Monday, January 9, 2012

What Does it Mean to be Evangelical? A Review of Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism

On September 17, 1915, while speaking at Princeton Theological Seminary, B.B. Warfield lamented the confusion regarding the term “evangelical”:
"The religious terrain is full of the graves of good words which have died from lack of care—they stand as close in it as do the graves today in the flats of Flanders or among the hills of northern France. And these good words are still dying all around us. There is that good word “Evangelical.” It is certainly moribund, if not already dead. Nobody any longer seems to know what it means."
Nearly 100 years later, Warfield’s dilemma has worsened. The diversity of those who would claim to be “evangelical Christians" has increased to the point that the label seems meaningless.  If one disagrees with the historic understanding of the gospel or evangelicalism, one simply redefines the term to make it mean what they want it to mean.  As one pastor, when asked if he was an Evangelical, put it:
I embrace the term evangelical,” he remarked, “if by that we mean a belief that we together can actually work for change in the world, caring for the environment, extending to the poor generosity and kindness, a hopeful outlook. That’s a beautiful sort of thing.
Unfortuantley, that's not what we mean, at least not historically.  While those sentiments are nice, that definition can just as easily be applied to a Peace Corp volunteer as an evangelical.

Complicating the problem, the term evangelical is sometimes used as a pejorative in the public sphere. For example, evangelicals are caricatured in the political realm as anti-intellectual and anti-freedom; individuals who want to impose their religious beliefs on others while failing to meet their physical needs.

Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism, edited by Stanley Gundry, provides a valuable resource for those who want to understand how those who identify themselves as evangelical define the term.

Kevin Bauder provides a Fundamentalist perspective on what it means to be evangelical. He doesn't defend hyper-fundamentalism but instead the idea that the gospel “draws the boundary of Christian fellowship” and believes that Christians should also separate from those who fail to draw those boundaries (but he's really nice about it).  

Al Mohler argues for something Confessional evangelicalism. He maintains that adherence to certain beliefs define an evangelical.  To deny those core beliefs places one outside the boundaries of evangelicalism.

John Stackhouse considers himself a Generic evangelical.  He maintains that there are distinctive features to evangelicalism but wants the tent to be large enough so that we can “all feel we are authentic evangelicals.”

Roger Olson, promoting a position called Post-Conservative evangelicalism, believes that there are not boundaries to the evangelical movement but rather a center. In other words, there are core beliefs that can be considered "evangelicalism", but no one who desires to be considered part of the movement can be excluded.

This book will not solve the dilemma of what it means to be evangelical. In fact, it sheds far more light on the theological perspective of the individual authors than the issue of what it means to be evangelical.

While I had expected to be irritated by Bauder's fundamentalims, I found myself largely in agreement with much of what he wrote.  Unfortunatley, his insistence on "secondary separation" (the idea that we must separate from those who refuse to separate from those who undermine the gospel) is a bridge too far for me. 

I found Stackhouse an interesting read but extremely confusing. He seemed confused himself on what he was willing to call evangelical and what he must be forced to admit fell outside the boundaries of evangelicalism.

I disagree with Olson in terms of what ought to be true of evangelicals, but I found myself admitting that he was at least correct in a practical sense. As much as I believe that the term evangelical should be reserved for those who profess the evangel, the gospel, it is hard to deny that the term has grown to include those who deny significant truths related to the gospel. In this sense, Olson is right. Evangelicalism is not an institution but a movement.

But Olson arrives at an understanding of evangelicalism that empties the word of any real meaning. As he admits:
So, how…do I define evangelical and evangelicalism? I’m tempted to say, paraphrasing a Supreme Court justice, that while I can’t define who is an evangelical, I know one when I meet one. . . . I refuse to talk about evangelical boundaries or about anything approaching an evangelical magisterium. I value its movement character and its diversity as well as its unity (182).
This will not do. For a term to have meaning, sometimes it must have both positive and negative value. When we classify something, we are not only saying what it is, we are simultaneously saying what it is not. A chair is not a window. A book is not car. Defining something necessitates limitations.

Like Bauder, Mohler argue for a definition that is more theological than sociological.  I agree with him when he writes: “Evangelicalism is coherent as movement only if it is also known for what it is not. Attention to the boundaries is as requisite as devotion to the center. . . . Our task is to be clear about what the gospel is and is not” (210).

The hope I have is not that we will preserve some arbitrary term.  My prayer is that we will rightly define evangelical so that we will maintain clarity in our presentation of the good news of Jesus Christ.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Things were much simpler in the 50s. If you liked Billy Graham, then you were in the club: