What is Evangelicalism?

The title says it all.  What even is Evangelicalism anymore? I have to ask this question because the number of views represented under the “Evangelical” big tent is nigh unto innumerable and no one seems to know where the line is and what makes someone an “Evangelical”. Even Billy Graham, when asked what made someone an evangelical, was reported to have quipped “Actually, that’s a question I’d like to ask somebody too.” The word is never really well defined.  Warning, this post will be slightly heavy on history, so bear with us as we work through that.

The word “Evangelical” is reputed to derive from Martin Luther’s use of the word “evangelium” which he derived from the Greek word evangelion which means “gospel” or “good news”. Luther used it to refer to the churches that were splitting away from the Roman Catholic Church. The word came to be associated with people seeking revival throughout the Christian world. it would stay this way until around the late-1800-early 1900s.

Evangelicalism began in a big way in the United States in roughly the 1920s-1930s. Until that point, there really had not been a disconnect between fundamentalists and Evangelicals. The two were the same group. They were people who were interested in serving God and holding the line on doctrinal issues. Doctrinal differences mattered and denominations really did not do a whole lot of cooperating. Periodically, for big events like campground revivals or other major revival services, people of multiple denominations could be found in the same pews, but this was the exception, rather than the rule.  However, in the late 1800s, the mainstream American church began to be influenced by German higher criticism and liberal theology. This led to the rise of movements like the Social Gospel in the earliest part of the 1900s.

Recognizing this, the Fundamentalists began to speak out against the social Gospel, and evolution which was rising around the same time. Because of the stances they took on certain cultural and doctrinal issues, much like today, they were perceived as narrow and old fashioned. Funny how the more things change, the more they stay the same.  At any rate, in an attempt to reach the culture without bringing up the touchier issues, Evangelicals split from the Fundamentalists and began preaching the Gospel, without getting into the thorny doctrinal and cultural issues.  In 1942, they formed the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), a group that still exists today. The NAE defines Evangelicalism as having just seven key doctrines. They are:

  1. The inspiration and infallibility of Scripture
  2. The trinity
  3. The deity of Christ
  4. The Holy Spirit must regenerate the lost
  5. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit
  6. Resurrection and eternal existence of both saved and lost
  7. Unity of Believers in Christ

Now obviously the NAE does not speak for all Evangelicals…but that list is pathetically short and weak in several places.  What does it mean, for example, that the Holy Spirit must regenerate the lost? Would a heresy such as “Christus victor” be accepted as a substitute for penal substitutionary atonement for example? The wording seems obscure enough to permit it. Where is the doctrine of original sin? How do people know they need to be saved until they know they are lost?  Also, why the heavy emphasis on unity, instead of saying that say, Baptism is not necessary for salvation? The priority seems to be, abandon all doctrines, permit all heresies, everyone who claims to be a Christian is welcome.

Some Evangelicals will rightly object that the NAE has been going liberal for a while now and they do not speak for them. To get a slightly more objective view, I went to a site viewed as more conservative, The Gospel Coalition. The sight of Theistic Evolutionist Tim Keller in an introductory video did not fill me with confidence. Their list is longer with thirteen doctrines and much more defined terms for each. Here is the list.

  1.  God is a Trinity
  2. God has revealed Himself both through His Word and through His creation
  3. God created man and woman in His image.
  4. Adam’s fall introduced sin into the world and separated us from God.
  5. God foreknew He would need to send His Son and He justifies and sanctifies us to conform us to His Son’s image.
  6. The Gospel is Christ died for our sins to reconcile us to God and rose again from the dead.
  7. God became man in the person of Christ and was fully man and fully God. He now serves as our Advocate to the Father.
  8. Sinners are justified by Christ’s death and penal substitutionary atonement.
  9. The Holy Spirit performs the work of regeneration and seals our salvation.
  10. Those who are saved enter the kingdom of God, present, but not realized, yet one day will be
  11. The universal church is manifested in local churches, either in a denominational structure or not, distinguished by the Gospel and the institutions of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
  12. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are ordained of Christ and represent our submission to Him.
  13. One day there will be a restoration of all things. In that day, Christ will judge both the just and unjust to their eternal homes.

Depending on your particular theological persuasion you may quibble with items on that list but overall it’s not nearly as bad as NEA. However, there is still a lot of wiggle room.  Creation can be interpreted multiple ways, despite the damage that does to the atonement(not surprising, given Keller’s involvement). They also accept that natural revelation is on par with Scripture, which is patently false. There are other issues too but I’ll let the commenters argue about those.

So what is an evangelical? It depends on who you ask, apparently. They certainly do not agree on how to define themselves. There is a reason that I will quip that Evangelicalism has a squishiness disease. It is very hard to pin down exactly what they stand for on many issues. This allows leftist groups like BioLogos to continue to call themselves evangelical, despite N.T. Wright writing for them and teaching heresy about the atonement, or numerous other writers claiming Adam and Eve were not real people.

Evangelical squishism is real. That makes the group impossible to evaluate as a whole. It also makes the term Evangelical meaningless because it has no set definition.  This is not to say certain people who term themselves “Evangelical” do not have solid positions they hold. Men like say John MacArthur, Mike Winger, James White, Steve Lawson, Todd Friel, Al Mohler, Michael Brown, Paul Washer and so on all have positions they take which they will not bend on and many of them disagree strongly with one another on those positions. However, they choose to put unity above doctrinal distinctions and identify as Evangelical, even while periodically criticizing one another.  I suspect a person’s feelings about this issue are what really defines whether they are Evangelical or not. If you hold orthodox views and are willing to overlook doctrinal differences that do not relate to salvation to identity as one group, that would be what made you an Evangelical. If not, you’re probably closer to a Fundamentalist, a group we will be talking about, at a later date.

Do you know what’s going to happen when you die? Are you completely sure? If you aren’t, please read this or listen to this. You can know where you will spend eternity. If you have questions, please feel free to contact us, we’d love to talk to you.


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