What Does it Mean to be Evangelical? II

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.

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28 Responses to What Does it Mean to be Evangelical? II

  1. Echo_ohcE says:

    The word comes from the Bible. Etymologically, it comes from Greek.

    First, it is not E – V, but eu, as in Europe. The EU prefix means good. If you study Aristotle, you’ll learn about eudaimonia, which if I remember right is essentially the good life. Anyway, eu means good.

    Next is a verb: angello. (That’s not transliterated, but spelled phonetically.) Anyway, this verb just means to anounce. It comes from the same word that our word “angel” comes from. Angels are messengers, who bring an announcement. If you like, think of the verb “angello” as meaning “to act as a messenger”, which is to say, to bring a message on someone’s behalf.

    Now you put these together, and you discover where the term “good news” comes from. In other words, “gospel”.

    Some translations translate this as “to proclaim the good news”. There are more words to say these things, but anyway, this is one of them.

    Evangel is really eu-angel in Greek. That’s where it comes from. So this word has been around since the very beginning.

    But I imagine that people began to refer to themselves as “evangelical” around the time of the Arminian controversy, which would be approximately the time of the Synod of Dort, which date escapes me at present.

    What they surely would have meant by this is that they were the ones preaching the true gospel.

  2. RubeRad says:

    If you are right, it would seem that “Evangelical” is (was originally) roughly equivalent to “Protestant”, no?

  3. Echo_ohcE says:

    Well, yeah, or TRUE Protestant. Because if you want to call yourself “other than Roman”, then the word is “Protestant”. But if you want to call yourself “Protestant other than Arminian”, the word was “Evangelical”. I think that’d be right.

    While “Evangelical” is a very old word, I don’t think it was used popularly until the last 100 years or so.

    Even Machen refused to label himself a fundamentalist or a liberal, but insisted instead that he was a “Calvinist”. He didn’t really think in terms of “Evangelical”.

    So I think the “Calvinists” and “Fundamentalists” share the label “Evangelical”, or at least have.

    But now the Reformed (who are trying to get away from the label “Calvinist” because it has lost its meaning, as has “Reformed”) and veering away from referring to themselves as Evangelicals.

    Now we want to call ourselves “other than Roman”, “other than Arminian”, “other than Baptist”, “other than seeker friendly”, “other than New Perspective on Paul or Federal Vision”, “other than…” etc.

    Today there are so many “other than’s” that we have to keep in mind in order to properly distinguish ourselves from others.

    What’s striking is that it’s pretty much meaningless to refer to ourselves in a positive way. We must also refer to ourselves negatively, namely by what we are not to be associated with. That story gets more and more complicated as time goes on.


  4. RubeRad says:

    if you want to call yourself “other than Roman”, then the word is “Protestant”. But if you want to call yourself “Protestant other than Arminian”, the word was “Evangelical”.

    But nowadays, Evangelicals are generally, functionally Arminian, which is the terminological problem we’re faced with.

  5. If you fellas are born again Christians, you are my brothers and part of the Body of Christ. Does that make me evangelical? Probably…

    What we might need is a good-old-fashioned dose of persecution to unload all our weird little labels and just be believers in Jesus again, clinging together in the midst of a perverse generation where we “shine like the stars”.

    Sigh…ok, back to the labeling.

  6. efwake says:


    What I don’t understand is what you mean by “Born again Christians” or “Body of Christ” or even “E/evangelical”. Which Jesus Christ shall we believe in?

    I’m not asking rhetorical questions here. Each of these labels (labels that you’ve used, by the way) have a meaning according to your system of doctrine.

    I have absolutely no doubt as to your standing before God as righteous on account of the work of Christ on the cross. Again, this has an objective meaning according to a certain point of view.

    The Liberals of the early 20th Century talked about being born again, they talked about the Body of Christ, and about being Evangelical. They talked about belief in Jesus Christ, about Scripture, etc etc etc. But as you and I both know, they didn’t mean the same thing by those phrases that the historic Christian faith has taught that they mean.

    There are many Jesus Christs out there today, but only the one revealed to us in Holy Writ has been given authority by God to be “seated at the right hand of the Father, from thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.”

    When we dogmatically hold to a certain interpretation of who the Christ was, what He came to do (and what He didn’t come to do) we’re not necessarily saying that everyone who doensn’t believe exactly as we do is “out”. We’d love to see the type of generous catholicity that you wish for here. You may not believe that of me, but I really do.

    Unfortunately we live in a world cursed by sin and death, and those two things came into the world through our first father when he did what? He doubted the word of God, and our race has been doing just that ever since. There are many people who will speak with a certain vocabulary about their relationship to God and Jesus Christ (ie: “Born Again,” “Body of Christ,” “E/evangelical,” etc.) but don’t mean what we mean when when we say those things.

