Finally: evangelical theology

This is a slightly embarrassing confession to make, but I have just last week come up with a definition of ‘evangelical theology’ which I find convincing. As I have written articles on the subject for significant reference works, intervened publicly in controversies over evangelical identity, and chaired the theological commission of the Evangelical Alliance for the past couple of years, this might seem slightly late in the day – hence my embarrassment. For reasons some will know, I have had to be thinking about defining the boundaries of evangelicalism once again in recent weeks, and I think that I have seen something new (to me at least) and helpful (to me at least).

Perhaps some story would help to explain this. I joined the Evangelical Alliance when I was a student, a recent convert to Christianity via a CICCU mission (if this starts sounding like a re-write of Phil. 3:5, apologies…). A friend was encouraging all of us to join, and I did so without much thought (I think I remember who it was, but he is now quite well known in academic theological circles, and probably not wanting to be reminded of this bit of his past journey). Quite quickly, I went to train for ministry at Spurgeons; for my time there, and for some years afterward, I kept up my Evangelical Alliance membership, but deliberately donated by cheque each year – I was conscious that this was something I wanted to be forced to think through every so often, mainly because I was not sure at the time what ‘evangelical’ meant. I became comfortable owning the label sometime around 2001; this was not, as far as I can see at this distance, any shift on my part, so much as a belief that  I did finally understand what the word meant, and was happy that it was a word I could identify with as describing my own spirituality.

I choose the word ‘spirituality’ carefully: my conviction then was that evangelicalism was better understood as a cultural reality than as a theological system. The way I prayed, the songs I sang, the way we lived church, unspoken dress codes, patterns of speech, … I realised that I was (and am) evangelical in much the same way as I was (and am) English middle class – while both labels include some broad patterns of belief, most of the decisive things are more about patterns of living than about commitment to certain doctrines or concepts.

Since then, studying evangelical identity has been a minor, but repetitive, part of my research agenda. The most generally-accepted definition is the Bebbington quadrilateral of conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism; of these, the latter two suggest, not specific doctrinal commitments, but areas of doctrinal concern; the former two are about spirituality: the narration of spiritual experience and patterns of devoted living. Mark Noll essayed a definition in terms of communities of conversation – an explicitly sociological/cultural account, which is very helpful in understanding some of the hard cases. Tim Larsen has recently (in the Cambridge Companion to Evangelical Theology) offered a five-fold list, which begins by asserting that an evangelical is ‘an orthodox Protestant’, but moves on to historical location (‘stands in the tradition of the global Christian networks arising from the eighteenth-century revivals…’) and spirituality (‘has a preeminent place for the Bible in her or his Christian life…’) before returning to hover on the boundaries of doctrine and spirituality (‘stresses reconciliation with God through the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross … stresses the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of an individual…’)

At most, these definitions gesture towards certain theological emphases as being necessary to, but not sufficient for, evangelical identity. A Calvinist is defined by the doctrines she believes; an evangelical not so. Until now, I have been fairly happy with this pattern of definition; now I think I can make an advance and sketch the broad shape of an explicitly evangelical doctrinal commitment. This requires, however, reflection on something a little more complicated than just belief in certain doctrines.

Theologies have a certain shape, as well as a certain content. Typically, the unreflective theology of (say) a new undergraduate student in the discipline is rather flat – more-or-less everything is equally important. This is dangerous and brittle; a particular view of church order (say) is just as much to be contended for as sola fide salvation; doubting the historicity of the Jonah narrative is as threatening to faith as doubting the historicity of the resurrection narrative. More mature theologies are shaped differently – they are not flat. Some things are foundational, or central; others are peripheral. And we can disagree as much about the shape of theology as about the content: Calvinists do not, historically, believe very differently (in content) about predestination to Catholics or Lutherans; but they regard the topic as far more central; today, debates of ordination (whether of women or of sexually active gay men and lesbians) are not just about who should be ordained, but about how much that matters. (Most conservative evangelical Anglicans were – and are – opposed to the ordination of women, but did not – and do not – see it as church-dividing; most of them do seem to see the gay debate as church-dividing, however.)

So, my proposal: the distinctiveness of evangelical theology is not so much its doctrinal content, as its shape. Evangelicals are people who see different things as central, when compared to other Christians. Let me offer some evidence.

In the eighteenth century, there are already debates about the shape of theology. Most people believed that a pattern of church order was central – presbyterians unchurched episcopalians, and vice-versa, for no other reason than this difference. In the historic denominations in Britain, there was disagreement over the centrality of doctrines of grace: the Baptists were formally divided over the issue, and Presbyterians were thoroughly committed to Calvinism, but the Church of England managed to tolerate both Calvinist and Arminian wings. Some denominations saw Trinitarian doctrine as unimportant; others took a stand on it.

Amongst the early evangelical leaders, there is debate also. The Wesleys are both very committed to episcopal government (when John finally at the end of his life gives in and ordains some preachers for the American mission, Charles’s response is astonishingly vitriolic), and to Arminianism; Whitefield is episcopal and Calvinist, but not very interested in either as defining points; Edwards is prepared to shift on church government (he is Congregationalist, but suggests he would be happy to become Presbyterian at one point in a letter), but is profoundly committed to Calvinism. For all of them, however, soteriology becomes a central doctrine, in particular, as it relates to sanctification. The Wesleys are convinced that the defining doctrine of their movement is punctiliar entire sanctification (see John’s, Plain Account of Christian Perfection, or Charles’s ‘Love divine, all loves excelling’ – a confident prayer for the gift of sinless perfection that seems to be sung remarkably often by people who would object quite strongly to that doctrine). For Jonathan Edwards, the defence of the Awakening turns on the visible lived experience of sanctification, as when he tells his wife Sarah’s story in Some Thoughts concerning the present Revival of Religion.

With the birth of pan-evangelicalism around 1800, however, comes a definite decision concerning the shaping of theology: questions of church order, including who may ordain or licence to preach, and the proper mode and subjects of baptism, and the Calvinist-Arminian debate, are alike consciously relegated to be secondary issues. The primary issues are the atonement of Christ, the primacy of Scripture, and the possibility and necessity of both personal and social transformation. The Bible Society, the Society for the Reformation of Manners, the Anti-Slavery campaigns, the London Missionary Society – and something like three dozen other organisations – are founded as a calculated and deliberate attempt to put to one side, almost as adiaphora, the then-decisive questions of church order and the doctrines of grace in order to embrace a shared focus on the power of a broad protestant theology to change society for the better.

So, an evangelical theology is not merely a conservative protestant one – in the eighteenth century there were many who were more conservative than the evangelicals, but who nonetheless opposed the ‘enthusiasts’. An evangelical theology is, within certain fixed limits, determinedly irenic and ecumenical, refusing to allow doctrinal differences to interfere with a shared commitment to mission aimed at personal and social transformation.

Scotland still knows extremely orthodox presbyterians who however have no evangelical spirit at all; indeed, the Evangelical Alliance has always been regarded with a certain suspicion within some sectors of the Scots churches, it seems, because it is explicitly soft on Calvinism (and on presbyterian government). But this softness is a decisive part of what it is to be evangelical, I think – to regard Calvinism as more important than personal conversion or social renewal is to espouse a non-evangelical theology.

15 Comments

  1. fernando
    Dec 6, 2009

    Great reflection. How close do you think you are coming to saying that being an evangelical is a hermeneutical commitment?

    • Steve H
      Dec 7, 2009

      Hi Fernando, thanks. Not very close at all, unless there is something I am missing(?) In practice evangelicals have had, and still have, a definite variety of hermeneutical commitments and, whilst there are some hermeneutics that are historically broadly confined to the evangelical community (dispensationalism springs to mind), it seems to be relatively easy to embrace an evangelical faith with different hermeneutics.

  2. Joshua Woo
    Dec 7, 2009

    Hi Stephen,

    That’s a good point made.

