EVANGELICALS

EVANGELICALS

The terms “evangelical” and “evangelicalism” had scant use until Erasmus and others derisively aimed them at what they saw as Lutheran narrowness and fanaticism. Luther used the terms for all Christians who accepted the doctrine of sola gratia , which he saw as the heart of the gospel (evangelion) . The treaty of Westphalia (1648) denominated both the Lutheran and the Reformed churches “evangelical”. By 1700 the term seems to have become in Europe a simple synonym for “Protestant” or, in German-speaking areas, “Lutheran”. In Protestant Britain, however, the religious awakening led by the Wesleys and George Whitefield seems to have been called the evangelical revival from around 1750. Slightly later, advocates of revival in Britain, both in the Anglican and Free churches, called themselves evangelicals. Their trademarks were deep moral earnestness, commitment to strict personal piety, faithfulness in private and corporate devotion and vigorous philanthropic enterprise. Since the introduction of Protestantism in Latin America during the 1800s, its adherents have preferred to call their churches and themselves evangelicals (evangélicos) rather than Protestant.

In London, in 1846, some 800 Europeans and North Americans formed the Evangelical Alliance to counter the political and spiritual revival of Roman Catholicism then in progress and, more positively, to coordinate various Protestant enterprises in missions, publishing and social reform. Its nine conservative theological tenets summarize the contents of the historic Protestant confessions of faith, but its implicit understanding of Christianity in practice rested on the religious bases developed in early pietism and in the evangelical revival.

In British North America, the first great awakening (1730s and 1740s) had emphasized the necessity for a graciously given personal experience of redemption* in Christ, for personal piety, including social concern, and for confessional orthodoxy. The second great awakening (early 1800s) intensified the experiential element, reduced and simplified dogmatic requirements, slowly institutionalized social concern and made the revivalistic mode normative for the 19th century. The formation of a branch of the alliance in the United States in 1867 simply reflected a context already practising the style of  christianity which the alliance advocated.

Between about 1865 and 1900, however, many came gradually to understand the personal evangelical experience central to all evangelical thought and action as a personal moment of spiritual illumination. This understanding encouraged an internalizing of the evangelical experience. The old language remained, but by the 1920s social action and theological reflection were suffering benign neglect among Evangelicals. They sought only a “clean heart and right spirit”.

By about 1900, American Methodism had divided into three parties, each seeing itself as “evangelical”. The liberals, bent on social action and theological modernity, were evangelical but with the accents of the social sciences. The conservatives, including the Holiness movement,* were evangelical in the sense of the word before the civil war. The mainstream insisted on a highly individualistic and private faith,* which meant that traditional terms and doctrines might carry non-traditional connotations. Thus the Wesleyan tradition as a whole made the very idea of evangelical equivocal.

Calvin’s progeny in the US had also divided into three major parties in the late 1800s. The conservative party, with its centre at Princeton, owed much to Charles Hodge and considered US evangelicalism, especially revivalism, theologically and culturally suspect. A mildly activist liberal party, rooted in the work of Nathaniel Taylor at Yale, spoke the language of Evangelicalism, but its deeper concern was to reconcile the Reformed tradition and modern thought and culture.* The revivalist party, which claimed the mantle of Charles Finney, Asa Mahan and William Boardman, was led at the end of the century by D.L. Moody, R.A. Torrey and J.W. Chapman. But these later revivalists, who now inherited the name “evangelical”, displaced the radical social concern and perfectionism of their predecessors with a very different agenda: “conversion”, understood first and last as an internal religious experience; maintaining the authority of the Bible as the inerrant divine revelation;* and restoring Evangelicalism as the normative form of Christianity.

From the late 1890s, increasing liberal critiques compelled these Evangelicals to explain their position theologically. Here, they found the methods and categories of the conservatives congenial, though they resisted the Calvinist dogmatism and rationalism of the conservatives’ systems. A new coalition would soon produce a new definition of “evangelical” among the Reformed.

