishing.  Philipsburg, New Jersey.

[24] From the Alliance bookstall: http://www.reformationalresources.org/merchant2/merchant.mv?Screen=PROD&Store_Code=RR&Product_Code=B-JOHNS-1

[25] Hanko, Herman C.  PRT Journal.  Vol 35, No.2, April 2002.  Book Reviews.  Review of ‘Whatever Happened to the Reformation’  Available: http://www.prca.org/prtj/apr2002.html#WhateverHappened

[26] Hanko, Herman C.  PRT Journal.  Vol 35, No.2, April 2002.  Book Reviews.  Review of ‘Whatever Happened to the Reformation’  Available: http://www.prca.org/prtj/apr2002.html#WhateverHappened

[27] Jonathan Stephens was for many years the Pastor of Carey Baptist Church, Reading, and combined this with becoming President of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches.  He also became General Secretary of the BEC, changing to Affinity under his leadership.  He is presently Principal of the Evangelical College of Wales (Bryntirion).

[28] Stephens, Jonathan.  Evangelicals Now, June 2005, ‘The current crisis in evangelicalism’.  Available:  http://www.e-n.org.uk/2005-06/3026-The-current-crisis-in-evangelicalism.htm

[29] http://paulhelmsdeep.blogspot.com/2007/08/calvin-am-toplady-and-bebbington-thesis.html

[30] David Bebbington continues to use his four-point definition in his latest book THE DOMINANCE OF EVANGELICALISM: The Age of Spurgeon and Moody.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.