What’s in a name? Well, sometimes a lot. People name their kids after a family member, a biblical character, or a favorite theologian. We give names to our sports teams and nicknames to our friends. Names carry weight because they often convey important information or make significant connections.
Yet names are sometimes superficial and carry no weight at all. John Wayne, in the movie Big Jake, named his dog, "Dog." I’d wager there wasn’t a lot of thought given to that name and, most likely, it wasn’t meant to convey any eternal truth. Nonetheless, the names given to specific things, like people or movements, are often tremendously important because they mean to communicate significant points. So it is with the term, or name, "evangelical."
But what is does “evangelical” mean? It seems the term is used so broadly today that one wonders if it has significant meaning anymore. Historian Thomas Kidd raised this issue in the Washington Post and in a post at The Gospel Coalition. At one level, this question could be a huge waste of time. And yet, since the name is used often in our culture, we should know a bit about it. More importantly, we should decide if we ourselves should (or want) to own the name. It may be the case that the name is used to denote people and movements with which I have no inclination to align myself in anyway way. There are diverse groups that identify as evangelicals or part of evangelicalism.
Identifying, or defining, evangelicalism is no easy task. Albert Mohler writes, “evangelical definition is dependent on a continual conversation and debate among evangelicals, association with evangelical institutions or churches, and identification with core evangelical beliefs." Thankfully, the “continual conversation” has taken place. A score of books cover the history and essence of evangelicalism. The best-known attempt to define the movement was written by David Bebbington in 1989. In Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730’s to 1980’s, Bebbington identifies evangelicalism as a distinguishable movement from that of earlier Protestant movements (e.g. Puritanism) using his now famous quadrilateral. For Bebbington, evangelicalism is that movement within Protestantism that was characterized by (1) conversionism, (2) biblicism, (3) activism, and (4) crucicentrism. Furthermore, according to Bebbington, it was activism that displayed the most noticeable discontinuity with preceding movements. Thus, evangelicalism marked a movement that stood in discontinuity from previous Protestant movements.
Others have challenged the way Bebbington interprets the history of the evangelical movement, arguing that evangelicalism finds earlier roots than he allows and isn’t as dependent on the Enlightenment as he suggests (see the essays edited by Michael Haykin and Kenneth Stewart in The Advent of Evangelicalism). Regardless of the validity of Bebbington’s claim, my point here is that defining evangelicalism is far from simple. A line must be drawn somewhere if the term is to have any useful existence. Bebbington made advances in defining the movement in 1989, but, to affirm Mohler, there must be a “continual conversation.”
The conversation about what it means to be an evangelical is an important one because of the continued use of the name. It continues to be used on news broadcasts, in printed articles, and in our churches. But what does the term mean? Who are the evangelicals? We might respond by quoting Bebbington’s quadrilateral, but I’m not sure that helps. What does conversionism mean? What view of the Bible qualifies as “evangelical” biblicism? What form of activism is within bounds? What does crucicentrism mean in reference to atonement theology? Are there elements missing (Thomas Kidd thinks Bebbington misses the most critical characteristic! See Kidd, The Advent of Evangelicalism, 129–145). In other words, what theological positions must you hold (or not hold) in order to rightly claim the name of evangelical?
It seems to me that the name “evangelical” has become as superficial and meaningless as the name of John Wayne’s dog. "Evangelical," it seems, has simply turned into a political term. It describes a group of people that are increasingly losing their political and cultural influence and have no clear common ground. Especially when it comes to theology in general and the evangel in particular. I simply do not know who makes up the evangelicals.
But here is what I do know. I know that I’m a follower of King Jesus. I believe in the Triune God of the Bible. I believe that God the Father sent God the Son to live a perfect life and die a justice-satisfying death in my place. I believe that the Son rose from the dead and ascended to the right hand of the Father. I long for the day when he returns to judge the living and the dead, casting his enemies into hell and ushering his people into his kingdom. I believe the Spirit of God is poured out and into all who are born again. I believe that all people must repent of their sins and turn towards God through faith in Jesus. In other words, we are justified by grace through faith, having our sins charged to the account of Jesus and his righteousness charged to ours. In short, we are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. And I believe that Spirit-filled followers of the King bow to the authoritative Word of the King as they seek to carry out the Great Commission of the King. Finally, the mission of the King has a church. The church, tangibly expressed in local congregations, seeks the joy of all peoples and the fame of the name through the proclamation of the gospel and in loving service to their neighbors. And we do this until Christ returns or calls us home.
If being an evangelical means the above, I’ll own the name. If it means something else, well … call me by another name.
It is clear that the term evangelical is unclear. Let’s continue the conversation about what it means to be an evangelical. And let’s own the name if we can and should. Or, let’s cast it off and come up with something else, or nothing else. At one level, I’m happy to be known as a follower of King Jesus who is seeking to make Jesus known to all tribes and tongues.
Call me an evangelical, or don’t. Regardless, the evangel must mark my life and the life of every follower of King Jesus.