Am I Evangelical? (2)

Bebbington refers to the hundred years or so before the First World War as the ‘Evangelical Century’ when the activism of the movement enabled it to permeate British society. Surely the future for Christianity is bright, because the future is Evangelicalism? Colin Urquhart certainly seemed to think so in 1985 when he said that ‘God is continuing to renew and revive and restore his church so that there can be a great move of evangelicalism in this country.’ There was around that time a great deal of enthusiasm for Evangelicalism, and enthusiasm for the future of Christianity itself as spearheaded by Evangelicalism. How, then, could Evangelicalism possibly fail to be the future of Christianity?

However, before we can decide if the future of Christianity lies with Evangelicalism or not, there is an important question to be answered with regard to what ‘Evangelicalism’ actually is. Yet this seemingly simple question is profoundly difficult to answer meaningfully, and therefore Evangelicalism seems to be a slippery word that cannot be grasped or defined in a satisfactory way.

There is no standard definition of Evangelicalism, and the many attempts to define it are so general as to be of little or no use. Even casting our eyes across the members of the Evangelical Alliance only makes clear how diverse that membership is. It is also very obvious that not every member – individual or body – believes the same things in the same way. Even some people that we may have the greatest respect for seem to struggle in understanding what Evangelicalism actually is.

‘I know what constituted an Evangelical in former times,’ wrote Lord Shaftesbury in his later life, ‘I have no clear notion what constitutes one now’. This difficulty was also evident to John Kent, who wrote that ‘Evangelicalism … is not always an easy word to define to every one’s satisfaction.’ Indeed, it may well be that Evangelicalism cannot be defined to anyone’s satisfaction, for David Cloud declared that ‘Evangelicalism of the 1990s is a different creature than that of the 1940s and earlier.’ So where did Evangelicalism originate from?

The New Dictionary of Theology says that Evangelicalism has its roots in the creeds of the first century church; that it has particular ties with the Reformation, and that is also deeply indebted to a series of evangelical awakenings which began about the middle of the 18th century. Furthermore, Evangelicalism affirms the centrality of the Bible, enunciates a theology of the Holy Spirit, and confesses that the church is composed of all believers who have been incorporated by the Holy Spirit. It all seems to be very clear and very positive. Or is it?

The Evangelical Alliance was formed in London in 1846, and, it intended to ‘associate and concentrate the strength of an enlightened Protestantism against the encroachments of Popery and Puseyism, and to promote the interests of a Scriptural Christianity.’ It would seem that the Evangelical Alliance was formed first to oppose Popery and Puseyism rather than promoting a kind of Christianity that put Christ at the centre of belief and practice. It is little wonder, then, that Evangelicals have long held ‘a strong suspicion of the RC (Roman Catholic) Church’. Furthermore, Cloud writes, ‘Though the term Evangelical has never had an established definition, as a rule it had traditionally described Protestants who were stridently anti-Roman Catholic and who preached the new birth.’

On this basis, one could wonder if Evangelicals of any age aren’t known more for what they are against rather than what they are for. Indeed, the very beginnings of the Evangelical Alliance seem to show that it was an alliance against rather than an alliance for; it is therefore perhaps hardly surprising that it is an organisation that has historically been strewn with disunity. As such, one could ask just what the word Evangelical actually means, and further wonder what value the word has.

‘Perhaps the word Evangelical has become too vague to be useful’ said Kent, and I am inclined to agree; but there have been attempts to define Evangelicalism, and we will now consider the effort of D.W. Bebbington to provide meaning. According to Bebbington, the four qualities that are the special marks of Evangelicals are Conversionism, Activism, Biblicism, and Cruicentrism; together they form what he calls the ‘quadrilateral of priorities’ that is the basis of Evangelicalism. We will look at these four qualities and, in doing so, we will explore something of the Evangelical Alliance’s own Basis of Faith which every member is required to accept and sign up to.