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Friday, March 18, 2011


When Rob Bell hit the news with his new take on Hell, there was a tag hung on him that was confusing to me. He was labeled "evangelical". Seems like a problem with definitions again.

According to every source I can locate, "evangelical" has a definition. It refers to Christians with four basic commitments:
1. The need for personal conversion (or being "born again")
2. Actively expressing and sharing the gospel
3. A high regard for biblical authority, especially biblical inerrancy
4. An emphasis on teachings that proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus.

According to scholar David Bebbington in The Dominance of Evangelicalism: The Age of Spurgeon and Moody (History of Evangelicalism), "conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism." There you go.

So ... why is it that people like Rob Bell and so many more want to nullify basic definitions of evangelicalism but want to be connected to evangelicalism? Why do people who deny biblical authority, who deny the biblical gospel, who set aside the death and resurrection of Jesus want to be called "evangelicals"? What's up with that?

I'm not talking at this moment about Rob Bell. I don't know Rob Bell. I'm just talking at this point about the concept. How many times have I seen it? A particular concept has a particular definition, a specific meaning. Others move into it without accepting the definition. And before you know it people are saying, "I know some of you whatever-you-call-its and you believe x." And particular group is in, so others "become part" without actually doing so and subvert the group. America stands for limited government and individual rights, and then power-mongers sneak in, cloak themselves in "American", and subvert it to extended government and limited individual rights. Christianity has lugged around the Crusades, false teachers, and non-Christian cults who name themselves "Christian" for centuries and we can barely see "Christian" anymore. Indeed, in some places in the world, "Christian" is a political party, not a belief with Christ at the center.

In fact, Evangelicalism was a response to this problem. The liberalism of the 19th century caused a backlash in Christendom. "You can't discard the need for rebirth, the need for the Gospel, the centrality of the Scriptures, or the absolute centrality of the death and resurrection of Christ and call yourselves 'Christian'. We are standing apart from that heretical view." So, with care and, later, with ease, Evangelicalism has been infiltrated and co-opted.

Why? Well, I can only think of one enemy of Christ so fully capable of such subterfuge. Funny thing. It seems to start with the same basic question. "Did God say?" Once it was about God's right to define morality. In the 19th century it was about God's Word itself. Of late it has been about the sin of homosexuality. And now it's back to fundamental doctrines, biblical distinctives that make Christian "Christian". Same question. "Did God say?" Now, let me think. Who originally said that?


Naum said...

No. It's the other way around -- evangelism has been infected and infused with the additional tenets of fundamentalism.

Evangelism is from the Greek word εὐαγγέλιον which can be translated as "I bring a message", "good news", the Gospel, etc.…

Fundamentalists added additional tracts as put forth in The Fundamentals, a series of essay publications in response to the awakening of historical consciousness (which was to deliver almost as big an effect as the Enlightenment to western civilization).

Stan said...

Just a little clarification, there, Naum. Evangelicalism is not the same as evangelism. And the reference to "evangelical" is (almost without exception" a reference to evangelicalism, not evangelism. (Fundamentalism was a further push after evangelicalism, not a part of it.)

(See Fundamentalist Christianity to see the distinction.)

Steve Martin said...

We do nothing to avoid hell.

God does it all, for us.

It's in the hearing of the Word that faith is born, not in anything we do say, feel, or think.


Stan said...

Just curious. Was this intended to be a comment in the "What must I do to avoid Hell" series? Just wondering since it doesn't seem to fit in the "Evangelical" post.

Stan said...

Steve, I think I should point out that when the Philippian jailer asked "What must I do to be saved?" and Paul answered, he was answering "What must I do to be saved from Hell?" He did not say, "Do nothing; God does it all." He said, "Believe."

Naum said...

No, but I'll let this evangelical Baptist scholar theologian make my point

Stan said...

Thanks for the link ... but I'm still not getting your point. "Evangelical" in most circles refers to a particular set of beliefs, not "evangelism", as you indicated. Here is the statement of faith (not possible for an "evangelist") from the National Association of Evangelicals, and, of course, you can find the "more radical" (and basic) evangelicalism here at the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. (It's hard to argue that they imported fundamentalist ideas when they trace their origins to the Reformation.)