Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Saving 'evangelical' from the evangelicals?

A few days ago, I started a discussion on what the term 'evangelicalism' means.

Earlier this year I was chatting with a certain well-known high profile evangelical (I'll avoid giving you the name and the tenous circumstances so that you can all get the impression that I'm really in the loop), and he said in various contexts* he thinks 'evangelical' is so misunderstood that he avoids the term altogether and 'translates' it using other language.

What do people think? How hard is it worth fighting for this term? Is there any reason not to also be fighting as hard to recover something of other great historical terms like catholic or othodox or liberal? Or is all such fighting a misguided attempt to conquer sociology with theology, and we should just use the labels we've inherited without further muddying of the waters? Is 'evangelical' worth saving from the 'evangelicals'?
* I suspect he was thinking primarily of contexts within the US, though can't guarantee what he might think about Australian versions of evangelicalism.
UPDATE: See also here.

18 comments:

Mister Tim said...

I'm curious - what was the 'translation' of evangelical that this individual used?

I once tried to make a contribution to the evangelicalism page on wikipedia. I quickly gave up - the arguments just weren't worth it.

Anyway, of course it would be worth giving up fighting for the term, as long as you could come up with something equally descriptive and appropriate, and somehow make the transition to the new term widely known and accepted - until, at least, that term also becomes 'corrupted'.

One of Freedom said...

As an evangelical I think it is worth fighting for. For me the core of the word is a concern for the world. It reminds me that I am called to be in the world hopefully revealing Christ to the world through my actions and words. However, I do cringe at some of the ways this word is used. I tend to abhor most confrontational approaches to evangelicals and wish we could call those folks something else. It is both the approach (especially in its rudest forms) and the philosophy that kill me. But that is likely because I am so intimately connected to that tradition. I became a Christian in a Pentecostal church and within two years I was in a new province preaching on street corners as a full time job. It was crazy. I learned a lot through that and have a lot of respect for folks who do that (misguided though they may be), but mostly it was there that God kicked that nonsensical view of evangelism out of me. I am not sure what to call that, maybe it is like liberal, conservative, etc. terms that have broad brush strokes of meaning depending on your context. And that we need to become more aware of the baggage these terms have in those contexts. But for me I am still an evangelical.

Rob said...

I'm sure you'll find the discussion here also of interest: http://captainsacrament.blogspot.com/2006/06/what-is-evangelical-christianity.html#comments

byron said...

Thanks Tim, good point - what alternatives are there? But what is it that we want to express when we use the term? That we draw upon the Reformation and Great Awakening? That we're concerned for people to be saved? All the solas?

Thanks Frank - I think I probably feel similar fairly often. I've often heard it said that 'liberal' simply means 'to the left of me' and 'fundamentalist' means 'to the right of me'. Where am I? Always between them!

Thanks Rob for a very good parallel discussion to check out. I particularly like the stuff about evangelicals being lovers of good news, and the phrase 'creeping fundamentalism'.

Drew said...

equally descriptive and appropriate

This is the point, is it not, that the term 'evangelical' isn't descriptive, or in some sense, appropriate.

When you get down to it, what is a name? And no-one start quoting shakespeare...

Mandy said...

I know we don't like the thought of defining things theologically, but there is something in the fact that the term itself connects us to the 'evangel'- the gospel message that makes it a good term - one that I'd like to retain.

byron said...

Who's against defining things theologically? But doesn't serious theology need to also be historical and sociological? And so to ask the question about the 'us' that is claiming connection to the evangel...

byron said...

PS Love your photo, Mandy - is that Barcelona? Park Guell?

byron said...

And yours too, Mister Tim! One of my favourite Magritte's.

michael jensen said...

yes, I am just not sure what 'defining it theologically' means other than 'here is a creed-like statement that youse can sign on or not'.

Mister Tim said...

And yours too, Mister Tim! One of my favourite Magritte's.
Quite appropriate for expressing the anonymity of the net, I guess. Or maybe I just don't like photos of myself!

Back on topic...
Evangelical - it's just a word. It happens to have been a good one. It's one that I've been proud to use and it denotes a tradition that I've been proud to be part of. BUT, we may as well reclaim the term fundamentalism to mean, simply, those who are on about the fundamentals, rather than it's current meaning of 'religious extremists' and the negative connotations that come with that (on the other hand, maybe we want to embrace that in some way, but that might be a debate for another time).

If 'evangelicals' start defining themselves differently, it doesn't suddenly disconnect them from those who have come before - they'll just be known by another name. As it is, the movement that I think of as evangelicals see themselves as part of a tradition back through the roots of fundamentalism, reformers, and back to the early church - all concepts and 'movements' that are/were known by different names. A new name for 'evangelicals' doesn't change the heritage and it doesn't change what they believe.

Maybe then the question becomes one of utility - will it be more effective to 'fight' to narrow the definition of the term evangelical, or will it be more effective to abandon it and start with something new?

Mandy said...

Photo - yes it is Park Guell, Barcelona.

Defining it theologically - more than just a creed like statement, but definitely an inductive approach that looks to the bible as the definition of the evangel first. I don't think it is either/or as in historical/sociological v theological, but in looking at it historically, surely some reference to the biblical claims is not unwarranted. Phillip Jensen in his Briefing critique of Piggin's definition of evangelicalism as a synthesis of Spirit,Word, World argues this approach fails because it doesn't hold up to either historical or theological critique.

Drew said...

Picking up on the historical thing... is it possible to argue that the epoch we are in is different to the past in the widespread use of communications.

Ie. what we're really bothered with is the use of the word in the mainstream media, and how this then comes to be the privileged 'definition'.

So our problem isn't with the word - it is how we react to the media?

Also, isn't even the name 'Christian' first given to Christians as an insult - ie. it was not a name we took to our selves...

byron said...

Nice thought Drew.
How would you suggest that we react to media? How do you see us reacting now? What would make the difference and what difference would that make?

Drew said...

No idea :) it was a genuine question, and one I do not think many people have thought about. The media is assumed.

Given their nature, blogs would seem an appropriate place to start though... I wonder what the eschaton of the media is?

byron said...

Hmmm, Calvin suggests that all forms of mediation (he's thinking primarily of the state's mediation of God's rule) will no longer be necessary in the eschaton. But I wonder whether the ongoing fact of physicality and hence finitude requires some mediation - not between us and God, who will at least be with his people and all in all, but perhaps still between us and each other. Bonhoeffer in Life Together has a fascinating little section about how no Christian relationship is immediate, since Christ is always the mediator between us.

the lost message said...

Byron,

I have found these series of posts on evangelicalism really helpful especially this last one on saving 'evangelical' from evangelicals. Great question!

Simon

byron said...

Months later...

Alastair of adversaria just posted these provocative thoughts.