Christian history at its best is the lengthened shadow of evangelical Christianity. When the evangel has been central in the life of the Church, the Church has flourished. When it has been marginal, the Church has suffered. Evangelical Christianity has always had Jesus Christ as its chief cornerstone, the Apostles as its chief spokesmen, and the Word of God written as the only source and authority of its witness. The witnesses to the apostolicity and truth of God’s divine revelation change from age to age. But the Word of God incarnate, Jesus Christ, and the Word of God written, the Holy Scriptures, do not change; they belong to the Church forever. We know that the apostolic foundation laid by Christ and the Apostles was lost after the first century and not recaptured until the days of the Reformers, when once again the message and the spirit of the Gospel became regnant.

Since the Protestant Reformation, evangelical Christianity has manifested the power and glory of biblical religion in a succession of great men who have followed in the train of the Apostles and the Reformers: Rutherford, Wesley, Whitefield, Edwards, Spurgeon, Moody, Chapman, Torrey, and in our day Graham, to mention but a few. All of them were imbued with the genius of evangelical Christianity and captured the spirit of the New Testament that Christ is victor and that history belongs to him. All of them stood for the same great truths and demonstrated the power of a regenerate life. They committed themselves to the proclamation of the truths they believed and called upon men everywhere personally to embrace the saving Christ whose doctrine they professed.

They were faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and they understood it to include: (1) man’s sinful condition before a holy God; (2) man’s need for salvation; (3) the revelation of the grace of God in Jesus Christ; (4) the authority of the inspired Scriptures; (5) the necessity for a birth from above or regeneration; and (6) justification through faith alone, apart from works.

Today evangelical Christianity is being compromised by those who wish to retain its name but who have divorced themselves from its content. Of late the very word “evangelical” has been flagrantly abused. This has led many to ask, “What does ‘evangelical’ really mean?” “Who are the evangelicals?” “Is the word itself any longer meaningful?” Adequate answers to these questions demand a historical overview of the usage of the term “evangelical” during the last few centuries, an analysis of its present use and misuse, an effort to provide guidelines by which one can determine whether or not he is an evangelical, and an evaluation of evangelicalism’s prospects in the days ahead.

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The Use Of ‘Evangelical’

Today the word “evangelical” is widely and variously used. In Europe many churches have included it in their denominational names. Thus among Lutheran groups in Germany “evangelical” has been widely employed, and while, in a sense, it distinguishes their churches from the Reformed bodies as well as from the Roman Catholic Church, yet both Lutheran and Reformed churches were once evangelical in that they recovered the Gospel that had been lost by the Roman Catholic teaching of salvation by faith plus works. In Latin America it differentiates Protestants from Roman Catholics. Spokesmen of the World Council of Churches talk of “conservative evangelicals” and “liberal evangelicals,” as if modernists belonged legitimately to the evangelical camp. Dr. Eugene Carson Blake of the United Presbyterian Church in the U. S. A., in connection with the Blake-Pike proposal for church union, speaks of a united church that must be “catholic, reformed and evangelical.” In his Second Thoughts on Church Union he refers to “the wide range of self-styled ‘evangelical’ churches and Pentecostals who, in our pride, we usually call sects.” The phrase “self-styled” indicates that the “Blake-styled” evangelicals are not identical, for example, with the National Association of Evangelicals. When that body began in 1942, it deliberately used the word “evangelical” to mark itself off from the theological inclusiveness of the old Federal Council of Churches (now known as the National Council of Churches). Moreover, in the United States there are such bodies as the Evangelical Free Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Evangelical and Reformed Church (now a part of the United Church of Christ), the Evangelical Methodist Church, and the Evangelical Covenant Church of America; these cover a wide theological spectrum.

“Evangelical” derives from the Greek word euaggelion (Gospel). Used seventy-six times in the New Testament, this term is always translated in the King James Version by the English word “Gospel.” The Gospel is, of course, “the good tidings, coming from God, of salvation by His free favour through Christ,” and it necessarily implies that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ men are saved by faith alone (sola fide).

This New Testament meaning of the Gospel was lost in the Roman Catholic Church prior to the Reformation. This does not mean that no one preached the Gospel. The extensive labors of the early Reformers who preceded Luther and Calvin cannot be overlooked. But the Galatian error predominated, and man was thought to be saved by faith plus works. Canon IX of the Council of Trent reinforces this: “If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified, in such wise as to mean that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification … let him be anathema.” This was the answer to Luther’s teaching of justification by faith alone. Thus The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church rightly says that “in a wider sense the term ‘evangelical’ has been applied since the Reformation to the Protestant churches by reason of their claim to base their teaching pre-eminently on the ‘Gospel.’ ”

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British And American Evangelicalism

Evangelical Christianity, as popularly known and understood in modern Great Britain and America, has a special history. Its origins, however, have been traced to Holland, where it began as Cocceianism or Federalism; in its next phase, called Pietism, Spener and Francke in Germany were its leading representatives. In English-speaking lands the term was applied to a movement of revival.

