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

Sunday, 11 November 2007

What is an Evangelical? Am I one? Why do I choose to wear the Label?

My objective for this site is to promote and foster a specifically evangelical dialogue on the subject of evolution. Others are certainly invited to participate, but the invitation is primarily directed to evangelicals. What are the implications of biological evolution for our specifically evangelical theology? What are the implications for our faith? Are there areas of evolutionary science that have been tainted with philosophical assumptions that contradict core evangelical beliefs? How do we distinguish between the physical evidence of God’s creation and the metaphysical assumptions so often tied to the explanations of the evidence? These are some of the questions I believe evangelicals should be discussing.

Several weeks ago I provided a brief overview of the meaning of evolution. Thus I have provided a partial definition of how I believe this dialogue should be framed. However, to understand what a specifically evangelical dialogue would look like, I should also define what evangelical means.

What is the definition of an evangelical? What is the difference between an evangelical Christian and Christians who are not evangelicals? Where and how do we draw the line? Maybe more pertinent to the discussion in this particular dialogue, what reason do I have for considering myself within the evangelical fold? And why do I even want to hold onto the label? As I’ve confessed previously, being an evangelical can be downright embarrassing given the perception of the movement in western society, perceptions often completely supported by the attitudes and actions of very broad swaths of evangelicalism that are still tainted by fundamentalism. I’ll deal with my own personal reasons for self-identifying as an evangelical later. For the definition, I’ll turn to another of my favourite authors, John Stackhouse.

Stackhouse is an evangelical historian, philosopher, and theologian. His is also the senior advisor for the Centre for Research on Canadian Evangelicalism (CRCE), an initiative of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC). In this capacity he has provided an updated definition of evangelicalism. Given how notoriously difficult it is to define evangelicalism, I applaud Stackhouse for his succinct, and I believe successful, definition. His definition shares some similarities to my own overview of evangelical distinctives where I proposed that acceptance of biological evolution does not contradict an evangelical expression of the Christian faith. This similarity is not surprising since we both utilize David Bebbington’s framework proposed in Evangelicalism in Modern Britain. However, I believe Stackhouse provides a more practical and comprehensive definition. He also includes some astute observations on how the definition should be used.

Stackhouse’s definition of evangelical includes the following six criteria:

1. Orthodox and Orthoprax: Evangelicals subscribe to the main tenets—doctrinal, ethical, and liturgical—of the churches to which they belong.
2. Crucicentric: Evangelicals are Christocentric in their piety and preaching, and emphasize particularly the necessity of Christ’s salvific work on the Cross.
3. Biblicist: Evangelicals affirm the Bible as God’s Word written, true in what it says and functioning as their supreme written guide for life.
4. Conversionist: Evangelicals believe that everyone must trust Jesus as Saviour and follow him as Lord; and everyone must co-operate with God in a life of growing spiritual maturity.
5. Missional: Evangelicals actively co-operate with God in his mission of redeeming the world, and particularly in the proclamation of the gospel.
6. Transdenominational: Evangelicals gladly partner with other Christians who hold these concerns, regardless of denominational stripe, in work to advance the Kingdom of God.

The middle four criteria are slightly modified versions of Bebbington’s. The 6th criterion is adopted from George Marsden (Fundamentalism and American Culture and Evangelicalism and Modern America), while the 1st is added by Stackhouse himself, a criterion almost certainly assumed by both Bebbington and Marsden.

There are a couple of significant points to notice in this definition. First, each of the criteria is relatively broad. Doctrinal hair-splitting, so often the bane of evangelical unity, is completely absent. So, for example, in #3 there is no mention of inerrancy or even infallibility. Many evangelicals do indeed affirm the inerrancy of scripture, and most affirm its infallibility. However, since there is significant disagreement on what those terms mean, I agree that it is helpful to avoid these adjectives in the definition itself. (Interestingly the EFC’s own Statement of Faith does include infallibility, although not inerrancy. The American equivalent to the EFC, the NAE, does the same in its statement of faith).

Second, Stackhouse insists that none of these criteria are unique to evangelicals, but that evangelicals uniquely affirm all six criteria as a cohesive set.

“[This] set of criteria functions properly only as a set. There is nothing peculiarly evangelical about any of them singly, of course. It is only this set that helps scholars, pollsters, leaders and interested others “pick out” evangelicals from Christians in general or observant Christians in general or observant Protestants in general, and so on. Thus it must be employed as a set, without compromise, as in the common polling practice of counting as evangelicals those who score “highly” on some scale derived from such criteria. No, evangelicals do not compromise on any of these values: They don’t think it’s okay to fudge on the atonement or the Bible, or to neglect churchgoing, or avoid evangelism."

So these six broad in scope but mandatory criteria define evangelicalism. But why do I personally identify with the movement? Why, if I do not agree with many of the political, intellectual, and cultural beliefs associated with evangelicalism, do I wish to label myself an evangelical?

I strongly identify with evangelicals, and affirm that I am an evangelical, precisely because the six criteria defined above closely match my own view. I agree with the doctrinal consensus affirmed by the apostles, the church fathers, the reformers, and the leaders of the Great Awakenings that birthed modern evangelicalism. The cross of the incarnate, suffering God is central to redemption. God has revealed himself through scripture, and we must take seriously its claim for authority. Being a follower of Christ includes more than intellectual assent; it includes radical trust in God’s guidance. We are all called to proclaim and participate in the Kingdom of God. And we must not let denominational differences hinder this proclamation or participation. I believe all six criteria are important.

No I am not a hard-line political right-winger, anti-science, anti-intellectual, against all forms of biblical criticism, or a participant in the culture wars. But I fail to see how any of these latter characteristics, so often descriptive of evangelicals, conform to the six criteria in Stackhouse’s definition of evangelical. In many ways, I believe these characteristics conflict with our self-identifying criteria of being orthodox, crucicentric, biblical, conversionist, missional, and transdenomination Christians.

In short, I want to be called evangelical because, despite the disrepute brought on the movement by many evangelicals, its core characteristics are true and right. I do not wish to be referred to as post-evangelical because of this disrepute, just as I do not wish to be called post-Christian because Christians acting in a un-Christ like manner have sullied Christ’s name. Just as we should not let anti-evolutionary creationists prevent us from proclaiming creation, neither should we let fundamentalist evangelicals prevent us from proclaiming the evangel.

So maybe the next time I introduce myself, I’ll say, “Hi, I’m Steve, and I’m an evangelical creationist”.

Then again, maybe not.


Cliff Martin said...

Good post, Steve. I, too, feel it is important to maintain an "evangelical" identity even if others might call me neo-orthodox, or worse. The parameters of evangelicalism must be kept sufficiently broad to embrace all those who hold to those six distinctive, regardless of their views on sociopolitical issues and respect for science. I believe the stakes are high. I am pulling for the survival of evangelicalism against what are becoming ramped up attacks from secularists. If people like you abandon evangelicalism, I see a diminished chance for that survival. Am I overstating the case?

Martin LaBar said...

Good work!

Steve Martin said...

Hi Cliff,
I'm certain Evangelicalism will survive. Whether evangelicalism will be relevant, and what it will look like as it evolves are open questions. I'm actually quite optimistic on the first part. Evangelicalism, with all its many faults, has always focused on proclaiming the gospel - which is the most relevant part of our mission. On the second, I'm not as optimistic. I can see there being some type of split occuring over future direction. I hope that split isn't along strictly fundamentalist - strictly emergent lines because I'm not sure I'd fit in either camp.