Who is an Evangelical? Part 2: Supplementary Notes

Related Post: Who is an Evangelical? Part 1

Some of you looking for a sweeping historical account of evangelicalism may want to read the five-volume “History of Evangelicalism” co-edited by David Bebbington and Mark Noll and published by Inter-Varsity Press.

In volume 1, The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys, Mark Noll offers a panoramic view of the origins of evangelicalism. He begins by agreeing with the significance of the Reformation.

Martin Luther, the first great Protestant leader, proclaimed an ‘evangelical’ account of salvation in Christ over against what he considered the corrupt teachings of the Roman Catholic Church…In the heat of conflict, the positive and negative connotations of ‘evangelical’ multiplied rapidly:
•    it stood for justification by faith instead of trust in human works as the path to salvation;
•    it defended the sole sufficiency of Christ for salvation instead of the human (and often corrupted) mediation of the church;
•    it looked to the once-for-all triumph of Christ’s death on the cross instead of the repetition of Christ’s sacrifice in the Catholic mass;
•    it found final authority in the Bible as read by believers in general instead of what the Catholic Church said the Bible had to mean; and
•    it embraced the priesthood of all Christian believers instead of inappropriate reliance upon a class of priests ordained by the Church. [p.14.]

Noll’s description is well and good except that it does not quite capture the fullness of the legacy of the Reformation, as he ignores the equally significant contribution by John Calvin. It is arguable that while Luther was the founder of the Reformation, Calvin was its teacher.  [Apologies if I seem to neglect the Anabaptists. As they used to say, “The Catholics killed the Lutherans, the Lutherans killed the Catholics and together they killed the Anabaptists.” Joking aside, the Anabaptists’ influence came later than the period I am focusing on in a short blog entry].

It was natural that Luther as the pioneer did not articulate his theology systematically given the immediacy of his struggle with the Roman Catholic Church. Luther’s genius was evident in his immediate response to the pressures of the Roman Catholic authorities, with a preaching that was courageous, authentic and compelling to his hearers from all strata of society. Who else but a genius could give the church a Bible in the German vernacular that decisively shaped the subsequent development of the German language, a succinct creed-catechism or confession to anchor the faith of the laity, along with his ‘pop’ hymns? But even a genius could only do so much. The systematization of the Reformed faith was left to John Calvin who bequeathed to the church his perennially relevant Institutes of the Christian Religion.  It should be stressed that Luther and Calvin were theologically in agreement over the fundamental doctrines.

It is arguable that Mark Noll’s failure to include John Calvin resulted in an historical account that is theologically inadequate. However, Noll proceeds to explain that his use of term ‘evangelical’ comes not out of continental Europe but from 18th century Britain. For Noll, the term designates a set of convictions, practices, habits and oppositions that resembles the European Pietist movement led by Philip Jacob Spener. Spener’s spiritual classic Pia Desideria (The Piety We Desire) calls for a renewal of inward spiritual life, more active lay-participation in day-to-day Christianity, less fixed on church order, and broader use of the Bible for everyone in the church. These emphases led to the so-called the ‘Evangelical Revival’ in Britain and the ‘Great Awakening’ in America.

In the light of subsequent history, it would be good to hold together the Reformation Luther-Calvin and the Pietist movements as complementary perspectives. Together they give rise to a consistent pattern and attitudes over the centuries which is aptly captured by David Bebbington in his book [Evangelicalism in Modern Britain (Unwin Hyman 1989), pp. 1-17.]

•    Conversion, or the ‘belief that lives need to be changed’;
•    The Bible, or the belief that all spiritual truth is to be found in its pages’;
•    Activism, or the dedication of all believers, including laypeople, to lives of service for God, especially as manifest in evangelism (spreading the good news) and mission (taking the gospel to other societies);
•    Crucicentrism, or the conviction that Christ’s death was the crucial matter in providing atonement for sin (that is, providing reconciliation between a holy God and sinful humans) [Noll, p. 16]

Finally, Noll notes that the Bebbington’s four main principles “do not exist in the same proportions or exert the same effect in all times and places. Sometimes the experience of conversion takes precedence, at others the concentration of Scripture as ultimate religious authority, and still others the importance of missionary or social action. The evangelical tradition consistently maintain the major evangelical traits, but they have done so with tremendously diverse array of emphases, relationships and special concerns.” [Noll, pp. 17-18]

Surely, this is a fitting acknowledgement of the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit who ensures vitality and diversity of the movement. As such, it would be a good reminder (since it is often overlooked) that many Pentecostal movements which share the same spiritual pattern and attitudes identified by Horton, Noll and Bebbington are also part of the evangelical movement.

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