This is the second of four posts that provides an overview of the history & character of Evangelicalism, its historic response to evolution, and why the discussion of evolution matters today.
So what is Evangelicalism anyways? It seems everyone has his or her own definition or understanding. As my post last Monday showed, it’s not just an outgrowth of fundamentalism. It’s also not equivalent to “Born Again Christians” as not all that wear this label can be counted as evangelicals, and many evangelicals would strongly oppose the label. It is neither a denomination nor a creed, and although there are umbrella Evangelical organizations (eg. EFC in Canada and NAE in the US), none of them speak for nor control Evangelicals. One way to describe Evangelicalism is a form of Christianity born and bread in Anglo-American modernity that possesses several distinctive characteristics. I’ll outline my view of these characteristics below.
Evangelicals share several common characteristics with other broad sections of the Christian church. First they are staunch defenders of Orthodoxy. They adhere to the “right beliefs” passed down by the early church and formalized in the Apostles and the Nicene Creeds. Second, they are thoroughly Protestant. The revolt against the Catholic Church during the Reformation is seen as a necessary cleansing, and a recovery of the character of the early church prior to its cooption into the Roman Empire under Constantine. There is some disagreement today on what relationship Evangelicals should have with the Catholic Church, but there is pretty much unanimous agreement that leaving the Catholic Church was the right action for Protestants in the 16th century.
However, there are several distinctive characteristics that give Evangelicalism its unique personality. These characteristics are not necessarily unique to Evangelicals, but I believe they a) exhibit these characteristics most strongly, and b) are the only group which strongly exhibits all four of the following characteristics in combination.
1. Biblicalism: Evangelicals place a heavy emphasis on trusting the scripture. It is not simply a holy book, it is a book of divine revelation. Besides describing the bible as divinely inspired, many Evangelicals would also use the words authoritative, infallible, and inerrant to describe scripture. Many others would like to qualify some or all of these adjectives. Some would like to drop the adjective inerrant altogether. But all would agree unequivocally that scripture has its source in God.
2. Atonement: Emphasis is placed on Jesus death on the cross and his atoning work by which humanity can be reconciled to God. Whereas other traditions would put the emphasis on God’s incarnation in Christ (eg. Eastern Orthodox) or on his resurrection (eg. Roman Catholics), it is the death of Christ that is central to Christ’s work in an Evangelical understanding.
3. Personal repentance and commitment: For Evangelicals, religious ceremonies and traditions are, at best, of minimal importance. Of more importance are a) personal repentance (some would go so far as to say this must include a conversion or born-again experience) and b) a personal commitment to follow Christ in all areas of life (ie. Christianity is not just about Sunday morning).
4. Evangelism: A commitment to tell the good news of Christ’s kingdom to others.
From my perspective, only the first characteristic (Biblicalism) initiates a significant challenge for Evangelicals when considering evolution. The other three can easily accommodate a gradual creation process. How God created does not in any way challenge our understanding that Christ died for our sins, that we need to personally repent and commit ourselves to be followers of Christ, and that we should be spreading the good news of Christ’s Kingdom to others. (You could argue that the whole discussion on the origin of sin is intimately tied to the concept of atonement. I don’t believe this is the case and think this issue requires a rethinking of the concept of “Original Sin” by all Orthodox believers, not just Evangelicals).
But the defense of the bible is very important. Actually, I should say it is essential. If our interpretation of scripture cannot accommodate the theory of evolution, we need to either abandon one or the other. For most Evangelicals I believe this is the crux of the matter. Very, very few actually have the ability or desire to look at the scientific evidence. The decision against evolution is made primarily because of the perceived conflict between scriptural truth and scientific claims. What’s the point of looking at the scientific evidence? Either we are wasting our time (ie. Examining a hypothesis that is logically impossible) or worse, we are entering a quest that could prove our faith is a sham. For this reason, I think it’s important to first discuss the theological implications of evolution, and how evolution can be reconciled with biblical truth. That is why on this blog, at least initially, I’ll be putting more emphasis on posts that deal with the theological implications of evolution rather than the scientific evidence for evolution.
It is my contention that the Creationistic belief held by many Evangelicals is not simply poor science, it is also poor theology, and employs poor biblical interpretation. In fact, rather then defending the Living Word, it constricts the message. Rather than giving the scripture its proper place as the revelation of God, it turns it into an object of idolatry more in line with a Muslim view of the Koran.
Some Recommended Further Reading:
- “Streams of Living Water”, Richard Foster. I love Foster’s method of outlining 6 “streams” of Christianity from the birth of the Church until the present. Streams include: contemplative, holiness, charismatic, social justice, evangelical, and incarnational. For each stream, he outlines strengths and weaknesses. For the evangelical stream in particular, I think he nails the strengths and weaknesses on the head.
- “Canadian Evangelicalism in the 20th Century“, John Stackhouse. Overview of the Evangelical movement in Canada.
- Also see the 3 recommendations at the end of the "Not simply toned down fundamentalism" post.