    However, would you also reflect over which doctrines an evangelical cannot not confess, and which cannot? The clarity of your “certain fixed limits”?

    • Steve H
      Dec 7, 2009

      Hi Joshua,
      Tim Larsen, in the essay referenced in the main post, suggests that evangelicals are ‘orthodox protestants’, where ‘orthodox’ in context is defined by broad adherence to the ecumenical creeds. At the loosest end of the spectrum this suggests, the Evangelical Theological Society in the USA takes its stand on the inerrancy of Scripture and the doctrine of the Trinity only – nothing about atonement, Christology, eschatology, &c. This seems to me to be remarkably broad, but ETS is a significant body, and no definition of evangelicalism can exclude it.
      More commonly, Trinity, Christology (including virgin birth), atonement, eschatology (personal visible return of Christ and reality of final judgement) would seem to be the list that evangelical confessions repeatedly refer to. So as a work of description, delineating and describing an existing movement, that would be where I would start.

  3. Terry
    Dec 7, 2009

    Thanks for this, Steve, though I think I’m more comfortable saying that I’m evangelical than an Evangelical. The reason for this is that in many circles, to be a Christian is seen to equate to being an Evangelical with fixed commitments to biblical inerrancy, penal substitution, etc. What you say is good, but I’m not sure how far many Evangelicals would agree with you on ‘softness’. (Or perhaps I need to re-read your post again!)

    • Steve H
      Dec 7, 2009

      I never know whether to capitalise the word or not… It seems to me that to be an E/evangelical is to be committed to the centrality of the atonement and to a serious Scripture principle; as I have argued in my Laing lecture (published earlier this year in EQ) ‘inerrancy’ is a peculiarly American way of determining the content of the Scripture-principle (British evangelicals always say ‘authority’ in our confessional statements). Does the atonement have to be narrated in penal substitutionary terms? I think the historical evidence is clear: pace Packer and Stott, many whose evangelical credentials are unquestionable have not held to this doctrine.
      Of course, there will be those who want to say that the evangelical credentials of someone, however eminent, who does not believe in penal substitution (or whatever…) are by that very fact questioned and/or undermined. There are two ways that could go: one might say that this or that doctrine is one of the ‘red lines’ that cannot be crossed, or one might claim that failure to hold to this or that doctrine is adequate evidence of a failure to follow Scripture. The second argument might in principle be made convincing, I suppose, although the mainstream of pan-evangelicalism has always been rather wary of such attempts, as far as I can see. The former I find much more difficult.
      Of course, the ‘softness’ I was indicating was not about atonement or Scripture; these are the issues that evangelicals have, historically, held to be central. Rather, it was about church order, sacramental practice, and such things as the Calvinist-Arminian debate. The evangelical decision is that what you believe about the atonement matters far more than your opinion on the place of bishops in the church; historically, this was radical.

      • Terry
        Dec 7, 2009

        Yes, I see that, Steve. Interesting.

  4. Mark L
    Dec 7, 2009

    Thanks Steve – I found that very helpful in trying to process some contemporary discussions, particularly among friends who I’d probably label “neo-Reformed”, where some seem to want to use the label “evangelical” as a boundary to exclude others who don’t tick all their boxes. When you boil it down it does seem that for the most part their quibbles are predominantly with the shape of others’ theology (who also want to own the label “evangelical”), and only secondarily about the content of that theology. My suspicion is that they would be unlikely to acknowledge that themselves, however – though I could be being unfair in that assertion!

    • Steve H
      Dec 7, 2009

      Hi Mark, I think you are right, and importantly so. Whenever I am asked to speak on evangelical identity, I start by indicating that evangelicalism is a historically-defined movement which is marked by certain distinctives; as such, we should sit a little light to it. If, tomorrow, someone convinced me that it was in some way better (more Biblical, say), to reject or modify some of the evangelical distinctives, I hope I would have the courage and honesty to follow that, and cease to use the term to describe myself (I’m not expecting this to happen, BTW…). ‘Evangelical’ does not mean ‘right’ or ‘Biblical’ or ‘orthodox’, and to debate about the word as if it did is necessarily to obscure the issues unhelpfully.

