What is Evangelicalism? – Part 2

Read the other parts of ‘What Is Evangelicalism?’
Part 1, Part 3, Part 4

This is the much delayed continuation of my posts on the definition of evangelicalism. In my previous post, I discussed the definitions of evangelical/evangelicalism provided by Rachel Held Evans and Denny Burk. Within this post, I hope to engage with a few further explorations of the question, before providing some of my own thoughts on the use and meaning of the term.

Adrian Warnock’s posts

Adrian Warnock gave his thoughts on the subject in two posts: the first addresses the question of the definition of ‘Christian’, while the second defines the term ‘evangelical’.

Adrian helpfully begins by distinguishing the definition of the term ‘Christian’ from that of the term ‘evangelical’. Much of the temperature surrounding debates over evangelical identity arises from the degree to which questions of the evangelical credentials of particular individuals or organizations have become conflated with questions over the genuineness of claims to Christian faith and identity. I think that this is an important – albeit not the only – reason why many people whose evangelical identity is suspect will so strongly insist on their right to use the term of themselves.

My suspicion is that this results in part from the way that the immediacy of much evangelical identity – about which more later – undermines the mental distinction between root elements of Christian identity and their evangelical conjugations. For many evangelicals, the seemingly unmediated character of evangelical experience, engagement with Scripture, and reception of the gospel can lead to a lack of awareness of the hermeneutical interval and the variously mediated nature of our interpretations. Consequently, to be ‘Bible-believing’ is to adhere to a traditional evangelical reading of the Bible, to be ‘born-again’ is to have a form of religious experience that conforms to the culturally-instilled and shaped subjectivity and description of evangelical experience, and to confess the ‘gospel’ is to uphold the gospel in the form that evangelicals do, employing the same conceptual categories, theological constructs, and terminology.

This failure to grapple with cultural and interpretative mediation can lead to a dearth of theological modesty, as our theological formulations, cultural practices, and forms of experience are confused with and invested with all of the weight of the realities that they mediate or represent. Such an admission of representation and mediation and the non-identity of our gospel formulations with the gospel itself is not to court a radical scepticism (I believe in the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture), nor to invite the anaemic and non-committal relativism that may appeal to many today, or the sort of questioning that renders our doubts the measure of God’s truth, but rather to challenge us always to hold ourselves and our thinking in question relative to God’s truth as revealed in Christ.

Our formulations are signposts that point to Christ, are often imperfect, and do not exclude the possibility that other formulations might also faithfully point to him. To switch analogies, the light of Christian truth can be refracted in many different ways within differing cultural milieux, historical and social contexts, and ideological frameworks. The differences between these refractions are never entirely reducible to differences between truth and error. For this and other reasons, we should be careful not to confuse departure from traditional evangelical doctrinal formulations with apostasy from the faith.

In his second post, which treats the question of what an ‘evangelical’ actually is, Adrian begins by claiming that evangelicalism is ‘more about attitudes than doctrinal statements.’ He proceeds to argue that evangelicalism is neither primarily a political nor a social movement, maintaining that it cannot be a mere social movement because ‘all such social movements have roots that go beyond “we like being together”.’ He believes that the identity of evangelicalism is expressed in the values of Bebbington’s quadrilateral (biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, activism) fused with the ‘solas’ of the Reformation (sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus christus, soli deo gloria).

While evangelicalism is definitely not a ‘social’ movement in the simplistic form that Adrian rightly dismisses, I will be maintaining that it should be approached primarily as a sociological and historical phenomenon, rather than as a movement that finds its core identity in a set of fairly clearly defined and consciously held religious and theological beliefs and articulated values. In my previous post, I challenged the prescriptivism inherent in employing Bebbington’s quadrilateral as a timeless definition of evangelicalism, rather than as a historical description, subject to revision and development as the object of that description evolves.

In his definition of evangelicalism, Adrian seeks to recognize the diversity within the movement (on issues such as creationism, cessationism, gender roles, and paedobaptism), while expressing those beliefs that all share in common. At the heart of Adrian’s definition, however, and perhaps the one point on which he gives the least latitude, is the evangelical commitment to an inerrant Bible as the ‘sole source of authority in the believer’s life’ (while I doubt that Adrian holds to the more extreme of the implications of this unguarded, problematic, and infelicitous formulation, it does serve as an illustration of one area where evangelical practice can so often follow its unhelpful expressions), to be interpreted literally where at all possible. The significance of the doctrine of inerrancy for the evangelical sense of identity can be illustrated in the fact that the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) for many years had inerrancy as its sole doctrinal basis.

Yet it is by no means clear to me that belief in inerrancy is quite as straightforward a defining principle of evangelicalism as Adrian suggests. Once again, it seems to fall on the side of prescriptivism in the definition of evangelicalism, potentially ignoring the fact that, despite its widespread support in evangelical circles, many institutions and churches that would be regarded as evangelical on almost every other count are either ambivalent towards, divided upon, or opposed to this doctrine.

