I fear I’m really wandering off my topic here, but maybe I can tie this back in somehow. In my continued reading about Protestant theology, I’ve really been struggling with the definition of the term “evangelical.” This seems relevant to understanding where I’ve come from and consequently who and where I am now.
Certainly the word evangelical itself, taken to its roots, has a pretty basic meaning. It originates from the Greek εὐαγγέλιον (evangelion), which stems from ευ (“good”) + ἀγγέλλω (“bear news”). The εὐαγγέλιον is the message being borne, the “good news” — in Christian usage, the Gospel of Christ. An evangelist is someone who bears the Gospel, and in Catholic circles usually refers to the four authors of the biblical Gospels, Ss. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. So evangelical literally means “of, pertaining to, or conveying good news (the gospel).”
So, according to that definition, it would seem that all Christianity is evangelical. But that’s not the way the word is used in our culture. “Evangelical” is a label that, especially in the U.S. South, seems to encompass the majority of Protestants, especially where I’m coming from: Baptists, Pentecostals, and most non-denominational Christians. The churches that seemed to be excluded were more “high church” denominations, such as Catholics, Episcopals (Anglicans), and possibly Methodists.
So what is “evangelical”? Do these “evangelical” churches bear any more “good news” than anybody else? How was this word being used? I reckoned in some of my reading that people were using “evangelical” Protestantism as simply the opposite of “mainline” Protestantism. But “mainline” is just as amorphous and undescriptive as “evangelical.” What is it that qualitatively defines “evangelicalism”?
Naturally, I turned to the font of all knowledge, Wikipedia, which provided a very capable and informative article on evangelicalism, and even better, linked me to an authoritative source: a report from the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals on “Defining Evangelicalism.” According to the document:
In the English-speaking world . . . the modern term usually describes the religious movements and denominations which sprung forth from a series of revivals that swept the North Atlantic Anglo-American world in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Key figures associated with these revivals included the itinerant English evangelist George Whitefield (1715-1770); the founder of Methodism, John Wesley (1703-1791); and American philosopher and theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). These revivals were particularly responsible for the rise of the Baptists and Methodists from obscure sects to their traditional position as America’s two largest Protestant denominational families.
This is toward the definition I was inclined toward as an American historian: that brand of Christianity that first emerged out of the First and Second Great Awakening, in contrast to the dominant Puritanism and Anglicanism of the day. So what, qualitatively, defines evangelicalism? The document above, citing historian David Bebbington, defines four characteristics:
- The need for personal conversion experiences (or being “born again”)
- The centrality of the Bible as the authoritative, written Word of God
- An emphasis on Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection as the way to salvation
- An imperative toward active, outgoing evangelism through the Gospel
Reading this, my initial reaction is, “No duh.” All four of these seem no-brainers to me, the sine quas non that define Christianity to my as-yet evangelical brain. Until coming to the Catholic Church, I had never been a part of a church that didn’t adhere to these four tenets. Without any one of these, a church of my evangelical youth would have seemed to be lacking something essential. These certainly provide a good, sturdy definition.
I still don’t know who is evangelical. And asking, “Is your church evangelical?” hasn’t so far gotten the response I’m looking for. I asked a Reformed friend and fellow classicist, and he responded, “Of course we believe in the Gospel!” How do people “get saved” in different churches? The presence of a personal conversion experience seems to be the most visible mark of evangelicalism. Southern Baptists are evangelical; Pentecostals are evangelical; what about Methodists? I know historically, Methodists have been evangelical — but according to the wiki, United Methodists are considered mainline. Now, what the heck is “mainline,” besides “not evangelical”? This again, seems a term searching for a definition.