    Does that necessarily make them “out” while we’re “in”? I don’t honesty think so. For those questions I have to ask myself “What did the thief on the cross know?” Not a whole lot, though likely more than we give him credit for since he was presumably raised as a Jew and would have likely had a better understanding of redemptive history than many of us, but you understand what I’m saying. He knew he was a sinner in need of grace and that the Man hanging next to him was no mere Man but the promised Messiah who had come to wash away the sins of His people.

    On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that we ought to wallow in a pit of meaningless euphemisms and “jesus speak” either. We should know what we believe and why we believe it if we are to follow the command of Peter when he exhorts the Christians to “always share the hope that is within you”.

    Just because I (and others here) label you “Evangelical” doesn’t mean we don’t think you are a Christian, or that “you’re out” (I’m repeating myself here… I said it a while back on anther thread, but heard nothing in response). It does mean that we disagree with certain tenets of your system of dogmatics. As much as you say you hate dogmatism, you simply can’t escape being a dogmatist… even making that statement is in and of itself dogmatic.

    We could all be well served by defining our terms better and being honest about what exactly it is that we have a problem with. That goes for all members of the Church Universal… all institutions that represent the various dogmatic systems of Christianity that have arisen in the past 2000 yrs… because until we honestly and fairly represent ourselves to one another, we can’t have an honest discussion about what is true and what we may work together on.

    I am an idealist I know, but I think that we could possibly have a shot at doing a little bit of constructive dialoging here. I’m straight forward about what I think to be true and I hope I do a fair job of defining my terms, and if I’m not and you don’t understand what I/we are talking about let us know.

    If you’re just here to tell us how small minded and tribal we are, that is fine too. But remember… by saying that, you’re being small minded and tribal. That is the ironic end of the position you seem to espouse based upon the limited bits of information you’re willing to give us. If you’re comfortable with that, continue on. If you’d like to have a serious dialog, I’m particularly ready for that.

    Oh… and as for labeling… I’ll claim “closed-minded high-church evangelical Presbyterian”!

  7. efwake says:

    To the substantive question of this thread… I think Hart makes an important distinction. There is a big difference between the contemporary “Evangelicalism” and the historic term claimed by Protestantism “evangelical”.

    Christ is the Evangel, and we as orthodox protestants care for nothing more than to see His message preached, and therefore we are evangelical. We’d like to see people come to faith in Christ, who is the only way to reconciliation with God the Father.

    On the other hand, a contemporary expression of Christianity has arisen that has somehow become known as “Evangelicalism”. It originally was expressed as a mid-stream alternative to the Liberals of the mainline on the left and the Fundamentalists of “monkey trial” fame on the right.

    Unfortunately this label was not tied to a Church but was a movement, an expression of low-church American revivalism, and has remained that way. There was early on some theology and doctrine there, but even contemporary Evangelical scholars now admit that it has been more or less lost… Mark Noll, “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind”. (sorry… I’m too “un savy” and lazy tech-wise to hyper link that citation to amazon or whatever… if you’re interested, google it)

    It was a doomed endeavor from the start, however, because it was not tied to anything except trying to stay between the proverbial yellow lines. Instead of taking a substantive position on things of doctrine and theology, it set out to be overly broad and erased meaningful definitions that allow a group to do anything collectively. In setting aside “dogma” so that they could “unite” to “really do something” it seems to me and to many others they set themselves up to eventually set aside the Gospel itself, which is the ultimate dogmatic assertion by God concerning how He will be reconciled to mankind.

    As of late there have been attempts at reviving a meaningful understanding of the Gospel in Evangelical circles by some rather good theologians like DA Carson. Unfortunately there are many in the movement that are suspicious of doctrinal formulations that open up fractures within the movement itself, and make it difficult for them to make the societal and cultural changes they desire.

    It is very sad though, cuz once upon a time the word “evangelical” was an orthodox Protestant word embraced by Calvin, Knox, Luther, and others since rather than a label of derision as it has become in our circles. I for one would love to see us reclaim it for what it was, and I won’t stop calling myself an evangelical Presbyterian because that is exactly what I am.

  8. Nobody called anybody “small-minded”. I enjoy your articles and most of the posts here challenge, entertain and inspire.

    What annoys me, and most people who don’t share your confessional/credal/Calvinist/Reformed matrix (did I get them all?), is the perceived lack of humility as regards the rest of the Body of Christ at large. In the end, we are all either “saved” or “lost”; in God’s Kingdom or out, and, if you are a Christian, you are my brother and will enjoy heaven with me forever.