The attempt to locate evangelicalism’s ideological unity in a set of consciously held doctrinal distinctives seems to be mistaken to me. Rather, the movement’s ideological unity is more one of a common religious ‘épisteme’ – a shared context and set of semi-conscious preconceptions that constitute, shape, and render certain discourses and practices possible – than of a common ‘paradigm’ or single worldview. Such an épisteme can name the quintessence that binds together opposing theological stances, the common themes that they are all improvising upon. The important shared ideological features of evangelicalism probably have less to do with the particular beliefs that are held (although there are family resemblances in this area) than with the ways beliefs are held, the ways that beliefs are formed, and the sorts of beliefs and discourses that are possible.

This is not to restrict the movement to an ideological identity. Ideology is only one dimension of evangelicalism’s broader sociological character, a dimension whose significance is frequently overstated. Also, importantly, evangelicalism is a historical and evolving entity, and even if we are to speak of its possession of an épisteme, we are best not thinking of it as stable or unchanging (its persistence is the temporal persistence of a changing historical entity, rather than of some unchanging ideological core).

My concern with Adrian’s approach, as with Denny Burk’s, is that a rather tendentious and prescriptive definition of the term ‘evangelical’ is conscripted to the task of guarding a particular orthodoxy for us. This is an extremely common tendency in ‘conservative evangelical’ circles: the term ‘evangelical’ is exalted above the level of mere descriptive terminology and becomes a crucial boundary marker, ruling some people in and others out. Unfortunately, this often seems to entail a questionable gerrymandering of the evangelical constituency in a manner calculated to exclude certain beliefs that are troubling or strange to us.

Jake Belder’s post

Jake Belder gets at some of this in his post on the matter. He brings forward the statement of faith of Universities and College Christian Fellowship (UCCF) as an example of an evangelical attempt at theological self-definition.

  1. There is one God in three persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
  2. God is sovereign in creation, revelation, redemption and final judgement.
  3. The Bible, as originally given, is the inspired and infallible Word of God. It is the supreme authority in all matters of belief and behaviour.
  4. Since the fall, the whole of humankind is sinful and guilty, so that everyone is subject to God’s wrath and condemnation.
  5. The Lord Jesus Christ, God’s incarnate Son, is fully God; he was born of a virgin; his humanity is real and sinless; he died on the cross, was raised bodily from death and is now reigning over heaven and earth.
  6. Sinful human beings are redeemed from the guilt, penalty and power of sin only through the sacrificial death once and for all time of their representative and substitute, Jesus Christ, the only mediator between them and God.
  7. Those who believe in Christ are pardoned all their sins and accepted in God’s sight only because of the righteousness of Christ credited to them; this justification is God’s act of undeserved mercy, received solely by trust in him and not by their own efforts.
  8. The Holy Spirit alone makes the work of Christ effective to individual sinners, enabling them to turn to God from their sin and to trust in Jesus Christ.
  9. The Holy Spirit lives in all those he has regenerated. He makes them increasingly Christlike in character and behaviour and gives them power for their witness in the world.
  10. The one holy universal church is the Body of Christ, to which all true believers belong.
  11. The Lord Jesus Christ will return in person, to judge everyone, to execute God’s just condemnation on those who have not repented and to receive the redeemed to eternal glory.

The problem, as Jake observes, is that such a statement is one to which many who would be regarded as non-evangelicals could subscribe. The real boundaries of evangelicalism tend to be placed elsewhere. Functionally, the boundaries of evangelicalism are much narrower than the theological boundaries commonly articulated. Jake gives the example of the ordination of women as one issue that is often treated as functionally excluding a group from evangelical identity among certain conservative evangelicals (the treatment of complementarianism as a shibboleth in some evangelical circles is commented on by Carl Trueman here).

It seems to me that this functional narrowing of the boundaries of evangelicalism occurs, as Steve Holmes suggests, because certain forms of practice are mutually exclusive. While two forms of belief in the area of eschatology or the age of the earth, for instance, can generally find ways to co-exist in the same context, it is difficult to achieve the same détente in the case of the ordination of women or the practice of paedobaptism. This is one of the reasons why ‘worship wars’ will often prove far more powerfully divisive on the ground even than disputes over such things as the doctrine of hell or the theory of evolution.

Consequently, practices that are theologically objectionable to a sufficiently large number within evangelicalism will need to be excluded in many shared contexts, making such things as male-only ordained ministry, credobaptism, and non-charismatic worship the default in many situations and creating fractures with those who advocate other forms of practice on principle.

Evangelicalism: Definitions and Identifications

The functional narrowing of the definition of evangelicalism does not merely occur at such levels of practice. I want to argue that the distinct character of evangelicalism arises in great measure from a particular set of cultural sensibilities that are expressed in greater or lesser measure throughout the movement. These statements are especially true of evangelicalism in its American form, but also true to a lesser extent of its British varieties.

