Since the ascendency of Donald Trump as the Republican nominee (and now, President-elect), there has been some chatter regarding the state of Evangelicalism and the bleak future of the term. Case in point is Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, who has frequently gone on record to state that “the word “evangelical” no longer has any meaning.[1]Although, there are particular articles which flesh out Moore’s position further. Nothing is more poginant than his tweet: https://twitter.com/drmoore/status/703298641981788160

The logic, or argument, being that as evangelicals have lost credibility in the sight of the public due to unremittingly allying themselves to the Grand Old Party; the evangelical label is now tarnished, and needs to be retired.

However, there’s a central problem to this argument and it is this: the label hasn’t meant much for quite a while.

Let me explain – often, evangelical, when Moore and others use the term, is referring to a voting bloc of Christians on the political right. It’s a term which is used politically. Generally, inferring that such Christians are operating from a religious worldview and voting accordingly.

Yet, theologically – the term has meant increasingly little. Whereas once the label had somewhat clear points of theological demarcation, such qualified boundaries have long since been eroded. Thus, when one refers to themselves as evangelical, this does not relay any significant doctrinal position to the listener, other than one thing – the centrality of the Gospel. Evangelical is derived, after all, from the word euangelion, which means gospel. Yet, if this is the distilled meaning of the label – then isn’t this simply synonymous with the term Christian? Which while it conveys that one is a follower of Christ, reveals very little else – and is something that Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, and several dozen other sects, happily refer to themselves as.

Likewise, this has become the problem of evangelical, the term has come to mean very little. The irony is that evangelical was formulated as a limiting term of theological substance. Martin Luther used the term Evangelischen to denote those who held views which varied with Rome; particularly those who held to the centrality of the Gospel and the classic Reformation Solas. Similarly, ‘evangelical’ was used throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries to describe those who held to orthodox teachings, particularly in contrast to other movements at the time. Such as in the mid-19th century when the influences of Friedrich Schleiermacher and the movement of Higher Criticism were permeating into Christendom.[2]There is quite a history to the usage of the term. However, due to brevity, I have just noted some particular usages. Without exception, evangelicalism has traditionally been used for, and by, those who upheld orthodox truths.

Indeed, throughout these periods, evangelicals were known for much more than simply holding to the centrality of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Or rather, put another way, the centrality of the Gospel meant much more than what it means today. Whilst today, this means that one believes in the prominence of Jesus Christ as Saviour and (hopefully!) Lord as well as the well-intended offering of Salvation; Previously, it was interwoven with other doctrinal positions and beliefs.

This is, perhaps, best illustrated through the work of the Baptist historian, David Bebbington, who in his classic 1989 study, ‘Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s’, identified the four main qualities or convictions held by traditional evangelicals as:

  • Biblicism: a high regard for the Bible (e.g. all essential spiritual truth is to be found in its pages);
  • Crucicentrism: a focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross;
  • Activism: the belief that the gospel needs to be expressed in effort;
  • Conversionism: the belief that human beings need to be converted.[3]All of these are commonly refered to as the Bebbington Quadrilateral; David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (Routledge, 1989).

J.I Packer made similar observations in his 1978 monograph ‘The Evangelical Anglican Identity Problem’. Wherein he succinctly observed that evangelicalism was defined by four general claims and six particularly convictions which were composed of:

General Claims:

  • Practical Christianity: A Life dictated by total discipleship to Christ;
  • Pure Christianity: Nothing added to Christianity;
  • Unitive Christianity: Unity driven by a common commitment to gospel truth;
  • Rational Christianity: As opposed to the popular preoccupation with experience.

Particular Convictions:

  • Supremacy of Holy Scripture;
  • The Majesty of Jesus Christ;
  • The Lordship of the Holy Spirt;
  • The Necessity of Conversion;
  • The Priority of Evangelism;
  • The Importance of Fellowship.[4]J.I. Packer, The Evangelical Anglican Identity Problem: an analysis (Latimer House, 1978), 11.

Needless to say, a classical adherence to evangelicalism entailed one to be, as Martyn Lloyd-Jones called it, ‘a man of one book’: “He is a man of one book; he starts with it; he submits himself to it; it is his authority. He does not start from any extra-biblical authority. He confines himself and submits himself completely to the teaching of the Bible.[5]Martyn Lloyd-Jones, What is an Evangelical? (Banner of Truth, 1992), 42.

Evangelicals traditionally understood that being gospel-centered meant that one was entirely subservient to the Bible. It did not mean that one only accepted the reality of Christ to the neglect, or even rejection, of the other things that the Bible spoke on. Yet, the theological substance that once composed the crux of evangelicalism is no longer. Rather, evangelicalism has been redefined to be all-embracive and all-inclusive.

