Evangelicalism - A word worth preserving (Part 1)




By Grant Castleberry

The word evangelicalism is a cherished word among conservative American Protestants. I described myself as “an American Evangelical” on my facebook profile for about five years! For most of us, when we hear that word, we think of someone or an organization that exhibits certain qualities such as a defense of biblical truth, a love for evangelism, a firm understanding of propitiation and the atonement, piety in practice, public activism, and a stalwart orthodoxy to the fundamentals of the faith as expressed in the creeds of historic Christianity. We may also think of specific people or organizations such as C.H. Spurgeon, B.B. Warfield, D.L. Moody, Billy Graham, Carl F.H. Henry, The Southern Baptist Convention, Campus Crusade for Christ (now CRU), or Princeton Theological Seminary in the nineteenth century. The word is an incredible descriptor because for so many, it embodies true Christianity. It means so much more than simply being a Baptist, an Episcopal, a Presbyterian, or a Methodist, because many from those backgrounds have fallen into Protestant liberalism, and it certainly does not include Roman Catholicism.

I recently read Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism, which attempts to define evangelicalism and explain who is and who is not an evangelical. The book contains contributions from four very different theologians:  “fundamentalist evangelical” Kevin Bauder, “confessional evangelical” Albert Mohler, “generic evangelical” John Stackhouse, and “postconservative evangelical” Roger Olson.  Before I started to read the book, I was somewhat surprised and disheartened that there were so many “versions” of evangelicalism. Four distinct perspectives on evangelicalism is a lot, especially when you consider we’re talking about true, evangelical Christianity. Questions surfaced in my mind such as, who are these other so-called “evangelicals,” and have Protestant liberals and Roman Catholics completely hi-jacked this precious term? Before I read a book, I like to browse the Table of Contents, the Introduction, some of the chapters, and the Conclusion to understand the general thesis and content of the book (sometimes the author tells you all you need to read in the Introduction). When I turned to the Conclusion in this book, this quote from B.B. Warfield was the first thing that I read:

The religious terrain is full of the graves of good words which have died from lack of care—they stand as close in it as do the graves today in the flats of Flanders or among the hills of northern France. And these good words are still dying all around us. There is that good word “Evangelical.” It is certainly moribound, if not already dead. Nobody any longer seems to know what it means (207).

The quote was cited from a lecture he gave at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1915. It struck me that that was almost 100 years ago! He thought the term was “moribound, if not already dead” almost 100 years ago. My fears were absolutely confirmed. Here, I was holding a book where four very different authors espouse four very different views of evangelicalism 97 years removed from when B.B. Warfield thought the term was already dead.

I guess I have been naïve. I grew up attending a Bible church in Dallas, Texas and then Southern Baptist churches in high school and college in Houston, Texas and College Station, Texas respectively. I attended another Bible church in Woodbridge, Virginia, a Presbyterian church in Pensacola, Florida, and a Calvary Chapel in Iwakuni, Japan while I was in the Marine Corps. I chose these churches simply because I thought that they best represented the evangelical faith in their respective locations. I consider myself a Southern Baptist, both in doctrine and heritage, but I also have respected the teaching and thought from what I have perceived as the larger, broader “evangelicalism” that I found reading and listening to people like John MacArthur, John Piper, Carl Broggi, Joseph Stowell, R.C. Sproul, and many other “evangelical” stalwarts of the faith that were not necessarily Southern Baptists. I knew that there were “liberals” out there. I knew that there were those who denied the “inerrancy” of Scripture, that didn’t believe in the “miracles” of the Bible, as well as many other foundational doctrines of Scripture such as the Trinity, justification by faith alone, the omniscience of God, and the atonement of Christ as a propitiation for sins. I just thought they were silly and certainly not Christians. But I had no idea that they claimed the moniker of evangelicalism!

But in truth, I had already started to see the term evangelicalism compromised. I had just been denying it. For example, when Rob Bell released Love Wins early last year, a book that denies the doctrine of an eternal retribution in a literal Hell, the major television networks referred to him as an “evangelical” in their interviews. They presented him as teaching a doctrine that was unique within the “evangelical community,” but within the “evangelical community” nonetheless. No one questioned his orthodoxy to the evangelical faith among the major media sources with the exception of Martin Bashir, who I will forever respect because of how he pointed out to Rob Bell on national television that he had abandoned the evangelical faith. Or there was the experience of meeting former Senator and Presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who is an outspoken Catholic. Don’t get me wrong, I respect Senator Santorum, and I do see eye-to-eye with him on many issues, especially social ones. I do not, however, consider him an evangelical. In our conversation though, he referred to the fact that Time Magazine had named him one of the “25 Most Influential Evangelicals.”

So what exactly does the word evangelicalism mean and where does it come from? You may have noticed, that I have yet to define the actual term evangelicalism. It seems, that it’s easy to talk a lot about what evangelicalism is and isn’t without defining it, and I think that’s part of the problem. Many people use the word referring to critically different things. So over the next few posts, I am going to define evangelicalism and share my frank thoughts about the term and how it is a term that we must strive to preserve.