I hope to begin posting reviews of recent reading within the next week. I have already finished several books that I plan to review and will be finished others soon. Before I do so, however, I wanted to post a few thoughts on a question that has been a live one over the last few weeks: what is an evangelical?
Rachel’s post, which prompted a number of the posts that followed, was a response to the contested nature of her claim to evangelical identity. Within it she argues that she is an evangelical, but that being an evangelical need not involve many of the things that her critics presume that it does.
Reading her defence of her evangelical credentials is fascinating on several counts and will provide a good starting point for a discussion of the problematic character of evangelical identity more generally.
Much of her post is concerned to observe that while she identifies as one, she doesn’t conform to the standard evangelical stereotype. One of the things that will immediately strike many who read her blog outside of the US is that many aspects of the evangelical stereotype that she is countering are especially or peculiarly American. In other countries, many of those identifying as evangelicals will happily vote for left-wing candidates, or aren’t especially politicized at all. There is plenty of support for women priests among many evangelicals that I know, along with advocacy for gay rights, and inclusivist positions on salvation. Many varying views exist on young earth creationism and premillennial dispensationalism is less of an influence on evangelical views on foreign policy in most countries outside of the US. One of the benefits of the recent work of David Swartz on the evangelical left in America is that it highlights something of the historical and cultural contingency of the prevailing stereotype and perhaps opens imaginations to new possibilities for identity.
Beyond her clarification of what she is not, however, Rachel’s positive argument for her evangelical credentials is rather muddied. In answering the question ‘what “evangelical” means to me’, she opines:
It means, in the Greek, “gospel” or “good news” (evangelion). And so, as an evangelical, I am a follower of Jesus who is committed to proclaiming the good news that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.
One wonders what really differentiates much of this from the position of most committed Christians, of any denominational or theological stripe.
One interesting feature of this claim is the added words ‘and Caesar is not’ to the proclamation of Jesus’ Lordship. While the addition of these words alongside the affirmation of Jesus’ Lordship – rather than as merely one implication among several within it – might suggest to some a form of Christianity with a primarily prophetic and oppositional social orientation, placing a greater accent on the transformation of the public sphere and the challenging of the powers, I think that we should be wary of reading too much into this. Notwithstanding, we should make a mental note of it: it can be informative to see where people put such emphases.
The increasingly popular stress upon the counter-imperial rhetoric of the gospel, following NT scholars such as Richard Horsley and N.T. Wright strikes me as overblown: I have been interested by the fact that a number of my friends who are classical historians have so little time for such theories. Now, I enjoy Wright as much as the next guy and probably know his work much better, having read all of his major publications and his unpublished doctoral thesis about three times each, but this is one of the areas where I would more critical of him.
Whether or not Wright is along the right lines here, however, presenting such anti-imperialism, which is little more than implicit in the biblical rhetoric at best, as if it were something that were central to the definition of the gospel, seems to lack the sort of circumspection that is demanded of us in such cases and is at serious risk of reductionism.
It means, traditionally, an impassioned personal response to the gospel and a commitment to the scriptures that point to it. And so, as an evangelical, I am deeply invested in my faith, at both a personal and communal level, and I believe that all scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, challenging, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that people of faith are equipped to love God and their neighbors.
Once again, I am uncertain of how such a definition would successfully distinguish an evangelical from many Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Christians, for instance. In defining ‘evangelical’ in such a manner, what might we be suggesting about non-evangelical Christians? Do they not respond passionately and personally to the gospel? Are they not invested in their faith or committed to the importance of Scripture in the Church?
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Rachel’s answer is that it presents the core of evangelical identity less in a particular set of beliefs about God and divine revelation in the gospel than in a particular character of response to it. Any doctrinal definition to evangelical identity is slight at best.
