Is there any point being ‘evangelical’?

Note to Briefing readers: If you have already read this article in the paper edition of Briefing #313, the ‘web extra’ component is the section under the heading ‘Looking forward’, which was cut from the printed version for space reasons. You might like to skip forward to this section.

Bible-believing Christians have long called themselves ‘evangelical’. But as the strength of the movement grows, so also does confusion about what the name means.

Inflation and Fragmentation

Books and articles on evangelical identity are legion. The phenomenon of ‘evangelicalism’—long the victim of its own lack of definition—is still, it seems, sufficiently interesting to excite authors and publishers alike to continue the flood of books on the subject. Occasionally one of these books will turn out to be a call to faithfulness; more often nowadays they are opportunities to demonstrate the opposite.

It is only fair that I should confess upfront that I have a growing unease about the terms ‘evangelical’ and ‘evangelicalism’. It began as a niggling concern about labels and party-spirit. Endless rounds of self-examination and self-definition can distract us from the key task of sharing Christ with a world full of lost men and women. Yet my concern has been broadened in the face of a clear abuse of these terms in the last ten years. Perhaps it was that book with its ‘ten tribes of evangelicalism’ that first alerted me to this other problem (though I think I’d been face to face with it long before). Perhaps it was that newspaper article by a friend which, with far too little irony, revelled in the fifty-two varieties of evangelicalism (picking up on a successful advertising campaign for Heinz soups). Whatever it was, it is now quite clear that an increasing number of writers and speakers are attempting a massive redefinition of this venerable term. In just the last two years the call to include more and more divergent opinions, even some radically contradictory opinions, under the umbrella of ‘evangelicalism’ has gathered pace and shown new determination.

Across the Spectrum

One of the more scholarly books written to give expression and, indeed, encouragement to this new found diversity is Gregory Boyd and Paul Eddy’s Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology. The goal of this book (and its brief appendix, which is only available online)1 is explicit: to introduce evangelical college students to the different positions within evangelicalism. The authors acknowledge “the unavoidable element of subjectivity”, especially with regard to “what issues and positions fall within the parameters of evangelicalism” (p. 7), but the whole book is built on the premise of a reasonable diversity of opinion on important theological issues amongst genuinely evangelical Christians. 18 issues are canvassed in the book and another 12 are dealt with in the appendix, with a very determined effort to present each view fairly and as one that can be defended from Scripture and so is worthy of respect. The range of topics covered is fascinating. The usual suspects are there of course: baptism, tongue speaking, women in ministry, the millennium, and biblical inerrancy/infallibility. Yet the list is much more extensive, bringing with it an implied claim for the freedom to differ on an ever increasing range of issues. We are shown that there is a diversity amongst evangelicals on the destiny of the unevangelized (are they lost? Does everyone get an opportunity? Is there hope beyond the grave? Can someone be saved by Jesus without knowing they have been saved by Jesus?), the nature of atonement (penal substitution, Christ the victor, and moral government are presented as the live options), God’s knowledge of the future (is the future determined or open to the free decisions of human agents?), the final judgement of the wicked (hell or annihilation?), and the question of whether a Christian can be demonized.

Not Evangelical Enough

Less scholarly, yet with a strong commitment to the same approach is the little book of essays edited by Iain Taylor, Not Evangelical Enough: the gospel at the centre. The editor’s introduction identifies two dangers facing contemporary evangelicalism: ‘distortionism’, a chronic failure to respect the content of the gospel; and ‘reductionism’, a chronic failure to respect the scope of the gospel (pp. xx-xxii). Either option, he warns, can lead us into being ‘not evangelical enough’. There are some very fine contributions to this volume, mostly those which sit loosely to the agenda set out in the introduction (e.g. those by David Jackman, Paul Blackham and Paul Weston). Very different is Martin Davie’s leading article, which reads like a manifesto for those who wish to expand the boundaries of evangelicalism. He argues that whether we think of theology, history, spirituality, worship, missionary activity, or attitudes to social and political action, the plain truth is that there is not one evangelical heritage but “a variety of Evangelical heritages that are diverse and even contradictory” (pp. 25-26). As a result he suggests that “none of us is simply an Evangelical without further qualification” (p. 19) and we must be careful not to “hijack the label Evangelical so that it refers to our kind of Evangelicalism alone” (p. 20). While much in this is true, his essay is unfortunately marred by superficial theological analysis and an historical survey that neglects important events in service of a predetermined conclusion.

