Some months back I started my ‘Am I an Evangelical’ discussion with some opening descriptions of what I take evangelicalism and evangelicals to be. That post engendered a lot of discussion that I found most helpful in thinking through what it might mean to “define” evangelicalism. In so many ways evangelicalism really defies any attempt to be defined This is, I think in part due to how “evangelical” has become a social-political term in contemporary society.
One of the crucial issues in defining evangelicalism is the question of who is allowed to define it. Do we rely on the self-description of those who identify themselves as evangelicals to define their “tradition“? Do we rely on self-proclaimed “non-evangelical” Christians? On sociology? Politics? “Evangelical” could clearly be defined differently through any of those mediums and all of them get at aspects of what I think all would agree is a very complex and diverse social-political-cultural-theological phenomenon.
Many of the comments on my earlier post on this issue pointed out some of the weak points in the different definitions that were discussed. On a fundamental level my descriptions of evangelicalism were attempting to get at the theological essentials of the evangelical ethos. The question that I would raise now is if there really could be a definition of evangelicalism that is formed on the basis of some essential “evangelical theology.” In looking at historians of evangelicalism such as D.G. Hart, it seems clear to me that evangelicalism is theologically minimalist. While the E.T.S. may be a very antiquated version of evangelicalism, I still take its doctrinal basis to be at least a part of what characterizes evangelical thought and practice.
Another crucial point that was brought up is that, given the radical diversity of proclaimed evangelicals, the only thing that seems to unite them is the fact that they have had an immediate experience or encounter with Christ. Thus, Schleirmacher ironically becomes the central theologian for evangelicals. I think there is a lot of truth in this statement. In most forms of evangelicalism (though I would contend not all, especially certain brands of conservative Reformed churches who deride religious experience) this is indeed the case. What separates evangelical pietism from Schleirmacher is the way in which the Bible is understood by evangelicals to “police” and regulate the form of religious experience that is valid. In other words, while the essence of evangelicalism may be pietism, the shape of it is biblical literalism (practiced obviously to different degrees).
All of this is to say that while there can be no easy definition of evangelicalism, especially from a theological point of view, there does seem to be some kind of center involving biblicism and an existential conversion experience. Likewise there are consistent emphases placed on sexual ethics, a vast bent towards political conservatism, and generally an affirmation of central orthodox Christian doctrines such as the Trinity, the virgin birth, substitutionary atonement and so on.
While a precise definition of evangelicalism will always elude us, I do think there is enough here for us all to make an intelligent answer to the question of whether we can really associate ourselves with “evangelicalism.” And that will continue to be the focus of this series.