Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Are We Still Evangelical?

This is partly in response to PD's comments on my most recent post, but it is also something I have been mulling over for a while.

A classic, concise definition for "evangelical" as it exists in the English speaking world (meaning, it does not necessarily entail Lutheran Evangelicals) and its antecedents has been put forward by historian David Bebbington.  According to him, there are four markers of an evangelical:

  1. Conversionism: Meaning that, as opposed to the Catholic view, evangelicals emphasize conversion as the real sign of membership in the Kingdom of God.
  2. Biblicism: Or known classically as Sola Scriptura.  This is fairly self-explanatory, but as pointed out earlier, variously understood among evangelicals.
  3. Activism: Whether its slavery in late eighteenth century Britain, women's rights in late nineteenth century Britain and America, abortion in the 1970s and 80s, or Southern Baptists boycotting Disney in the 1990s, evangelicals have always been very active in society.  In my opinion, this trait is one of the most interesting historically.
  4. Crucicentrism:  This ties in heavily to point number one, but this does tend to occupy a considerable amount of evangelical theology.  This is in contrast to, say, the Eastern Orthodox Christians who might emphasize the incarnation as the main soteriological event.
There are some more nuanced lists out there, but this one is the most concise, and tends to appear fairly often.  Interestingly, this is quite distinct from many parts of Pentecostalism, which can overlap with evangelicalism, but not always.

What do you think?  Are we still evangelical?


John Paulling said...

A fascinating list that exacerbates the problem. Now I know where people like D.G. Hart come from.

I really think that lists like this that are bent on being minimalistic, actually shoot themselves in the foot. In this case, it really hinges on the tenant of 'biblicism'. In my opinion, we are too far along in the process of biblical interpretation to unite under the banner of 'biblical'.

When the title "evangelicalism" first began to be bandied about it probably was significant to be described as Bible-believing, but as hermeneutics has changed, it has become increasingly difficult to speak to what a text actually "says" or what it means to "believe" a given text. In that sense, I wonder if it wouldn't be ecumenically advantageous to expand our descriptors.

I was in a meeting tonight where it was brought to my attention that our church's intent to have a "blended" worship service has been unsuccessful precisely because the word "blended" meant different things to different people. Maybe shooting for the lowest common denominator does more harm than good.

P.D. said...

according to this list i'm a 1.5/4 evangelical

Jon Furst said...

John, how would you define "evangelical" then? If you dislike these four characteristics, what would you do instead?

Collin said...

Jon, I'm not sure who exactly you addressed this question to, but I was interested to evaluate both myself and other seminarians here at PTS in terms of this list. I think John's querying is well-put; most people here, including the most progressive, care deeply about shaping their lives by reading Scripture, though there are (obviously) a bewildering variety of hermeneutical moves people make. Everybody is into activism here. I imagine conversionism would be more debatable, especially at a seminary committed to the Reformed tenet of paedobaptism and, perhaps consequently, a model of catechesis which emphasizes habituation into Christian life. Crucicentrism? This probably still would substantially divide us here. Well, I seem to still be evangelical, Jon, but I wonder how useful these four classical tags are if in fact they serve such a limited purpose in defining a kind of Christian.

Jon Furst said...

Thanks for your comment. I think that it is perhaps significant that this list is written with a special historical/sociological focus.

My big struggle with such criteria is that there are probably many who would self-identify as evangelical, but not adhere to one or more of these points. If this were applied rigidly, evangelicalism would be more fideist than confessional.

As I have looked, and continue to look, more deeply into the history here, particularly where "liberalism" splits from "conservative" evangelicalism, I've begun to wonder if liberalism, particularly in America and Britain, is still "evangelical" to a significant extent, just with very different suppositions. Having been at Princeton awhile, what do you think?

Julie said...

Really all of its points are open to much debate - I think of "activism" and the hugely divergent missiological opinions.

But I'm fine to let the list be. I just won't use it for an Inquisition.

I wonder if we will move increasingly away from titles (Christian, Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical) and perhaps even mainline denominations and, with the rise of independent churches, towards affinity with certain groups to define ourselves (e.g. ETS, WCC, the Gospel Coalition).

It would help me a little more to know someone was aligned with Acts 29 than to hear that they are evangelical.

P.D. said...

Julie, thats a good point. Being a part of Acts 29 is way more informative than being evangelical.

Jon Furst said...

That is a good point Julie, but I think the problematic trend has been that as soon as an evangelical group self-identifies, varieties of interpretations soon arise and before long the group embodies its own "liberal" and "conservative" poles. Acts 29, for all of its merit, is still very young. Remember that the Methodists were once the stalwarts of renewal (and initially never intended to become a new denomination).

Collin said...

Jon -- yeah, that's kind of what I was getting at: lots of people here at PTS identify as evangelical, and would fall within the bounds of those four classic descriptors. But they could never teach at CIU (or Wheaton, or Westmont, maybe not even Fuller), belong to ETS, or join a missionary parachurch organization (nor would they be interested). I do think that your intuition about "liberalism" actually continuing to have many "evangelical" features is accurate. I have been reading a fascinating book by Daniel Driver on Brevard Childs, which paints the most sympathetic picture of Hermann Gunkel I've ever run across. Not only did Gunkel, the famous form-critic, consider himself an evangelical, but he cared vitally and even methodologically about personal conversion, and the idea of "canon" exercised a nebulous but real influence in his understanding of the Bible as the uniquely privileged place to discern God's will and ways. I also recommend this essay by Telford Work on some of the family resemblances between liberalism and evangelicalism, as well as -- more threatening -- evangelicalism's cultic cousins: http://www.westmont.edu/~work/articles/confession.pdf

P.D. said...

This is evangelical.