What is Evangelicalism? – Part 1

Read the other parts of ‘What Is Evangelicalism?’
Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

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?

Following a post by Rachel Held Evans on the subject, a number of people have addressed the question, including Denny Burk, Jake Belder, and Adrian Warnock.

Rachel’s Post

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.

Rachel continues:

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.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Church History, Politics, The Church, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to What is Evangelicalism? – Part 1

  1. There you go again undermining Rachel’s voice by saying it is emotionally grounded rather than objective. You really don’t get it do you. I am once again amazed at how you present all the things you agree with as being objective and therefore correct and the things that you disagree with as being somehow subjective.

    • John H says:

      I wonder if you are projecting onto Alastair your own subconscious belief that the “emotional” and “subjective” are of less value than the “objective”. After all, Ms Held Evans seems to be unembarrassed about her views being “emotionally grounded rather than objective”: what could be more subjective than “this is what it means to me”, or “my religious mother tongue”?

      Alastair isn’t “undermining” RHE in some awful, mansplaining, patriarchal-throwback way (and you really should consider the rhetorical powerplay that is involved in the manner in which you have chosen to criticise Alastair’s post). He is disagreeing with her.

    • Thanks for the comments, Alan.

      Rachel and I obviously don’t see eye to eye on a number of issues. I am quite prepared to acknowledge that I believe that her claims and causes often tend to derive their force, rationale, and momentum from an emotional response, rather than a reasoned case. When those claims and causes are challenged or called to justify themselves in rational debate, I have found that the response is one of outrage, claims of persecution, or accusations of male chauvinism, rather than careful engagement with the critic.

      Given the amount that I have engaged with the specifics of Rachel’s claims in the past, I don’t think that it is fair to accuse me of lightly dismissing her positions by appeal to a sexist stereotype, or exploiting tactics of projection or gaslighting (a ploy or dynamic which can also be at work within accusations of gaslighting – meta, I know!). No, I have become persuaded that her positions are emotion-driven and exploit outrage to an unhealthy degree only after extensive attempts at critical engagement with her positions met with emotional outrage and evasion, and as I began to notice patterns in her treatment of her critics and positions with which she differed.

      But, yes, it is easy to deceive yourself about the true nature of your position and, especially when people accuse you of gaslighting or employing sexist stereotypes to dismiss someone else’s positions, you want more than your own perception of the situation to rely upon. So, for this and other reasons, throughout the majority of my engagement with Rachel’s positions, I have run my comments past a close female friend, someone whose insight and judgment I highly respect, attuned to how unhealthy dynamics in such situations can feel from a female vantage point, with a genuinely independent perspective from me and upon the issues under debate, and quite prepared to call me out if need be. Aware of the dangers of an unbalanced male perspective in sensitized debates, I have run comments and posts by her, generally before posting them (this comment included), asking her whether I was being unfair in my characterization of Rachel and her position, or in the manner in which I engaged with her. She came through the experience even more frustrated with Rachel than I am.

      This post was not about Rachel, but about the meaning of evangelicalism. Rachel just happened to start the conversation and provides a very good case study. My concern was primarily to characterize her position, not to criticize it. I made an argument that her definition of evangelicalism is a subjectively grounded one, rather than one with clear objective parameters. I claimed that her definition is a weak one that admits far too much. Although I criticize her definition of evangelicalism, my primary concern in mentioning her was to characterize her definition of evangelicalism as, I will go on to argue, this characterization can help to give us clues as to why she is an evangelical after all and that this mode of self-definition is a characteristic ‘family resemblance’ that is often seen among evangelicals (though not adopted by all).

      It should also be noticed that this post didn’t really have much to say about ‘Rachel’s voice’ at all. It should be pointed out that I didn’t say that Rachel’s voice was just subjective and emotionally grounded. Rather I said that her self-definition as evangelical boiled down to being little more than subjectively and emotionally grounded. There is an important distinction between these two claims.

      You obviously dislike my conclusions. Fortunately, I have provided evidence and sketched an argument in favour of those conclusions: if you dislike my conclusions, you have the means to challenge them. I am quite happy to be persuaded that Rachel’s definition of evangelical isn’t a subjective one and that it truly serves effectively to distinguish between Christians that are and Christians that aren’t evangelicals. I have no intention of depreciating the subjective and the emotional, which are absolutely essential in their appropriate places. Unfortunately, they can limit our progress when they start to take the place of reasoned interaction in the realm of public discourse.

