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Evangelicalism

>The Gospellers: Evangelicals and the Priority of the Gospel

>Evangelicalism is not what it once was. This is not quite a ground-breaking announcement. The term “evangelical” has presently come to represent so many different movements and doctrines (often in direct contradiction to one another) that many have come to the conclusion that the term is essentially meaningless. “I think the term ‘Evangelical’ is less and less of value. I rarely use it of myself, except in the broadest of terms to describe myself to someone in another tradition.”[1] Some who represent the old or classic evangelicalism have been attempting to draw attention to this troubling development for some time.[2]

“Postwar evangelicalism, which linked believers around the world through the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization and the World Evangelical Fellowship, which produced InterVarsity Fellowship and Campus Crusade, which saw the emergence of Bill Graham to international prominence, and which spawned Christianity Today as its public, journalistic voice, is now in a free fall, despite the fact that it is still sustaining many fine individual ministries. We are coming to the end, I believe, of this era of believing in the form that we have known it, and what will follow it is now taking on a rather different shape.” David F. Wells[3]

It has recently been said, “If Joel Osteen, R.C. Sproul, Benny Hinn, Chuck Swindoll, Oral Roberts, J.P. Moreland, T.D. Jakes, Jimmy Carter, Billy Graham, Brian McLaren, Pat Robertson, and John Piper all distinguish themselves as evangelicals, then we must admit that the designation both means everything and nothing at the same time.” This is well said. If “evangelical” does indeed mean something, and it does, then it is not possible for each of these leaders and the movements and doctrines they represent to all truly be evangelical.

What’s In a Name?

As more and more orthodox evangelicals are coming to the conclusion that “evangelical” can no longer represent them, new banners are being sought to advance the kingdom under. Parchment and Pen recently suggested “Historic Evangelicalism.” Other titles in use include “classic evangelicalism”, “the old evangelicalism”, “orthodox evangelicals”, and sure to step on some toes: “orthodox Christianity.” This recent discussion around the blogosphere, along with a recent question and answer session with Dr. D. Jeffrey Bingham, peaked my interest in a few important questions: What exactly is an evangelical? How has evangelicalism changed over the years? Should historic evangelicals seek to formally distinguish themselves from other evangelicals? What would be some of the implications of a new name? These are some of the questions I am exploring at this time.

Ideally, it would preferable to retain the name “evangelical” without any modifiers. Contrary to the opinion of some, evangelicalism enjoys a long tradition of representing and reclaiming orthodox Christian belief. “It cannot be emphasized too much that evangelicalism has a family history of which it is painfully unaware. The rediscovery of that heritage is of major importance to the long-term future of the movement.”[4] Those who have deviated from the evangelical tradition should come be to known by another name but this is probably not a realistic hope. Whatever we choose to call ourselves, we must address the fact that “the evangelicalism of the last hundred years contrasts unfavorably with what went before.”[5]

Evangelical Heritage

It is important to recognize that today’s evangelicalism is, in fact, different from historic evangelicalism.

“Since the sixteenth century the term evangelical has undergone a significant development so that today it is difficult to define. The term came into prominence during the Reformation, when it was virtually a synonym for protestant. In the twentieth century both the concept of biblical authority and the nature and significance of justification by faith alone were challenged from within the community of confessing evangelicals. So as we head into the twenty-first century, it is no longer safe to assume that if a person calls himself an evangelical that he is committed to the battle cries of the Protestant Reformers, either to sola Scriptura or to sola fide. Signs everywhere indicate that evangelicals are disowning the heritage bequeathed to them by their Reformation forebears.” R.C. Sproul[6]

The Reformation(s) was, of course, a reform movement which reclaimed and renewed the biblical Gospel. It was driven by a desire to recover and renew the true teachings of Scripture. The Reformers did not seek to create innovative theology but to return to Christian doctrine as given to us in Scripture. They did not seek to create a new church but to reform the existing one. As such, the evangelical tradition is rooted in Christ and His apostles rather than the sixteenth century innovations. This assertion will have to be supported in a subsequent post.[7]

So what is this old, classic, historic evangelicalism? What makes it distinct from present-day evangelicalism? Charles H. Spurgeon once said “It is mere cant to cry, ‘We are evangelical; we are all evangelical’ and yet decline to say what evangelical means.”[8] The question of what is evangelicalism necessarily depends on the answer to the more fundamental question – ‘what is the Gospel?’

See my related series The Roots of American Evangelicalism.

Notes:
[1] Russell Moore in an interview with Touchstone magazine entitled “Evangelicalism Today, A Symposium: Six Evangelicals Assess Their Movement”, November 2007 issue.
[2] Recent titles on the subject include Evangelicalism Divided by Iain H. Murray, John H. Armstrong, ed., The Coming Evangelical Crisis, No Place For Truth or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? and God in the Wasteland by David Wells, The Great Evangelical Disaster by Francis Schaeffer among others.
[3] David F. Wells, “Foreward,” in Whatever Happened to the Reformation?, ed. Gary L.W. Johnson and R. Fowler White (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001), xv.
[4] Alister McGrath, Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1995), 117 as quoted by Johnson, Gary L.W. “Introduction: The Eclipse of the Reformation in the Evangelical Church: Much Ado About Nothing?” In Whatever Happened to the Reformation?, 2.
[5] Iain H. Murray, Evangelicalism Divided, a Record of Crucial Change in the Years 1950 to 2000 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2000), xi.
[6] R.C. Sproul, “Foreward,” in Whatever Happened to the Reformation?, ed. Gary L.W. Johnson and R. Fowler White (Phillisburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001), xi.
[7] For our Roman Catholic and Orthodox friends, the question of who is successfully apostolically succeeded will have to wait another time.
[8] Cited in Iain H. Murray, The Forgotten Spurgeon (1966) as quoted by R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “’Evangelical’: What’s In A Name?” in The Coming Evangelical Crisis (1996), 29.