The spiritual state of all of the churches in England in the eighteenth century was low. The Anglican church was spiritually dead. The Dissenting churches were characterized by a spirit of coldness and disbelief. The Presbyterians had deteriorated so much that a surprising number of their churches had become meeting-places of Unitarians. Thus the Anglican church and the Dissenting churches were in desperate need of spiritual renewal. Then came the Evangelical Awakening that produced the Methodists, led to the rise of the Evangelical party in the Anglican church, and brought renewal among the Dissenting churches.

The Wesleyan revival transformed the contemporary English scene. It had its influence on the Church of England, for a number of Anglican clergymen earned the name “evangelicals” by patterning themselves after the zealous and efficient Wesleyans. Among the Dissenting churches, evangelicalism brought new life to the Baptists and the Congregationalists from the eighteenth century onwards and restored them to the ruling tenets characteristic of the evangelical outlook throughout the history of the Church. Yet evangelicalism existed among English non-conformists before it appeared in the Anglican church or in Wesleyanism (e.g., Isaac Watts, Philip Doddridge, Matthew Henry) through a connection with the Puritanism of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

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A Manifest Social Concern

Of the distinct theology of the evangelicals more will be said in a moment. But the glory of evangelical Christianity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries lay not in its theology alone but also in its application of the Gospel to social structures. The evangelicals did not confine their activities to the salvation of the souls of men; they showed great concern for the body and for the whole of human life. Evangelical philanthropies were many and varied—there was help for the blind, the paralyzed, the deaf and the dumb, prisoners, women and children who worked in the coal mines. Indeed, evangelicals went to work wherever there was human need and misery. William Wilberforce (1759–1833) became one of the greatest English philanthropists. When the slave trade in the British Empire was abolished, it was he who led the campaign in the English Parliament. He lived to see the abolition of slavery itself in the British domains. Wilberforce was followed by Lord Shaftesbury (1801–1885), trusted advocate of the poor and needy. After many years of philanthropy Shaftesbury died, sorry to leave a world in which there was still so much misery. From a regenerating spiritual experience flowed the social passion of evangelical Christianity—compassion for men and an individual and personal concern to act appropriately in the face of social injustice.

In 1846 the Evangelical Alliance was formed in England, and it spread rapidly to other countries. In the United States its twentieth-century counterpart was to be the National Association of Evangelicals (1942), and most European countries saw the rise of evangelical alliances of their own. Close ties have been developed among evangelical fellowships in India, Ceylon, other Asian countries, and the Western world. The result was the formation, in 1951, of the World Evangelical Fellowship. The Evangelical Alliance of 1846 followed the grand tradition of the Evangelical Awakening of the eighteenth century. It was ecumenical in outlook, ignoring denominational lines and attesting to the spiritual unity that believers have in Jesus Christ. The unity the members confessed was not, however, simply a gathering of people who professed Christianity, but rather a gathering based upon common theological convictions. They assembled “not to create Christian union, but to confess the unity which the Church of Christ possessed as His Body.” The doctrinal basis of the alliance was as follows:

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1. The Divine inspiration, authority, and sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures.
2. The right and duty of private judgment in the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures.
3. The Unity of the Godhead, and the Trinity of the persons therein.
4. The utter depravity of human nature in consequence of the Fall.
5. The incarnation of the Son of God, his work of atonement for the sins of mankind, and his mediatorial intercession and reign.
6. The justification of the sinner by faith alone.
7. The work of the Holy Spirit in the conversion and sanctification of the sinner.
8. The immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the body, the judgment of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, with the eternal blessedness of the righteous, and the eternal punishment of the wicked.
9. The divine institution of the Christian ministry, and the obligation and perpetuity of the ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

It was distinctly stated that this brief summary was “not to be regarded in any formal or ecclesiastical sense as a creed or confession, nor the adoption of the right authoritatively to define the limits of Christian brotherhood, but simply as an indication of the class of persons whom it is desirable to embrace within the Alliance”; and it was also stated that “the selection of certain tenets, with the omission of others, is not to be held as implying that the former constitute the whole body of important truth, or that the latter are unimportant.” Like many other great confessions of faith, such as the Westminster and the New Hampshire, that of the Evangelical Alliance began with the Scriptures.

