One of the first conversations that happened here at the Outhouse (and rightly so) was a consideration of “What is an Evangelical, anyways?” (1 2 3). I don’t think we really settled on a concrete definition in that discussion, but we seemed to have a shared understanding. Imagine my surprise then, when listening to Outhouse Saint Dr. Kim Riddlebarger’s lecture on B. B. Warfield (see here, and also at my other blog), he casually tossed around terminology of “The Evangelical Principle: that God saves sinners” vs. “The Arminian Principle: that God makes salvation available to sinners.” With this distiction, Riddlebarger basically equated “Evangelical” with “Calvinistic”, “correct” and “good”. To make matters more confusing, Riddlebarger used the terms the same way in a recent White Horse Inn program, saying something like “Modern evangelicals have trouble reconciling the the Evangelical Principle they claim on their face, with the Arminian principle that pervades their life and practice.” (That is by no means a literal quote, just a paraphrase from memory.)
So it would seem that there is a historical meaning to the label “Evangelical”, to which the Reformed used to give unqualified approval. But somewhere along the way, the content behind the label shifted, so that now it means (among other things) “We’re free of any tradition: no creed but Christ!” Does anybody have any insight into the historical definition, and how/when it shifted?
[Update 11/20] Not surprisingly, Google found an article by OS Horton that answers my precise question. Some choice selections:
One might think that the term “protestant” has been around a lot longer than “evangelical,” the latter often associated with the crusade and television evangelism of recent years. However, the term “evangelical” is the older of the two. It appears in medieval manuscripts, describing a qualification of a good preacher: He must be evangelical. Until the Reformation, however, that adjective could mean anything from having a sincere love for Christ to possessing missionary zeal. When Luther arrived on the scene he was eager to employ the time-honored term in the service of gospel recovery. After all, what could be more appropriate as a designation for a man or woman of the Reformation? It was all about a recovery of the evangel itself.
Thus, the term took on a new significance, moving from an adjective to a noun. One was not only “evangelical” in the ambiguous medieval sense of being pious, zealous, and faithful, but an evangelical in the sense that one adhered to the Reformation’s tenets. After 1520 an evangelical was a person who was committed to the sufficiency of scripture, the priesthood of all believers, the total lostness of humans, the sole mediation of Christ, the gracious efficacy and finality of God’s redemptive work in Christ through election, propitiation, calling and keeping. The linchpin for all of this was the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone. Thus, the believer, declared righteous by virtue of God’s satisfaction with Christ’s holiness imputed (credited) to us through faith alone, is simul iustus et peccator–“simultaneously justified and sinful.”
Then along came Arminius, who denied Unconditional Election…
the evangelicals who faced this challenge of Arminianism universally regarded it as a heretical departure from the Christian faith. One simply could not deny total depravity, unconditional election, justification by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone, and continue to call himself or herself an evangelical. There were many Christians who were not evangelicals, but to be an evangelical meant that one adhered to these biblical convictions. While Calvinists and Lutherans would disagree over the scope of the atonement and the irresistability of grace and perseverance, they were both strict monergists (from mono, meaning “one” and ergo, meaning “working”). That is, they believed that one person saved us (namely, God), while the Arminians were synergists, meaning that they believed that God and the believer cooperated in this matter of attaining salvation. It was this monergism which distinguished an evangelical from a non-evangelical since the Reformation.
Interestingly, L and P, and even I (!) are negotiable, but TU are critical to the historical definition of “Evangelical”. Returning to the modern usage…
From where I sit, the main problem is this: we have gone back to using “evangelical” as an adjective. As its medieval use was ambiguous, referring more to a general attitude of humility, zeal, and simple Christ-likeness, so too the contemporary use falls most often into that category. An evangelical is someone who “loves Jesus,” who “wins souls,” and who has a “sweet spirit.” Ken Myers notes that evangelicals no longer believe in orthodoxy, but in orthopathos-a concern for right feelings rather than right thinking and worship.