Tuesday, February 15, 2005

More on Evangelicals, Again

I've been surprised that my original posts on "What is an Evangelical?" (here and here) still continue to draw comments well after the time of their appearance, the only one of my threads to do so.

Evan@Weekender Blog (in a comment on the original post) proposes his own criteria:
1. Inerrancy of Scripture, and the sufficiency of Scripture for faith and practice.
2. Pro-life/anti-abortion political beliefs, which in the present day generally make them Republicans.
3. Belief in the necessity and urgency of missions, evangelism, and individual conversion.
4. Reformation theology.
I don't necessary disagree here, but I'm not sure these criteria are that different from my own. "Inerrancy" is a more, not less, stringent category than my first proposed criterion (literalist exegesis) or the one I replaced it with (biblicism), and I'm still not sure that it is criterial for US evangelicals. "Pro-life" limits the rightist tendency to one issue, but I still think the political conservatism on the contemporary evangelical scene is more far-reaching. I do agree, however, that Roe v. Wade politicized conservative Christians in the '70s and beyond in the same way that the draft politicized college students in the '60's. This issue is a definite catalyst.

Evan's third category captures some of what I meant by the word "conversionist," but I wanted to use the word to describe an approach to social ethics and cultural critique beyond the simple impulse to evangelize. His fourth category unduly limits what I described as "traditional" theology — my guess would be that most evangelicals in the pew don't really know or care that much about the Reformation as such.

I do appreciate Evan's thoughtful response, however, as I do Michael Turton's different take. If I understand Michael, he is proposing a kind of right-wing Christian conspiracy behind much of evangelicalism, and that the right is being taken over by conservative Christians, not vice-versa. I just don't see this, and I feel that Michael might be a trifle paranoid or extreme with his comparison to the situation in Germany in the '30's.

I've learned that among many people the hallmarks proposed by David Bebbington are accepted as criterial:
... David Bebbington, who says evangelicalism has four hallmarks, namely beliefs that: lives need to be changed, the gospel needs to be actively spread, and the Bible should be held in unique regard, as well as an emphasis on the sacrifice Jesus Christ made, dying on the cross to atone for the sins of humankind.
I haven't read Bebbington, but based on this report, I'd say that these criteria are far too general. It seems to me that, say, the Episcopal Church in the USA, at least in its official expressions, could agree with all of these tenets, as would most Christians of any stripe. Maybe Bebbington is referring to the international or British scene, but I think his definition is too broad for the US.

I've learned a lot from my respondents, but not enough to move me away from my basic criteria. I still think they work, grosso modo.

The one area that I still remain unsure about is the distinction between Evangelicals and Fundamentalists. Although I did not use the term "fundamentalist," several of my respondents felt I was confusing the two groups. Those who did so usually defined evangelicals with some form of Bebbington's hallmarks. I'm still uncomfortable with the "F"-word, but enough people use it, both within and without evangelicalism, that it seems that further discussion is needed.

Alister McGrath distinguishes fundamentalism from evangelicalism as follows: (1) Fundamentalism rejects biblical criticism "in any form," evangelicalism accepts it; (2) fundamentalism is narrowly committed to a set of doctrines, some of them peripheral (such as those linked to dispensationalism), evangelicalism is not; and (3) fundamentalism is reactionary and "blue collar" while evangelicalism is more open-minded and "white collar."

If McGrath is right, then fundamentalism as he defines it is a stream within evangelicalism, not a different movement altogether. Both poles of the contrasts that he draws can be found in evangelicalism today. Note that George Marsden has referred to fundamentalism as a strain inside evangelicalism, not something separate. Marsden uses the term "anti-modernist"; that word, as well as McGrath's observations, focuses on the relationship to the surrounding culture, not to a set of doctrinal or behavioral differentia.

