Forget politics and focus on faith: Thinking about that 'evangelical' puzzle again

Every now and then a columnist faces a writing challenge that requires a call to the copy desk asking what is or what is not appropriate language in a family newspaper.

Believe it or not, this even happens to folks like me who cover religion.

Consider, for example, this passage from one of my “On Religion” columns back in 2011 about debates — in journalism and in academia — about the meaning of the much-abused Godbeat f-word, “fundamentalist.”

Anyone who expects scholars to stand strong and defend a basic, historic definition will be disappointed. As philosopher Alvin Plantinga of the University of Notre Dame once quipped, among academics "fundamentalist" has become a "term of abuse or disapprobation" that most often resembles the casual semi-curse, "sumbitch."

"Still, there is a bit more to the meaning. ... In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views," noted Plantinga, in an Oxford Press publication. "That makes it more like 'stupid sumbitch.' ... Its cognitive content is given by the phrase 'considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.' "

Now, in the Donald Trump era, similar arguments have raged about the meaning of the word “evangelical.”

As a rule, journalists have — #DUH — attempted to turn “evangelical” into a political word, as opposed to a term linked to specific doctrines and church history. Many evangelical leaders have attempted to point reporters to the work of historian David Bebbington, who produced a short, focused set of four evangelical essentials. Here is one version of that:

Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a life long process of following Jesus

Activism: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts

Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority

Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity

Ah, but HOW HIGH a regard for scripture? What kinds of “social reform” efforts?

Recently, folks at The Gospel Coalition website published an update on this debate, blending the Bebbington essentials with the work of American historian Mark Noll, drawing on insights from an essay entitled “What Is ‘Evangelical’?”, included in the Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology (Oxford University Press, 2010).

I suggest that religion-beat pros file this, for use the next time editors start wanting to throw the term “evangelical” in ways that resemble “stupid sumbitch.”

Here we go. Note Noll’s stress on the power of personal experience:

The key in a remarkably diverse range of social, political, and intellectual circumstances was evangelical resilience defined by [1] Christian experience, personally appropriated, and [2] trust in the Bible above all other authorities.

Differ as they certainly did in many particulars, the individuals and groups that were recognized as evangelical possessed a core of common characteristics.

First, evangelicals throughout the North Atlantic remained firm Protestants who accentuated the historic Protestant attachment to Scripture. They could differ wildly among themselves on the meaning of the Bible, but the Scriptures remained a bedrock of authority.

Second, evangelicals shared a conviction that true religion required the active experience of God.

Again, evangelicals prescribed myriad norms for that experience and even more ways for accommodating the experience of God with reason, traditions, and hierarchies. But the experience of God remained a sine qua non for the type of religion that many contemporaries and more historians have labeled “evangelical.”

Noll identifies three characteristics that tend to be linked to “experientialism.” If you are looking for the roots of differences between conservative and liberal evangelicals, ponder this:

First was a bias — it could be a slight prejudice, it could be a massive rejection — against inherited institutions.

Since no inherited institution could communicate the power of God’s presence as adequately as Scripture and personal Christian experience, no inherited institution enjoyed the respect accorded to experience and the Bible.

Second, evangelicalism was extraordinarily flexible in relation to principles concerning intellectual, political, social, and economic life.

Since such principles possessed primarily instrumental value by comparison with the ultimate realities found in Scripture and the experience of Christ, they could be taken up, modified, discarded, or transformed as local circumstances dictated.

Third, evangelicals practiced “discipline,” to borrow a well-considered phrase from Daniel Walker Howe. Their experiential biblicism might lead along many different paths, and with contrasting conclusions, to principles of conduct for self and others, but, however derived, those principles embodied a common evangelical conviction that the gospel compelled a search for social healing as well as personal holiness.

Author Justin Taylor, writing for The Gospel Coalition, stressed that there is “no one perfect way to define evangelicalism.” However, he did note the following advice from Noll:

Our world of rapid change and media rush-to-judgment threatens to destabilize all matters that once seemed fixed and secure. Yet for the terms “evangelical” and “evangelicalism,” ambiguity is not the only possibility. When used with responsible attention to history and careful focus on generally accepted norms of the Bebbington definition, they can still communicate reality and not just confusion.

Read it all, and file this one away for later use.

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