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"Am I an Evangelical?" Part I: Introduction

In the days ahead, I want to explore some thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head for the last few years regarding how I locate myself in relation to the evangelical tradition in which I was raised, educated, and formed. I find myself often oscilating between wanting to remain within the evangelical tradition for the sake of having a transformative impact on the thought thereof on the one hand, and simply feeling like my own convictions simply are not in line with what the evangelical tradition is and I should just recognize that.

So, I want to explore this and do some thought experiments about whether or not I can or should be considered in evangelical. Since the defintion of terms will be key, and the very clear fact that “evangelical” is used in a different way by almost everyone, I will define “evangelical” as follows:


An evangelical is a Christian with relativelty conservative theological sensibilities, including beliefs 1) in the innerancy of Scripture, 2) in personal faith in Christ as the criterion for salvation and 3) in God as Trinity.

Also important for this discussion will be talking about the “evangelical tradition”. In what follows when I refer to the evangelical tradition I will be operating with the following defintion:


The evangelical tradtion is a cross-denominational protestant movement, largely centered in the United States and the U.K. which emphasizes personal conversion to faith in Christ, personal sanctification (focused largely on sexual behavior and internal motivations), active scripture reading and tends to embrace non-denominational, autonomous church structures.

In the posts to follow I am simply posing the question of whether or not I am an evangelical and hope that others would dialogue with me about this. And here’s what I think will truly make this inteteresting. Some years ago I held membership in the Evangelical Theological Society. However, for the last few years I’ve simply let the membership lapse because I was so disinterested in the scholarship taking place in ETS. However, if at the end of this series I conclude that am an evangelical, I will resume membership and participation in the ETS.

Here is a basic outline (open to change) of my “Am I an Evangelical” series.

I. Introduction
II. The Doctrine of Revelation
III. The Doctrine of God
IV. Christology & Pneumatology
V. The Doctrine of Salvation
VI. Ecclesiology & Ethics
VII. Eschatology
IIX. Conclusion(s)

In these section I will basically be laying out my own perspectives and explore if and to what degree those may or may not fit within the evangelical tradition. At the end of this I hope to have a definitive answer to whether or not I am an evangelical.

17 Comments

  1. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    I’ll join you on this investigation! Right on!

    Saturday, October 28, 2006 at 7:11 pm | Permalink
  2. richard wrote:

    Sounds like this could be a great series. You’ve found yourself a reader!

    Saturday, October 28, 2006 at 8:22 pm | Permalink
  3. Anonymous wrote:

    I’m looking forward to what you will do with this.

    Sunday, October 29, 2006 at 3:05 am | Permalink
  4. Anonymous wrote:

    I am asking myself the same question. At least you’ve been able to nail down an adequate definition of what “evangelical” means today. Perhaps your series will bring about a necessary redefinition of the term.

    Sunday, October 29, 2006 at 3:08 am | Permalink
  5. R. Scott Clark wrote:

    Hi Halden,

    There are real reasons to be critical of neo-evangelicalism. Indeed, Darryl Hart has argued (see below) that it doesn’t actually exist! I see a couple of problems with your definitions. 1)By using the Free Church tradition as a criterion you eliminate lots of evangelicals in the mainline churches and in the emerging churches as well as Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic evangelicals. This brings up the second problem in your definition: it’s too narrow theologically! Remarkable as it seems, there are lots of evangelicals who reject the inerrancy of Scripture. The Trinity should be a given by Clark Pinnock has called it into question and other evangelicals are proposing radical revisions or routinely include non-Trinitarian such as T D Jakes in lists of evangelicals such that its status is in doubt. So the only reliable universal among evangelicals is they’ve had “an immediate encounter with the risen Christ.” In other words, the only thing that unites them is pietism. Schleiermacher is their only universal theologian. That’s why I stopped identifying myself as an “evangelical” in the modern sense several years ago. I am a confessional Reformed Christian or a confessional Protestant. I am an evangelical in the 16th and 17th century sense of the word where the sense is on the “evangel,” i.e., the objective message of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection and the reformation solas but almost no one means the word evangelical in that sense any more. Here’s brief a bibliography of some critiques including Hart and Mike Horton:
    http://www.wscal.edu/clark/evangelicalism.php

    cheers,

    Scott Clark

    Sunday, October 29, 2006 at 3:38 pm | Permalink
  6. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    R. Scott Clark’s comment simply reflects the ambiguity of the term and the liberal nature of evangelicalism. At least in the North American context, evangelical faith is deeply rooted in liberalism. In other words, there is a lot of theological freedom allowed in this tradition. However, I think Halden is absolutely correct on his point about the inerrancy of Scripture. A belief in inerrancy does not neccesarily equal a traditional fundamentalist view, as I think Clark suggests. A belief in historical inerrancy is distinctly fundamentalist, but not all evangelicals would believe in this type of inerrancy.