  2. John H says:

    “Despite the popularity of adjectives such as ‘radical’ and ‘scandalous’, evangelicalism is probably providing less of a culture shock than ever to the unchurched.”


  3. Not at all John. I am comfortable with people coming at things from different perspectives but there is a recurring theme of suggesting that an emotional response is less objective than a rational one. Both are constructs and therefore subjective.

  4. Very helpful post, Alastair. I found your last section on the changing character of British evangelicalism especially helpful. It seems to me that you may have touched on what I haven’t been able to put my finger on yet — why there seems to be a distinction between a definition of ‘evangelicalism’ on paper, and one in practice — namely, that self-identification as evangelical has less to do these days with theological distinctives. Lots of food for thought here. I’m looking forward to your next post.

  5. Monte Harmon says:

    When did the responsibility for the definition of the category “evangelical” move from the church to the individual? As you have noted, if the individual gets to define the meaning of words, then what they say can mean whatever they wish it to. (Note that this is a power-play, or in the words (paraphrased) of someone writing recently, an act of violence by the one defining the words against those who don’t accept the same meaning.)

    Following that path further, they can deconstruct what the church says and reinterpret it to mean anything they wish also. So if I wish to believe that I am Moses, the color teal, my great-grandmother, the book of Lamentations and the left half of the brick that I broke this morning, all simultaneously, I am perfectly free to do so, as long as I do so with sufficient emotional intensity. More to the point, there are church leaders today that deny almost every possible combination of significant biblical doctrines, yet claim to be evangelical, biblical, orthodox, or something similar.

    I begin to understand why the RC and Orthodox churches struggle so much with Sola Scriptura. The doctrine may be correct (I believe it is when stated properly), but the protestant churches have done a poor job of rejecting the obtuse ways that the doctrine has been falsely used by those who raise the ideal of the autonomous individual far above the church and interpret Scripture however they choose.

    Until we (both individuals and the Church) repent of our obsession with self (idolatry) and seek a Biblical view of our communion in Christ’s Body, this kind of chaos and non-meaning will be the norm, not the exception. In the meantime, those who are shepherds and not hirelings will have double the work, fighting to protect their flocks against the confusion to come.

    • Thanks for the comment, Monte. I will be addressing the issues that you raise in more detail in my next and concluding post. I don’t think that the definition of evangelical is ever defined in a purely subjective way. This isn’t quite Humpty Dumpty style semantics (“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”). Rather, it is more a matter of objective doctrinal or theological commitments being displaced in the realm of evangelical identity.

      I don’t think that someone like Rachel Held Evans has no grounds to recognize herself as an evangelical like many others today, just that her definition can’t do the job that she wants it to do (much as theological definitions can no longer do the job of defining what evangelicalism has become either). My argument will be that both prescriptive theological and subjective experiential definitions all fail to some degree or other and that we need to focus on historical, sociological, and descriptive definitions to get a firmer grasp on evangelicalism instead (these definitions can include theological and subjective elements but won’t be reduced to them).

  6. Though I agree with most of what you’ve said here, I suspect Evans was not trying to give an objective conceptual definition that would enable one to distinguish evangelical from non-evangelical Christians. So it’s not really sensible to critique her for failing to succeed in offering such a definition. You say you’re primarily interested in describing rather than critiquing her, but insofar as you are (in an obiter dictum sort of way) criticizing her definition for failing in that way, I do think that criticism misses its target.

    Perhaps what’s at stake for Evans is the social pressures that exist among many evangelicals to think of people who reject this or that traditional doctrinal distinctive as “not one of us.” So the issue is social rather than sociological (let alone theological). The sort of group mentality, which I think is manifest to some degree in every subculture, is ramped up in a problematic way when the label used for one’s group is derived from a word that means “the gospel”. There’s a tendency among some evangelicals to feel that someone who doesn’t think like “us” is probably not really a Christian. Sure, evangelicals admit in principle that there are (a few) Christians in non-evangelical churches, Christians who don’t fit the mold of typical evangelicals. But too often the default assumption is that someone who calls himself a Christian but not an evangelical is probably a nominal Christian, whose religion doesn’t involve much personal piety. At least, this is common among American evangelicals.

