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.
What Is Evangelicalism?