What Does It Mean to Be Evangelical? And Is It Worth Defending?
I grew up viewing the term "evangelical" as a guarantee of quality. I believed that evangelicals were the most faithful and orthodox followers of Christ and that they offered the closest approximation of the New Testament church. But while I regularly used the term "evangelical" to identify "good" Christianity, I would have been hard pressed to give a concise definition of the term. So what, exactly, does it mean to be an evangelical?
Bebbington's Four Hallmarks
One of the most influential definitions of evangelical comes from the church historian David Bebbington. He proposed four historic hallmarks of evangelical identity:
Conversionism: an emphasis on the importance of personal conversion.
Biblicism: a high regard for the Bible and its unique authority in conveying spiritual truth.
Crucicentrism: an emphasis on the centrality of the atoning work of Christ.
Activism: a conviction that the Gospel should be lived out through visible and socially transformative actions.
By these criteria, I was definitely raised in an evangelical church. We had it all!
Conversionism? Check. I converted at the age of five after my mom confronted me with the bald choice to follow God or the devil.
Biblicism? Check. Growing up, I proudly carried my children's KJV Bible and later my NIV Student Bible and I studied hard to win the Sunday school Bible drills.
Crucicentrism? Check. The cross was everything, the Good News, our only hope of salvation.
Activism? Check. And I had the battle scars from street evangelism and outreach dramas performed in city park to prove it.
So that was how Bebbington defined evangelical, and by that definition, I definitely qualified!
However, over the last couple of decades, I have begun to reconsider these four evangelical hallmarks. Take conversionism, for example. Twenty years ago I assumed you needed to know the day you were saved in order to be saved. I remember having an earnest conversation with my university dorm-mate about this question. Though he was raised in a Christian home, went to church, and read his Bible, Pete didn't know the day he was saved. So I spent the better part of half an hour attempting to convince him that he needed to pray the sinner's prayer just to be sure. Pete politely declined the invitation.
These days, I'm inclined to agree with Pete: I no longer assume that you must be able to identify the moment when you were saved. Consider this illustration: if I ask Ramon the mechanic, "When is the day you became a mechanic?" he might answer: "On the day I got my first job at the local garage! I remember it well!" Fair enough. But now imagine that I ask Steve the same question, and he replies like this:
"I don't know how to answer that. My parents say I grew up with a wrench in my hand. By the time I was eight I was fixing my brother's bike. When I was twelve I built a go-cart with a lawnmower engine. I got my first job in a garage when I turned eighteen. So I can't point to any single moment when I became a mechanic. I mean, I could choose a moment if you really want me to. But it seems to me that picking out any single day would be hopelessly arbitrary.'
Now imagine insisting that Steve must choose one specific day or he isn't really a mechanic. That wouldn't make much sense, would it? The important thing is that you know you are a mechanic, not when you became one. The same goes for Christianity. What matters is not that you know when you became a Christian but rather that you are one.
Eventually, I found myself reconsidering Bebbington's other criteria as well. Evangelicals pride themselves on their view of the Bible: one of their most favored descriptions is to declare it inerrant. Indeed, for many evangelicals, the defense of biblical inerrancy has become a hill on which to die. But just what does it mean to declare the Bible inerrant?
For starters, it doesn't mean our translations are inerrant. Not only are translations always imperfect but the moment you complete a translation, it begins growing more imperfect because language is always changing. So this much is clear: inerrancy does not reside in the compromise-ridden English translations sitting on your bookshelf.
What about the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic manuscripts from which our Bibles are translated? Are they without error? That's a good question, but we're getting ahead of ourselves, for we don't have access to the originals (or what scholars call the autographs). All we have are copies of copies (of copies) of the originals. And we know that these copies have some errors because they differ at various points with each other. To be sure, textual critics can still reassemble the original forms of the texts of the New Testament with a high degree of confidence. (The Old Testament is a different, and far more complicated, story.) Nonetheless, the fact remains that we don't have the original copies.