This push for diversity is not merely a feature of books on evangelicalism. It is being played out in the life of churches as well. In 2003, as evangelicals within the Church of England in the UK responded to what they saw as a range of threats to biblical faith within their denomination world-wide, a long-standing struggle within their own ranks broke into the light of day. A group taking the name ‘Fulcrum’ sought to distance itself from the statements of recognized evangelical leaders and established organizations such as the Church Society and REFORM. It issued a call for a recognition of genuine and creative diversity within the evangelical wing of the Church of England, while at the same time expressing a desire to see “the various strands within Evangelicalism drawn together by a shared outlook that flows from historic Evangelicalism’s commitment to Scripture, the cross, conversion and mission”. This group has declared as one of its goals “fair and rigorous debate developing a nourishing and generous orthodoxy and a confident evangelical and Anglican ecclesiology”. By doing so it claims to represent “those who identify with Evangelicalism’s centre ground but who feel that their views are not adequately heard in the public arena”. Fulcrum’s leadership is largely made up of people who are, in various measure, critical of classic evangelicalism and its commitments.2

The expression used—”commitment to Scripture, the cross, conversion and mission”—is, at best, vague. Indeed it is only possible to be as inclusive as the Fulcrum leadership desires to be when its core commitments are vaguely expressed. Only then is there room for diversity about just how Scripture functions within the congregation, or the saving mechanism of the cross, or the nature of conversion and the understanding of human nature underlying it, or the method and content of the Christian mission. However, by this means an inflation of meaning occurs and the term ‘evangelical’ becomes next to useless without some kind of qualification. Enter the ‘hyphenated evangelical’.

One obvious step would be to abandon the term ‘evangelical’ altogether. Yet there has been a remarkable reluctance to solve the problem in this way. Instead ‘evangelical’ is joined with adjectives which provide a precision now lost to the word itself. The reason for this strategy is quite simple: the term evangelical is prized because of its heritage. To claim to be an evangelical is to claim a spiritual kinship with giants of the past such as Luther and Tyndale, Wesley and Whitfield, Simeon and Ryle. It locates us alongside contemporaries like John Stott and Billy Graham, Jim Packer and Carl Henry. What is more, the term is stubbornly credible because it links us directly with the evangel (euangelion), the powerful, saving gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 1:3, 16-17). Yet it can equally be a threatening term, since in John Stott’s words, “it is the contention of evangelicals that they are plain Bible Christians and that in order to be a biblical Christian it is necessary to be an evangelical Christian”.3

Hyphenating evangelical with such terms as ‘classic’, ‘open’, ‘charismatic’ or even ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ has not proved to be a lasting solution to the basic problem. Indeed, the push to be more inclusive is not limited to our generation alone. Time and again over the last five hundred years such a manoeuvre has eventually led to fragmentation and division. Perhaps the most famous instance of this was when the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (CICCU) split from the Student Christian Movement (SCM) in 1909.4 Yet examples could be multiplied in many places throughout the world. To some, this is evidence of a “pathological tendency to fragment” on the part of evangelicals, and undoubtedly there is some truth in that observation.5 But there is another possible explanation. We could also see these moments of upheaval as necessary correctives to repeated attempts to claim the term by those whose theological commitments undermine the very structure of evangelical faith.

The Opposite Danger: Solipsism

There is, of course, a danger from the opposite direction. It is the danger of so identifying our own preferences, experiences, and theological commitments with gospel truth that the only route to acceptance as an evangelical is through surrender to my point of view. Put another way, the boundaries of evangelical belief can be drawn tighter and tighter around ourselves so that, in the final analysis, I am the measure of what it means to be evangelical. Evangelicalism collapses into my perspective on everything. There is no room for disagreement with what I think. Though we may not see it ourselves, little room is left even for the correction of our views in line with the teaching of Scripture. Here is evangelical—in fact profoundly unevangelical and unchristian—solipsism.

But does this danger really exist or is it merely a caricature that helps to keep the boundaries ‘open’? I am convinced it would be a mistake to dismiss this warning too quickly. Though it might never be our intention, though it might not match the reality when all the evidence if properly weighed, it certainly accords with the perception of some evangelical leaders and groups by those on the fringes and those outside. Without ever meaning to, could we give the impression that we are—I am—the touchstone of evangelical orthodoxy? Have we left room for the possibility that we might be wrong on some things, or that we might need to change our mind in the light of the teaching of the Bible? Could we ourselves possibly fall into the trap of inflating the meaning of the term ‘evangelical’, not so much with a range of diverse theological opinions but instead with other commitments of our own—my political persuasion, my fashion preferences, my style of music, or the degree of formality or informality I find helpful in Christian gatherings? Perhaps these are questions we do not ask often enough.

