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19 December 2014

What is an evangelical?

What is an evangelical?

As a 'public evangelical' I have frequently found myself correcting journalists and others when they have mistakenly equated evangelicals with 'evangelists' or 'fundamentalists', or when they have more crassly used 'evangelical' as a synonym for 'bigot'. No doubt we need to reflect on why these misunderstandings have arisen. But more importantly, we need to emphasise that to be 'evangelical' is in the most authentic sense of the word to be a faithful Christian disciple. 

The word 'evangelical' derives from key New Testament term euangelion, meaning 'good news', often rendered 'gospel', after the Old English translation the same Greek word.The gospel describes the core proclamation of the Christian faith, centred on Jesus Christ and the divine plan of redemption fulfilled in his life, death, resurrection and renewal of creation. On these grounds evangelicals have characteristically presented themselves as 'gospel people'. Indeed, as Geoffrey Grogan notes, before they claim descent from any subsequent phase of Christian history, evangelicals will claim to represent the faith "once entrusted to the saints", Jude 1:3, spread abroad by those saints in mission, and summarised in the great creeds and councils of the early Church. On this basis, the leading Anglican evangelical John Stott properly insisted that evangelical faith is "neither an eddy nor a backwater but mainstream Christianity".

While it is important to stress this apostolic, orthodox dimension of evangelicalism, we also need to recognise that the term 'evangelical' achieved more distinctive prominence in the early 16th century, in relation to the Protestant Reformation.There, it defined those who held to Martin Luther's teaching that sinners are justified solely by grace through faith rather than through works, and who derived this from a Bible they had come to regard as supremely authoritative with respect to tradition and reason. Later, 'evangelical' came to be used of other Protestant communities like the Puritans and Pietists, who arose over the succeeding two centuries.

Despite this, the most influential modern day definition of evangelicalism in the British and American context has been advanced by David Bebbington, who associates it more especially with the 18th century revivals led by John Wesley, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards and others. Bebbington sees these revivals as reshaping Protestantism on a more distinctive four-fold pattern marked by: "conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be called crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross."

Bebbington's 'quadrilateral' is debated, but it is not intended to be a comprehensive account of everything that evangelicals believe and practise. Rather it is a summary of what they most distinctively emphasise within the wider spectrum of Protestantism, and of Christianity as a whole. Indeed,one of the virtues of Bebbington's grid is that it allows that evangelicalism as a whole has long displayed considerable diversity – encompassing Anglicans and nonconformists, paedo-baptists and believers' baptists, and so on. In this sense, evangelicalism is neither a single church nor doctrinal system, but a dynamic movement committed to an essential core of beliefs and to the transformation of individuals and society by the power of the gospel. As Derek Tidball has noted, this means that evangelicalism is also quite often a contested tradition.

Since 1846 the Evangelical Alliance has been active in uniting a wide range of evangelicals around a common Basis of Faith. Yet neither the Alliance or its sister bodies overseas can claim to speak for all who own the name 'evangelical'. In the 19th century evangelicals like Lord Shaftesbury and Hannah More achieved remarkable social reforms, but others were nervous that such activism would detract from more traditional evangelical concern for personal conversion and renewal. Likewise, some evangelicals sought to reconcile Darwin's ideas on the origins of life with evangelical teaching, while others rejected them as unbiblical. In the early 20th century the rise of the ecumenical movement engaged some evangelicals, while others rejected it as compromising evangelical integrity. In the US, such tensions resulted in a divergence between 'Neo-evangelicals' like Billy Graham who were relatively more open to social action and dialogue with other traditions, and 'Fundamentalists' like Bob Jones who focused on the purity of their own approach. In Britain John Stott argued that evangelicals should remain within 'mixed' denominations while Martyn Lloyd Jones called for a realignment of evangelicals within a new network. More recently further tensions have arisen in relation to biblical inerrancy, spiritual gifts, same-sex relationships and the nature of hell. While it cannot definitively 'rule' on these issues for all evangelicals, the Alliance has played a major part in guiding the evangelical community through them, and helping it to understand the key points at stake. Above all, however, it has sought to foster that vision which motivated its foundation, and which drives it on today – the vision of evangelicals united in gospel essentials and witnessing to them more effectively together than apart.

Dr David Hilborn is Principal of St John's Nottingham

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