The analysis that rings most true to me, however, is that of Joel Carpenter (as explained by Richard Mouw). According to Carpenter (according to Mouw), fundamentalists underwent a marginalizing cultural transition in the early twentieth century that left them feeling like outsiders — in fact, like immigrants, only that the "new land" was the new secularizing culture, and the "old country" was the 19th century dominance of Protestantism. These "cognitive immigrants" were the fundamentalists. But now, with the increasing social acceptance of evangelical Christianity, the "second generation" mentality has set in — assimilation, cultural influence, and political power are all within reach — and the old "outsider" feeling has been left behind. This is evangelicalism today.

And maybe that's part of why I feel alienated from evangelicalism. I'm conscious of a (partly neurotic) desire to always be an outsider, and unfortunately I've succeeded all too well in this. Since evangelicals seem to be trying to regain cultural hegemony, I find myself jumping off the bandwagon.

So, what do you all think? Is an evangelical just a fundamentalist in a cubicle with a fat 401k? Or is there more to it?

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Richard Mouw, The Smell of Sawdust: What Evangelicals Can Learn from their Fundamentalist Heritage (2000); Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction (1994).


Michael Pahl said...

Ed, as I note on my blog, I've always liked Bebbington's definition and others like it. Perhaps it is too general to be helpful in describing the current American version of evangelicalism, though. Regarding fundamentalism and evangelicalism, I like McGrath's description. I've always considered that there are some fuzzy lines there, with many of the more conservative, self-described "evangelicals" (an emic description) being better described by "fundamentalism" (an etic description) as McGrath describes it.

Anonymous said...

Here are "The Five Fundamentals":

Inerrancy of the Scriptures
The virgin birth and deity of Jesus
The doctrine of substitutionary atonement
The bodily resurrection of Jesus
The bodily second coming of Jesus Christ

Although a Fundamentalist can be an Evangelical, because evangelicalism is a considerably broader category and less exclusive, not all Evangelicals are Fundamentalists. I, e.g., reject inerrancy. Evangelicalism in my understanding, and following Bebbington, has always been a pan-denominational movement attempting to unite Christians along very general but core themes for the purposes of social action (anti-slavery movement, eg.) and missions. The term, imo, was coopted by the Fundamentalists in the States when that term started to acquire a very negative connotation in many circles. Now, Evangelicalism is suffering that same death as characterized by your post.

Anonymous said...

Incidentally, in my take, some Fundamentalists are not Evangelicals either. There are extreme forms of Fundamentalism that stress militancy and reject social activism. They regard the world as completely evil, not something to be redeemed or transformed but to be destroyed (and made anew) and so they regard themselves at war with the world. This is inconsistent with Evangelicalism with stresses activism and transformation. Evangelicals have five core characteristics: biblicism, conversionism, activism, crucicentrism, and pan-denominationalism. On the movement, read this.

Michael Pahl said...

Ken said:"The term, imo, was coopted by the Fundamentalists in the States when that term started to acquire a very negative connotation in many circles. Now, Evangelicalism is suffering that same death as characterized by your post."

But, as a self-described "evangelical" and not a "fundamentalist" by any of these definitions, I'm not willing to let "evangelical" go without a fight, for at least two reasons: 1) It has a valuable etymology. Of course, we all know that ancient etymology means little in determining current usage, but I like the idea of describing my Christian experience with a word derived from a significant early Christian word: euangelion, "gospel" or "good message. IMO, Christians should be "gospel-centric" (which is, contra "fundamentalism," not the same thing as being bibliocentric--gasp!). 2) It has a significant historical connection to present usage, going back to Luther's description of the evangelische Kirche.

EMC said...

You've all give me much to think about, for which I am grateful. Ken, I don't think you can define Fundamentalism by citing "the fundamentals." That's the origin of the word, not the thing itself. All of the fundamentals, except for inerrancy, can be found in the Nicene Creed. Derek, I think you are absolutely correct historically. I'd even be willing to go as far back as the 17th century and look at the dissenting/non-conformist groups around the time of the Revolution for likely forebears to evangelicalism.

