What is “Evangelical”?

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:

  1. The need for personal conversion experiences (or being “born again”)
  2. The centrality of the Bible as the authoritative, written Word of God
  3. An emphasis on Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection as the way to salvation
  4. 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.

What was I before?

I’ve been doing some reading lately. Feeling slightly ashamed, I used to admit to my Catholic friends that I was reading a Protestant book, but I don’t anymore. No one has ever said anything. Whether a book is Catholic or Protestant has little bearing on its read-worthiness; both Catholics and Protestants have worthy things to say about God.

Belatedly (posthumously?), I’ve been boning up on my Protestant theology. When I was a Protestant, I had little understanding of theology, and little patience for its uncertainty — with all of the voices disagreeing, interpreting Scripture differently, how could I possibly find the truth in that muddle? But now that I’ve found an absolute certainty in the authority of the Church and Magisterium — now that I have a firm foundation on which to base what I believe — then I am better able to comprehend and consider the ideas of others. It’s ironic that the very cornerstone of the Reformation, sola scriptura, the Reformers’ very attempt to find a bedrock of authority, proved to be my greatest stumbling block.

My theological underpinning was never strong to begin with. Growing up, I never had any formal catechesis on Christian doctrine or theology. What I knew, I knew by osmosis, more from the culture around me than from any teaching or preaching: Jesus died to forgive our sins that we might have eternal life. Beyond that basic truth was muddiness. I had heard of Martin Luther as the heroic Reformer, and of John Calvin as “that guy who believed in predestination, and we don’t believe in that” — but we didn’t seem to be following in either of those traditions. Who were we? Where did we come from?

It wasn’t until late in high school, when we reading The Scarlet Letter, that I first learned the differences between Calvinism* and Arminianism. And I realized that we at Calvary were essentially Arminian, a term I had never heard before. Predestination (election), grace, and human nature just weren’t talked about at my church, ever. In my thinking, our salvation depended on us, on our choosing to follow God in faith. God wasn’t compelling us by His grace, snatching us up against our will, or damning others to the fires of hell. Neither was He denying that we had free will at all. And we could certainly backslide and walk away from God. I had this crude, misshapen conception of Reformed theology for years.

* Some of my Reformed friends have taken exception to the term “Calvinism,” preferring instead “Reformed” theology or even simply “doctrines of grace.” I use the term “Calvinism” both out of grammatical expediency and an aim for doctrinal clarity, to refer to those doctrines taught by, in line with, or in the tradition of John Calvin and his followers, and not to convey any negative connotation. Because there is more than one “Reformed” tradition, and more than one understanding of the “doctrines of grace.” I’m talking about the Calvinist one.

As I grew older and attempted to educate myself more, I became more and more frustrated by theological confusion and my lack of foundation. And I eventually decided that it didn’t really matter anyway, that God loved us all no matter what we believed about Him, that there was no way to find the truth in all the mess. It was a position of thoroughgoing ecumenism, or worse, doctrinal agnosticism. I have met so many Christians at this same point, eschewing labels and denominations and formal doctrine in favor of terms like “nondenominational Christian,” “mere Christian” (I preferred that one, after C.S. Lewis — but Lewis never intended in that book that anyone should remain a “mere Christian”), or “Jesus follower.”

But the more I read, the more I see that labels and denominations and doctrines do matter. In one sense I believe I was right, and still maintain, that all orthodox believers are followers of Christ and should strive to find our common ground rather than be continually divisive in our disunity. But in another, what we believe about God and about salvation profoundly affects how we view God and ourselves and our relationship to Him, how we view the world around us, how we view our neighbor and our mission as Christians on this earth. Just looking around to what different Christians do attests to this. Some emphasize world missions, devoting money and time to spreading the Gospel and ministering to the needs of regions of our world stricken with poverty, disease, and strife. Others are more focused on caring for the needy in their own back yard. Some are ardently evangelical, canvassing cities with tracts and distributing Bibles, warning of the immediacy of death apart from salvation. Others are more reflective and calculated in their evangelism and outreach, preferring their lives and their works to be their witnesses. Still others, perhaps the majority, don’t do anything at all. It’s not so much about labels as about lifestyle.

I never thought much until recently about the differences between how Christians view the Christian life and Christian piety. In my Pentecostal upbringing, as I’ve written, the focus was on the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit, and on personal piety, Bible study and “quiet times” of private devotion. Other Christians around me just didn’t seem to care about that, and I must confess, I wondered, especially when I was younger, if they were “bad” Christians, if they didn’t care about God or their relationship to Him. But no — the book I’m reading pointed out that this understanding of a personal, private relationship with God is essentially an evangelical one — that some Christians, especially Reformed (as the book is treating), but just as well Catholics, see the heart of Christian life in public professions of faith, in liturgy and the Sacraments, and most of all in service. That doesn’t diminish the importance of personal piety and personal faith at all — but it’s what we do in the light that makes us Christians (John 3:19-21).

I’ve always struggled with the terms “evangelical” and “fundamentalist.” So do a lot of people; there have been whole books written on the difference. I am not convinced the distinction is really very helpful: most evangelical Christians believe the “fundamentals,” and most fundamentalists are evangelical in outlook or piety; the difference, especially to the secular world, often seems to be one of the degree of fervency or severity, and especially the latter label is often used pejoratively. It seems clear (I now realize fully for the first time) that Reformed (Calvinist) Christians are not evangelicals. And it also seems clear to me that I as a Protestant was an evangelical, because of the emphasis on a personal conversion experience and personal relationship with God, and a Charismatic and a Pentecostal (the latter is a subset of the former), because of the emphasis on miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit. And, I would argue, because of the emphasis on personal, emotional experiences of God, on sensation and feeling over reason and doctrine.

A friend of mine, a convert to Orthodox Christianity, shared something while I was converting that I didn’t really understand until I reached this point. She wrote that her identity as an Orthodox Christian doesn’t erase or overwrite her identity as a Protestant or evangelical, but that deep down she will always have that and be that. I feel that about myself, too, as a Catholic. In converting, I didn’t cease to be something I was, but became something more. The butterfly still has the genes of the caterpillar. Though my feelings toward the faith of my youth are often ambivalent, I have taken many things from it that I will always carry with me as a Christian, that I believe are good things: devotion to private prayer and Bible study, a commitment to regular tithing of my income, and love for praise and worship music. So no, reflection on Protestant things is not “posthumous” at all or even retrospective. I am sure there are many other fruits of my Protestant identity that will continue to come to light.