What Is Evangelicalism?

De Chirico’s book on Roman Catholicism spends the first chapter discussing the definition of “evangelicalism.” Of course, this word has broadened in meaning considerably over the last 30 years or so. In fact, it has become so broad that many question whether it is a helpful designation of anything anymore. A professor at Fuller seminary recently called Mormons evangelical. If a term can successfully encapsulate both the Mormon faith and confessional Reformed theology, how useful a term is it, really? De Chirico acknowledges this drift of meaning: “[The] increasing vagueness of the use of the word is making its semantic value less and less precise” (p. 28). This results in a lot of hyphenated terms, in order to gain more precision, like “evangelical-Reformed,” “evangelical-Catholic,” “evangelical-liberal,” etc. De Chirico, however, does argue that there is still a core of meaning associated with the term. Historically, the movement of evangelicalism has its roots in the Reformation; theologically, it is defined as a theology of the gospel; ecclesiologically, it has embraced the concept of the denomination, with varying types of spirituality associated with them. He has a helpful diagram on p. 39. In terms of the general outlook of evangelicalism, he says that it is becoming marginalized (p. 41). The way that evangelicalism “works” is by describing a core Christianity that has essentials, and then defining other matters as adiaphora (things of indifference). He gets at a key difference among evangelicals, when he says that there are traditionalists and reformists, the former seeing “the church as (a) ‘bounded set’ whereas the latter as ‘centered set'” (p. 46). These differences among evangelicalism make it quite clear that there are significant differences among evangelicals over theological method. Historically, they have been united around the gospel, though that unity has fragmented somewhat of late. All in all, a pretty fair description of evangelicalism.

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30 Comments

  1. Dennis said,

    February 22, 2013 at 12:21 pm

    So, if I am reading this correctly, the definition of evangelicalism has shifted over the centuries. Personally, I agree with your definition but all in all, I guess it all boils down to mere opinion.

    I think the shifting definition of evangelicalism is a good example of why an authority is helpful. The Catholic Church over the centuries has seen different disagreements and have had to call Councils to “define” what a particular word is as the definition has shifted. Too bad there isn’t a central authority on the Protestant side who can “define” evangelicalism. I would find that helpful.

    It reminds me of how some people in the homosexual camps have “hijacked” the Human Rights definition to say that people against gay people are against “Human Rights” and have shifted the definition. Or how people who are against abortion are “Anti-Choice.”

  2. greenbaggins said,

    February 22, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    Dennis, we do have creeds and confessions, not to mention churchly authority (in some quarters, at least!). So, no, it does not boil down to mere opinion. That might be how a Roman Catholic views it, but it is not, in fact, the case.

  3. Nick said,

    February 22, 2013 at 2:02 pm

    I’d say the biggest cause for division among Evangelicals over the last generation is the Lordship Salvation “controversy,” which is in some ways a final phase before it burns itself out. It’s the slippery slope to Easy Believism that has basically caused more and more of Evangelicalism to trend towards a less ‘academic’ and ‘structured’ form of Christianity, particularly as more and more doctrines are reassigned to the “non essential” (adiaphora) category.

  4. Dennis said,

    February 22, 2013 at 2:02 pm

    Lane,

    But is there a firm definition of evangelicalism? If I were to ask a Lutheran and a Reformed, would their respective definitions of Evangelicalism be the same or close? I’ve had Protestants tell me that I seem more Evangelical than Catholic and that I should convert…(while I was surprised at their opinion, I politely declined)

    You mention that the definition has been “unity around the gospel.” I remember having a discussion late last year with sean on this site as to what the definition of “gospel” is and he affirmed that “Christendom certainly doesn’t define the gospel.”

    Perhaps the reason that the definition of Evangelicalism is so broad is that the Evangelical definition of the Gospel isn’t properly defined.

  5. TurretinFan said,

    February 22, 2013 at 2:12 pm

    Don’t forget about Frank Beckwith who tried to argue that he was still an evangelical, even after apostatizing to Rome!

  6. JeffB said,

    February 22, 2013 at 3:03 pm

    GreenBaggins #2,
    Something similar was said in the recent thread on Sola Scriptura about there being a difference with confessional Protestants (i.e, they have an anchor in the confessions and can’t go off on their own). In my own experience, however, I recall reading Schaff’s Creeds of Christendom for the first time and being struck by the meaningless of the various rapidly multiplying confessions. Not meaningless in the sense that people weren’t sincerely trying to state their beliefs precisely, but meaningless in the sense that all used the same flowery language about adhering to Scripture and wanting to give God glory, yet each came up with fundamentally different conclusions about matters that were not adiaphora. Instead of one united church with one clearly defined set of doctrines, there became a dizzying array of seemingly sincere Christians but with different confessions and no longer united (and in fact in open physical warfare no matter how beautiful the confessions and no matter how much they praised peace and love). In the end, the existence of confessions and of groups that adhere to them don’t change the fundamental fact that the confessions only have authority for the group that happens to subscribe to them (i.e, it really is just opinion). I find that disarray and disunity painful.

    Peace,
    Jeff

  7. Bob S said,

    February 23, 2013 at 1:38 am

    1.I think the shifting definition of evangelicalism is a good example of why an authority is helpful. The Catholic Church over the centuries has seen different disagreements and have had to call Councils to “define” what a particular word is as the definition has shifted. Too bad there isn’t a central authority on the Protestant side who can “define” evangelicalism. I would find that helpful.

    There’s more than a few non sequiturs packed in there, Dennis.

    1. The Catholic church, not the Roman church called for some Church councils. This resulted in the Ecumenical Creeds, i.e. all three branches of the church affirm them.

    2. Evangelical from evangel, the gospel as in justification by faith alone meant something in Luther’s day. What it has come to mean is a church that is undefined by the historic creeds and confessions of protestantism. Hence the problem nailing jello down.

    3. Further at the Reformation, while on the one hand there was the Roman church, on the other was the Anabaptists. Neither were acceptable or “evangelical” to the reformers of that day. But as in 2. modern evangelicals are largely the descendants of the anabaptists.

    See the latest over at Heidelblog Less A Problem of What the Spirit is Doing and More a Problem of What We Say

  8. dgwired said,

    February 23, 2013 at 9:18 am

    Not sure what the point of defining evangelicalism is in a book on Roman Catholicism. Why not simply try to define Protestantism? Evangelicalism is not an ecclesiological term. It will always be a construction because it is grounded in parachurch, itinerant means of doing religion. Unless De Chirico acknowledges the shift in Protestant sensibilities introduced by experimental Calvinism and the triumph of the First Great Awakening, his account will likely never make sense of Old School Presbyterians or Dutch Calvinists who trace their roots to the Afscheiding and Doleantie.

  9. Andrew McCallum said,

    February 23, 2013 at 6:24 pm

    Just to pick up on something that Bob said in #7, historically the Protestants never had problems identifying the gospel. This is testified by the harmony of the various Reformed confessions concerning matters related to justification, regeneration, etc. But now in the modern “evangelical” world confessionalism has been dispensed with, and no surprise, we get confusing theologies concerning gospel issues. And then into this gospel confusion comes the Roman Catholics who tell us that our problem is that we don’t have an infallible Magisterium to guide us. But why do we need this infallible human court of authority now if we did not need it during the period of the Reformation? Maybe one of the RC’s would like to take this question on.

  10. CD-Host said,

    February 25, 2013 at 1:20 pm

    @Andrew #9

    The RCs don’t have to take this on, what’s true today was true from the start. Pick a year where you believe that the historical Protestantism was united and take a look at the sects that flourished and the diversity of beliefs that were common in Protestantism.

    More of less within a generation of the formation of the Presbyterian establishment the religion had fractured. Between 1680 and 1760 America the Anglicans and Presbyterians fractured: Congregationalists, Baptists, Methodists, Quakers, Unitarians all were common beliefs in those periods.

    So I suspect the RC would throw the ball back to you and ask, when exactly was it that Protestantism ever had unity?

  11. John Bugay said,

    February 25, 2013 at 4:36 pm

    CD-Host 10: all were united in their rejection of Roman authority.

  12. CD-Host said,

    February 26, 2013 at 2:07 pm

    @John 11

    Absolutely. And more seriously, very quickly they united around sola fide. But that’s different than saying at any point in time there was a meaningful orthodoxy which was uniform in Protestantism during the time of the Reformation.

  13. Zrim said,

    February 26, 2013 at 2:37 pm

    John, sure. But so did the Radical Reformation, which some of those groups are closer to than the Protestant Reformation. Evangelicalism may reject Roman authority but it doesn’t embrace Protestant convictions either. There’s more to being Protestant than not being Roman.

  14. John Bugay said,

    February 26, 2013 at 4:21 pm

    CD-Host 10 — the question was “when exactly was it that Protestantism ever had unity?” — nothing about a “uniform meaningful orthodoxy” in your question.

  15. John Bugay said,

    February 26, 2013 at 4:24 pm

    Zrim 13, again, I’m all for Protestant (confessional) convictions, but I also love those who reject Rome. Rome, because of its self-professed infallibility, can’t ever talk to you. This is why talking with Bryan is like beating your head off a wall. But you can talk “justification by faith” to a Mennonite, and have a reasonable expectation of a good conversation.

  16. CD-Host said,

    February 26, 2013 at 4:42 pm

    @John 14

    What I was responding to was the claim, “And then into this gospel confusion comes the Roman Catholics who tell us that our problem is that we don’t have an infallible Magisterium to guide us. But why do we need this infallible human court of authority now if we did not need it during the period of the Reformation?” My point was there was no unity during or after the Reformation. Obviously there was unity on some doctrines, all the Reformers though breathing was a good idea, but one doctrine does not unity make.

    The objectives of the various Reformers in their rebellion against Rome were irreconcilable. And they remained that way as Protestantism evolved from a rebellion to a full fledged alternative wing of Christianity. And they remained that way as Protestantism continued to evolve.

  17. Michael said,

    March 1, 2013 at 4:42 am

    For those of us not brought up either Protestant or Catholic, i.e. without prejudice or polemical baggage, it’s fairly easy to see that the Catholic faith is just the Biblical faith.

    Protestantism appears as an interesting reactionary movement against certain historically-limited aspects in the modern Church, and for many of us, it’s served as a gateway into the fulness of the Gospel.

    “Evangelical” in this context is still a useful term to describe what is positive within Protestantism; the effort to follow Christ according to His Gospel. Note that it’s a term originally used in the Catholic mentality to describe religious – and note also that e.g. Luther was actually a religious, and a lot of what his followers and their legacy imposed on Protestants is basically an attempt to shoe-horn every Christian into a religious mould.

    Ironically, the laity tend to be sidelined by this; there is no room for “normal” Christians because the Church is constantly in a state of “reformation” that tends towards upheaval rather than organic re-form (returning to the form of the Gospel), since no Protestants can agree what the Gospel actually says.

    This is all from the perspective of an outsider; I started from the point of view of reading the Bible for the first time and retaining the objectivity that 99.99% of the modern world looks at your debates and harangues with – i.e. “what the heck are you guys talking about? oh, well, it’s mainly abstract anyhow. I’ll just go follow Christ (or not) if He actually is present now, in 2013″…

  18. Michael said,

    March 1, 2013 at 4:49 am

    Hello John Bugay, RE: #15…

    I assume “Rome, because of its self-professed infallibility, can’t ever talk to you” is intended to mean “you can’t have a conversation with a Catholic”?

    But your example, “justification by faith”, is a topic taken from Catholic teaching. We believe in “justification by faith” in Christ who is present now, as De Chirico points out in the paper linked from Mr. Baggins’ other post on this author.

    Faith is faith in Someone, not just in propositions. And this is the main thing about having a Christian experience, rather than talking about Christianity as something abstract.

  19. John Bugay said,

    March 1, 2013 at 5:20 am

    Michael 18 — I assume “Rome, because of its self-professed infallibility, can’t ever talk to you” is intended to mean “you can’t have a conversation with a Catholic”?

    This is completely wrong. I make a distinction between “official Rome”, which is not ever going to bend, and thus, not ever going to have a conversation with anybody (oh, they may talk, but they’ll never budge), and “Catholics”, who are, as a group, probably more confused and diverse in their thinking than evangelicals.

    You are right, “faith” for a Christian is “faith in Christ”. But how do we know Christ if not through the Scriptures? What else is there that tells us about him?