Sadly, over the past several decades there have been plenty of people who, whilst disagreeing with much of the above points outlined by Bebbington and Packer, were (and are) happy enough to embrace the evangelical title. This has been particularly illustrated by some of the surveys conducted by the Barna Group, an evangelical polling firm in the United States. These surveys investigated whether those who self-identified as evangelicals were evangelical by the traditional usage of the term.[6]Barna Group, Survey Explores Who Qualifies As an Evangelical (January 18, 2007): https://www.barna.com/research/survey-explores-who-qualifies-as-an-evangelical/ To achieve this, the Barna Group designed a checklist which comprised of nine theological factors:

  • A personal commitment in Jesus Christ;
  • A knowledge that they will go to heaven after they die because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior;
  • That their faith is very important in their life today;
  • That they believe they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians;
  • That they believe that Satan exists;
  • That they believe that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works;
  • That they believe that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth;
  • That they assert that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches;
  • That they describe God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today.

Out of the individuals they interviewed, only 19% of the self-proclaimed evangelicals met the above criteria. That’s 1 in 5. However, rather than being an isolated case, the results from this survey evidence the disconnect which has taken place between the label and the theology which once underpinned it. An observation well-noted by David F. Wells in his book, ‘No Place for Truth, or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?’. Wells, rightly, contended that orthodox theology no longer held prominence within evangelicalism, as the onslaught of modernism laid open theological demarcations, pluralistic and embracive approaches challenged the concept of orthodoxy, and many people simply opted to opted to ‘privatise’ their faith. The impact being that “evangelical has come to mean simply that one has had a certain kind of religious experience that gives color to the private aspects of daily life but in which few identifiable theological elements can be discerned or, as it turns out, are necessary.”[7]David F. Wells, No Place for Truth, or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (WM. B. Eerdmans, 1993), 130.

Though, rather than being a recent phenomenon or something particularly limited to the United States, this redefinition has permeated into worldwide evangelicalism (including here in Australia[8]I have certainly encountered this, particularly having been a graduate of an ‘evangelical’ Bible college..) over the past few decades. Mark Thompson, Principal of Moore College, on a similar note, anecdotally mentioned how, when he was in his 30s, he travelled across the world to study and he was “a little taken back to find that the evangelicalism I’d grown up with was known in the U.K. as ‘conservative evangelicalism’. Later, one English theologian described it as ‘highly conservative evangelicalism’.[9]Mark Thompson, The Danger of Labels (June 16, 2015): http://thinkingofgod.org/2015/06/the-danger-of-labels/

What had happened? Well, in Thompson’s words: ”[W]ith each added adjective two things were happening — the idea of a definable set of theological commitments was replaced with the image of a spectrum of opinions and what had once been universally recognised as the central commitments were moved from the centre out on to one edge of that spectrum.[10]Ibid.

This encroachment upon the label has fundamentally destroyed its viable usage. Indeed, the more people who use the term to describe themselves, the more indefinable it is. Seminaries which host liberal faculty call themselves evangelical; churches which deny the trinity call themselves evangelical; Catholics call themselves evangelical. Everyone wants to be an evangelical.

Sadly, the real question today isn’t ‘What is an Evangelical?’; It has become ‘Who isn’t an evangelical?

Thus, when Moore, and others, argue that we have reached the ‘end’ of evangelicalism or that recent political events in the United States have ‘harmed’ evangelicalism, they are sadly mistaken, for vanilla evangelicalism ended years ago, and they missed the memo. The unfettered allegiance of evangelicalism to the right is just a symptom of the degradation that has already taken place, not its source.

References   [ + ]

1.Although, there are particular articles which flesh out Moore’s position further. Nothing is more poginant than his tweet: https://twitter.com/drmoore/status/703298641981788160
2.There is quite a history to the usage of the term. However, due to brevity, I have just noted some particular usages. Without exception, evangelicalism has traditionally been used for, and by, those who upheld orthodox truths.
3.All of these are commonly refered to as the Bebbington Quadrilateral; David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (Routledge, 1989).
4.J.I. Packer, The Evangelical Anglican Identity Problem: an analysis (Latimer House, 1978), 11.
5.Martyn Lloyd-Jones, What is an Evangelical? (Banner of Truth, 1992), 42.
6.Barna Group, Survey Explores Who Qualifies As an Evangelical (January 18, 2007): https://www.barna.com/research/survey-explores-who-qualifies-as-an-evangelical/
7.David F. Wells, No Place for Truth, or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (WM. B. Eerdmans, 1993), 130.
8.I have certainly encountered this, particularly having been a graduate of an ‘evangelical’ Bible college.
9.Mark Thompson, The Danger of Labels (June 16, 2015): http://thinkingofgod.org/2015/06/the-danger-of-labels/
10.Ibid.