WHO ARE THE EVANGELICALS?
Evangelicalism is notoriously difficult to define. Everything within the postmodern academy suffers from contestation ad nauseam, but evangelicalism has proven time and again a particularly thorny concept. Even if we choose to focus exclusively on evangelicalism within the United States, and almost entirely restrict the conversation to the post-World War II period, as we will do here, there is much to contest.
Due to the multiplicities of meaning associated with the descriptor and the attempts, time and again, to offer a concise definition for a group that defies easy categorization, some scholars have suggested that we jettison the term evangelical altogether.1 Feeling that the broader cultural association of the term with a particularly narrow political agenda--an anti-gay and anti-abortion agenda-- has left the label unredeemable, some within the evangelical community itself are today choosing to self-disassociate with evangelicalism and are using terms like "post-evangelical" or even "ex-evangelical."2 In this sense a particular social-political theological ethic within a sector of evangelicalism is undercutting evangelicalism itself. But that gets ahead of our story.
If no one can agree on anything else about evangelicalism there is, at least, a consensus among those who know it best that evangelicalism is a slippery term. Some scholars approach the study of evangelicalism through a sociological lens and then disagree about who counts as an evangelical. Others define the movement in terms of religious history and then disagree about when and from whence it came. Still others view evangelicalism in terms of theological beliefs: a lens most often chosen by those "on the inside" and frequently deployed in times of hottest disagreement in order to decide who is still in and, more importantly, who is now out. Evangelicals, in part due to a distinctive historical journey we are about to describe, do an awful lot of arguing about who counts as an evangelical and who does not.
In another attempt at enumerating evangelical theological characteristics, evangelical historian George Marsden includes the five following "essential evangelical beliefs": 1. Harkening ever back to the Protestant Reformation, evangelicals maintain the "final authority of the Bible"; 2. the belief that Scripture records the real historical narrative of "God's saving work"; 3. redemption through the salvific work of Jesus Christ and yielding eternal life; 4. "the importance of evangelism and missions"; 5. the necessity "of a spiritually transformed life."4
Union Seminary professor Gary Dorrien, contra Donald Dayton's suggestion that the term evangelical has lost its usefulness, instead agrees with Marsden and further quips about his "favorite definition of an evangelical, which is 'anyone who likes Billy Graham.'"5 This quip is revelatory of a sociological reality about evangelicalism; it has often produced hugely visible and charismatic figures ranging from Aimee Semple Macpherson to Billy Sunday to Billy Graham to Jerry Falwell to Rick Warren to John Piper to Jim Wallis to Rob Bell to . . . whoever comes next. An "evangelical" in this sense would be someone who knows who these evangelical icons are and who takes as authoritative one, some, or all of them.
Noting the importance of the denominational and confessional diversity of evangelicalism, evangelical church historian Timothy Weber sees evangelicalism as "a large extended family" with four main branches including: 1. classical: loyalists to the Reformation, with a tendency toward creedalism and away from the value of religious experience 2. pietistic: also within the Reformation stream but including an emphasis on religious experience and including both pietism and Puritanism; 3. fundamentalist: defined as opposing "liberal, critical, and evolutionary teaching" but also including "their 'neo-evangelical' of
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|Size: ||406 KB|
|Publisher: ||Westminster John Knox Press|
|Date published: || 2015|
|ISBN: ||9781611645996 (DRM-EPUB)|
|Read Aloud: ||not allowed|