While she doesn’t say so explicitly, I am left wondering whether Rachel experiences the core of evangelical identity as something residing in a sort of affective, emotional, and expressive piety, a piety whose liveliness and sincerity is of more import than its vaguely articulated object (hence the language of ‘deep investment’, ‘impassioned personal response’, ‘commitment’, etc.). This piety functions as a sort of ‘mother tongue’ – to employ Rachel’s expression – that bubbles to the surface at moments of passion or in more intimate contexts. One wonders whether anything more substantial than the posture of a Ricouerean ‘first naïveté’ (regarded nostalgically from the perspective of one desiring a second naïveté) is being referred to here.
Some might counter this suggestion by pointing to Rachel’s allusion to 2 Timothy 3:16-17 and its affirmation of the inspiration of Scripture. Surely this presents us with a clear object of evangelical commitment, albeit one shared by people of most Christian identities? Yet, although Rachel affirms that ‘all scripture is inspired by God’, the reader is left uncertain of how to reconcile this with her unapologetically selective approach to its application, her hermeneutical convictions, and her underlying doctrine of Scripture and its authority. The precise import of this statement is far from apparent.
I believe that it is revealing that, when challenged on whether her attitude towards Scripture is an evangelical one, her response is to appeal, not primarily to her doctrine and use of Scripture, but to her love of it, to her feelings towards it. Of course, to insist that one loves Scripture is not answer the question of the sense in which you are bound by and to it.
A further thing worth noticing is that, in defining herself as evangelical, Rachel’s emphasis is overwhelmingly placed upon the personal and affective, rather than upon objective doctrinal commitments, public identities, congregational, denominational, and institutional affiliations, or ecclesiastical, sacramental, or liturgical practices. This emphasis is betrayed in wording that consistently treats individual affective interiority as the source and measure of evangelical identity – ‘an impassioned personal response’, ‘deeply invested’, ‘my faith’, what it ‘means to me’, etc.
As I read her post on her evangelical identity, the impression that I am left with is that, for Rachel, her sense of evangelical identity is primarily something that is grounded in her own feelings – her love of the Bible, her passionate response to the gospel, and her deep personal investment in her faith. Consequently, to challenge her evangelical identity is to challenge the validity of her feelings and passions. As, unlike doctrinal positions, feelings and passions aren’t so accessible or subject to public analysis or judgment, Rachel feels able to dismiss quite lightly all challenge on this front, without the need to make a theological case for herself. Crucially, evangelicalism is a matter of self-definition or self-identification and when it comes to the term ‘evangelical’, what matters is what it ‘means to me’.
All of this is underlined in the conclusion of Rachel’s piece, where she writes:
Now, folks will disagree with what I’ve said here, but that just goes to show that evangelicalism is fluid and amorphous, its definition up for debate.
Labels tend to divide and distract, so I don’t want to dwell here, but on the occasion that I identify as evangelical, this is what it means to me.
Hope that clears some things up.
In the case of any term with a public and objective meaning, such an assertion would be little more than mere question-begging. Disagreement with Rachel’s definition is taken as proof that ‘evangelicalism is fluid and amorphous, its definition up for debate.’ The possibility that Rachel’s definition could simply be wrong and that evangelicalism is really quite clear in its definition – a definition that excludes her position – is not countenanced. Because for Rachel evangelicalism is a matter of self-identification, “what ‘evangelical’ means to me” serves as a sufficient way of defining the term. If someone self-identifies as evangelical in a manner rather different from you, no real grounds for dispute exist: ‘evangelical’ means different things to different people and there isn’t really a public and objective definition to which you can appeal.
Reading Rachel’s definition one is left wondering how exactly it is ‘up for debate’ at all. How does one go about debating the meaning of something that is fundamentally defined subjectively? A contested meaning is not necessarily the same thing as a debatable meaning. Whenever someone does challenge such a definition of ‘evangelical’ the predictable response is the accusation that they are trying to ‘own’ or ‘have a monopoly upon’ the term. Where no public definition is admitted, all we are left with are competing wills, with no standard by which to arbitrate between them.
