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Can Evangelicalism Be Defined?

Characteristics of Evangelicalism

Can evangelicalism be defined, or is it so flimsy and malleable that it constantly succumbs to its context, shapeshifting according to when and where it is? Such was D. G. Hart’s argument. “Evangelicalism,” he wrote, “needs to be relinquished as a religious identity because it does not exist. In fact, it is the wax nose of twentieth-century American Protestantism.”1 (Imagine how strange that sounds to non-American evangelicals.) But Hart is not alone; consider, for example, the quip that an evangelical is just someone who likes Billy Graham. Or take the case of Pope Francis. Shortly after his elevation to the papacy, the media dubbed him the “evangelical pope” because of his apparent Christ-centeredness.2 Some saw this as proof that evangelicalism had finally lost all its boundaries, if even the pope could be conscripted into its ranks.

But surely that is unfair. Labeling Pope Francis the “evangelical pope” says nothing more than that the pope was perceived by the media to be leaning in a particular—and recognizably evangelical—theological direction. (Of course, whether he was actually leaning toward a more evangelical theology is quite another question.) The Pope Francis example seems more indicative of a widespread confirmation bias: a desire among those disaffected by evangelicalism to look for any proof of the inherent shapelessness of evangelicalism.

“I know what constituted an Evangelical in former times,” wrote Lord Shaftesbury in the late nineteenth century; “I have no clear notion what constitutes one now.”3 Written two centuries ago, that could be taken to imply the constancy of confusion over what defines an evangelical. What Shaftesbury meant, though, was simply that confusion had come in where once there had been clarity. And so it is today: in America, in Europe, and elsewhere, there is widespread confusion over what it is to be evangelical and widespread misappropriation of the word. For historical reasons, for example, evangelische in German (and evangelisk in Swedish) connotes Lutheran, whether liberal or conservative. But none of that confusion means that clarity is impossible to come by. Nor should misuse stop use.

Gospel People

Michael Reeves

Should Christians abandon the evangelical label? Michael Reeves argues from Scripture and church history that Christians should return to the evangel—the gospel—in order to identify the clear theology of evangelicalism.

The most common “definition” of evangelicalism found today— and the one that has become the benchmark of all discussions of the subject—is David Bebbington’s quadrilateral. There are, he wrote, four qualities that have been the special marks 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 what may be called crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.4

It may sound so esoteric that few evangelicals would quickly recognize it as theirs, but it does rightly show, as Bebbington wanted, that evangelicalism has “a common core that has remained remarkably constant down the centuries.”5 In fact, that seems to have been Bebbington’s main aim: he was setting out, as a historian, to trace common characteristics or family resemblances. He did not mean for his quadrilateral to become a “definition” of evangelicalism. Yet it has quickly been received as a definition, and as a definition it is problematic. For one thing, when read as a comprehensive definition, it makes evangelicalism look sectarian in its choice of these apparently random emphases and its omission of such central doctrines as the Trinity and the person of Christ. When read as a definition, it is also unhelpfully vague. For what pre-Reformation pope would be excluded? The meaning of “lives being changed,” “the gospel in effort,” “a particular regard for the Bible,” and “a stress on the sacrifice of Christ” are so open that many Roman Catholics—even Jehovah’s Witnesses—could happily so identify as “evangelical.” Indeed, they have.6

Perhaps the real problem with taking Bebbington’s quadrilateral as a definition, though, is that it gives a historian’s descriptive analysis. That is, it seeks to describe what you see on the ground among those who call themselves evangelical. Now that is quite right for a historian trying to understand the historical characteristics of a tradition, but we should not define a Christian tradition—any Christian tradition—like that. We do not, for example, get our understanding of what it means to be Reformed simply by looking around at everything that calls itself Reformed. But we have done so with evangelicalism, and that attempt to define evangelicalism sociologically is precisely the problem at the heart of the evangelical identity crisis today.7 If “evangelicalism” is merely a sociological category and means nothing more than the common traits of all who wear the label, of course evangelicalism will look a shallow thing. If “evangelical” theology is stretched to fit all that, then it is the product not of historic and biblical doctrines but of whatever theology is currently doing the rounds. In that case, “evangelicalism” must be vacuous and faddish. Defining evangelicalism sociologically is a good way to help it sleepwalk into what Francis Schaeffer called “the great evangelical disaster—the failure of the evangelical world to stand for truth as truth. There is,” he wrote, “only one word for this—namely accommodation: the evangelical church has accommodated to the world spirit of the age.”8

Evangelicalism must be defined theologically, by the evangel.

A Theological Definition

Evangelicalism must be defined theologically, by the evangel. A good number of evangelical leaders have made careful attempts to do so, defining evangelicalism theologically, and the harmony of their voices is striking.9 Some have already been mentioned in this book, but here are three relatively recent definitions laid out in full for comparison.