  20. John Bugay said,

    March 1, 2013 at 6:11 am

    Michael #17:

    For those of us not brought up either Protestant or Catholic, i.e. without prejudice or polemical baggage, it’s fairly easy to see that the Catholic faith is just the Biblical faith.

    For those of us brought up Catholic, it’s fairly easy to see “the Catholic faith”, “the Biblical faith”, and to see the areas where the two do not coincide.

    Protestantism appears as an interesting reactionary movement against certain historically-limited aspects in the modern Church, and for many of us, it’s served as a gateway into the fulness of the Gospel.

    The second and third and fourth century churches made claims to leadership which were not “Biblical”. Thus, in reality, Protestantism was an effort to dismantle the non-Biblical elements of those false claims to authority.

    there is no room for “normal” Christians because the Church is constantly in a state of “reformation” that tends towards upheaval rather than organic re-form (returning to the form of the Gospel), since no Protestants can agree what the Gospel actually says

    Actually, if you were to make an honest study of the Protestant confessions among the Magisterial Reformers (those who wanted to Reform the church and not actually start over from the beginning), you would find a great deal of agreement as to “what the Gospel actually says”.

    This is all from the perspective of an outsider; I started from the point of view of reading the Bible for the first time and retaining the objectivity that 99.99% of the modern world looks at your debates and harangues with – i.e. “what the heck are you guys talking about? oh, well, it’s mainly abstract anyhow. I’ll just go follow Christ (or not) if He actually is present now, in 2013″…

    But you don’t have to “start reading the Bible for the first time”. There is guidance, in the form, first, of individuals who have studied it with an honest hermeneutic, and, if you can bring yourself to study church history, from the perspective of those who saw the need to free themselves from Roman claims to authority. If you do these two things, you will be very close to having a good idea of what it’s all about. Then, pray that the Lord would open your mind and help you understand things. He is Faithful and True.

  21. CD-Host said,

    March 1, 2013 at 7:28 am

    @Michael #17

    For those of us not brought up either Protestant or Catholic, i.e. without prejudice or polemical baggage, it’s fairly easy to see that the Catholic faith is just the Biblical faith.

    Yes absolutely clear cut.

    Let’s see I open my bible to Matthew and see the Catholic faith as taking seriously question of how best to relate to Judaism and the OT in a literal sense. When I look at Catholicism they relate to Judaism through typology with little interest in Jewish law.

    I open my bible to Mark and see the biblical faith as primarily a magical faith which helps people deal with demon possession. Paul develops this much further to the heavenly powers of the age theme ones sees in Paul in his frequent references

    I open my bible to John and see a theology totally at variance with Catholicism.

    I don’t think it is fairly easy to see anything of the sort. It is fairly easy to see the Catholic faith as having ties to early post biblical Christianity, but the ties to biblical Christianities are weak.

  22. Michael said,

    March 4, 2013 at 5:04 am

    Salve CD-Host!

    RE: “Yes absolutely clear cut… Let’s see I open my bible…”

    Hmmm. No, you can’t cheat and just flick it open a couple of times.

    You do need to read and digest the thing as a whole.

  23. Michael said,

    March 4, 2013 at 5:24 am

    Salut Monsieur Bugay,

    I will all but ignore your quick side-step of my point aimed at the specific examples you mentioned, which were not at all about “official” anything. Nice moves :D

    RE: “You are right, “faith” for a Christian is “faith in Christ”. But how do we know Christ if not through the Scriptures? What else is there that tells us about him?”

    Everything else. If you didn’t meet a living Christian community, how could you find and (crucially) understand the Scriptures?

    The Scriptures as such were originally compiled and used in the context of the Liturgy, and that’s still the best way to encounter them today.

  24. Michael said,

    March 4, 2013 at 6:10 am

    John Bugay # 20:

    RE: “For those of us brought up Catholic, it’s fairly easy to see “the Catholic faith”, “the Biblical faith”, and to see the areas where the two do not coincide.”

    I’m sure it is fairly easy to convince unconvinced Catholics that “the Bible opposes Rome!!!” :D

    I guess that may be the result of the “pastoral strategies” directed at dragging Catholics away from communion with the Church?