  5. John Sutherland
    Dec 7, 2009

    In my stance I tend to view the Evangelical Alliance as ‘soft’ Christianity. That is, soft on the need for Christ as the one and sole answer for the ills of mankind. In my experience, and Biblical readings, all ill is from the father of lies, and the atonement of the cross is for all the sins of the world. Its a spiritual dimension of truth.

    Many evangelicals are neither fully Biblical, personally interested in evangelism nor spiritually inclined. But, despite this, would they still be classified as evangelicals?

    There is a real danger for evangelicalism that it becomes as dry and off-beam as much of Catholicism.

    • Steve H
      Dec 7, 2009

      Welcome, John. You won’t expect me to agree with you, of course. All I can say is that I think I know both the Evangelical Alliance, and the history of doctrinal debates, reasonably well, and I have yet to hear or read a convincing demonstration that the Evangelical Alliance is in any way weak in the ways you suggest. It stands for principled unity around a certain vision of the gospel for the sake of mission, and for charity in disagreements over any matter that is not essential to that vision of the gospel. It does, in my experience and my reading of history, a good job of living the truth of both these commitments – not perfect of course, but really pretty good.

  6. John Coffey
    Dec 9, 2009

    Hi Steve – thanks for this post. I think you’re quite right to say that Evangelicalism is not just conservative Protestantism, and that plenty of cons Prots have disliked modern Evangelicalism ever since the 18thC revivals. Increasingly, though, one hears people define Evangelicalism as essentially conservative Protestantism, without any reference to the irenic and the ecumenical.

    I like Doug Sweeney’s definition of Evangelicalism: orthodox Protestantism with an 18th-century twist. It’s orthodox in the ways you suggest (it adheres to the ecumenical creeds, and to the Protestant Scripture principle); but the 18thC Pietist twist makes Evangelicals ecumenical, experiential and dynamically missional.

    Incidentally, did you catch the 5th episode of Diarmaid Macculloch’s History of Christianity (BBC Four) on the Evangelical Explosion. It travelled from Zinzendorf to Yonggi Cho (in fact, DM even met YC in an amusingly stilted interview with hordes of cameramen in the background). Macculloch basically defined Evangelicalism as emotionally exuberant Protestantism, which is only part of the story. But he was more notably sympathetic to Evangelicalism (and Wesley) than he had been to Catholicism (and Augustine).

    • Steve H
      Dec 16, 2009

      Hi John, Thanks for this, and sorry to be a little while in replying. I was citing Sweeney’s definition in our last gathering of the Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism in Britain project yesterday, as it happens.
      I’ve not seen much of the Macculloch series – just on at the wrong time. I’ll try to catch the episode on iPlayer or something.

  7. Maik Gibson
    Dec 23, 2009

    Hi Steve,

    Very interesting, thanks. I remember a fair while ago your being concerned that a certain church congregation was styling itself ‘Evangelical’ rather than ‘Baptist’. Would your concern about that perceived shift be less acute these days?

    • Steve H
      Dec 23, 2009

      Hey Maik, thanks for stopping by. I don’t remember the conversation you refer to, I’m afraid, and have no idea what I might have been thinking about (not uncommon…)
      That said, as I’ve commented before on this blog (try the ‘ecclesiology’ tag on the right), and as this post assumes, one of the points of being ‘evangelical’ is to sit rather lightly to discussions on church order. This makes the notion of a church that is merely ‘evangelical’ rather difficult, I think: I could be an ‘evangelical Anglican’, ordering the church in Anglican ways, but regarding this decision as secondary, or an ‘evangelical Baptist’ or …

      When the London Missionary Society was founded in 1795 (the first pan-evangelical mission), it sent out pioneer missionaries who were instructed to have no position on church government or the proper mode and subjects of baptism. Quite quickly, they spotted the absurdity of this – you can’t plant a church without taking positions – the problem of just being an ‘evangelical’ church is just the same.

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