    In other groups, I don’t get that “us vs. them” vibe that I get with those who share your theological underpinnings. Most people who are “saved” or “born again” rejoice when they meet another believer in Jesus. I have many Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, Independent, Church of Christ (and on and on) brothers in Christ for whom denominational walls mean less and less as we pray together and encourage one another.

    Our friends in Cuba tell us that as persecution increases, denominational walls crumble, and Christians must stand together against a common enemy.

    As much as I believe many of your tenants are wrong, I also believe that you guys know the Lord. That makes you my brothers. I believe evangelicals tend to build more bridges, I guess.

  9. “He who has the Son, has life. He who does not have the Son, does not have life.”

    “One door and only one and yet it’s sides are two,
    I’m on the inside, on which side are you?”

  10. Echo_ohcE says:


    You make a good case, but here’s the thing. The biggest difference between you and me is that I would never say, “What’s the difference? We’re both going to heaven.”

    Ok, great, we’re both going to heaven. But should we then stop learning? Should we stop refining our understanding?

    It’s almost as if you are saying that the difference between, say, you and me, is merely that you don’t baptize infants, and I don’t speak in tongues, and we have different musical tastes in worship.

    Well, no, actually, the differences are way, way bigger than that, and those differences are important to me, so much so that I choose to identify myself that way.

    I’m sure you’ve read some books on church history, so you’ll know that this notion that what really matters is only whatever the minimum amount of knowledge required to gain admission to heaven is – is something that came about in the Great Awakening. There, people began to say that doctrinal beliefs didn’t matter all that much, provided someone understood enough to get them into heaven. What really mattered was piety and their ability to articulate an experience that they had at conversion.

    That was something that has only come about since the Great Awakening. Perhaps you see that as an improvement in Christianity, but I see it as a tremendous step backwards, undoing much of the work of the Reformation. I don’t see it as a small and unimportant thing, but I see it as a gigantic catastrophe.

    So do I think people need to do more or understand more than that Christ is their only hope in order to be saved? No.

    But simply being saved isn’t the end of the story. We don’t get saved just to stop and look around and say, well, I’m saved, so now I’ve got to go save others.

    No, rather, we get saved, and then we set about growing in our knowledge and understanding, which comes about through study and being taught, discipled.

    If we are both saved, are we brothers? Yes, to be sure. But I strongly oppose your stance that seems to imply that there isn’t much value in seeking maturity in your understanding of Scripture and of doctrine. We must always be seeking to grow in these ways, always. What I don’t understand is why you wouldn’t think people would WANT to grow in their understanding of doctrine, continually refining their understanding, growing in their faith, and maturing in Christ as they grow closer to him by knowing him better.

    When you got married, didn’t you want to learn more about your wife? And don’t you know and understand her better now than when you were first married?

    But what if I said that since you’re married, that’s all that matters? You know better than that. You know that’s not all that matters. You have to treat her a certain way and grow together and know her better and all that sort of thing. You have to talk to her and love her and share your life with her and you are always getting closer all the time.

    Why should our relationship with Christ be any different, particularly when Paul tells us specifically that marriage is a metaphor for the relationship between Christ and the church in Eph 5? Not only is it not any different, but Paul says that we should understand the one through the other, and vice versa.

    If you want to know your wife better, and it’s not just about simply being married, but it’s about a relationship in which you grow and mature together – then Christ is the same way.

    So these doctrines that we hold to that have been painstakingly developed by the church over the course of 2000 years of knowing her Lord, which you keep trying to say don’t matter – well, can’t you appreciate that we cannot and will not relent on these matters? You’re telling me all I need to be is a baby feeding on milk, when I’m a full grown man and want to eat steak. Sorry, but I’m not going back to milk. I was miserable and malnourished.

    If you want to live your whole life drinking milk, by all means, don’t let me stop you. But you should really try a bit of meat.

  11. RubeRad says:

    If you fellas are born again Christians, you are my brothers and part of the Body of Christ. Does that make me evangelical? Probably…

    “Ecumenical”, maybe, but “Evangelical”? I’m confused. Are you proposing a new definition for Evangelical, or are you saying that is what the word currently means? Because I’ve never heard it to mean anything like “inclusive”.

    In other groups, I don’t get that “us vs. them” vibe…

    When I was growing up, statements like “I go to an evangelical church,” or “I’m an evangelical Christian,” were used to draw a line between “us” and “them”, like “We’re not your father’s oldsmobile; we’re not like those crusty old traditionalist, doctrine-only country-club denominational churches; our church has true and meaningful piety and worship and outreach”. In short, “deeds, not creeds”.

  12. Zrim says:

    This all has to do with the categories of the in/visible church.

    Like I always say, I was never so schismatic as when I was a biblicist PREF, never more ecumenical as when I embraced the intolerance of Presbyterianism. That is counter-intutive to folks like Albino (I know, it was to me). But, then again, so is the Gospel.

    I expect to see in the next aeon plenty who in this age who ostensibly “deny the Gospel” and be fairly shsocked that those who could have sworn were “solid” are strangely absent. Like Horton said once, “We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone on account of Christ alone…not by our doctrine.”

    There are those “of faith” and those “not of faith” who stand in need of evangelization. It’s not just the latter who needs the Gospel held out to him. That is the error in thinking on the part of the PREF, as he emphasizes the invisible church. Our task in this age is to emphasize the visible church. I consider, for example, Roman Catholics as well as PREFs to be those “of faith” who stand in need of evangelization. That will only be shocking if you emphasize the invisible church. But, again, that is not our task in this age. Our task is to emphasize the visible church.

  13. Rick says:

    Sorry, commenting late:

    Perhaps “Evangelical” took on its current meaning because news media started using the term to put conservative Christians in a category.

    Just a thought.

  14. efwake says:


    Right on. That is the essential point of Hart’s “Deconstructing Evangelicalism”. Read it. Good stuff.

  15. efwake says:


    Fair enough. I think that the language of other groups is equally dogmatic, as both Steve and Rick point out, but in subtle and less honest ways because they don’t really dig deeply enough into the truth of the Scriptures to know that there really is a broader issue than “in or out?”

    All of those traditions that you mention above represent individuals with whom I come into contact on a day to day basis, many of whom I genuinely like and appreciate as Christians. Some of whom I can have an honest, straight-forward exchange with and not have them walk away rolling their eyes saying, “Man, what a self-righteous SOB that Eric is!” or to say that same thing more piously, “Man, what a Pharisee that Eric is, I really need to pray for him.”

    We can honestly express our concerns about one another’s tone and substance but only if we recognize that substance is something that is actually worth talking, and yes, arguing about.

    The simplistic answers you offer above to the questions I asked may make perfect sense to those steeped in the language of contemporary Christendom, but they mean nothing to the non-believer. Bumper sticker theology makes non-believers scratch their heads, snicker, and increases their contempt for the Church (or those who are “born again” if you will).

    On the other hand, saying “I’m a sinner in constant need of grace because of my persistent violation of God’s Law. Come and meet a man who told me everything I ever did… and didn’t eject me into the pit of Hell for it, but came and lived a perfect life on my behalf that I may be right with the Father in spite of all of this sin!” carries a much heavier punch. It might even get them into the courts of the Lord, where they may hear His word preached, fall under the same conviction that we shared with those at Pentecost who asked “But what shall we do?” and “repent and be baptized for the remission of sins,”, and be found in Christ, a member of the visible and invisible Church, or as our Lord said to Nic, “Born Again”.

  16. Rick says:

    Yeah, there are at least 3 Hart books I need to read yet. Zrim introduced me to Hart (I had only heard of him before Zrim encouraged me to read his work) and so far I’ve only read A Secular Faith and With Reverence and Awe


  17. Echo_ohcE says:

    And Hart is OPC, so you should all follow his example.

  18. Echo_ohcE says:

    And we can claim Kline too.

    And Murray

    And Van Til

    Come to think of it, the OPC really is the best game in town.

  19. Echo_ohcE says:

    And Machen…

    And DVD, Estelle, Baugh…

    Dang, why aren’t you guys running to your nearest OPC, begging to join?

  20. Echo_ohcE says:

    Fesko, Strange, Gaffin…sheesh!

    Everybody who’s anybody is OPC.

    Ok, I’ll grant the URC Godfrey, Horton and Clark. Ok, fair enough.

    That’s a nice second place showing…


  21. RubeRad says:

    Update: the question has already been answered by OS Horton. See the main post for quotes…

  22. RubeRad says:

    PCA has Steve Wilkins…

  23. Rick says:

    URC has Riddlbarger too. Oh, and Hywel Jones.

    But we just became a denomination 10 years ago dude.

  24. Rick says:

    Rube, Thanks for the update on this post.

  25. Echo_ohcE says:


    Neither of us can claim Hywell Jones, but he attends our church. His ordination is across the Atlantic somewhere.

    But I did grant the URC a nice second place showing. What’s wrong with silver? Everybody can’t get the gold medal.

    Though we can both poke fun of Rube. 🙂

    Just kidding buddy!

  26. Echo_ohcE says:

    Thanks Rube, for clarity from the West Coast, where common sense is apparently…common.

  27. Rick says:

    Echo, OK, I just thought I read somewhere that Jones was URC – and he has preached for us a couple of times so I may have just assumed.

    Silver is the first loser.

  28. Echo_ohcE says:

    But not the last loser.

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