    Clark’s comment about Schleiermacher seems removed from the reality of contemporary evangelicalism. Most evangelicals would not even know who Schleiermacher is, so it would be difficult to maintain that he is “their only universal theologian.” But, you see, this is part of what makes evangelicalism so unique and distinct; they have no universal theology much less a universal theologian.

    I am not familiar with Roman Catholic evangelicals (that seems like an oxymoron!). However, I know some Greek Orthodox who are freakishly evangelical.

    Sunday, October 29, 2006 at 4:12 pm | Permalink
  7. Mack wrote:

    Right on. I’m looking forward to it.

    Sunday, October 29, 2006 at 9:05 pm | Permalink
  8. R. Scott Clark wrote:

    Dear RO,

    1. One need not know who Schleiermacher was to agree with the substance of this theology and piety (i.e., the quest to recover Jesus’ experience of the divine);

    2. I don’t think the “liberal/conservative” paradigm is the right way to analyze this problem. The correct way to analyze it is to distinguish between “confessional” and non-confessional Protestants. In that case confessional Reformed and Lutheran types would be on one side and non-confessional folk would be on the other. Of non-confessional folk there are two types, conservative and liberal, but they are on the same continuum and tend to move back and forth between poles on it. So Clark Pinnock was a “conservative” 25 years ago and now he’s a “liberal” but all the while the unifying fact has been religious experience and, ironically, rationalism. He was a rationalist conservative and now he’s a rationalist Open Theist. Non-confessional evangelicals (that’s about all of them save the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals) are inherently theologically unstable and driven by the quest for the ultimate religious experience.

    3. Inerrancy isn’t a fundamentalist belief, it is a catholic Christian conviction held by the Protestants and their orthodox successors but as a matter of sociology and theology it isn’t necessary to contemporary neo-evangelicalism. The older neo-evangelicals held it, God bless ‘em but Fuller chucked it 30 years ago (see the Rogers and McKim volume) and the Open Theists have followed suit. The inerrantist evangelicals have lost that war just as they’re losing the war against feminism because, as biblicist in search of experience and with no genuine link to the past, they have no place to stand theologically.

    4. As to Roman evangelicals, they exist as to do Greek Orthodox evangelicals. The pope has a legate (Idris Cardinal Cassidy) to the evangelicals who has helped to negotiate away the doctrine of justification in the ECT documents and with the World Lutheran Federation. His opening line to Colson (and to others): I was born again in 1976…. That’s all he needed to say. Having had the common evangelical religious experience all that was left was to negotiate the details of the surrender. Peter Gilchrist left Campus Crusade for Greek Orthodoxy some years ago and took a flock of evangelicals with him. If loving Jesus and having the requisite religious experience is all that is really and truly essential to being “evangelical” then why not icons instead of flannel boards? What’s the difference?

    rsc

    Sunday, October 29, 2006 at 9:57 pm | Permalink
  9. Halden wrote:

    Thanks to everyone for the comments. I’m glad to see I’ll have some readership in this series.

    Scott,

    Thanks for your comments. I am familiar with D.G. Hart’s work and I am in agreement with it for the most part (i.e. that the “evangelical tradtion” is actualy a construction for a something that doesn’t truly exist as it is described). Moreover, I don’t intend my defintion (or rather, my broad description) to be exact or exaustive. In general, I based my definition off of the ETS doctrinal statment which posits belief insole authority and inerrancy of the Bible and the doctrine of the Trinity.

    Clearly, the term evangelical is used in numerous ways. In Germany it simply describes non-catholic theology. For Karl Barth, evangelical theology is simply theology that is based on the gospel. In contemporary American society “evangelical” is largely a political term for the religious right.

    My definition is trying to get at the essence of a movement in which I was raised, which is a Protestant pheonomenon emphasizing the inerrancy and sole authority of Scripture, God as Trinty and personal faith in Christ as the means of salvation.

    As to Catholic and Orthodox “evangelicals”, I think again that this is another example of terms merely being used differently. For them, unlike protestant evangelicals, though they hold to inerrancy, they do no understand it to be the sole authority in the way that protstants do, arguing instead for the infallibility of the magisterium (Catholics) or of Holy Tradition (Orthodox). I’ll talk further about these points in my discussion of the doctrine of revelation.

    Secondly, as to the doctrine of the Trinity, I am confining my defintion of evangelicalism to branches of protestant faith that fall within historic Christianity, which includes the doctrine of the Trinity. I do not consider modalists like T.D. Jakes and other Oneness Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons to fall within the evangelical tradition because they fall outside of historic Christianity.

    I think you’re onto something with the connection with pietism. Something very key is at work here, but for all its importance, pietism does not exaust or define the evangelical movement. However, pietism is much braoder than evangelicalism as your reference to Schleiermacher (no evangelical by any means!) makes clear.

    So, to sum up, I don’t intend my decription of evangelicalism to be exaustive or exacty, because when talking about evangelicalism we are talking about a complex social and religious phenomenon of which there are many branches. My understanding of evangelicalism is informed by my own rearing in that tradition and works by the likes of Mark Noll, Randall Balmer, Nathan Hatch and George Marsden.