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Discussion

6 thoughts on “>The Gospellers: Evangelicals and the Priority of the Gospel

  1. >”It really depends on who is using it and the context in which they use it…It’s really funny how we throw this term around.”I agree. That’s why I’m interested in exploring what it used to mean to be an evangelical as compared to what it means today. Because of the way the term has come to be used, its a tricky subject. You have to distinguish between theological meanings versus sociological or political ones, for instance, along with the changes over time.As prostituted as this term has become it may never fully recover.”I think you may be right. That’s the conclusion more and more are coming to. “Perhaps this is a good warning for Christians to think clearly about the Christian “jargon” we throw around without really considering what it means. We use our terminology, as most groups do, without thinking.”Right. I want some more clarity on the roots of evangelicalism before I jump to a new label such as “Historic Evangelicalism,” etc. Are we sure we are clear on what this means? That’s what I’m reading about now.”It is also a time to reflect on the diversity among those who claim to believe the Bible, yet differ in so many ways.”Just so long we can remain KJV-only. (I’m kidding. Mark knows that but others might not)”In Europe, the term is often avoided, even by those who would probably fit the bill and is used, from what I have experienced, in scholarly circles, to denote those who are of a conservative bent theologically. Interesting.”Due to the stigma and how it pigoenholes you, I suppose?

    Posted by Jeff Wright | November 21, 2007, 12:47 pm
  2. >”What did Luther mean when he labeled his movement evangelical?”The Reformers and their followers often described themselves as followers of the gospel. The term “Protestant” didn’t come into common usage til the end of the 16th century [Reform & Conflict by Rudolph W. Heinze, p.15]. The meaning of this gospel is something I want to get into subsequent posts. Thanks ST.

    Posted by Jeff Wright | November 21, 2007, 12:37 pm
  3. >Thanks Joseff. I put an active link to Moreland’s post at News from the 2007 Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. Thanks for the heads up.

    Posted by Jeff Wright | November 21, 2007, 12:26 pm
  4. >Well this is a bit of a conundrum. From a linguistic perspective the term “evangelical” means many different things. It really depends on who is using it and the context in which they use it. For example, if I am in a conversation where the subject is liberals and conservatives, sometimes the term will be used to define the latter. When the secular media uses it, it means “wacko religious nutcases.” When those who are theological misfits use it, they do so in an effort to be considered within the theological mainstream, which they know they are not. When in a general discussion I might use to it to define myself, unless the evangelical label has been recently used by the media to tell about a new sex or money scandal involving a very visible Christian. When the Catholic church has new issues regarding child molestation I would then refer to protestants in general as evangelicals, unless the media has recenty used to tell about a new sex or money scandal involving a very visible Christian. :)It’s really funny how we throw this term around. But such it is in the dominant discourse of the Christian faith. As prostituted as this term has become it may never fully recover. Perhaps this is a good warning for Christians to think clearly about the Christian “jargon” we throw around without really considering what it means. We use our terminology, as most groups do, without thinking. It is also a time to reflect on the diversity among those who claim to believe the Bible, yet differ in so many ways. In Europe, the term is often avoided, even by those who would probably fit the bill and is used, from what I have experienced, in scholarly circles, to denote those who are of a conservative bent theologically. Interesting.

    Posted by me | November 20, 2007, 9:09 pm
  5. >What did Luther mean when he labeled his movement evangelical? This is truely a loaded term which is being redefined as we digitate on the web. Like the term Christian, or to paraphrase Piper’s recently written commentary on Barna’s “blasphemous” use of born-again, labels have become an agonistic, “is is is?”, propositionaless question. All statements have become questions; it is common to find even the most self-assured’s voice rise at the end of a non-interrogatory phrase begging for assurance that the word or idea is understood.”Words, words, words,” the man said, feigning insanity, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” And who knows what insanity is but the insane and they cannot tell anyone, for who would believe them, so they converse only with themselves.So it comes down to this: “Will the Son of Man find Faith…?” I suppose? It all depends on what you mean by faith.

    Posted by Strong Tower | November 20, 2007, 8:42 pm
  6. >All may be interested to know that JP has posted his response to the CT blog on the Kingdom Triangle blog: http://kingdomtriangle.blogspot.com/2007/11/morelands-response-to-ct-blog.htmlMoreover, the link also provides access to the full-text of Moreland’s ETS paper. Moreland’s http://www.kingdomtriangle.com also provides opportunity to sample his book Kingdom Triangle, along with audio of him speaking and being interviewed about the book.

    Posted by Joseff | November 20, 2007, 3:46 pm

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