    It’s certainly not the result of an even-handed, “naive” reading of the actual Scripture, which, as is clear from CD-Host #17, is far from obvious, and has to pass through many trials before arriving at a clear vantage point.

    RE: “The second and third and fourth century churches made claims to leadership which were not “Biblical”. Thus, in reality, Protestantism was an effort to dismantle the non-Biblical elements of those false claims to authority.”

    I don’t really know what to do with this… probably barge poles come to mind :D

    RE: “Actually, if you were to make an honest study of the Protestant confessions among the Magisterial Reformers (those who wanted to Reform the church and not actually start over from the beginning), you would find a great deal of agreement as to “what the Gospel actually says”.”

    Hmmm. That’s a great idea. Has anyone done that? I’d love to see a bullet-point list comparing all those Magisters’ answer to the survey question “What is the Gospel?”.

    Because it has been 500 years now, their followers have been working on (or working on avoiding) answering this precise question…

    I rather suspect that the Magisters simply did not frame any such question, or anything even close. They assumed and took absolutely for granted that Christendom would survive (it hasn’t) and that “the Gospel” could survive being portrayed as a discourse about God rather than the living dialogue with God among men (it couldn’t). They never dreamed that they were paving the way to today’s practical atheism of most or almost all Christians in “Christendom”, whether Catholic or Protestant or “meh”.

    RE: “But you don’t have to “start reading the Bible for the first time”…”

    I don’t have to. But I want to, I want to, I want to! I want to hear the Word of God. I want to be saved, I want to be free.

    I have indeed read the whole durned thing, several times, I’ve ingested and digested the wretched polemics of Prots and Caths, and it’s not enough; I’ve studied the whole mysterious history of the Church from start to finish rather more carefully than I needed to, considering I didn’t get academic credit for it. It’s not enough… I want to hear Christ speaking to me, now…

    I don’t have to, but I want to, I want to hear the Words of Christ that are alive and living now, not just in the past…

  25. Jeff Baker said,

    March 4, 2013 at 11:38 am

    Dear Greenbaggins, Zrim and all:

    It means THEOLOGICAL CHAOS !!!!!!!!!! Because of the idea of Sola Scriptura, which by the way is no where FOUND IN SCRIPTURE !!

    – Jeff the TradCath.

  26. dgwired said,

    March 5, 2013 at 5:05 am

    Jeff, and how is the doctrine of papal infallibility (hardly self-evident in Scripture and hardly transparent in the “tradition”) working out for the chaos in the Vatican today with the bank scandal, the sex priests, and Benedict’s possible double pope configuration? Looks like all that authority and infallibility has resulted in problems worse than Protestantism. Or maybe you are a Sedvacantist Catholic.

  27. Jeff Cagle said,

    March 5, 2013 at 8:28 am

    So one of my seminary profs had a Dachshund named Jeffrey the Scourge. Clearly, I need a moniker.

    Anyways, Jeff the TradCath: One of the big points that Catholics often miss in their critique of sola scriptura is that that doctrine is not and was never intended to mean

    “Joe Schmoe takes his Bible and works out an entire theological system.”

    That has happened here in the US, and it has resulted in theological chaos. But it’s not sola scriptura.

    No, the doctrine was intended to be this: That the church should promulgate no doctrine that is not a good and necessary inference from Scripture. And the purpose of this doctrine is to avoid binding men’s consciences to the commands of men, per Jesus’ instruction.

    That is, sola scriptura is a doctrinal method for the church, not for individuals.

  28. Jeff TradCath. said,

    March 6, 2013 at 3:37 pm

    Dear Dgwired:

    No, I am not a Sede. The Catholic Church is suffering from Prot. Liberalism, which it caught from your heresy. You must defend SS., can you? If St Paul taught SS show me in the Bible. Stop arguing this that and the other. The ball is in your court.

  29. dgwired said,

    March 6, 2013 at 5:22 pm

    Jeff, have you ever thought that our “heresy” arose from the vanity of papal claims to be the sole power of God on earth? But if blaming us gets you through the night, be warm and filled.

  30. Jeff TradCath. said,

    March 6, 2013 at 6:49 pm

    But you did not answer my question. Where in the Bible??


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