Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Does "Evangelical" Matter?


Evangelicalism works well as a descriptor of some aspects of one's theology. It can be a good thing to have a theology that is evangelical, but that theology should cover more than what is encapsulated in that word. Specifically, to be an evangelical Christian does not necessarily imply a particular theology of sacraments, practices of spiritual formation, ecclesiology and church order, or even a particular eschatology. Christians need those things on at least a notional level, so "evangelical is not enough," and not just for the reasons Thomas Howard argues. To be an evangelical ought not require stopping at those four distinctives; it was never meant to engender theological minimalism. Maybe for that reason, it's a category mistake to suppose that "evangelical" can be a basis for one's theology, and rather one needs to have a tradition first, and then assess whether it's "evangelical" or not.

When "creeping fundamentalism" insists that "evangelical" must connote notions of inerrancy and the rapture and the utter lack of sacramental theology and only a "gathered" ecclesiology and a haphazard revivalistic conception of spiritual formation, it's just trying to steal a word and use it to draw up barriers between Christians who could otherwise be united on some basic concepts, which is the very antithesis of what evangelicalism set out to be historically. When one has to believe bullet points "A" through "R" to be an "evangelical," and the highest good is to be an "evangelical," the whole enterprise of the name has become pointless and the original movement has been lost. One kind reader has suggested that if we absolutely must be adding things, does it really do us any good to have the word?

On that note, I would suggest that the word itself isn't worth fighting for, and might not be worth even "reclaiming."

In addition, because some folks have done such a good job of redefining evangelicalism as a divisive movement best known for what it's against, I don't find it at all helpful to call myself an "evangelical" when talking with other Christians or anybody else. It would be nice, however to take that word back. I think if I were asked if I'm an evangelical, I would have to answer something like, "tell me what you think it means first," and maybe talk about what I think is important rather than using the label.

There's a good post at To the Quiet suggesting how we might wish to take all such discussions with a rather large grain of salt: "Pantybundled."

What do y'all think?

(Be nice, now. Please know that I don't consider myself to be attacking anyone or anything in this, but I'm suggesting that a particular word might not be useful anymore. I'm sure that good, faithful, intelligent brothers and sisters in the faith will want to keep the word; I just don't happen to know why.)

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11 comments:

peter said...

In North America evangelical usually labels a descendant of pietistic revivalism.

In the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe, reformational protestants bore the label evangelical. For these folks it did not mean a rejection of sacraments, creeds, the tradition of the Fathers, etc.

It's a good word, a number of accretions have accumulated on it over the years. Some of the accretions need to be scraped off the way barnacles are scraped off of a ship's hull.

I go back and forth on whether to call myself an evangelical. What I find good in the word I wholeheartedly accept. But the accretions mean the word carries connations that I do not want to be understood as decribing me.

John Lunt said...

While I consider myself evangelical, I usually refer to myself as charismatic... It's more fun to watch people's faces. It's either a look of "what's that?" or it's a "Oh no you're not one of those?" Either way -it's priceless and has opened the doors. I have one person I've come to know through toastmasters that is very much into a lot of new age spirituality. He rejects evangelicalism because he identifies it with fundamentalism. The sad part is that I don't consider some of the things fundamentalists believe as wrong but they're focus is totally wrong. When a group becomes known for what it's against instead of what it's for, then it's doomed. You can't create vision based on what you're against. Evangelicals could reclaim their message of being about introducing people to Jesus and let him work out the details - after all it's Jesus and not James Dobson and others who is the author and finisher of our faith.

Collin Brendemuehl said...

Evangelical is the 20th c. came from a practical reaction to the lack of study promoted by the fundamentalist and early dispensational crowd. It came into its own in the 1950s with the principle of making the gospel more clearly understood and intelligently communicated.

The fundamentalist movement, on the other hand, at one point embraced anyone who acknowledged the fundamentals. But today it's become a clique (with the new name "fundamental") of dispensational, independent, KJV-only, double-separationists.

The evangel has been forgotten by many. Too many.

http://evangelicalperspective.blogspot.com

John Meade said...

I find the word to be helpful. Have you read Martyn Lloyd Jones, "What is an Evangelical?" I think this book is the best description of an evangelical out there. I think this book seperates Evangelicals from Catholics (sorry guys), but does not seperate Protestants from Protestants. As a Calvinist, Lloyd Jones placed "Calvinism" on the periphery of evangelicalism so Reformed and Methodist and Baptist etc. alike may all be considered "Evangelical."

Kyle, you are right that the category "Evangelical" should not be the end of a Christian's doctrinal statement, but I do not think it is a bad beginning as long as the term does not lose the most basic and foundational principles, which center on the doctrine of Scripture. Notice by Scripture I do not mean the KJV only crowd. Most of this crowd stands against Evangelicalism as well.

