Tuesday, September 06, 2011

What Makes Evangelicalism Evangelical?

The evangelical movement in America emerged in the twentieth century as conservative Protestants sought to perpetuate an intentional continuity with biblical Christianity. While the roots of the movement can be traced through centuries prior to its emergence in twentieth century America, its organizational shape appeared mainly in the years after World War II. And, as anyone who considers the movement with a careful eye understands, evangelical definition has been a central preoccupation of the movement from the moment of its inception.

The word “evangelical” long predates the coalescence of the evangelical coalition of the last century. The word has been applied to Methodism in the eighteenth century, to nonconformists and low church Protestants in Great Britain in the nineteenth century, and to a host of groups, churches, and movements ever since. As early as the nineteenth century, frustration and confusion arose over the use and misuse of the term. The seventh Earl of Shaftesbury expressed the late-nineteenth century frustration when he declared, “I know what constituted an evangelical in former times . . . I have no clear notion what constitutes one now.”

In this light, one is tempted to identify with the late Justice Potter Stewart, who during deliberations of the U. S. Supreme Court in a 1964 case concerning pornography, simply declared: “I know it when I see it.”

In the most common usage of the term, it works in almost this very sense. An evangelical is recognized by a passion for the Gospel of Jesus Christ, by a deep commitment to biblical truth, by a sense of urgency to see lost persons hear the Gospel, and by a commitment to personal holiness and the local church. In any event, this is what we should hope to recognize as authentically evangelical.

But there is more to the question, of course. Honesty requires that the term be defined by its necessity. In this sense, evangelical has been and still remains a crucial term because we simply cannot live without it. Some word has to define what it means to be a conservative Protestant who is not, quite simply, a Roman Catholic, nor a theological liberal. While Catholics and liberal Protestants may speak of themselves in terms of an evangelical spirit (and both have), the term makes no sense as applied to a movement unless it is held to be clearly distinct from both Roman Catholicism and Protestant Liberalism. Yet, there is more to the story of course, since the evangelical movement was also born out of a deep concern to identify a posture distinct from that of Protestant Fundamentalism.

There have been attempts to replace the term with something more useful, but such efforts have met with little success. The reason for this is quite simple – the word really does accomplish what it sets out to do. It functions as a descriptor for many millions of Christians for whom no other aggregate denominator is appropriate. The word has enduring value precisely because we cannot operate without it. To read more, click here.

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