What is an Evangelical? Part 1

*Posted by Everett Berry. This piece originally appeared at All Things New.

clusc_8_1_00061640a_j1Before I begin to offer my initial thoughts on this question, a little reminiscing is probably in order.  I was born in Fort Worth, TX and was raised in an Independent Baptist church that was part of a larger Fundamental Baptist coalition.

Needless to say then, I grew up in an extremely conservative environment.  So much so, my church and its denominational affiliates proudly embraced many of the typical labels indicative of the Baptist flavor of Fundamentalism such as King James Only-ism and Landmarkism.  To be completely fair though, unlike many others who have stories to the contrary, my experience in this climate was not overwhelmingly negative.  While it was true that I did occasionally  encounter  some forms of legalism and folk theology that are intrinsic to some Fundamentalist circles, I heartily confess that the people who personally invested in me were genuinely committed to the gospel, discipleship, evangelism, and holiness.  Even today there are many people in Fundamentalist contexts who are my dear friends and brothers/sisters in the Lord.  All in all then, the Fundamentalist ethos did not harm my spiritual pilgrimage.  In many ways, it nurtured it.

Be that as it may, for various reasons I did eventually leave my Independent Baptist roots after finishing college to join the Southern Baptist ranks in the late 90’s.  Now many might say that the differences between Independent and Southern Baptists are minimal.  But at the time, I didn’t know if that was true or not.  I just knew that I had no room to stretch theologically in the Independent world and I was hoping I could find a better climate within the SBC, which thankfully I did.  However, at the outset the main “culture shock” I encountered in this transition pertained more to the complexities of denominational networking, not doctrinal differences.  The latter were not significant because the new Southern Baptist circles in which I found myself were highly  conservative.  Now to be sure, they were not caught up in debates about the supremacy of an English version of the Bible rendered in the 17th century or whether Jesus was baptized by an actual first-century Baptist.  But they still upheld many of the same ideals to which I was accustomed as a former Independent Baptist.

Later as I finished my Master’s degree and prepared for doctoral studies, I began to make new friends and gain contacts in the broader denominational spectrum, which in turn introduced me to the vast scheme of evangelicalism.  I also began to interact with patrons and colleagues in academic circles, thereby enhancing my participation with evangelicals all the more as well as students and scholars ranging from the evangelical left to various kinds of Christian thinkers who advocated assorted forms of Neo-Orthodox, Liberal, and Postliberal perspectives.

All of this brings me to the present day discussion about what the term “evangelical” means today.  And as I recently discussed with Barry Creamer in an interview that you can hear on the link that follows this post, the first general point I try to establish is that the 20th century categories of Fundamentalism, Evangelicalism, and Liberalism are not as definitive as they used to be.  Originally, Fundamentalism as it developed in America before WWI & WWII was a kind of trans-denominational phenomenon in which conservative Christian leaders of all kinds of Protestant traditions agreed that while Liberalism represented a diverse trajectory of ideologies and commitments, at its core it was anti-supernatural in orientation and therefore not Christian.  One exemplary work that encapsulated this conclusion was J. Gresham Machen’s classic work, Christianity and Liberalism.

On the flip side of the equation, Liberalism essentially was a movement led by thinkers who genuinely desired to salvage the Christian faith for the newly born modern age, which was marked by skepticism toward the standard confessional parameters of orthodoxy and the supernatural orientation of Scripture.  Being initially grounded in the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher and G. W. F. Hegel, Liberalism began to surface and exert its influence through the later growth of the school of German Higher Criticism as well as the careers of scholars such as Adolf Harnack, Albrecht Ritschl, Walter Rauschenbusch, Albert Ritschl and many others.   The problem though was that while liberals used the same glossary of terms to describe their understanding of Christian praxis, their dictionary for defining those terms did not reflect any form of orthodox Christian belief.

Eventually by the time WWII had come to a close, another group gradually emerged between these polar opposite constituencies known as neo-evangelicalism, or evangelicalism.  At least two reasons can be mentioned as to why this formation jumpstarted.  First, before WWI  Fundamentalism had galvanized around several essentials that were perceived to be the bare bone commitments of Christian doctrine.  These points, which became known as the five fundamentals, included the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth of Christ, his substitutional death, his bodily resurrection, and his literal, visible return to the earth.  Now these points were fine insofar as they set a standard that stood against Liberalism.  The difficulty was that in time, many Fundamentalist groups began adding more confessional items to the list of essentials.  Instead of looking for minimal or optimal points of agreement, many Fundamentalists wanted exhaustive agreement on every primary and/or tertiary doctrinal issue if they were to engage in any form of denominational cooperation. Thus one could begin to see an emphasis on the idea of strict separatism.

Second, hand in hand with this trend came a reluctance on the part of Fundamentalists to participate in assorted areas of cultural engagement including concerns related to social justice because it was feared that such actions might lead to the slippery slope of the social gospel movement, which was unabashedly driven by theologically liberal agendas.

These two trends elicited concern by many theological conservatives who still affirmed the original doctrinal heritage of Fundamentalism but wanted to distance themselves from the “circle the wagons” mentality of extreme separatism.  As a response then, thinkers like Carl F. H. Henry, Harold Ockenga, Kenneth Kantzer, Francis Schaeffer and others began to herald the broader theological vision of Christianity which not only included evangelism and discipleship but also apologetics, cultural engagement, and a kingdom voice in the public square.  Early on,  evangelicalism was somewhat successful especially in light of its cohesion that began to gel via the unexpected success of Billy Graham and other mainline leaders.  The key though, and this is my observation, was that the evangelical ethos was more determined by what it wasn’t (not postwar Fundamentalism) as opposed to what it was.  This can be seen in the fact that historians and scholars have debated the exact theological identity of Evangelicalism for quite some time and the problem is that often the concession seems to be that it was essentially a “you know it when you see it” kind of a dynamic.   This isn’t to say that evangelicals didn’t hold certain theological tenets as essential.  It is just that those tenets never seemed to be explicitly forged as the movement progressed.

So to bring this initial survey to a close, the problem today is that because evangelicalism was essentially a movement that never crystallized a clear theological corpus, it faces a daunting challenge in the 21st century because biblical studies and theological inquiry have created an extremely nuanced intellectual climate.  While Liberalism has morphed into new and improved forms of unbelief, evangelical thinkers are much more diverse in what parts of liberal scholarship they imbibe, what traditional paradigms they defend, and how they define standard theological terminology to fit their own individual perspectives.

In so doing, now many evangelicals of the more conservative persuasion look like theological Fundamentalists to liberals and the evangelical left, while to extreme Fundamentalists, conservative evangelicals still look dubious because they aren’t dispensational enough, or they are too Calvinistic, or not Calvinistic enough, or they have the wrong view of… (you fill in the blank.)  And it is this very dilemma that Creamer and I began to hammer out in the next two sessions which will be posted soon.  In these sessions, we discussed two issues that illustrate the current perplexities with defining evangelical belief; those being the relationship between science and the Bible and the hermeneutical complexities of interpreting Scripture as a whole.

If you would like to listen to the introductory discussion I had with Barry Creamer about evangelical identity, you can hear it here-http://forchristandculturebroadcasts.com/2013/05/28/the-state-of-evangelicalism/

This entry was posted in Ministry, Religion, Theology and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s