In my previous post, I made the point that, although Rachel Held Evans’s definition of the term ‘evangelical’ was an exceptionally weak and insufficient one, she succeeded in identifying herself as an evangelical by it. This is because, although many of her beliefs may lie some distance to the left of the evangelical mainstream in the US, her religious sensibilities are quite clearly evangelical ones. The crucial information that leads to a positive identification is given less in the content than in the form of her definition. It is revealed in the language that she uses, in the things that she implicitly emphasizes, in the things left unsaid, in the symbols to which she appeals, etc. The same can be said of most attempts at evangelical self-definition: while their expressions frequently provide enough information to yield successful identifications of evangelicals, they seldom are as successful as definitions.

For instance, in UCCF’s statement above, many of the most important distinctives lie less in the content of its affirmations than in its choice of things to affirm, the central points to which it gives attention, and the way in which those things are affirmed. The place given to the Bible is significant, as is the omission of references to the institutional Church, ordained ministry, the regular assembly of the saints, or the sacraments. The centrality of the individual Christian in its account is also important.

Now, the natural objection to this observation might be that UCCF is a parachurch organization and the excluded emphases are excluded because they refer to things that are incidental to UCCF’s mission. However, are not the omitted elements also essential to Christian identity? Can we really remove the institutional Church and the concrete body of assembling Christians in the local congregation from the picture of Christianity and leave the remaining elements intact? While UCCF might not be the agency that provides for these crucial dimensions of Christian existence, is not the recognition of such dimensions crucial for a true appreciation of what it means to say that UCCF is a parachurch organization?

This, I believe, serves to highlight something that is very important to understanding evangelical identity. Evangelical identity is a form of Christian identity for which the concrete and institutional church is of either incidental or secondary importance. It is an identity chiefly forged in the spaces outside of and between churches. While evangelicals can frequently be extremely active within and committed to ecclesial institutions, local congregations, the celebration of the sacraments, and their ordained leaders, none of these things is an integral element within evangelical identity, but are rather utilitarian or functional sites or means for the expression, preservation, and propagation of evangelical identity. The heart of evangelical identity is located in the individual’s encounter with and faithful response to the gospel and the truth of God in the biblical text.

For this reason, the more that one emphasizes the integral importance of the Church, its ordained leadership, its entrusting with, guarding, and declaration of the apostolic witness, membered ministries, liturgical assembly, and its sacramental practices within Christian identity, the more one’s evangelical identity will become suspect. Evangelicals can like liturgy, the sacraments, and value the ministry of the Church, but evangelical identity requires that one be able to distinguish and detach one’s Christian identity from such things. Evangelical identity finds its most natural environment in extra- or para-ecclesial contexts.

Evangelicalism offers us a generic trans-denominational Protestant identity, beyond the particularities of confessional traditions, distinct from communities of liturgical and sacramental practice, and transcending the bounds of ecclesial institutions. This identity is then declared to be our core Christian identity. The important matter is not so much what is included in the identity as what is excluded from it and thereby marginalized, and also what is rendered central in the form of its presentation (typically the individual and subjective encounter with God and his truth in the gospel and Scriptures).

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.
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7 Responses to What is Evangelicalism? – Part 2

  1. Michael Snow says:

    “The heart of evangelical identity is located in the individual’s encounter with and faithful response to the gospel and the truth of God in the biblical text.”
    The problem is that, for so many, this can can be a focus on the “what it means to me” phase. This is particularly a weakness for rank and file evangelicals when it come to the text of Scripture. And it is nothing new. http://textsincontext.wordpress.com/2012/05/17/of-ponds-and-pitfalls/

    What seems missing in this definition is the key evangelical concern for the proclamation of the gospel.

    • Thanks for the comment, Michael. Within these posts, I am trying to move beyond popular ‘prescriptive’ definition of evangelicalism – the sorts of definitions that focus on saying what an evangelical should be. These, I maintain, generally tend to involve an arbitrary gerrymandering of evangelical identity and wrongly treat evangelicalism as if it were the ideal and pure form of Christianity.

      My argument is that evangelicalism is a particular historical development within Protestantism, a development powerfully driven by some unhealthy impulses and spreading sensibilities, and involving a radical departure from conservative confessional Protestantism, the better part of conservative evangelicals’ identity to which I would call them to return and develop in more healthy and promising directions.

      Within the statement that you quote, I was trying to summarize key dimensions of a typical self-understanding of evangelicals in passing, in a brief and not necessarily comprehensive manner. It isn’t, however, the way that I would define evangelicalism (for that, you will need to read this entire series of posts).

      I quite agree with you that this is frequently taken in an unhealthily individualistic and narcissistic direction by evangelicals. One of the points of these posts is to move us away from a definition of evangelicalism that excludes such negative tendencies and expressions of the movement a priori towards one that is descriptive and historical, which recognizes the flaws at the heart of the movement, the frequently problematic character of its religious sensibilities, the extremely uneven forms of its expression, and the tendentious nature of its claims to be the modern manifestation of conservative Protestantism. Once such a move is made we will be better equipped to come to a more honest assessment of evangelicalism as a movement and will have a clearer idea of how to go forward.

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