    Monday, October 30, 2006 at 5:19 am | Permalink
  10. Bob wrote:

    r.scott clark -

    I appreciate you clarifying the role of confessions in avoiding the quest for religious experience as the sole arbitrator. However it seems the dilemma you’ve raised between being confessional and non-confessional could use some nuance. Certainly the relationship of various traditions to their confessions is not the same. To say that one is either “confessional” or “non-confessional” ignores the mechanisms in place which dictate the role that confession plays in the way a community knows. In addition, the post-liberal critique of scripture having its own language could supply a hermeneutic for stability with less dependence on confessions. (Radical Orthodoxy comes to mind here.) Scripture is not simply an extension of experience or reason or tradition but can operate as the true narrative that the community faithfully lives out. I’m not suggesting that this be the only source of authority in defining a Christian tradition – just that it takes away the weight placed on confessions to avoid sliding between “liberal” and “conservative” polls.

    Do you think?

    I guess this is a nice segue to the doctrine of revelation.

    Tuesday, October 31, 2006 at 7:15 pm | Permalink
  11. justthischris wrote:

    Do you have “The Variety of American Evangelicalism” edited by Donald W. Dayton and Robert K. Johnston? I surmise this book was the beginnings of the ETS.
    I really never knew that Evangelicalism could be discussed so broadly as is described in this book.
    Its a Wipf and Stock title so I suspect you can easily find it there.

    -Chris

    Tuesday, October 31, 2006 at 8:00 pm | Permalink
  12. D.W. Congdon wrote:

    Scott is absolutely right when he says that Schleiermacher is the one universal theologian for evangelicals. I could not agree more. You need look no further for proof than the average evangelical worship service, in which “experience of Christ” is the sine qua non of “worship” and “conversion.”

    I think ETS represents a rather antiquated perspective of evangelicalism. Inerrancy is rejected by many, many evangelicals, and the ones who do accept it usually cannot distinguish it from infallibility and inspiration. It’s just another word. So I have doubts about using that as part of the definition, but it’s always worth addressing.

    I look forward to your series, Halden!

    Wednesday, November 1, 2006 at 2:28 pm | Permalink
  13. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    RSC,

    When I mentioned that evangelicalism is rooted in liberalism, I did not mean to place the discussion within a conservative/liberal paradigm. Instead, I meant to place evangelicalism in its North American context. I am speaking of classical liberalism and individualism. I do not think an analysis of evangelicalism in its contemporary form can be separated from its cultural context.

    In my view, the belief in the historical inerrancy of Scripture is the essence of fundamentalism. Here, the term, historical inerrancy, means a belief that the Bible contains no historical errors. A person who held to this belief would defend the historicity of the Genesis account of creation, for instance, from the perspective that the Bible cannot and does not err in its account of history. However, a more widely held belief is in the theological inerrancy of the Bible, which is not particular to fundamentalism. Here, theological inerrancy is a belief that the Bible contains no theological errors and therefore can never be challenged on matters of theology. For instance, from this perspective one could not faithfully say, “I think Amos is wrong in his portrayal of God.”

    Much of my understanding of evangelicalism and fundamentalism comes from my own experience. However, James Barr and George Marsden are two great thinkers on the subject who have influenced my thinking.

    Friday, November 3, 2006 at 7:25 pm | Permalink
  14. Aaron G wrote:

    1. James Sawyer gave a great paper at one of a Far-West regional meeting of the ETS on how it as adopted various doctrinal distinctives on a mere ad hoc basis.
    2. I really liked D.G. Hart’s book, however, it is almost completely limited to American evangelicalism; other forms/meanings exist in other countries (e.g. the Anglicans in Sydney Evangelicals).

    Monday, November 6, 2006 at 1:55 pm | Permalink
  15. a. steward wrote:

    In regards to Schleirmacher as the universal theologian of Evangelicals, someone Americans actually have read and been influenced by is Ralph Waldo Emerson, a contemporary of F.S. if I’m not mistaken. And to him we should add Thoreau and Whitman. Important for them is the pristine image of God in nature and the individual, accompanied by intact capacities of perception, so long as one does not listen to other people’s opinions. R.W.E.’s essay “Self-Reliance” is a provocative and succinct statement of an intrinsically American theology.

    Wednesday, November 8, 2006 at 12:04 am | Permalink
  16. Timothy McConnell wrote:

    I’ve always appreciated Alister McGrath’s, Evangelicalism & the Future of Christianity as a good touchstone for what exactly it means to be “evangelical.” He looks at it as more of a movement and intellectual tradition than a static set of precepts.

    Friday, November 10, 2006 at 5:00 pm | Permalink
  17. Timothy McConnell wrote:

    I recently wrote on the same issue in Common Grounds Online: commongroundsonline.typepad.com. Good luck in your search.

    Friday, November 10, 2006 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

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