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).
Evangelicalism 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