Well, what exactly does it mean to be “Evangelical”? There must be something more substantive than the see-through glue of Ichthus symbols, sloganeering, culture of celebrity, and the monastic ghetto of Christian media subculture, perpetual politics, family values religiosity and Americana that seems to hold it all together. Since the root of the word implies it, there must be something even vaguely theological to it. It might be helpful to go to the horse’s mouth and see how a recent (now deposed) leader of the National Association of Evangelicals and Pentecostal pastor Ted Haggard puts it. In an interview with Issues, Etc. and in various quotes in Christianity Today Haggard defines it like this: “Evangelicalism is comprised of those who have had a born-again experience, believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that the Bible is the Word of God.” There is no elaboration on any of this and it is pretty sparse. Perhaps it reflects the compactness of Evangelicalism. But I think it is actually more designed to get as many as possible packed in under the Big Tent. The tent poles are spaced out enough.
Let’s compare that definition to the way a theologian does it. The following mainly has it in mind to treat the nature of the will, but incidentally defines the evangel. The book to which he refers is Luther’s Bondage of the Will: “Whoever puts this book down without having realized that Evangelical theology stands or falls with the doctrine on the bondage of the will has read it in vain. The doctrine of free justification by faith alone, which became the storm center of so much controversy during the Reformation period, is often regarded as the heart of the Reformers’ theology, but this is not accurate. The truth is that their thinking was really centered upon the contention of Paul, echoed by Augustine and others, that the sinner’s entire salvation is by free and sovereign grace only, and that the doctrine of justification by faith was important to them because it safeguarded the principle of sovereign grace. The sovereignty of grace found expression in their thinking at a more profound level still in the doctrine of monergistic regeneration.” (J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston, “Introduction” to the The Bondage of the Will [Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming Revell, 1957] pp. 59-60.)
The italics are mine in order to emphasize just what the evangelical doctrine is. To put it even more succinctly, it is “justification by faith alone through grace alone on account of Christ alone.” Just as grace and faith spoken of here are not those polite and innocuous terms of religiosity freely used by many to stitch onto quilts the niceness of God but very specific theological terms with very specific theological meanings Actually, evangelical is not a polite and winsome term—despite the aura of the Billy Graham phenomenon. It has very sharp edges. Rome, in its Council of Trent (1545-1563), still anathematizes any that hold to this doctrine of justification. (“If anyone says that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in divine mercy, which remits sins for Christ’s sake, or that it is this confidence alone that justifies us, LET HIM BE ANATHEMA” [Sixth Session, Canons Concerning Justification, Canon 12]) It’s a doctrine that has cost lives in the past. It is doubtful that Haggard’s definition would cause any to become human candles in the gardens of Caesar. Oddly, I feel taken more seriously by Rome than by anything Evangelical. I’d rather be anathematized than receive a nod and half-vacant smile.
There is something else, a weird irony to Evangelicalism. If to be “evangelical” means to simply believe in and perpetuate the solas of the Reformation, Evangelicalism is characterized by something that is exactly not evangelical at all. It has a very subtle but very clear and distinct non-evangelical view. The Evangelical subculture teems with endless programs, principles, steps and lists to leverage reward from God on whatever: a better life, a better country, a better relationship, better health. The new Trinity seems to be that everything can be happy, healthy and whole. The flip side of Christian Liberalism, it is quite friendly with right-wing and activist politics that promise things they cannot afford. Like it or not, these are all just manifestations of works-righteousness, something that is exactly non-evangelical. This viewpoint is completely the reverse of the doctrine that declares that we are justified by grace alone, etc. This is quite distinct from the Catechism that teaches that our Christian lives that obey the Law of God are characterized by looking backward thankfulness, not by looking forward and anticipating what we will get by obeying God’s Law. Evangelicalism will go to great lengths to push the play button on the notion that “salvation is not by works,” but the undertones rampant within Evangelicalism say something quite opposite. Personally speaking, I don’t think I was ever quite so burdened than when I was an Evangelical, nor so liberated when I embraced the Reformation. It is ironic when they promise so much relief then load people down with all kinds of Law, no matter how nicely packaged. I am glad I can admit when I have been duped. Again, the irony is thick. It’s like those who employ an “absolute mode” to declare there is “no such thing as absolute truth.” Is anyone listening to themselves?
Hart also relays a telling anecdote in Recovering Mother Kirk. As he was giving a talk at a Presbyterian church a man kept hounding him and wanting to know if “we are Evangelical.” It was as if an answer in the affirmative would finally justify us as somehow counting. I suppose it may be pessimistic to assume that likely the man had in mind that he wanted to be blessed by Ted Haggard, yet that is the impression. But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. Let’s pretend this man’s concern was for the evangel as described by Packer. Do we still really need to be so…needy? The evangel is resident within the Reformed expression the way that juice is a part of an orange. Do we imagine running up to the store clerk and needing to know if we might find juice in the orange? J. Gresham Machen, the stalwart Presbyterian during the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies, gave certain folks fits because he would not call himself a Fundamentalist nor sign their minimalist documents. He said he sounded like a “new religion.” He was right in many ways. He said we have all we need in the historic Reformed and Presbyterian tradition. So in the way Fundamentalists extracted only what was necessary to fight Liberalism and rendered themselves extremely impoverished (as well as getting quite off track in many other ways, including merely being the worldly antithesis to Liberalism), so too we do not need to extract the evangel from the Reformed tradition and identify ourselves as Evangelical, risking as well getting off track in other ways. We already are evangelical, and so much more. Like that old Ragu commercial, “It’s all in there!”
Because of the above problems with wider Evangelicalism, some Reformed have made the case that the term be vanquished altogether and that we rather utilize descriptors more in line with our confessional and churchly tradition (see Hart again in Deconstructing Evangelicalism in an Age of Billy Graham). Some, like me, are also not satisfied like Calvin’s history professor to be even on the fringe of Evangelicalism. If anyone would be ready to embrace such an idea from an old-soul like Hart it would be me. But I do wonder, are we in danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water in such suggestions? I was reciting the Creed one Sunday morning in my home church. In the Creed, we come across the term “catholic.” As we all know, it is footnoted. That footnote wasn’t there in the first century, or the sixteenth. But it is now. I then visited a Presbyterian church while out of town in which the liturgy fenced the Table with the term “evangelical,” as in one would be warmly invited were a member in good standing of an “evangelical” church. However, it was not footnoted as to be defined by the words of Packer.
If we are not ready to delete that footnote in the Creed we ought also to be ready to footnote (literally and figuratively) the term evangelical instead of embracing it un-discerningly and without question. In other words, either footnote them both or leave them unqualified. In my opinion, both catholic and evangelical are proper terms that ought to be in our vocabularies for their respective reasons. But just as we don’t identify ourselves as catholic only, we ought not to identify ourselves as evangelical only. There should be a thoughtful tension here. We are catholic but not Catholic, and we are evangelical but not Evangelical. Using either term in its bare form communicates very loaded and misleading things, both to others and to ourselves. Both terms subsume beneath that rich and overarching term Reformed. We can be both—we are both! Notch another beauty up for the Reformed faith.