Editor's note: This column appeared in Christianity Today's April issue before Chuck Colson died. CT has also published an obituary, and a reflection on Colson's life and legacy by his biographer, Jonathan Aitken.
Just what is an evangelical, anyway? The picture painted by the media—especially now that it's election time again—is confused and often unflattering. From the infamous "poor, uneducated, and easy to command" label hung on us by The Washington Post years ago, to the perception that we are gay-hating political maniacs in the hip pocket of the Republican Party today, it's not hard to understand that we have an image problem—and that we've let others define us.
Of course, we ourselves are part of the problem. Like those well-intentioned activists who met at a Texas ranch to anoint one of the presidential candidates in the Republican primaries. Or the pair of evangelical professors who wrote an article in The New York Times, criticizing evangelical leaders for their "rejection of knowledge" and for embracing "discredited, ridiculous and even dangerous ideas"—such as believing that homosexual behavior is sinful and that Darwin was wrong.
Perhaps it is time to step back and ask once again what an evangelical is.
It may seem that the word evangelical has been defined nearly to death, but a few answers bear repeating. First is Scottish historian David Bebbington's oft-quoted quadrilateral. Evangelicals, he says, can be recognized by these four traits: they are biblical Christians who proclaim the centrality of the Cross, emphasize the necessity of personal conversion, and do all of this with zealous activism.
Then there was Carl F. H. Henry's helpful use of the term "the evangelical church," by which he meant that coalition of Bible-believing, gospel-centered Christians that stood against Roman Catholicism (which seemed monolithic in the 1950s) and liberal Protestantism (which in those days was "mainline" in more than name only).
There have been other concerted attempts, such as the Evangelical Manifesto, to define evangelicalism (its theology, its positive, transdenominational nature) and to declare what it is not (a political movement, neither theologically liberal nor fundamentalist). Although these efforts contributed to the discussion, in the end they had little impact on the public and are relegated to search engines on the Internet.
One thing is clear: Serious evangelicals acknowledge certain "moments" that have decisively shaped our identity. First, we stand in continuity with the Trinitarian and Christological consensus of the early church. Billy Graham once said that the teachings of the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds were central to being an evangelical. We agree. (Chuck made this point in his book The Faith: What Christians Believe, Why They Believe It, and Why It Matters, and Timothy in his Evangelicals and Nicene Faith: Reclaiming the Apostolic Witness.)
Evangelicals also accept the formal and material principles of the Protestant Reformation. The authority and sufficiency of the Bible on one hand and justification by faith alone on the other are core evangelical beliefs. But we also joyfully recognize that the Spirit continued to breathe life into the church long after Luther and Calvin were gone. Puritanism, Pietism, and Pentecostalism are all historic expressions of the spiritual awakenings that decisively shaped and continue to direct the future of the worldwide evangelical movement. A movement, by the way, which truly is worldwide, given the dramatic rise of evangelical believers in the Global South. This demographic shift makes the global evangelical movement, along with Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, one of three vital, resilient forces of 21st-century Christianity.
What all this boils down to is that we evangelicals are heirs of the Reformation and that we best understand evangelicalism as a reform movement seeking to renew and strengthen orthodox faith within the holy, catholic, and apostolic church to which we belong and whose creeds we embrace. The church is one because it is centered in Jesus Christ; holy not because its members are perfect but because Christ is pure and spotless; catholic not through allegiance to an earthly magisterium but because it is universal in mission and outreach; and apostolic because it is faithful to the teaching of the prophets and apostles found in Scripture.
When we realize we are seeking to reform the whole church, not just evangelicalism, we show the world that we are uniters, not dividers. The Manhattan Declaration is a great example of this approach. Evangelicals joined with Catholics and Orthodox to address the most pressing moral issues of our day: the defense of human life, traditional marriage, and religious liberty. We come from different traditions, but we chose to focus on our oneness in Christ as members of his body, the church—not on our theological distinctives or political differences. The result was half a million signers and a reshaping of the debate over these critical issues.
We can see more of the same if we remain faithful to the evangelical vision of a renewed, reinvigorated church, firm in its orthodox faith, bearing a positive witness both to individuals and in the public square.
Copyright © 2012 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Previous columns by Chuck Colson and Timothy George include:
Flaming Truth: Recalling Francis Schaeffer's Challenge | With laser-like precision, Schaeffer hit on the fundamental issue of our day. (February 15, 2012)
Education Is in Our DNA | We should support every effort to upgrade our failing schools. (December 13, 2011)
The 'Big Love' Strategy | What are Americans learning from pop culture portrayals of polygamy? (October 18, 2011)
An Improbable Alliance | Catholics and evangelicals used to fight over religious liberty. Not anymore. (April 11, 2011)
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Charles Colson was the founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, an outreach to convicts, victims of crime, and justice officers. Colson, who converted to Christianity before he was indicted on Watergate-related charges, became one of evangelicalism's most influential voices. His books included Born Again and How Now Shall We Live? A Christianity Today columnist since 1985, Colson died in 2012.
Timothy George is the dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University and a member of Christianity Today's Editorial Council. His books include Reading Scripture with the Reformers and Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad? Like Colson, George has been heavily involved in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together discussions. George began cowriting "Contra Mundum" with Colson in 2011.
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