It is possible, after all, to define evangelicalism in such a way as to exclude some of those with whom we might wish to associate ourselves. Was Martin Luther an evangelical? Yet he believed in the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. Was John Wesley an evangelical? Yet he was self-consciously Arminian rather than Reformed in his understanding of the way human responsibility and divine sovereignty operate in our salvation. Does it make sense to speak of an evangelicalism that would exclude Billy Graham because of his willingness to work with those outside of evangelical circles for the proclamation of the gospel or John Stott because in debate with David Edwards he once pondered the strengths of the case for annihilation rather than eternal punishment? Is there room for concluding that someone might be wrong—perhaps profoundly wrong—without disenfranchising them? Is all error heretical?

If this danger is indeed a real one, then the repeated calls for humility and dialogue should not just be dismissed as the predictable complaint of those who want to water down what it means to be evangelical. I remember being challenged by an undoubted evangelical leader who asked a group of us, “When was the last time you changed your mind? Have you ever done so about anything that mattered?” Our commitment to the importance of repentance in the Christian life should extend to our thinking as well as our behaviour. It is inconceivable that we have always been right about everything. We might be very alert to how the surrounding culture has influenced Christians of the past and even other Christians in our own time. But are we really open to the possibility that we too might have been shaped by the world more than we think? We ought to welcome the challenge to go back to the Scriptures to see if these things are so. It may just be that our brothers and sisters have seen things that we have been unable to see, for whatever reason.

Evangelicalism with definite boundaries

How then can we avoid the pitfalls of inflation in meaning on the one hand, and the ‘I only I am left’ approach on the other? Is a generous spirit really incompatible with definite boundaries? Any answer to these questions is immediately complicated by the reality of our own sinfulness. We are simply not immune to making mistakes—not just in what we believe but in the way we treat people, especially those who differ with us. Hasty judgements and harsh remarks leave their mark (on ourselves as well as those who are their targets). But so too does the refusal to make judgements and to speak out against an idea or behaviour we are convinced is wrong because it runs counter to the teaching of the Bible. It is clear that here, as much as anywhere, we are dependent upon God to give us the wisdom we need and the combination of courage and self-control which so often eludes us.

A further complication arises from a misuse of the word ‘generous’. From a number of quarters at the moment we hear a call to a ‘generous orthodoxy’. It is presented as the opposite of being doctrinaire, narrow and definite. It means an acceptance of differences, a respect of alternative opinions, a reluctance to say ‘no’. It means recognizing, as one man once put it to me, that “nobody has a right to decide that another person’s point of view is not evangelical”. But when used this way this word jars with the example of the apostle Paul, the apostle Peter, and indeed the Lord Jesus himself as they are presented in the New Testament. Paul’s treatment of Peter at Antioch in Galatians 2 could hardly be called an application of generous orthodoxy: “But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned” (2:11). Peter’s descriptions of the false teachers to come doesn’t quite fit either (2 Peter 2-3). Jesus’ resistance to false understandings about his mission, even amongst those he loved, was at points remarkably direct and confronting, not at all in keeping with this idea of being generous to alternative points of view (Matt 16:21-23).

Perhaps part of the problem arises out of the shift from generosity towards people to generosity towards ideas. There can be no doubt of the biblical command to generosity and more than that, to rich other-person-centred love towards others, even those who oppose us in one way or another. Indeed, in each of the cases I have just cited we can see such love being worked out: not by avoiding confrontation but by being willing to stand up and oppose wrong belief and wrong behaviour when they arise amongst God’s people. We are called both to display gentle humility (Phil 2:3) and to contend for the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3). Humility is not the same as timidity or ‘being open’. Gentleness is not the same as always looking for something positive to say or never saying ‘no’. Paul would not budge a millimetre on gospel truth (Gal 1:8-9) but he was willing to be all things to all men in order to save some (1 Cor 9:22).

The gospel is not infinitely pliable. It has a definite content and we are called to live in the light of this message and proclaim this message to others, without addition or subtraction. The New Testament is God’s own exposition and application of that message to us in the last days in the light of all that he has said and done in the Old Testament and brought to fulfilment in the life, death and resurrection of his Son. And embedded in that exposition is the expectation of the Lord Jesus and his apostles that throughout the last days we will need to defend this definite message in the face of attempts to modify it in one way or another. We cannot afford to be generous with teaching that differs from that of the Scriptures. Generous orthodoxy, in this sense, is a dangerous concept.

