What is an ‘Evangelical’?

Gutenberg BibleFor those outside the church, the label ‘evangelical’ may have a connotation of rainbow guitar straps, the Alpha course, happy-clappy dancing and so on. Inside the church … well, it all depends. It’s a label which somewhat resists definition: it’s not ‘owned’ by anyone, and these days it seems everyone wants to define themselves as an evangelical (so I’ve heard – I’ve not really noticed this myself, but still). I fall very much within the ‘evangelical’ tradition of Christianity, as it is called, and although I think I have an idea of what that means it’s not a clear-cut distinction.

This debate has been provoked in particular by Steve Chalke coming out in support for gay marriage – in contrast to what many (even most) evangelicals would say. There’s also been some debate on Twitter lately about ‘evangelicals’ and who’s in / out of the club. So, what is the boundary line for saying someone is evangelical or not? Is there such a boundary line?

The historian David Bebbington describes four historic characteristics of evangelicals (known as the “Bebbington Quadrilateral” – I know, I know, I didn’t pick the name), which are (from Wikipedia):

  • biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible (e.g. all essential spiritual truth is to be found in its pages)
  • crucicentrism, a focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross
  • conversionism, the belief that human beings need to be converted
  • activism, the belief that the gospel needs to be expressed in effort.

I would go along with all these – I think they’re all important for defining evangelicalism. In particular, I would like to emphasise the first point – Biblicism – I believe one of the fundamental tenets of evangelicalism is the belief that the Bible is not just important, it is in fact the Word of God (see my previous post on Scriptural authority).

In particular, for me one of the defining characteristics of an evangelical is how they would answer the question: What do you do with the Bible when it says something you disagree with? It’s not a question which is original to me, but I think it’s important.

A liberal Christian would say, clearly the Bible is wrong. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard in sermons from liberal Christians that ‘the Bible was edited’ – i.e., the Bible is simply mistaken on a number of issues, and as such we aren’t obliged to believe it at certain points (or even, a lot of points). So – for example, the Bible prohibits gay relationships: clearly this is just a cultural expression, we now know that gay relationships are fine, therefore we can ignore the Bible’s teaching on this matter. In short, a liberal Christian would see reason as being of more value than Scripture in determining doctrine.

A Catholic Christian would have a more nuanced answer to that question, in that the Catholic church has a tradition of interpretation of Scripture. I think the Catholic church would claim none of its doctrines are opposed to Scripture – but tradition is of equal weight. So, for example, the understanding of Matthew 16:18 (“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…”) – as I understand it, used by Catholics to defend the apostolic succession of the papacy from Peter – is interpreted that way, even though I would argue that this is not what it means. In short, a Catholic Christian would see tradition as being of equal value than Scripture in determining doctrine. (I hope I’m not being unfair to either liberals or Catholics here; this is just how I understand things.)

In contrast to both of these, I would say an evangelical should answer that question: defer to the Bible’s teaching. Now, I’d like to qualify that by saying – that doesn’t mean I would disagree with questioning received wisdom – I think it’s absolutely right to question things and make sure that we really do believe what the Bible actually says. In the past I think we’ve had ‘paradigm shifts’ where we’ve actually seen that perhaps the Bible doesn’t say something which it was claimed to – for example, eighteenth-century Biblical supporters of slavery might have used verses which we now know don’t affirm what they thought they did. But the point is, culture and circumstances informed Biblical study – they did not replace it.

In short, my answer to the question: ‘what is an evangelical?’ is someone who sees the Bible as so important that we must place it front and centre in our life and doctrine. It’s a question of method rather than an end result. So – to take an example – the question of the legitimacy of gay relationships needs to be answered from within the pages of the Bible, not from the prevailing cultural opinion.

So, going back to Steve Chalke, what I believe he’s started to do (in fact, I think he started to do this with The Lost Message of Jesus and his views on penal substitution) is move away from seeing the Bible as being primary. If you read his article – and the Evangelical Alliance’s excellent responses to it – his arguments do not rely on so much on Biblical study as ‘trajectory’ language. As such I would argue that he’s not on firm footing as an evangelical – he is moving away from that label, even if he would continue to like to use it for himself.