By the late 1910s, the Reformed tradition fell into civil war, and it drew other traditions in. On one side was the liberal tradition; on the other was the revivalist-confessional coalition, under the names “conservative”, “evangelical” and “fundamentalist”. The revivalist party became increasingly Reformed and less inclined to revivalism; the conservatives opened up to Evangelicalism.

Conservative Wesleyanism, still evangelical in the 19th-century sense, recognized that its theological method and understanding of the Bible had more in common with the spirit of liberalism than with that of the Reformed Evangelicals. But certain liberal theological conclusions contradicted their deepest commitments. Often, then, they rejected specific theological insistences of the Reformed Evangelicals but joined them in the war against the liberal secularizing of Christ, the Bible and the work of the church. And, little by little, they muted their commitment to social involvement, in part for fear of identification with the social gospel of the liberals. But most also rejected the name “fundamentalist”, especially as the theological bases and separatist ethos of fundamentalism became clear (see fundamentalists ).

In the mid-1940s, Harold J. Ockenga, a Congregationalist evangelical with Methodist roots, criticized fundamentalism for its theological paranoia, its separatism and its contentiousness and led a number of Reformed Evangelicals in the creation of an anti-fundamentalist “new Evangelicalism”. Hence the establishment of the National Association of Evangelicals, Fuller Theological Seminary and the magazine Christianity Today . Doctrinally, the new Evangelicals confessed the infallibility of the Bible, the Trinity,* the deity of Christ, vicarious atonement, the personality and work of the Holy Spirit,* and the personal return of Christ; religiously, they revived the coalitional ethos of the early 1900s.

In the 1960s, the Reformed Evangelicals debated the meaning of “the infallibility of the Bible” as the question at the heart of their faith. The debate led to a clear separation of new Evangelicals from fundamentalists. Also clear was the intention of the former to claim near-exclusive right to the title “evangelical”. The large numbers of persons in the Methodist, Baptist and other traditions whose current expressions were more directly rooted in 19th-century Evangelicalism than those of the Reformed new Evangelicals were simply left off the evangelical map by the new evangelical cartographers.

At the same time, the social dimensions of the gospel were coming under study and were being tested in practice by Evangelicals in several traditions. For example, Sherwood Wirt’s The Social Conscience of the Evangelical and several of the works of Carl Henry called Reformed Evangelicals to work actively in the world around them. But works such as Donald Dayton’s Discovering an Evangelical Heritage revived awareness that the evangelical tradition had originally seen itself as essentially quite radical (although not novel), socially and theologically – a datum somehow lost in the coalitional ethos of new Evangelicalism. Dayton and others insist that the (Reformed) new evangelical model, with its primary concern for doctrinal orthodoxy, cannot produce a historically and theologically consistent definition of “evangelicalism”. Rather, the model will have to be based on clear and direct lines back to the period 1830-60, the time of the maturing of the second awakening, with its institutionalizing of revivalism and its insistence on a grace-given experience of redemption as the heart of all true Christianity.

On the international scene, those Christians who call themselves Evangelicals are among the fastest-growing groups within the Christian family, especially in Latin America. They are finding institutional forums for cooperation, such as the World Evangelical Fellowship* and the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization,* and those Evangelicals among the member churches of the WCC are becoming more articulate in voicing their concerns, especially in the area of world mission and evangelism.

 

PAUL MERRITT BASSETT

 

n D.W. Dayton, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage , New York, Harper & Row, 1976 n M. Ellingsen, The Evangelical Movement , Minneapolis, Augsburg, 1988 n W. Elwell ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology , Grand Rapids MI, Baker, 1990 n N.L. Geisler & R.E. MacKenzie, eds, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences , Grand Rapids MI, Baker Book House, 1995 n G. Fackre, Ecumenical Faith in Evangelical Perspective , Grand Rapids MI, Eerdmans, 1993 n J. Gordon, Evangelical Spirituality: From the Wesleys to John Stott , London, SPCK, 1991 n J. Stott ed., Making Christ Known: Historic Mission Documents from the Lausanne Movement, 1974-1989 , Exeter, Paternoster Press, 1996.

The text above is extracted from “ Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement ” 2 nd Edition , published by World Council of Churches (courtesy of World Council of Churches)

 

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