Who is an Evangelical? Part 1

In 1971, Fidel Castro was reported to be confused and famously exclaimed that “theologians are becoming communists and communists are becoming theologians” [Jose Bonino, Christians and Marxists (Eerdmans, 1976), p. 15.] Today, one would be even more confused when one is repeatedly told by the media that many evangelicals are strong supporters of Donald Trump in the 2016 American presidential elections, as Trump’s lifestyle is evidently contrary to Biblical values.

It seems that the word ‘evangelical’ has become a convenient, but misleading sociological category. Surely, this is a sign of evangelicalism lapsing into some form of ‘culture-Christianity’. However, this cultural shift is merely a symptom that lags behind an earlier theological shift. Indeed, there were already various questionable hyphenated evangelicals before the emergence of ‘Trumpian-evangelicals’. Sadly, given the present adulteration of the term ‘evangelicalism’ one may be tempted to abandon the term ‘evangelical’ and identify oneself simply as a ‘gospel-Christian’.

Perhaps there is no need to jettison the term ‘evangelicalism’ given its historic role in the growth of Christianity.  It is fashionable for American historians to link Evangelicalism to the Great Awakening revivals in the USA in the 18th century. Others want to push the origins of Evangelicalism to the beginnings of Christianity. After all, the word ‘evangelicalism’ is derived from ‘evangel’ which simple means ‘the gospel’ or good news (euangelion).

The remedy to the current abuse of the word ‘evangelical’ is to restore its pristine historical usage that is both precise and adequate in explanatory power. For this purpose, the Reformation provides an exceedingly suitable legacy when Luther and Calvin were fighting to recover the purity and preeminence of the gospel in defining and regulating Christian life.

Michael Horton notes that before the Reformation, the term ‘evangelical’ was ambiguous. It was a convenient description for a preacher who was pious, zealous, faithful or simply Christ-like. “But after the 1520s, an evangelical was a person who was committed to the sufficiency of scripture, the priesthood of all believers, the total lostness of humans, the sole mediation of Christ, the gracious efficacy and finality of God’s redemptive work in Christ through election, propitiation, calling and keeping. The linchpin for all of this was the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone. Thus, the believer, declared righteous by virtue of God’s satisfaction with Christ’s holiness imputed (credited) to us through faith alone, is simul iustus et peccator–“simultaneously justified and sinful.””

Note that this description is not just historically significant; it is scripturally defined by a web of fundamental and inter-connected biblical doctrines. It is not just a convenient collection of disparate teachings where Christians may pick and choose. The gospel itself comprises this web of beliefs and affirmations. In this regard, anyone who does not affirm these interconnected doctrines is not an evangelical. This emphasis on doctrinal faithfulness should not be taken as an expression of dogmatism or tribal mentality. After all, there will be non-evangelicals in heaven. Instead, it is a matter of personal integrity for anyone professing to be an evangelical.

Discussion of doctrines has tended to be abstract and disconnected. To ensure biblical fidelity, historical continuity and pastoral effectiveness, I would recommend church leaders adopt the historic creeds as the framework for Christian education in churches. I would even argue that we need to go beyond the indispensable historic creeds like the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Creed and include a more recent creed that consciously addresses modern challenges with precision and comprehensiveness – The Westminster Confession or something equivalent.

It is time to restore gospel-believing and confessing evangelicalism.

Postscript

Just to clear the record. This post does not suggest that all evangelicals support Trump. See The Myth of the Evangelical Trump Voters
I was just noting in passing that evangelical beliefs and values do not seem important to Trump’s ‘evangelical’ supporters. It is also apparent that the mainstream media in the USA does not quite understand the meaning of evangelicalism – which leads to the question: Who is an evangelical?

Interesting survey from the authoritative Pew Research Center – Exit Polls and the Evangelical Vote: A Closer Look. [Link added on 15 March 2016]

Related Post: Who is an Evangelical? Part 2

2 Comments

  1. Paul Long says:

    Helpful! Thanks

  2. Kam Weng says:

    Just to clear the record. This post does not suggest that all evangelicals support Trump. See http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2016/03/the-myth-of-the-evangelical-trump-voters
    I was just noting in passing that evangelical beliefs and values do not seem important to Trump’s ‘evangelical’ supporters. It is also apparent that the mainstream media in the USA does not quite understand the meaning of evangelicalism – which leads to the question: Who is an evangelical?

    You may also get to the First Things article by clicking on the link given in the postscript.