Monday, June 12, 2006

What is Evangelical Christianity?

Ordinary Time

That's right. I went there. I become increasingly fearful that the word "evangelical" has been so misused both by those who claim it and those who label others with it that it no longer communicates anything at all. Mainline Christians often confuse it with Fundamentalism, and some evangelicals aren't really clear on what makes it different, either.

For a start, I'd like to recall a wonderful piece that Aly at Addison Road wrote back in February, reminding us that an evangelical is someone who "loves good news." I'd like to offer that if that's not indicative of an evangelical's temperament, something has gone wrong with him or her.
“Evangelical” means “people who love good news,” and even though the word has become synonymous with “people who want to run your life” or “people who think they have a corner on the market of morals,” I choose, probably foolishly, to hope the word can be redeemed and we can once again become good news lovers, instead of bad news makers.
I'm going to offer a very brief overview of what evangelicalism is theologically and historically; my source is Alistair McGrath's Historical Theology, and the basic distinctives are supported by David Bebbington, and I'm pretty sure Marsden (yes, I'm too lazy and busy to find the citations right now, but if you really want me to, I could). I've not read Noll on his definitions specifically, but you might check those folks out for a wider bibliography.

Fundamentalist Christianity was a reaction against Modernity. It emphasized differences between Christian denominations and is defined not only in terms of theology, but its contentious character, hyperrationalism, and siege mentality (see Marsden). Evangelicalism emerged from that as Christians sought to engage with the challenges of Modernity, particularly in terms of science, culture, and biblical criticism. While there is an overlap of beliefs (such as the Virgin birth, the veracity of the gospels' "miracle stories," and the bodily resurrection of Christ), Fundamentalism is narrowly committed to doctrines that many evangelicals find peripheral or irrelevant (such as dispensationalist or "rapture" theology).

was and remains transdenominational and ecumenical; one can find evangelicals who are also Anglicans, Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers, Methodists, and of course there are various denominations of Calvinist or Wesleyan emphases that are thoroughly evangelical in their distinctives. It also must be remembered that Fundamentalism is a reactionary, counter-cultural movement, while evangelicalism exists in the cultural and academic mainstream.

These are, according to McGrath and Bebbington, the distinctive theological marks of Evangelical Christianity:
  • The authority and sufficiency of Scripture
  • The uniqueness of redemption through the death of Christ upon the cross
  • The need for personal conversion (relationship with Jesus kind of stuff)
  • The necessity, propriety, and urgency of evangelism - the proclamation of Jesus' Lordship
I'd like stop here for a moment and see if anybody wants to discuss it. Later on I will offer some thoughts on what might be meant by "creeping fundamentalism" (a popular phrase these days), and some of the difficulties with identifying oneself as "evangelical." Oooh, and maybe a word on grammar…


Aly H. said...

Thanks for the shout out, Kyle. I look forward to your thoughts about "creeping fundamentalism," since I believe this dynamic is the major hurdle to redeeming and reclaiming the word "evangelical." There is an astonishing margin of crossover, and it's only getting larger as the cultural/political rhetoric demands that people who might normally fall in the middle pick a side.

As a personal caveat, I think I would categorize myself as "post-evangelical," since I believe the theological distinctives which make one evangelical need some re-examination and maybe even redefinition. I like questions like "What do we mean when we say 'authority and sufficiency of Scripture?'" and asking such questions may disqualify me from the evangelical club. Maybe.

Rob said...

Interesting your posting on this should coincide with Byron's posting here:

Legal Alien said...

Put me down as interested. I admit I've always lazily conflated evangelism with fundamentalism (at least as far as Christian approaches in the US go), although the distinction you describe makes perfect sense.

Kyle said...

Quite welcome, Aly. I do enjoy your writing, as well as your periodic contributions in this space. I do agree with you that these (frankly vague) notions that were constituative of evangelicalism at the start do need to be teased out.

I think the reason for this is that "evangelicalism" was never good ground for the foundation of a Christian theology. Rather, it seems to have found its genesis in a description of emphases that other theological traditions had in common, and the discovery that they could share some common mission in light of those shared convictions. Essentially, "evangelical" may not be useful as a first-order characterization, but only as a kind of second-order one.

Does that make any sense to folks?

Thanks for the link, Rob. Some of them critters are dead-on talking about evangelicalism as a sociological development rather than a "theology" as such. And of course I think following Bebbington is right-on.

(I sound like a beatnik.)

Thanks for reading, Pat - leave your laziness behind! ;-)

I greatly enjoy your blog, by the way.

byron said...

Thanks to Rob leaving a mirror comment on my blog, I found my way over here. Thanks for your summary - I agree (and agree with Aly H. that some of the terms need to be reconsidered as to what we mean by them). I'd never heard of the term 'creeping fundamentalism' (not to be confused with 'fundamentalist creep'...), but it is useful. Yes, the demand for shibboleth-conformity does indeed polarise and it is the middle that so often tries to avoid losing sight of the insights grasped by both sides of a debate. I love the 'evangelicals' as lovers of good news.

Kyle said...

Thanks, Byron. Welcome. :0)

SaintSimon said...


I discovered your blog today and am very wowed - both content and presentation are outstanding.

On evangelicals, I have always considered myself one. I tend to go with McGrath, or it least found that his definition of me was one I didn't feel upset by.

Having come from a Plymouth Brethren background via a charismatic housechurch into the Anglican church where I am training as a reader, perhaps the main thing I am finding out is that there are far more people out there whose deep beliefs I feel are congruent to mine, yet use vastly different language and church style to convey it. I recently studied the Anabaptists, many of whom [NOT ALL] would count as modern evangelicals and I would have been proud to associate with them {the sensible ones anyway}. On the other hand, I have just started a placement as part of my training in an Oxford Movement church - wildly different from my own, yet find the same kindred spirit with [some] of the people there.

At the end of the day, at the gates of heaven we will not be questioned about our denominational affiliation and detailes of theology. It will be just a case of whether we rely on Christ's death and ressurection as our ticket, or rely on our doomed self effort.

I love Good News!