What Does “Evangelical” Mean?

This is why we can’t agree on much. Historians and other scholars of American evangelicalism have always had a difficult time agreeing on the simple fact of what it means to be an evangelical. In Alan Jacobs’ recent review of Thomas Kidd’s new book, we get a glimpse of the problem. As Jacobs describes,kidd who is an evangelical

here’s the definition that Kidd offers in his new book: “Evangelicals are born-again Protestants who cherish the Bible as the Word of God and who emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.” It would be difficult to do much better in a single sentence.

Except…I think it would be easy to do better. If we really want to understand evangelicalism, we can’t start with this kind of religion-centered definition.

Here’s my version:

evangelicals are people who grew up in homes that considered themselves evangelical and didn’t publicly ditch the label, plus a few people—whatever family they grew up in—who made soul-searching decisions to become born-again Protestants who cherish the Bible as the Word of God and who emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

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  1. Patrick Halbrook

     /  September 26, 2019

    I’m curious whether and how you’d consider evangelicals to be different from other religious and social groups in this regard? Or would we also describe most groups this way? (i.e. “Muslims are people who grew up in homes that considered themselves Muslim and didn’t publicly ditch the label, plus a few people…”; “Republicans are people who grew up in homes that considered themselves Republicans and didn’t publicly ditch the label, plus a few people…” etc.)

    • Patrick,
      That’s exactly right–I don’t think it is useful to insist on a purely theological definition of evangelicalism, because “evangelical” is a complicated identity just like “Muslim” or “Republican” or “Progressive.” I’ve been reading with interest some Twitter discussions about this. I tend to agree with Tim Gloege’s arguments: Saying that “true” evangelicals are those who believe in four religious commitments leaves out a bunch of people who consider themselves evangelical but not for those reasons.

  2. Patrick Halbrook

     /  September 26, 2019

    Interesting takes…is there anyone out there suggesting that we might need multiple definitions of “evangelical” to distinguish between theological and sociological dimensions of the term? (You wouldn’t get very far in a debate about the correct definition of “Jewish” if you didn’t make room for such nuances.)

    But I’m still not certain what your part of the definition adds. If basically every social group is one that you are in because you grew up in it and didn’t reject it, or because you chose to join it, isn’t that notion simply assumed and unnecessary to include in a definition? I’m pretty sure I’m missing something.

    • Sure, there are attempts to identify those who self-identify as evangelicals as opposed to those who identify with evangelical theological beliefs. And I agree that my snarky definition was pretty meaningless–that was my point. Using labels is necessary, but people tend to think a label is the end of a discussion, instead of just the beginning.

      • Patrick Halbrook

         /  September 27, 2019

        Gotcha! Good link–I like the distinctions that Stetzer makes.

      • And of course Prof. Kidd is well versed in all these distinctions. I’m looking forward to reading his book. It’s just that I think relying on a theological-checklist definition is fundamentally misleading.

      • And when I wrestled with this question of definition for *Fundamentalist U*, here’s what I came up with: “on the many campuses of the fundamentalist and evangelical school network, the term was used with an inherently slippery circularity. In practice, fundamentalism was defined by itself. Fundamentalism was what fundamentalists did, what fundamentalists believed. When in doubt—as fundamentalists often were—fundamentalists looked to impeccably fundamentalist thinkers and organizations for guidance. If Bob Jones or Moody Bible Institute embraced something, it must be trustworthy. Of course, this circular game led to endless anxiety about the reliability of its referents. Was Bob Jones too obdurate? Had MBI strayed? And what could one do when authorities disagreed?
        And those authorities did disagree. As a coalition of conservatives from different denominations, fundamentalism could never simply impose on itself a single set of once-for-all boundaries. All fundamentalists valued revivalism, soul-saving, and battling theological modernism. But as we’ll see in the chapters to come, some admired the conservative theological rigor of Calvinism while others emphasized different religious ideas. Some insisted on one specific vision of the coming apocalypse while others demurred. Outside of theology, too, fundamentalists generally agreed on a vague cultural conservatism, including an emphasis on traditional gender roles, temperance, chastity, and patriotism. But what should a fundamentalist do if her patriotism conflicted with her dispensationalism? Or if his Calvinism disagreed with his teetotalism? The answers were never clear and never could be. Disagreements about definitions were not the exception but the rule in fundamentalist and evangelical higher education. Fundamentalist intellectuals often made their cases for one idea or another, but as we’ll see throughout this book, fundamentalist school administrators tended to mumble through the middle, hoping to keep everyone happy as they sorted out their differences.
        Those differences were stamped onto fundamentalism from the very beginning.”

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