Taken on its own terms, Rachel’s definition of ‘evangelical’ is an exceptionally weak one, a wax-nose that can be fashioned into more or less anything that a person desires, and which gives us little explicitly with which to distinguish evangelicals from other sorts of Christians (could identifying as ‘evangelical’ possibly be a self-protective action to avoid association with the liberals or other Christian groupings?). That said, although her definition of ‘evangelical’ is near to useless, I want to argue that the fact that she describes herself in such a manner is perhaps the strongest proof that we have that she is an evangelical after all.
We should not make the mistake of confusing evangelical forms of self-definition with the actual definition of evangelicalism. The actual definition of evangelicalism has a lot more to do with the manners in which those within it consistently self-define than with any particular one of their many self-definitions.
Denny Burk’s Post
Denny Burk responded to Rachel’s post on his blog. He focuses on the definition of the gospel, calling out Rachel’s ‘Jesus is Lord and Caesar isn’t’ formulation as flawed and reductionist.
In contrast to Rachel’s highly subjective definition, Denny appeals to David Bebbington’s famous quadrilateral definition of evangelicalism. Denny writes:
According to Bebbington, evangelicals have four leading characteristics: biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism. Biblicism refers to the fact that evangelicals look to the Bible alone as the ultimate authority and measure of all truth. From the 1820’s onward, a growing body of evangelicals also insisted on inerrancy, verbal inspiration, and the need for literal interpretation of the Bible (Bebbington, 13-14). Crucicentrism focuses on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and the necessity of his substitutionary atonement for sinners (Bebbington, 15). Conversionism is the conviction that sinners need to be born again through the spirit and to repent and believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Activism refers to the fact that evangelicals are doers. They believe that their faith should be worked out in good works.
There are a number of things to observe here. Bebbington’s definition of evangelicalism is a historical one. As a historical definition, we should beware of exalting it to the level of a timeless theological definition. Evangelicalism is a historical movement and, like all historical movements, it is subject to change and development, its character shifting over time. Burk’s quotation itself suggests this in the statement: ‘From the 1820’s onward, a growing body of evangelicals also insisted on inerrancy, verbal inspiration, and the need for literal interpretation of the Bible.’ On what basis are we to rule out evangelical identity shifting in different directions, or is such development excluded by definition? Just because most evangelicals didn’t traditionally accept women in leadership, for instance, is no reason why the widespread presence of women leaders shouldn’t be a mark of evangelicalism in the future.
Bebbington’s is a more descriptive and less prescriptive definition, although many use it in a more prescriptive manner today. By seeking to freeze evangelical identity at one desired point in its historical development progressive forms of evangelicalism are excluded a priori. While conservative evangelicals may not appreciate what progressive evangelicals have done with their birthright, I don’t believe that they have grounds to deny them it.
Bebbington’s definition is a historically and culturally situated definition. This is a crucial point to remember. Bebbington is speaking of evangelicalism as a British phenomenon up to the 1980s. The story of evangelicalism in the US is a different story, one that isn’t shaped by the presence of an established church, for instance. Also, much has changed in Britain since the 1980s. Evangelicalism has always been a very diverse movement. In recent years in the UK the shared characteristics that Bebbington identified have been diluted in various ways and we have a situation of looser family resemblances instead.
The Changing Character of British Evangelicalism
My impression is that, in British evangelical circles traditionally evangelical forms of biblical hermeneutics and the commitment to inerrancy and literal interpretation have come under sustained criticism over the last few decades, as have many traditional evangelical understandings of the cross in terms of penal substitution. Something of a recovery of the centrality of the resurrection has also occurred in many circles, leading to less of an exclusive focus upon the cross and its attendant themes and the casting of the gospel that it encourages.
Evangelical activism has shifted in its form. It has been professionalized, with a proliferation of church ministries. Words such as ‘relevant’, ‘contextualization’, ‘seeker sensitive’, and ‘missional’ have come into vogue and cultural engagement is all the rage. Despite the popularity of adjectives such as ‘radical’ and ‘scandalous’, evangelicalism is probably providing less of a culture shock than ever to the unchurched. Many of the hard edges of evangelical rhetoric have been softened and the new evangelicalism is marketed as far more inviting and much less threatening, proclaiming more of a God who will facilitate our self-realization, and less of a God who calls us to costly self-sacrifice, self-denial, and service.