Evangelicalism And Fundamentalism

In the twentieth century, particularly in the United States, evangelical Christianity generally came to be known as “fundamentalism.” Fundamentalists have often been labeled obscurantist, heretical, sectarian, schismatic, crude, and atavistic. They have been assailed by critics for failure to relate the Gospel to the social milieu, and even more for their theological fundamentalism. Some evangelicals disavowed the term “fundamentalist,” although they were in general theological agreement with it. J. Gresham Machen, an ardent evangelical, never wanted to be known as a fundamentalist. In Fundamentalism and the Word of God, the British theologian J. I. Packer decries the use of the word “fundamentalist” because of its connotations. Fundamentalism is continuous with evangelical Christianity, even though it may have been colored by (1) a failure to relate the Gospel to the social structures as did nineteenth-century evangelicalism in England; (2) the addition of particularistic elements that have often given fundamentalism a cultic stance; (3) a legalism and a system of interpretation that have codified concepts of personal conduct and raised them to the level of basic theological presuppositions; (4) lapses into anti-intellectualism or obscurantism. Nonetheless fundamentalists, like other evangelicals, including those of dispensational leanings, agree with all the theological tenets in the doctrinal platform of the Evangelical Alliance.

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Foundational to evangelical Christianity is its view of the Scriptures as inspired, authoritative, and sufficient. Karl Heim caught the spirit of this commitment when he wrote of the Reformation: “The Evangelical movement … was a Bible movement. Luther says in his pamphlet against Henry VIII, ‘I set the Scriptures against all the sayings of the fathers, against all angels, men, devils, arts, and words. Here I take my stand; here I place my trust; here is my pride. I say, “God’s Word is before all else: divine majesty is on my side” ’ ” (Spirit and Truth, pp. 103, 104). While the evangelical view of Scripture has not always included inerrancy, the consensus leaves no doubt that inerrancy has generally been normative. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines fundamentalism as the “maintenance, in opposition to modernism, of traditional orthodox beliefs [my italics] such as the inerrancy of Scripture.…” Here it is claimed that inerrancy is the traditional viewpoint. J. I. Packer says: “The defenders of revelation in Eighteenthcentury England had defeated their deist opponents and preserved the general English belief in the verbal infallibility of the Bible” (Fundamentalism and the Word of God, p. 72). Professor Alan Richardson, in the 1950 and 1957 editions of Chambers’ Encyclopedia, makes the remarkable but palpably false statement that fundamentalism supports a mode of biblical inspiration “which regards the written words of the Bible as divinely dictated.” This would be humorous, were not this libel commonly believed by many scholars ignorant of the facts. No evangelical or fundamentalist scholars entertain the notion of dictation in their views of Scripture; they do believe in verbal inspiration, which should never be identified as synonymous with dictation, mechanical or otherwise.

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Evangelicalism has a theology consonant with that of the Reformation and rooted in the Scriptures. The same Gospel that was recovered in the Reformation, then lost in lifeless churches, was recovered again by evangelicalism in the eighteenth century. In the twentieth century evangelical Christianity is once more rearticulating the Gospel lost in the mire of liberalism, neo-orthodoxy, existentialism, and other current forms of theological expression. It is crystal clear that historic orthodoxy and evangelical Christianity are essentially one in theological outlook and content. In distinction from the views of modern theologians like Barth, Bultmann, and Tillich, evangelicals have always reposed high confidence in the Bible as the final religious authority, as propositional truth, as revealed knowledge.

A critical problem facing evangelicalism today is the struggle to protect its name from improper usage and dilution. This has not been and never will be easy. In a public address, the executive secretary of the United States Conference for the World Council of Churches recently spoke hopefully of dialogue with “conservative evangelicals.” This is a misnomer. If a man is an evangelical, he is theologically conservative. If he is theologically liberal, then he is not an evangelical. An evangelical needs no adjective to identify him. The mediating movement of “liberal evangelicals” in Britain was an unstable compromise.

Moreover, evangelicalism does not and cannot agree with the basic orientation of Roman Catholicism since the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century. Historically their viewpoints are antithetical; they could be reconciled only if essential concessions were made by one or both of them. The Roman Catholic Church is neither “evangelical” nor “orthodox,” as those terms are used in Protestant circles.

Nor can a universalist be considered an evangelical. The Evangelical Alliance strongly affirmed the eternal punishment of the wicked dead. Today neo-universalism emphasizes Christ’s reconciliation of the world as an accomplished fact and a finished work that men need only to be told about, not introduced to in the new birth. Ultimately, in this view, no one is eternally separated from God. Everyone, whether aware of it or not, is already in Christ and will some day come to this awareness and at last enter into the presence of God.

Surely an evangelical is one who believes that the Bible is truly the Word of God written. He can, therefore, subscribe to the theological fundamentals of the Christian faith as embraced by the Reformers and affirmed in their creeds, and can accept the convictions expressed by the Evangelical Alliance. The word “evangelical” stands for the Gospel of Christ mediated by grace through faith alone. Evangelicals are those who hold to such convictions and who believe and preach and teach that all men are lost and, in order to be rightly related to God, must be regenerated by the Holy Spirit through personal faith in the vicarious atoning work of the crucified and risen Christ.

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T. Leo Brannon is pastor of the First Methodist Church of Samson, Alabama. He received the B.S. degree from Troy State College and the B.D. from Emory University.

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