In reading up on the subject, people have been called evangelical in 3 different historical time periods with 3 different meanings:
1. 1500s – “Evangelical” was almost universally synonymous with Lutherans. As the split
appeared between the followers of Calvin and the followers of Luther, most of the former took the label of “Reformed” and most of the latter took the appellation of “Evangelical.” Yet, some Reformed would also refer to themselves as evangelical, as this merely identified themselves with Luther’s recovery of the gospel. [Hence, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America claim the label of evangelical, meaning little of what is meant today]
2. 1700s – “Evangelical” refered to the new religious furvor associated with the Wesleys and
Whitefield in the Methodist revival movement in England. The emphasis of the “evangelicals” was on personal conversion and an experiential response to the gospel (John Wesley described it as a “strange warming”). Evangelicals often insulted the Anglican establishment by preaching the need of conversion to baptized church members.
3. 1900s – After the 1920s and 1930s revealed the inadequacies of mere Fundamentalism in its blunt,
militant, separatist reaction to theological liberalism, the “neo-evangelicals” adapted some of the revival techniques of the Second Great Awakening attempting to be “nice fundamentalists.” In America, this movement was most commonly associated with Billy Graham and Harold Ockenga, a Baptist and Presbyterian respectively and in England with Martin-Lloyd Jones and John Stott, a separatist Methodist Calvinist and an Anglican minister respectively. Yet after these leaders, evangelicalism began to focus on the same fundamentals that all Christians share, and ignore distinctives.
recently wrote an entertainingly controversial book
where he contends that
“evangelical” means little more than “someone who likes Billy Graham.” Some may have an affinity for J.I. Packer
, but his Reformed Anglican views offend many separatists, and some like Christianity Today
, though it is derided by many a purist. Even the doctrine of “faith alone” is questioned as a necessity by the keepers of the gate
. In an increasingly post-Graham world, the loose alliance of people may shatter between those who often like to “take their ball and go home” in regards to denominations. Hart voices the opinion of some Reformed and most Lutheran theologians who like their distinctives and rather not abandon them. Hart claims the term is no longer meaningful or useful in historiography as those called evangelicals will have no common identity after Graham and now that evangelistic revivals have fallen out of favor.
So should we continue to call ourselves evangelical? Some have prefered inventing new terms like historic evangelical
, or classical Christian
. I also tend to agree that I am not as comfortable with the neo-evangelicals, and when I use the term, I primarily associate with the first use in the 1500s. So, while I agree with most of Hart’s criticisms of “generic evangelicalism,” and bad theology coming from revival evangelism, I also think he might be a little too harsh on “the e-word.” I am not quite ready to abandon the term “evangelical” as long as it can be an adjective describing a general alliance, rather than noun conveying a lowest common denominator. In other words, you must be able to put a noun in front of the word evangelical.
Why? Because the depths of Christian spirituality are found in its traditions, be they Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican or puritan. These traditions can come together in common cause, for the gospel of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone. But in doing so, they should not lose the depths of the spiritual insights gained by the Reformed focus on the doctrines of grace, or the Lutheran/Anglican sacramental spirituality, or the puritan communion with God through the word. If they lose these distinctions, they run the risk of becoming irrelevant while chasing relevancy and dull while sharpening our gospel message. However, if “salvation by faith alone” is truly not a requirement
, I will drop the term, and merely be Reformed, or perhaps just Reformed Catholic just to confuse people.
So check out Hart’s book if you want your assumptions challenged, though everyone will not agree with his solutions, his diagnosis is important to contend with, to figure out if you need to drop the e-word.