    With this background in mind, it makes perfect sense that Evans’s “definition” of evangelical involves appeals to personal piety, warmth of religious affection, and the like. Her point, as I take it, is something like, “hey, evangelicals: I’m very much like you folks culturally, and would be OK with me if you think of me as ‘one of you.’ But in any case, the fact that I have some different beliefs shouldn’t make you conclude that I’m not serious about my faith, or that I don’t experience the kind of religious affections that ‘we evangelicals’ have traditionally made so much of,” … which conclusion , or the tendency to draw it, seems to be the underlying reason why the question of who counts as an evangelical has any importance in the first place.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Christopher.

      I agree: I don’t think that Evans was trying to give ‘an objective conceptual definition’. However, she was trying to characterize herself as an evangelical and to show how she was in line with the ‘traditional’ meaning of that term, with the apparent hope that others would recognize her as such. As she was explaining the grounds for her self-identification, suggesting to others that they should concur in that identification, and concluding by explicitly asserting that evangelicalism was fluid and amorphous and its definition up for debate (suggesting that her statements did bear some relation to the question of evangelicalism’s definition), I think that she revealed a considerable amount about her understanding of the definition of evangelicalism.

      The underlying issue here is how we self-identify as evangelical, how we present ourselves so as to be recognized as such, and how we identify others as evangelical. The fact that Rachel’s theological grounds and commitments (what most of those challenging her claims to be an evangelical are looking for) are so subjective and theologically vague is very telling. However, far more telling is the fact that, despite its huge failure at the level of definition (and it seems to me that Rachel is in fact attempting to engage to some extent on the level of definition here), as the provision of grounds for identification, it more or less succeeds. It succeeds, not so much because of the information Rachel gives, but on account of what can be read between their lines, recognizing what is stressed, what is not said, and how what is said is said. Assessing the reasons why it succeeds on this level will help us in the task of definition. Thus, while Rachel’s implicit attempts at defining evangelicalism are fairly weak, it has a lot to teach us about how evangelical identity actually works for most today. I will be arguing, among other things, this it gives us a window into the fact that evangelical identity doesn’t depend that much upon key theological commitments as many would suggest or seek to enforce.

      I think that you are right about the ‘real Christian’ question hovering in the background here. I will be getting into that in more detail in my second post, as I engage with Adrian Warnock’s remarks on the subject. It seems to me that Rachel is doing more than you suggest that she is doing. She is not just claiming to be like evangelicals and to be willing to be identified as such should people want to. She is rather claiming that she is entitled to identify as evangelical and treating challenge to that claim as if it were invalid, which is something more.

      I suspect that my second post will clarify my stance on many of these issues.

      • Yet she exhibits a certain diffidence about the term “evangelical”.

        To be sure, she wants to undermine the challenge that she’s not an evangelical: she wants to be entitled to speak to evangelicals in the first person plural. But whether that happens because people recognize her as an evangelical, or whether they instead say, “you may not be an evangelical, but you’re a Christian, you speak our lingo, and you love Jesus, and that’s good enough for us,” … I don’t think she cares which of these happens.

        On the other hand, if her critics are warning those who are accustomed to trusting evangelicals as biblically sound that she isn’t, then the underlying issue in that challenge is whether she is biblically sound according to traditional evangelical criteria. And my reading has her sidestepping that issue completely. So perhaps I can’t really claim my reading is more charitable than yours.

        I look forward to Part 2

  7. Chris E says:

    “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”


    “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.”

    Except that as the rest of your piece implies, most evangelicals consistently self define themselves as evangelical in nearly exactly the way in which Rachel does.

    • Something that fails as a definition can succeed as a means of identification. The fact that evangelicals self-define in the way that they do and succeed in self-identification does not mean that their definitions are good ones. They succeed despite themselves. We need to establish a definition of evangelicalism that explains why such poor self-definitions succeed as identifications (they shouldn’t work, for instance, if the prescriptive theological definitions were accurate).

  8. Chris E says:

    I assumed you meant that the definition of evangelicalism had to to with the way in which they self-define rather than the content of that self definition (though a lot of evangelicals would have a similar approach to scripture as the one you briefly examine, albeit unconsciously).