Anonymous said...

But EMC that's exactly where Fundamentalism within Christianity essentially became an organized movement, that is with the declaration of the Five Fundamentals by the Niagara Bible Conference. And it is the first of the five, the one that isn't in the Nicene Creed as you point out, that is ultimately the root of the problem. Within the context of its formulation, it was an explicit rejection of biblical criticism and scholarly methodologies. As such, it not only advocated the inerrancy of Scripture but essentially the inerrancy of a particular interpretation of Scripture. I hesitate to call it literalist because I happen to think that Fundamentalist readings are often more metaphorical, allegorical, or fanciful than mainline, mainstream scholarly opinions. But, in any case, it involved a very rigid, dogmatized reading of Scripture that emphasized an exclusivist and militant theology.

Unknown said...

Defining evangelicals, or, to be more specific American evangelicals (... in my family's neck of the woods, an evangelical is just more or less a Protestant ...) is making a nosedive into a vast and scary quagmire. In the fall, I was working on a seminar paper on Barth's political theology in dialogue with evangelical political theology -- and having to define "evangelical" was the first hurdle. Everyone, from Focus on the Family to the Gallup poll has their own criteria.

I've found Wheaton's site on the issue decently helpful: http://www.wheaton.edu/isae/defining_evangelicalism.html

That being said, the criteria I ended up using come from an April 2004 Quinlan, Rosner survey on "America's Evangelicals:" By evangelical, the survey means either respondents who indicated that they are Protestant or another Christian religious preference other than Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Mormon and who indicated they would say they are a fundamentalist, evangelical, charismatic or Pentecostal Protestant, or respondents who indicated that they are Protestant or another Christian religious preference other than Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Mormon who do not consider themselves liberal or mainline and call themselves a born-again Christian."

Not very helpful stuff, I agree -- it gets even more confusing when you factor in racial and ethnic differences. For example, well over 60% of white self-described evangelicals are either staunchly Republican or lean strongly into that direction, but more than 80% of black self-described evangelicals vote Democrat. (Being a seminarian, admittedly of the West Coast variety, I should note that I'm encountering an increasing number of evangelicals of all ethnicities who are quite liberal in their political perspectives as well.)

All that's to say -- why shed light on an issue when you can add to the confusion?! ;)


Anonymous said...

Can't say those definitions are very helpful... too vague... and they limit evangelicals to Protestants, which though generally the case is not necessarily so. There are Roman Catholics, and perhaps also Orthodox Christians, who consider themselves as Evangelical and I would agree with them on that point.

Andrew Criddle said...

One possible theological distinction between fundamentalists and (other) evangelicals is that classical fundamentalists combine a strong position on Biblical inerrancy with opposition or at least lack of support towards the charismatic movement.

This is associated with the Dispensationalist tendency to limit many of the special charismatic gifts to the Apostolic Age.

Anonymous said...

I certainly agree Andrew that biblical inerrancy is a strong distinctive of Fundamentalism but I wouldn't agree on the rejection of the charismatic movement. In fact, I'd say a huge element of Fundamentalism in the deep South is the 'holy roller' 'tent-meetin' charismatic movement.

Andrew Criddle said...

Self-identified fundamentalists often seek to distinguish themselves from Charismatics see for example


Self-identified 'holy rollers' sometimes distinguish themselves sharply from fundamentalists see for example

Anonymous said...

I really think this term is becoming misused--or else its definition is changing. Classically, "Evangelical" only referred to Reformation theology--and specificially, it refered to non-Calvinist Reformation theology (Reformation theology, but not Reformed theology!) Nowadays it seems to refer only to the activist, conservative wings of denominations and churches. I'm not sure why this has happened, but I think it's simply because activist, conservative Christianity became a movement during the 70's, and people struggled to find a term for it. They came up with "Evangelical", since it is true that all activist, conservative Christians are Evangelicals--but the fallacy lies in claiming that all Evangelicals are activist and conservative.