Once Evangelicalism compromises on its position on Scripture, I will be happy to give the term up.

byron said...

I agree with Peter - there is a history to this word that makes it still word reclaiming. I feel Kyle's pain (and that of others) about how it is used. Thus, there would be some contexts where I would avoid using as an initial label, though as a unifying, centring reminder of the evangel as the basis of our knowledge of God, our corporate life, our hope and future and so on, I still find it unputdownable (presently).

byron said...

*2nd 'word' = worth
i.e. still worth reclaiming

Kyle said...

Thanks, folks. Your additional comments about the historical and social context of evangelicalism are of course spot-on (like you need me to tell you that) and ought not to be forgotten in discussion of the matter.

Fr. Peter, I've got a postcard to send you, but no address...! Email me!

J-Lunt, I'm glad you see the freak-out content of the words and navigate it with a little fun. :0)

Collin, you bring up a good point - I wonder how much agreement across "evangelicalism" there really is about the content of the "good news"? For example, I don't know if I would qualify as an evangelical (hehe, depends on who you listen to) but I would consider any evangel that either starts or ends with "my individual salvation" to be out of bounds. It's a thread that weaves through the tapestry of God's story (as it were, pardon the mixed metaphor!) but it can't be primary.

John Meade, I've not read Lloyd-Jones' book, but thanks for pointing it out. I wonder, is it valuable to be an evangelical for the sake of the implied high view of Scripture when the individual hermeneutics of evangelicals will vary so much? As in, the more specific one gets about what a "high" view of scripture has to mean (like perhaps "inerrancy"), people start getting put outside that particular camp.

Does "being an evangelical" give one a high view of scripture, or does one happen to be an evangelical because one already happens to have that "high" (but non-specific) view?

Cheers.

Byron, I think you (and Peter!) make a good point, especially in terms of employing the label (like 60-70 years ago) as a "unifying, centering reminder of the evangel as the basis of our knowledge of God, our corporate life, our hope and future."

I agree that it could do that and that's wonderful; however, does it "give" us that if we don't have it already?

Is that the right question to be asking?

Thanks, everybody.

Richard of Chico said...

Perhaps this belongs in the "grammar" discussion above, but it seems to me that the way to rehabilitate the the word "evangelical" is to remember that it is an adjective, not a noun. When we say that Bob is "an evangelical" we are modifying the unspoken word "Christian".

The problem with this, however, is two-fold.

First, the term has been taken by the media as a noun which is synonomous with "fundamentalist", a phenomenon already noted here.

But secondly, the implied word "Christian" by itself is too amorphous and abstract to really give much substance to the definition. All the heavy lifting in "evangelical Christian" belongs to "evangelical". Thus evangelical serves as the noun, leading to the aforementioned problem.

But I want to suggest that to be Christian is to be engaged and embodied in a tradition. The word Christian in the world after the Great Schism and the Reformation (for good or ill) requires an adjective to bear any meaning. That primary adjective should be the tradition, whether Anglican, Baptist, Wesleyan, etc. Evangelical is a secondary modifier refering to being a, say, an evagelical Methodist or an evangelical Anglican.

(A problem arises, perhaps with at least two situations: can their be evangelical Catholics? and what about non-denominationalists? What is their tradition? Other anolomies perhpas pertain here as well.)

In any evant, I suggest that the word be rehabilitated by making it a modifier to our traditions.

Kyle said...

Good points, Richard. I think using it as a secondary modifier takes care of some of that "are we evangelicals first, and why is that" stuff.

And Tom has suggested in the latest post that there are Catholics who identify as evangelical.

Richard of Chico said...

Certainly evangelical can have a Catholic usage. Tom's point is well taken.

However, if part and parcel of being evangelical is not only the authority but the "sufficiency" of scripture, then it might be argued that Catholics do not by definition fit the bill. The idea of sufficiency (if I am understanding the term correctly) appears to be an appeal to sola scriptura, which definitely is not a Catholic hermeneutical principle.

I also note that neo-evangelical colleges, such as Gordon-Conwell, Weaton, and Westmont (my alma mater, BTW) released faculty who converted to the Catholic church as they could no longer subscribe to this halmark of evangelical identity.

Frankly, I long for some sort of robust evangelical Catholicism. Once thought it was to be found among the Anglicans. Not so sanguine about that possibility any longer.

andrewtatum said...

So, I think I may have posted a comment previously but I'm not sure. At any rate, the original comment was my plea for you to weigh in with your penchant for "deconstructing" names/titles over at my blog. You see, I'm trying to rename my blog, (Re)inventing the Sacred, because that's not really what I'm trying to do there. So, if you'd like, please read my most recent post and suggest a new name. Peace,
Andrew