    Empirically though you have a group of people who define themselves as evangelicals, and so any definition will either describe them (and end up implying a lot of the ‘with feelings’ language that they use themselves) or be largely historically. To apply the latter to the present would also include a certain level of subjectivity.

  9. e says:

    After a quick scan (sorry, no pursuing for me!), I think that your characterization of Rachel’s evangelism as tied to feelings and emotions (did you also mention individualism? if so, it fits!) would certainly characterize what I think of in terms of American Evangelicals. As I currently understand it, the American Evangelical speaks of Christ as a personal (not communal) savior, and, over the past 20 – 30 years, has been identified as politically conservative (part of a response to Carter and Dixiecrats). This political identification is starting to change, I believe, as American Evangelicals are thinking more about their own identities within a community (hence, the flow over to Catholicism and the Anglican church, and a love for all things Wendell Berry), and adjusting their political beliefs from a need for freedom and liberty for the individual to caring for the communal.

    I think this definition of American Evangelism might fit nicely with what I’ve seen of your definition of British Evangelism, and why there’s space for a more liberal politic within the British definition.


    • Thanks for the comment, e. Self-definition by feelings and emotions is definitely a striking family resemblance among American evangelicals, although ideological self-definitions can also be prominent in certain quarters. What they all tend to have in common, as you observe, is the individualistic and voluntaristic focus of religious identity.and experience. Tradition, authoritative dogma, church, community membership and participation, and childhood initiation are all depreciated as sources of religious identity. This, as I will go on to discuss in the following post, is one reason why something like infant baptism is so problematic within an evangelical context.

      The role of the communal in new forms of evangelicalism still strike me as deficient. ‘Community’ is reduced to a matter of choice, consumption, and lifestyle, assimilated to the underlying voluntaristic mindset. Such groups can experiment with liturgies, celebrate the sense of community, and toy with higher ecclesiologies. However, one often gets the sense that the ‘community’ envisioned and traditions celebrated are ersatz ones, that lack the intractable ‘given-ness’ and resistance to the dominance of choice of genuine communities and traditions.

      The political movements in American evangelicalism are interesting to follow, especially following David Swartz’s recent historical treatment of the subject of the evangelical left. I think that there are important differences between the definition of American and British evangelicalism that come to the fore in this area, in particular the fact that pollsters have been played such a prominent role in defining American evangelicalism, but haven’t so much in the case of its British counterpart. As evangelicalism hasn’t been framed so much by the political and sociological interests of pollsters over here, nor has been courted by politicians, the concept of evangelicalism as the sort of movement that would have political leanings isn’t so natural to us. As the movement is considered over here, it is largely indifferent to partisan politics for the most part, although it often pushes for a voice on social issues. This is also probably related to the fact that matters of social conservatism such as abortion and same-sex marriage play out very differently on the political map over here: ‘culture wars’ aren’t presumed to correspond clearly with the partisan political wars.

  10. Paul D Baxter says:

    Frankly, I couldn’t care less what anyone thinks “evangelical” means as applied to individual people. What seems more critical to me, but perhaps just as difficult, is what it means when applied to churches. I would think that that would at least be a more fruitful avenue for the discussion to take.

    • That is definitely a very important point to discuss, although I suspect that these posts won’t adequately do so. The criteria by which churches apply the term evangelical to themselves seem to differ from those by which individual Christians apply the term to themselves. Also, for a church to identify its stance or practice as evangelical is rather different from using the term within its name, for instance.

  11. Pingback: What is Evangelicalism? – Part 2 | Alastair's Adversaria

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  14. Thursday says:

    This was another thing that struck me about Evans: Evangelicalism seems to her a culture more than a belief system or ecclesiastical framework. Now to some extent that is true of all religions; they aren’t just creeds to sign on to or organizations to join. But the lack of a creedal and institutional basis does seem to push Evangelicalism in that direction to a particular degree. She really does seem to be an exemplary figure, in many ways.

    This post clarifies to me a lot about the so-called Emergent church phenomenon. Theologically, much, though not all, of it is the same old same old liberalism you find among the Presbyterians and Episcopalians, but coming out of a low church/Evangelical culture rather than a mainline one.

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