George Marsden argued that evangelicals are those who hold to:

  1. the Reformation doctrine of the final authority of Scripture;
  2. the real, historical character of God’s saving work recorded in Scripture;
  3. eternal salvation only through personal trust in Christ;
  4. the importance of evangelism and missions; and
  5. the importance of a spiritually transformed life.10

Marsden’s definition is noticeably similar to J. I. Packer’s, demonstrating the level of consensus about evangelicalism among evangelical theologians.

Packer once listed the six marks of evangelical faith as follows:

  1. The supremacy of Holy Scripture
  2. The majesty of Jesus Christ
  3. The lordship of the Holy Spirit
  4. The necessity of conversion
  5. The priority of evangelism
  6. The importance of fellowship11

Elsewhere, he wrote of another “distinguishing mark of the worldwide evangelical fraternity”:

  1. Penal Substitutionary Atonement12

It may at first seem that these seven marks are an unwarranted leap away from the simplicity of having but a material principle (the gospel) and a formal principle (the truth and supremacy of the Scriptures). But there is something compelling about Packer’s list: the first three are clearly theological, the next three the practical outworkings of that theology (and, one might say, the seventh mark is really just an elaboration of the second). They show that the practical concerns of evangelicalism flow from theological convictions. In other words, evangelicals act, not out of cultural or political leanings, but out of theological, biblical convictions.

More importantly, Packer’s first three theological marks are Trinitarian. They show that evangelicals do not detach the gospel from the God of the gospel.

John Stott believed that this Trinitarian, theology-led description of evangelicalism could be made even clearer and simpler. He therefore amended Packer’s list, bringing everything—the theological and the practical—under three essential marks:

  1. Bible: the revelation of God the Father
  2. Cross: the redemption of God the Son
  3. Spirit: the ministry of God the Spirit13

Here, the evangelical concerns for conversion, evangelism, and fellowship (also flagged by Marsden) are clearly made, not additions to the theology, but an extension and application of it. And it is not that Stott crassly shoehorned everything into three simply for the look of being Trinitarian. He saw that evangelicals want to be clear about which God they worship (so as not to be confused with groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses). They also want to be clear that their theology derives from Scripture. And lastly, they actually need to be clear on two things about the gospel: the unique, redemptive work of Christ and the ongoing, regenerative work of the Spirit.

Notes:

  1. D. G. Hart, Deconstructing Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004), 16. For a response, see Timothy Larsen, “D. G. Hart, Deconstructing Evangelicalism: Conservative Protestantism in the Age of Billy Graham,” The Journal of Religion 85, no. 1 (January 2005): 120–21.
  2. Jennifer Leclaire, “Evangelist Luis Palau Has Laid Hands on Pope Francis,” Charisma News, March 21, 2013, https://www.charismanews.com/; George Weigle, “The Christ-Centered Pope,” National Review, September 20, 2013, https://www .nationalreview.com/.
  3. E. Hodder, The Life and Work of the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, K. G. (London, 1888), 738.
  4. D. W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989), 3.
  5. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, 4.
  6. Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom, Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker; Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2005), 12–13, 23.
  7. In the United States, for example, “evangelicalism” is read by many as a political, cultural, or racial category such that nominal, unregenerate Americans claim the designation of evangelical while either not following Christ at all or allowing political tribalism to upstage gospel fidelity. As a British, self-confessed evangelical, it is hard to take in how politically charged the word evangelicalism feels in America. For it is just not so on the British side of the pond (or in Australia, Europe, Africa, South America, or South Korea). Outside the US, evangelicals are politically concerned to be sure: we know our theology has political consequences. But we are not a political or racial block. However, while America has unparalleled global influence, it seems odd that the global majority must dance to the tune of a recent American anomaly. There are, after all, many millions more evangelicals outside North America than inside. In fact, there are more in Nigeria and Brazil alone. To judge by percentage of population, the heartlands of evangelicalism today are not the United States or the UK, but South Korea and Kenya. Evangelicalism is a very long way from being an exclusively American reality: American controversies should not be held to define it.
  8. Francis Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1984), 37.
  9. See also J. I. Packer and Thomas Oden, One Faith: The Evangelical Consensus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004).
  10. George M. Marsden, ed., Evangelicalism and Modern America (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984), ix–x.
  11. J. I. Packer, The Evangelical Anglican Identity Problem: An Analysis (Oxford: Latimer House, 1978), 20–23.
  12. J. I. Packer, “What Did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution,” Tyndale Bulletin, 25 (1974): 3.
  13. John Stott, Evangelical Truth: A Personal Plea for Unity (Leicester: IVP, 1999), 28, 103.


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