/** recent comments widget code */ /** end of recent comments widget code */

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Evangelicalism: Distinctive Characteristics

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.

Distinctive Characteristics:

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:


Anonymous said...


A quick question before I submit a long response. In your May 16 entry, you said "So this choice, science or scripture, is completely unnecessary.” Yet now you are saying, "If our interpretation of scripture cannot accommodate the theory of evolution, we need to either abandon one or the other.” Haven't you just replaced "scripture" with "interpretation of scripture"? Doesn't it amount to the same thing?


Steve Martin said...

I don't think it is the same thing at all.

From the May 16 post:

Evangelicals that compare fallible human scientific conclusions with the infallible word of God miss a significant point. Not only do fallible humans interpret scientific facts, they also interpret the bible. Just as fallible humans can misinterpret the evidence of creation, so too fallible humans can misinterpret the scriptures.

Essentially, what I’m saying is that the conflict in question is in the interpretation – either our interpretation of the scriptural creation accounts in Genesis is wrong (ie. Literal 7 day creation account; instantaneous creation of humans) or our interpretation of the facts of science are wrong (ie. Theory of biological evolution reached because of the evidence from genetics & paleontology among others). In this instance, I believe that it is the traditional interpretation of scripture that is wrong. Its not scripture that I’m discounting, it’s the interpretation of scripture. There are lots of interpretations of scripture that I disagree with (eg. The earth must be flat, the earth is center of the universe, slavery is good, genocide is a valid method to further the kingdom of God, women are 2nd class citizens).

Loren Haarsma has a good lecture on this conflict in science and religion. See

Anonymous said...

What I was getting at is that you still insist on making a choice. On May 16, the choice was between science and scripture which you and I both agree is unnecessary. Now you are clarifying the choice is between science and our interpretation of scripture (assuming there is a conflict) - “abandon one or the other” sounds like a choice to me, and a pretty drastic choice at that. You still insist one is wrong and one is right. Why can’t they both be right, like the particle and energy wave theories of light?


Steve Martin said...

Hi Jac,

My clarification is that we have to make a choice, not between science and scripture, but between our interpretation of science & our interpretation of scripture. Check out slide 46 of the haarsma presentation noted above.

So here in a nutshell is my view:

1. Scientific truth and scriptural truth cannot be in conflict. They are both from God. That’s why I believe we need never make a choice between these two aspects of truth. I do not agree with some postmodernist ideas that truth is relative and subjective. There is absolute truth.

2. However, our understanding / interpretation of these truths will always be approximations, will always be limited, will always contain some elements that are not 100% correct because we are limited creations. So, I have some sympathy with post-modernist ideas that state that we cannot completely apprehend truth. Ie. Because we are limited, our view of truth will always be coloured by our subjectivity. That is, even though there is absolute truth, we need to be aware that it will be nearly impossible to completely understand this absolute truth.

3. That being said, we should not give up and say “we are never going to figure it out anyways”. I believe that God has provided an orderly creation for us to care for – and for us to care for it properly, we need to understand it. He has also given us his special revelation in his Word. And God has given us the tools (minds) to understand it (more or less).

4. Probably the most important aspect of this discussion is that, quite simply, God is Truth. Ie. Truth is not some set of axioms independent of God. Thus, even though we can never “figure it all out”, we can completely in tune with the truth by being reconciled to God.

So, I believe that when our interpretations of scripture and science are in conflict, we certainly can make choices, and in many instances should make choices between which of the interpretations to change. I think the point you are making (which is a good one) is that there is actually a third choice – to acknowledge that sometimes we just have to live with the tension. So, I guess as a general statement, I do need to qualify that this choice need not be made every time, and that sometimes we should simply live with perceived contradictions.

However, in this specific instance (ie. Scientific map of origins and YEC interpretation of the bible), I think we should make a choice for a couple of reasons.

a) I don’t believe this is the same as the properties of light issue at all since there was evidence for both the particle theory and the wave theory. On the age of the universe & earth, all the scientific evidence is for antiquity. The evidence from scripture for this same issue is conflicting. I believe that after looking at the scriptural evidence alone, a young earth interpretation is not necessary. So its pretty clear to me which interpretation should be changed.

b) I believe God cannot do what is logically impossible. (eg. He cannot make a rock bigger than he can move). My feeling is that this “young” and “old” at the same time view is logically impossible. Ok, so others have put forth some ideas to resolve this (eg. http://tgdarkly.com/blog/?p=577). But I’m not convinced.

Anonymous said...


I know I mentioned I was writing a long response, but since I get paid by the post and not by the word, I decided to try to keep things short. (A response from you to these few points is not necessary or expected.)

First, let me thank you for starting this blog and responding to my comments. I’m definitely learning from the experience and I hope others are too. (Although it would be nice to see some comments from a few more people from time to time - it’s starting to be become the “Steve and Jac” dialogue. C’mon people – speak up!)

Second, how come we never got into this discussion before, when we were actually in the same place at the same time? I guess we were too engrossed in Settlers of Catan! Maybe we can crank things up in August while camping.

Third, I think we have the same goal in mind. We both want more Christians more involved in science, and we want more scientists open to the idea that science does not automatically exclude God. Far too many people who were brought up in Christian homes have avoided pursing science as a career path, and too many scientists have convinced themselves that God can’t exist or be a part of their lives if they accept the truth of science.

Fourth, our approaches to achieving this goal are different – you want to demonstrate that there can be (must be) unity between our interpretation of science and our interpretation of scripture, while I want to convince people that the apparent conflict between the two interpretations is OK and should not prevent us from pursuing a deeper understanding of both.

I think both of our approaches have merit, and are worthy of further discussion. And there might be other worthwhile approaches out there, but so far no one has been brave enough to put them forward on this blog. I would venture to say that your approach will appeal to those who lean toward Mr. Spock’s view of the universe, where everything must follow logic and clear reasoning. (Those attracted to science and technology for instance.) My approach might appeal to those to lean toward Dr. McCoy’s view where not everything has to be about logic. (Those who pursue the arts and view the universe in a more poetic and emotional way.) Somehow, I ended up in the bucket with all the artsy people, even though as an electrical engineer, I’m almost the epitome of the science and technology geek. While I absolutely love when things fit nicely together and everything is logical, I also appreciate the messy parts of life, things that defy logical explanations, and things that I just don’t understand.

I’ll leave things at that for now, and get into more detail about my approach later. I need to catch up with you at the “Does Evolution drive us to reject evolution” post. That one looks interesting.