Many social critics have ridiculed Azril Mohd Amin, CEO of CENTHRA for his ignorance when he called for Evangelicalism to be outlawed in Malaysia [Outlaw Evangelicalism in Malaysia, says Islamic Coalition]. Some even questioned whether Azril is intellectually competent to address the issue when he confuses and conflates such elementary terms like “Evangelism” and “Evangelicalism”.
“Evangelism” refers simply to the sharing of good news that “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:19) In contrast, “Evangelicalism” refers to the trans-denominational global movement which emphasizes the divine inspiration of the Bible with its central message of Christ work of atonement on the cross, and the necessity of experience of conversion.
In any case, the ignorance displayed by Azril is easily remedied by giving a concise history of Evangelicalism which includes many distinguished thinkers and social reformers.
While the adjective “evangelical” was used in the middle ages to describe the message of salvation, the term “Evangelicalism” took on a meaning associated specifically with the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Mark Noll, a distinguished historian, notes that 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. [Mark Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism (IVP, 2004), p.14.]
The central insights of the Reformation are aptly captured by two striking slogans, sola scriptura (Scripture only) and sola fide (by faith only). A splendid synthesis of its doctrines was given by John Calvin who bequeathed to the church his perennially relevant Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin’s thought was further enriched by the Puritans who combined rigorous doctrinal exposition with vibrant devotional works which emphasized the experiential work of God’s grace among the redeemed, heart-felt personal faith and good works for comprehensive reforms of society.
The historical roots of Evangelicalism also include the early Baptists movements and the Pietists exemplified 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 particular, the Wesleyan movement highlighted the need for the conversion experience and social renewal. Evangelicals like William Wilberforce typify social activism that led to the abolishment of slavery and the enactment of new laws that protected children and workers in factories. It has been suggested that the social impact of holistic ministry of earlier Evangelicalism spared England from the disastrous revolutions which shook Europe in the 18th-19th centuries.
Notwithstanding the variegated streams of Evangelicalism, one must not miss the fact that these movements display 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]
Noll further 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]
However, in the 20th century, Evangelicalism was forced to sharpen its theological identity because of its deadly struggle with theological liberalism. The following tenets of faith became the hallmarks of Evangelicalism in the 20th century:
• The inspiration and authority of the Bible in all matters of faith and conduct
• The deity and humanity of Christ, and his work of atonement on the Cross
• The necessity of personal faith in Christ to receive salvation
• The Lordship of the Holy Spirit in conversion experience described as a spiritual “new birth”
• Necessity of evangelism and importance of mission
• The importance of Christian community for spiritual nourishment and growth in discipleship.
The defining articles of doctrine is usually kept to a minimum. However, one should not miss the intent of these central doctrines to keep the message of the Gospel at forefront and centre of the movement. Evangelicals who accept these articles of faith are found in all denominations, and are keen to emphasize that they are reviving the historic faith of the Church and the Bible.
Evangelicalism is a movement that focuses on doctrinal and spiritual renewal for good works rather than activism to gain political power. As such, one can only regard the unfounded accusations given by Muslim activists like Azril and PAS lawmakers Nik Mohamad Abduh Nik Abdul Aziz to be slanderous when they claim that “evangelical Christians have infiltrated a major political party in the country to carry out their Christianisation agenda.” [Christianisation Infiltrating Politics, Danger to Islam, says Nik Abduh] Such mischief can only incite hostility towards the peaceful Christian community and undermines religious harmony. More seriously, Muslims themselves should regard such slander to be nothing short of fitnah.