Finally, in place of the old conversionism, we have more of a ‘missionalism’. The urgency and imperative of repentance and faith are less firmly and uncompromisingly stressed. The fate of the unconverted is increasingly a matter of agnosticism or is responded to with hopeful suggestions of inclusivism or even universalism. Instead of challenging and direct appeals to individuals’ consciences we are more likely to encounter a therapeutic emphasis. The accent has steadily shifted from ‘reaching the lost’ to ‘church growth’, with an attendant focus upon target groups, niche ministries, and the like. In keeping with this movement away from confrontational forms of ministry, friendship and hospitality evangelism have been increasingly emphasized.
Other related far-reaching changes have occurred, perhaps most noticeably in the rapid rise of modern worship styles and the displacing of the more traditional theological emphases of evangelical worship with those represented within the contemporary waves of worship songs. Evangelicalism in the UK has probably become more exposed to foreign influences on account of new media. Evangelicals have generally welcomed new audio-visual and Internet technology into the lives of their churches, being very sanguine about any negative influences that they might have. Corporate and consumer-driven models for church structure, growth, and outreach have gained in popularity, encouraging the development of different models of church.
Now, although most of these might appear to be negative developments – and I believe that on balance these developments have been for the worse, although not unmixed with some positive improvements – my point is not to lament the current state of British evangelicalism, but to observe that it is evolving. To define evangelicalism in a way that precludes the possibility of such developments is to treat a descriptive definition as if it were a prescriptive and normative one.
For a host of reasons, the story and identity of evangelicalism in the US is a different one from that of the UK, with different formative events, associations, and family resemblances. Evangelicalism in the UK has not had the same relationship with mass media or politics as evangelicalism in the US. It hasn’t been driven by personalities to the same degree and my impression is that it has enjoyed much more denominational definition than its corresponding movement in the US. Non-denominational and para-church movements along with independent Christian institutions, organizations, and agencies seem to exert far more of an influence on evangelical identity in the US. Evangelicalism also hasn’t been a dominant force in the culture in the UK as it has been in the US, another fact which has shaped its character.
Pentecostals are nearly the greatest single constituency in UK evangelicalism, with the highest rate of evangelical self-identification of any denominational grouping. Many non-Pentecostal evangelicals in the UK are charismatic to some degree or other. The other great grouping of evangelicals occurs in the Church of England, where evangelicals constitute about a third of the church. The majority of UK evangelicals support women in ministry. The composition and emphases of UK evangelicalism contrasts with US evangelicalism, where Southern Baptists are the biggest players. The weighting of emphases and the character historically associated with conservative evangelicalism are not so dominant in evangelicalism in the UK today.
I suspect that self-identification as ‘evangelical’ in the UK today often owes a lot less to theological distinctives than it did in the past and in many contexts may say more about worship styles and forms of emotionally expressive, affective, and extroverted piety than about adherence to a doctrine of penal substitution or the inerrancy of Scripture. It is far from uncommon to hear the word ‘evangelical’ being used interchangeably with ‘happy clappy’ or applied as a descriptor for groups primarily on account of their dressed down, hip and youth-oriented, audio-visually enhanced, low church, and modern styles of worship.
All of the above is designed to make the point that we should not expect the word ‘evangelical’ to do the job of guarding orthodoxy for us. It is a descriptive term, whose meaning has evolved and continues to evolve over time. It is rooted in historical narratives and cultural contexts and cannot be raised to the level of a timeless identity. Evangelicalism in the US and the UK are different things, diverse movements, with considerable variation within them both. Within my next post, I will explore this character of evangelical identity in more depth. I will engage with Adrian Warnock and Jake Belder’s posts. I will question the usefulness of the term for most of the purposes for which people like to employ it and suggest some ways forward.