You might reply, "Okay, the copies we have may possess errors, but at least the original copies were without error." However, it should be pointed out that it isn't always clear what the "original copy" would've been. While a short epistle like Jude or 2 John was probably written up in a single afternoon, Bible scholars believe that many books in the Bible (e.g. Genesis, Psalms, Isaiah) were composed over a long period of time–decades if not centuries–by multiple authors and editors. If that is correct, then at what point in the long compositional history of these texts did they acquire the status of being inerrant? Was there ever a single original copy of Genesis or Isaiah?
The concept of inerrancy becomes even more complex when we consider it in the context of biblical accommodation. The term accommodation refers to the fact that God meets people in their limited and imperfect understanding. For example, biblical writers regularly describe God as having very human characteristics such as becoming angry or changing his mind. Theologians today typically interpret such descriptions as anthropomorphic accommodations: in other words, God is described as being like a human being so that we can better understand him and relate to him.
These same theologians add that God does not literally become angry or change his mind because God is understood to be impassible (not subject to emotional change) and omniscient (all-knowing). Nonetheless, God allows himself to be described in these terms in order to communicate with and relate to his human audience.
If that's true, we need to ask: did the original human authors understand that their descriptions were divine accommodations to limited human understanding? Did they always understand that God was employing anthropomorphic language to reach his human audience? If they did not realize this, then it would seem to that degree the human author was in error even while the divine author clearly was not.
It should be emphasized that these comments are not intended to constitute a rejection of biblical inerrancy. Rather, they raise the point that we need to clarify just what the doctrine means in the first place. It turns out that inerrancy is a complicated doctrine, and complicated doctrines do not typically function well as rallying cries and boundary markers. Yet, inerrancy has often been pressed into service for both those tasks, tasks for which it is not well suited.
To sum up, while I believe the doctrine of inerrancy is an important concept well worth discussing, I don't think it serves effectively as a quick and easy way to identify real evangelicals. Nor, for that matter, is the denial of inerrancy a good way to smoke out liberals (if smoking out liberals is your thing).
What about crucicentrism? I used to think the cross was about Christ dying in our place to satisfy the divine wrath against sin. In my opinion, that's just what atonement was: Christ dying to satisfy God's wrath. But when I studied theology I came to recognize that this picture of satisfying divine wrath was, in fact, but one theory of atonement, a view that is typically called the "penal substitution atonement."
It turns out that there are several views of atonement in the history of Christian theology and each view can claim its own list of biblical texts, theological and philosophical reasoning, and traditional support. It is also important to note that while the early church issued formal creedal statements at church councils to ensure agreement on doctrines like the Trinity and incarnation, they never endorsed any specific account of atonement. In short, while Christians are expected to confess that God reconciled the world in Christ, there has always been debate on how God did so.
The lesson to draw here is that being crucicentric is not the same thing as accepting the penal substitutionary theory of atonement. The Church has always encompassed various different accounts of atonement, and no single view gets exclusive rights to the claim of being crucicentric.
Finally, what about activism? As I said above, when I teenager, activism meant street evangelism and evangelistic outreaches in the park.
While evangelism is important, I blush to admit that our understanding of activism completely lacked a focus on social justice. Did I have any concern for the poor and the systems of injustice that oppress people in North America and around the world? No, not really. How about environmental stewardship? While I remember learning in high school about acid rain, ozone depletion, and deforestation, these issues were never mentioned at church. Race reconciliation? I didn't have a clue about such matters in my ethnically homogeneous church.
And had you asked me why our church isn't concerned with social justice, the environment, and race reconciliation, I probably would've answered, "that's what liberals care about!" As if the Gospel is irrelevant for society, race, and the environment!
I still value the evangelical tradition greatly and I think that Bebbington's four hallmarks represent important values worth defending. But I am no longer persuaded that evangelicals have a uniquely authoritative understanding of these hallmarks or what it means to follow Jesus. And so I am no longer convinced that seeking out the evangelical stamp is a guaranteed mark of church quality. To sum up, while I used to be very concerned with labels like evangelical and liberal, these days the label I find most important is simply this: a follower of Jesus.
This article is based on a chapter from my book What's So Confusing About Grace?