Yet alternative ideas rarely, if ever, come to us in a disembodied form. Real people espouse them, men and women for whom Christ came and died. There is a generosity that is appropriate: The same Scriptures which speak of contending for the faith and resisting false teaching call on us to avoid a quarrelsome spirit (2 Tim 2:24-25) and a predilection for controversy (1 Tim 6:3-5). There may well come a point when a person must be condemned as a false teacher who stubbornly resists correction by the Scriptures and who is injuring God’s people. Such people do exist today as Jesus and the apostles warned us they would. Yet in such cases concern for the person is every bit as important as the repudiation of their error. As Paul told the Thessalonians about one who would not obey his words, “Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother” (2 Thess 3:15). Standing together before Christ on the last day is much more important than winning the argument today. How much more then when we are not talking about those who deliberately refuse the word of God but rather those who differ from us in how they understand it?

In other words, love and faithfulness are not rivals but the most intimate of companions. It is our faithfulness to the apostolic gospel that drives us to love in much more than a superficial way, to seek a unity that is profoundly more than mere show. True orthodoxy is generous, but not in the sense of blurringboundaries between truth and error or between what is essential and what is secondary. It is generous in its recognition that all of us are prone to error and sin and all of us need a saviour. A disagreement with my brother or sister should drive me back to the pages of the Bible, not to the trenches to dig in for the battle. Respecting one another’s opinions should never be an excuse to avoid testing those opinions by the word of God.

Looking forward

There is always room for growth in our understanding of the gospel and how it intersects with the lives we live while we wait for the Lord’s return. Classic evangelicalism needs to be boldly and clearly restated in the new context of our own day. However, the boundaries do not need to be enlarged unless they have simply been of our own making. The same unchanging gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is always worth dying for, as many of our brothers and sisters in fact did over the past two thousand years. Yet we need regular encouragement to keep learning, to advance in our knowledge of God and his purposes and to live out its truth more consistently in the world and especially amidst God’s people.

The Futures of Evangelicalism

There have been a number of books published in recent years which have sought to encourage us in this adventure. The collection of essays edited by Craig Bartholomew, Robin Parry and Andrew West, The Futures of Evangelicalism: Issues and Prospects is one of these. The authors each assess the state of play in a particular area of evangelical concern (theology, the church, biblical interpretation, mission, spirituality and others) and seek to point to areas worth thinking about and working on as we proclaim Jesus in the twenty-first century. As with all such collections, the contributions are a little uneven; some are very helpful and others less so. In some essays there is even a hint of the agenda of redefinition I mentioned earlier. Yet most are an attempt, not to redefine evangelicalism but to strengthen it by urging us to remain faithful to our core commitments. One high point in the collection is Alister McGrath’s warm commendation of a rigorous and relevant theology which resources Christian faith, hope and service. Theology understood as the knowledge of God must not be elitist, arid or merely intellectual. As he puts it, “There is no place for a version of the Christian faith which has become so cerebralized that it has become the preserve of a small academic elite, and has lost any clear links with the concerns and issues confronting Christians in their everyday lives” (p. 25). A deepening understanding of what God has done in Christ nourishes genuine faith, feeding the soul as well as stimulating the mind. Another highlight is Graeme Goldsworthy’s encouragement to a more serious engagement with biblical theology. He provides us with a timely warning: the big picture of the Bible, oriented as it is to God’s particular activity in history, can guard us against distortion as we seek to present its message simply, clearly and coherently in our own age. In his words, “It is wrong to tell the biblical story as if it happened anywhere other than in the biblical world … Evangelicalism will permit the gospel to be dehistoricized and recontextualized to its peril” (p. 145).

Evangelical Landscapes

Somewhat less helpful in this regard is John Stackhouse’s Evangelical Landscapes: Facing Critical Issues of the Day, a collection of previously published essays on the present state and future possibilities of evangelical theology. This volume is very clearly oriented to evangelicalism in North America and presents as a call to rigorous thinking and faithful living. There is much here that is good and thought provoking. His description of the current state of evangelicalism in America as a kind of ‘arrested adolescence’, a superficial preoccupation with the present and pragmatic at the expense of depth, reflection and responsibility (pp. 15-20) has the ring of truth about it—though there are many exceptions, a fact which should have been more clearly acknowledged. Despite the obvious breadth of reading that underlies these essays, and the considerable perception about what is in fact going on in evangelical circles in the USA and Canada, questions remain, especially in his chapter on evangelical theology. Is it really helpful to speak of “science, history, tradition, spiritual experience and so on” as “God’s other means of revelation” (p. 170)? Might there not be good reason why evangelicalism is “yet to produce a substantial theology written from a feminist perspective” (p. 171)? Has he overstated the warning he gleans from Luther and Calvin against “presuming to venture much beyond the scriptural text into the abyss of Godself” (p. 173)? Why use that awkward pronoun (‘Godself’) at all? Stackhouse gives some helpful advice—it is just that it is mixed up with what appears to be an unspoken agenda.

