Is it a new term? Is it a political term? Does it reflect a certain theology? Part of the problem has been its long and changing history. It’s hard to nail down. But I recently came across a post from R.C. Sproul that I found very helpful.
R. C. Sproul provides perhaps the best short, historical summary of the term “evangelical” I’ve seen. He writes:
“Historically speaking evangelical was a redundant term for Protestant. In both cases the term referred to those who affirmed the binding authority of the Bible alone and that one could have peace with God only by trusting in the finished work of Christ alone. Contra Rome then the term affirmed sola scriptura and sola fide.
Three hundred years after the Reformation, however, the term took a small turn, a tiny nuance was added by the beginnings of theological liberalism. Institutionally theological liberalism was found within Protestant churches. Its defining qualities, however, were a denial of the truthfulness and authority of the Bible and a denial of the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. Evangelical suddenly became not a synonym for Protestant, but a sub-category. It was how we distinguished actual Christians from liberal “Christians.” Thus Machen’s later great work, Christianity and Liberalism affirmed that the two were utterly distinct.
One hundred years ago there was yet another shift. The evangelical wing of the Protestant church offered competing strategies for dealing with the liberal wing. One side was slightly less sophisticated, slightly less academic, and, given its accompanying pessimistic eschatology, more retreatist. They, distinguishing themselves from evangelicals, called themselves fundamentalists. On the fundamentals both fundamentalists and evangelicals agreed. Evangelicals, sadly, were slightly more accommodating of theological liberalism, slightly less ardent in denouncing it.
Over the last thirty years that spirit of accommodation has mushroomed inside the evangelical church. Indeed if evangelical has any meaning at all in current usage, it is far more about a mood, a posture, than it is about an affirmation of cardinal doctrines. Evangelicals, on the whole, do not scoff at the Bible like theological liberals. They are willing to affirm, at least in principle, biblical miracles. They are even willing, in a nuanced way that ultimately neuters that authority, to affirm the authority of the Bible, at least parts of it. That nuance typically softens the edges of the Bible by interpreting it in light of our post-modern wisdom.” -R.C. Sproul, Ligonier Blog
A few comments here…
- Sproul does well to note the key movements of the term. Evangelical emerges in a significant way in the Old Light/ New Light 1700’s. It then makes a shift at the dawn of the 20th century. It takes another turn in the 50’s and 60’s. And as he noted, it seems to be shifting again. I think he does a good job of tersely capturing the history of the term.
- Note the difference between Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism. I’ve seen some confusion here lately. Some commentators miss the distinction. What’s confusing about these two camps is they share a belief in the fundamental doctrines, but as Sproul notes, whether you agree with his characterizations or not, there are some key differences between the two.
- The latest shift may be more of a disintegration. It seems Sproul doesn’t hold high hopes for the term. It will be interesting to see where it goes from here.
Overall though, I think Sproul’s summary is helpful and accurate. What do you think?