Defining Evangelical

October 7, 2012 in Theology · 4 comments

There is perhaps no designation within Christianity that is so ubiquitous but yet so difficult to define as that of Evangelical. It is simultaneously bandied about as a term of derision, as a badge of honor, as a litmus test for orthodoxy and as a synonym for fanaticism.

Perhaps the most widely accepted scholarly definition of Evangelical is that of David Bebbington, who defines it in terms of four “isms”: conversionism, activism, biblicism and crucicentrism. Mark Noll accepts this quadrilateral of belief and also emphasizes that Evangelicals share a common theological ancestry; they grew out of specific traditions and movements that shaped who they are today. Roger Olsen also accepts those characteristics but adds “respect for the Great Tradition of Protestant Christian orthodoxy” to the list. But by now the definition seems so broad as to include virtually every Christian! Is the term meaningless in its inclusivity? Is its usage so amorphous as to defy a fixed meaning? Is the final answer the same as Louis Armstrong’s definition of jazz: “If you gotta ask, you’ll never know”?

I don’t think that we must give up using the term Evangelical altogether, or that we must cede it to the extreme factions within Christendom. Instead I propose that we reappropriate and reinvigorate the term in light of its original, Biblical usage (see, biblicism!). “Evangelical” derives from the Greek εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion), which simply means God’s good news to humanity, especially as revealed in the life and ministry of Jesus.

To be an Evangelical means recognizing the primacy of the gospel message — the εὐαγγέλιον — to the Christian life. It means living a life rooted in and centered around the good news as proclaimed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:1-28. It’s a lengthy passage to excerpt here, but it sums up the entirety of the gospel, that which is “of first importance”:

Now I want to make clear for you, brothers and sisters, the gospel that I preached to you, that you received and on which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message I preached to you — unless you believed in vain. For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received — that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as though to one born at the wrong time, he appeared to me also. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been in vain. In fact, I worked harder than all of them — yet not I, but the grace of God with me. Whether then it was I or they, this is the way we preach and this is the way you believed. Now if Christ is being preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is futile and your faith is empty. Also, we are found to be false witnesses about God, because we have testified against God that he raised Christ from the dead, when in reality he did not raise him, if indeed the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is useless; you are still in your sins. Furthermore, those who have fallen asleep in Christ have also perished. For if only in this life we have hope in Christ, we should be pitied more than anyone. But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead also came through a man. For just as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ, the firstfruits; then when Christ comes, those who belong to him. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when he has brought to an end all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be eliminated is death. For he has put everything in subjection under his feet.  But when it says “everything” has been put in subjection, it is clear that this does not include the one who put everything in subjection to him. And when all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will be subjected to the one who subjected everything to him, so that God may be all in all.

Read that passage above. Read it again. Think about it. Think about it some more. That’s what it means to be an Evangelical. And we, as Christians, should not be ashamed to declare ourselves followers that gospel — true Evangelicals.

4 comments… read them below or add one

Jane October 10, 2012 at 10:26 am

What does Paul mean?

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Dan October 10, 2012 at 11:29 am

Paul says that the Gospel is:
— that Christ died for our sins
— that he was buried
— that he was raised on the third day
— that he appeared to many people, including the Apostles
— that everyone will be resurrected when Christ returns
— that in the end all authority and power will be returned to God, that all God’s enemies, including death, will be defeated and that everything will be subject to God.

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friendly reader April 28, 2013 at 6:58 pm

Just discovered your blog via Don Burrows, so sorry for resurrecting an old thread…and maybe you’re familiar with all of this, but my Lutheran pride is surfacing. 🙂

The first published use of the word “evangelical” was Tyndale, and Luther preferred the term “Evangelical” (“based on the Gospel”) to “Lutheran” when describing his church. That’s actually what the term still means in Germany. It’s also why I’m a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, a denomination which hardly matches the standard image of “evangelical.” And boy, do I have to explain that every time I explain what ELCA stands for… >_<

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Dan April 28, 2013 at 9:33 pm

Thanks for sharing … I didn’t know Luther’s thoughts on the matter. And hurrah for the ELCA!

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