Beyond the identity crisis?

Undoubtedly in some areas evangelicals are suffering from a kind of identity crisis. What does it really mean to be an evangelical Christian? Is it possible or even desirable to avoid the inflation of meaning which is recommended so vigorously in some quarters? The simple truth is that both historically and theologically it is not difficult to identify the core commitments of what we may have to call ‘classical evangelicalism’ (more accurate and less pejorative than the usual ‘conservative evangelicalism’). We need not retreat into meaningless ‘openness’ or a defensive solipsism.

The test of evangelical living and evangelical theology is one and the same: the plain teaching of the Scriptures with their focus on the gospel of the crucified and risen Christ. Other allegiances are relativised by our allegiance to the one whom God has identified as Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36) and as the one who will judge the world (Acts 17:30-31). Our preferences, the commitments of our cultural and intellectual heritage, and our institutional structures are only truly neutral in so far as they do not contravene or obscure the heart of it all.

An undoubted characteristic of classical evangelicalism down through the ages has been a clear and confronting proclamation of the gospel of God’s grace in Christ. Those who have gone before us saw that very clearly. Charles Simeon identified the goals of his own preaching: to humble the sinner, exalt the Saviour, and to promote holiness.6 Campbell Morgan described the characteristics of good preaching as truth, clarity and passion.7 John Stott summed it up: “Preaching is indispensable to Christianity. Without preaching a necessary part of its authenticity is lost.”8 It has consistently been the case that the vitality of evangelicalism and the vitality of evangelical preaching have gone hand in hand. I take it that is because of the very nature of the gospel: it is first and foremost a message to be proclaimed and believed. All else springs from that simple fact.

There is an edge to the gospel we have to proclaim. Of course this message will be scandalous to those who will not recognize any other authority than themselves. It will be confronting to all who pursue their own advantage without regard to the Lord who made them and will one day judge every idle thought. Yet it will be the most precious elixir of life to those who know the truth about themselves and the wonder of sins forgiven. There is nothing boring or clinical or cerebral about the gospel of Jesus Christ. When clearly and boldly preached it cannot produce indifference. It brings life, it nourishes life, it promotes life—but it smells like death to those who have been blinded to its truth. Isn’t that the perspective of the New Testament? “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life” (2 Cor 2:15-16).

The uncertainties about who we are quickly fade in the face of a determination to proclaim Christ (to ourselves and to the world) in this way. It is true that constant self-definition seems strangely self-indulgent in such a context. We have a message to proclaim and we live in a dying world whose only hope is to hear and believe it. So seeing others saved and making it through to the end in faith is more important than getting the label right. But that must also mean faithfulness to Christ and his gospel will be our preoccupation rather than inclusiveness. In other words, we can say both that frantic self-definition is a distraction from our central task, and that getting on with that task is itself a remedy for nervousness about our identity as evangelicals.

In the end, we might not be able to avoid debates about ‘what is an evangelical’. Yet there is a sense in which the identity question is really a secondary concern. Our identity is hardly the point, since “what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5).

Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology
Gregory A. Boyd & Paul R. Eddy
Baker, Grand Rapids, 2002, 287pp.

Not Evangelical Enough: the gospel at the centre
Iain Taylor (ed.)
Paternoster, Carlisle, 2003, 192pp.

The Futures of Evangelicalism: Issues and Prospects
Craig Bartholomew, Robin Parry & Andrew West (eds.)
IVP, Leicester, 2003, 352pp.

Evangelical Landscapes: Facing Critical Issues of the Day
John Stackhouse
Baker, Grand Rapids, 2002, 208pp.

All of these books available from Moore Books

Ph: 02 9577 9966



2 This information is all taken from the homepage of the Fulcrum website. See The website itself is dominated by the slogan “renewing the evangelical centre”.

3 J. R. W. Stott, Christ the Controversialist: A study in some essentials of the evangelical religion, Tyndale, London, 1970, p. 32.

4 John C. Pollock, A Cambridge Movement, John Murray, London, 1953, pp. 166-195.

5 J. R. W. Stott, Evangelical Truth: A Personal Plea for Unity, IVP, Leicester, 1999, p. 141.

6 C. Simeon, ‘Preface’, in Horae Homileticae, Samuel Holdsworth, London, 1837-8), p. xxi.

7 G. Campbell Morgan, Preaching, Baker, Grand Rapids, 1974 (1955), pp. 11-38.

8 John Stott, I Believe in Preaching Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1982, p. 15.

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