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Moore: The definition has indeed changed over the past half-century. What would have been considered non-negotiable for Evangelical identity fifty years ago (the truthfulness of Scripture, the impossibility of salvation apart from faith in Christ) is now often considered “Fundamentalist.”
Denny Burk: Evangelicals believe and proclaim the evangel (i.e., the gospel) of Jesus Christ crucified and raised for sinners. At first blush, it would seem that this kind of commitment to the gospel could describe almost every “believing Christian,” but several notable features distinguish Evangelical Christians from the liberal mainlines on the one hand and Roman Catholics on the other.
Evangelicals trace all of their beliefs to the inspired Scriptures, which they believe to be the sole authority for faith and practice. American Evangelicals have stressed the inerrancy of Scripture as a necessary condition of its authority (seethe 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy).
In addition, Evangelicals recognize the decrepit condition of humanity because of sin and the inability of any person to contribute anything to his own salvation from sin’s effects and punishment. Evangelicals therefore rely on Christ’s substitutionary atonement as God’s only way of salvation for sinners who have been alienated from their Maker.
In the Evangelical way, the benefits of Christ’s redemptive work are communicated to the sinner by grace alone through faith alone in the person of Christ alone. Thus, Evangelicals typically stress the need for conversion: that a sinner would repent of his sin and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ through the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit. Evangelicals also believe in the necessity and urgency of evangelism.
Moore: The Evangelical movement has “matured” out of Fundamentalism in some of the worst ways. Yes, Fundamentalism was often narrow, often legalistic, and often tied to an inordinate fear of contamination by the outside culture.
In our flight from Fundamentalism, however, many of us—individuals and churches—have become mired in just what the Fundamentalists warned us we would: worldliness. The carnality in many Evangelical churches is astounding, not just at the obvious level of sensuality, but also at the less obvious (to us, anyway) level of covetousness, love of money, and celebrity worship.
Hart: What seems to have changed markedly among Evangelicals is a willingness to combat doctrinal error. When Evangelicals strove to put together a movement of conservative Protestants around 1950, they were clearly in opposition to liberal Protestantism, secularism, and Roman Catholicism.
The only enemy of those three that remains is secularism. This could be a sign of growing ecumenism among Evangelicals. I take it instead as an indication of theological confusion and the triumph of an impoverished view of tolerance.
Horton: …Sociologist Christian Smith has recently described American spirituality as “moralistic, therapeutic deism,” and he says that this fits those raised in Evangelical churches as well as any others. If Fundamentalism reduced sin to sin s (or at least things they considered vices), contemporary Evangelicals seem to have reduced sin to dysfunction. In this context, Jesus is not the savior from the curse of the law, but a life coach who leads us to a better self, better marriages, and happier kids.
Moore: Yes, there are fundamental differences within the Evangelical movement, and I think the first way to heal them is to stop worrying about the movement.
I’ve found that some of the harshest “inside the tent” critics of Evangelicals share the basic assumptions of the early pioneers of the movement: that a constellation of parachurch ministries and institutions, unaccountable to specific local churches, can have an identity at all. Indeed, I’ve found that some of the harshest critics of Evangelicalism are often also the least ecclesially situated, and thus the most prone to the individualism that, it is asserted, threatens Evangelicalism—whatever that is.
Burk: The differences are too many and too complex to enumerate here, but we would do well to mention some that have been in the foreground of discussion.
The Emergent Village wing of the emerging church has been chipping away at the theological and moral foundation of the Evangelical movement. For instance, “Evangelicals” such as Brian McLaren have called for an Evangelical moratorium on calling homosexuality sin. Steve Chalke has suggested that the penal substitutionary view of Christ’s atonement is a form of “cosmic child abuse.”
Open theism has been embraced by many Evangelicals who insist that God cannot know the future choices of his free creatures. This particular teaching has thrown classical notions of the doctrine of God into disarray.
We might also mention that nearly every feature of my definition of Evangelicalism is to some extent a matter of dispute within the movement. At Fuller Seminary, for instance, the issue of inerrancy divided the faculty before being jettisoned as an essential Evangelical doctrine. Some Evangelicals are openly speculating whether it is necessary for a sinner to have explicit faith in Jesus Christ in order to be saved.
Horton: At its best, Evangelicalism early on (in Britain and North America) offered a united witness for what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity.”
As Lewis observed, no one can live in this hallway. Christians are nurtured in particular rooms (i.e., traditions), but they come into the hallway for fellowship and common witness. The problem, of course, is that the rooms are different indeed: Anabaptists and Anglicans, Arminians and Calvinists, Methodists and Lutherans, and increasingly, Roman Catholics and Orthodox.
From my perspective, while pietism may have enriched the Reformation churches to some extent, the heritage of revivalism represents a counter-Reformation that in many respects went even further than Trent in the direction of Pelagianism. Hence, on his American visit, Dietrich Bonhoeffer could refer to the religious scene as “Protestantism without the Reformation.” In both faith and practice, Reformation Christianity differs from the sort of Evangelicalism represented, for example, by Charles Finney, more radically than it does with Rome or Orthodoxy.
Moore: There are some Evangelicals who genuinely become convinced that the truth claims of Rome or Antioch are persuasive. If that’s the case, one should indeed become Catholic or Orthodox rather than attempting to convince Shiloh Baptist Church to use icons or King James Bible Church of the benefits of venerating Mary.
Most Evangelicals I’ve encountered who are tempted to become Catholic or Orthodox, however, are going to make quite poor Catholic or Orthodox churchmen. I type that with fear, knowing many exceptions to this—including some colleagues on our editorial board.
Most young Evangelicals I’ve known who are tempted to become Catholic or Orthodox quite frankly aren’t heading in that direction because they’ve been convinced by Cardinal Newman’s critique of sola Scriptura or because they’ve found papal authority in the patristic writings. Instead, many of them become Catholic or Orthodox because they are tired of dealing with sinful, hypocritical, arrogant, mindless, loveless Evangelicals.
Just as some Catholics moving in this direction assume that every Evangelical church is sparkling with the warm piety of those who have personal relationships with Jesus (only to find otherwise), some Evangelicals tempted to leave seem to think all Catholics are Walker Percy or Richard John Neuhaus or that all Orthodox are Maximos the Confessor.
Many are then really disappointed to find what any Catholic or Orthodox person could have told them—that they will be dealing with some sinful, hypocritical, arrogant, mindless, loveless Catholics or Orthodox. Anyone on a search for Mount Zion will be continually disappointed unless he finds it in the New Jerusalem.