The Evangelical Divide

This is a test: Define the term “evangelical.”

Chances are, you can’t do it.  In fact, I haven’t found anyone yet who can.  Even Wikipedia is completely wrong. In fact, theirs is actually ridiculous.

Despite the fact that you probably can’t clearly define the term, I’m sure you either claim to be one, or know one or more of them.

The correct definition that we won’t use

Historically speaking (ignoring what Wikipedia says), the term was first coined by Martin Luther (in Latin) to refer to his reform movement within (and without) the Roman Catholic Church. It derives from the Latin word for “good news” or gospel. When the Romans began referring to the movement as “Lutheran,” Luther rejected the name, preferring “Evangelical,” which is still the name of the Lutheran church in Germany.

The term refers to those who hold that salvation is by grace alone, apart from works. The Roman Church taught that works (including at the time, buying “indulgences”) could save you.

Considering that many so-called evangelicals today believe that works contribute to our salvation (or at least keeping our salvation), I do not believe Luther’s definition is applicable to many who currently use the term.

The popular but incorrect definitions

Today, in America, evangelical typically refers to churches that believe in the need for a personal relationship with Christ in order to be saved, even if that requires a certain effort on the part of the individual. In a general sense, many would include all Protestants under this umbrella. However, in recent years a more narrow understanding of “evangelical” has developed, referring to a conservative segment of the protestant church that would exclude the original Lutherans (at least the ELCA) and other denominations who practice infant baptism and hold sacramental beliefs.

According to the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton  College, “…the modern term usually describes the religious movements and denominations which sprung forth from a series of revivals that swept the North Atlantic Anglo-American world in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.” This is probably as good a definition as any for the popular use of the term, coming from within the movement. These revivals were led by people like Charles Finney, who rejected the notion of original sin and believed completely in man’s ability to save himself through his choices. While not all of the revivalists were heretics to this extreme, the teachings of grace that were prevalent in the original evangelical movement were often lost, or at least downsized.

Matt Richard, writing about what the original reformers would say about modern evangelicals, says

Mark Noll in his book, America’s God, states that if the Reformers were alive today they would find themselves further removed from modern day Evangelicalism than they were removed from the Catholic Church of the 1500′s.

Is evangelicalism a uniquely American religion?

Scot McKnight, who writes the blog Jesus Creed, recently discussed the thoughts of author Randall Balmer, suggesting that what we know as American evangelicalism is as much American as it is Christian, and is evolving with American ideology and politics. He begins,

American evangelicalism, Randy Balmer observes, is perculiarly American, and emerged out of three P’s: Scots-Irish Presbyterianism, Continental Pietism, and New England Puritanism. But Balmer’s burden is that evangelicalism in America mutates, even if it is connected always to the Bible as inspired, the centrality of a born-again experience, and the impulse to evangelize others.

Balmer believes American revivalism morphed (my word) in the 2nd Great Awakening due to Finney’s anthropology along with the growing American self-deterministic attitude, that “American evangelicalism has a revivalist, self-determined core.” Balmer believes it has continued to evolve, it seems to me that over the past couple of decades has become almost indistinguishable from the political right.  Even many evangelicals who would distance themselves from conservative politics (yes, they do exist) still share that same self-determinist core that qualifies them as being uniquely American.


Lately various people have began to refer to themselves as “post-evangelicals,” those who have left (or are trying to distance themselves) from this American-evangelical mentality.  Some, unfortunately, have merely left historic Christianity altogether. Others will only think they’re leaving.  Personally, I think it’s useless to label oneself as post-anything, as that only talks about where you’ve been, not where you are.

Old school evangelicalism

I am fortunate, I guess, in that I ever was able to connect with this American evangelicalism. I tried, believe me, I tried. I even switched from the RSV to the NIV (I’ve now switched back), but it just never felt comfortable to me, and for many of those around me.  Being raised Lutheran, I was, and guess I still am, an old-school pre-revivalist, evangelical.

The terms are confusing, especially for us old-schoolers. Labels always create problems. I guess I’ll just have to stick with Paul and choose to know nothing but Christ and him crucified.  I think that’s something most of us can agree on.





This entry was posted in Church. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Evangelical Divide

  1. Michael says:

    Finding myself ‘born again’ in the 1990’s in a fundamentalistic denomination but discerning that something was missing, that it was insular and anti-inellectual. However, I find the same problem not only with the American evangelicalism that the author discusses, but also with the evangelicalism of both Calvin’s Institutes and Luther’s Formula of Concord/Smaller Catechism. Consequently, I find myself (as the commenter Howard wrote) in an older, better path: the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Faith.

  2. Howard says:

    A concise and insightful overview of the current state of affairs. The ‘old paths’, in this context at least, are certainly the better routes to travel – I agree that we should take note of the Reformers and stick with Paul and the Gospel.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *