Recently there has been a lot of talk about what is evangelicalism and who is an evangelical. In two posts I would like to address issues that arise from these questions. In this essay I will address how the word has been used historically.
The word evangelical comes from the greek word evangelion which means gospel or good news. In the New Testament it came to mean the good news about Jesus and his work of salvation on our behalf. Christians went about preaching the good news and inviting others to believe in Jesus as their Savior.
During the Reformation, the word evangelical came to mean Protestant because the Protestants strongly emphasized the preaching of the good news. Martin Luther used it to distinguish his movement form Roman Catholicism and this still is the common way it is used in continental Europe. This use of the word can be seen today in the official name of the largest Lutheran denomination in the United States, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). It simply means they are a denomination which grew out of the Protestant Reformation.
The second use of the word evangelical historically arose during the two Great Awakening. It came to mean those who were followers of John Wesley, George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards and their preaching of personal spiritual renewal. Evangelicals were seen as those who were seeking to bring renewal to Christianity that had become culturally institutionalized and ossified. They demanded that each Christian have personal faith, not just relying on their cultural heritage. They were a subset of Protestants, calling the the group as a whole to personal revival. Thus they were a part of the larger pietist movement in protestant Christianity, representing that movement in Great Britain and North America.
The 3rd use of word arose in the mid 20th century with the rise of the neo evangelicals (new evangelicals) in America. These were traditional protestant Christians who had historical roots in the second group of evangelicals mentioned above. But now they wanted to distance themselves from fundamentalism, another group that had arisen within the evangelical family. Fundamentalists had become known as anti-intellectual, cultural isolationists. The new evangelicals wanted to maintain their beliefs in historic Christianity, but wanted to engage the culture in a positive way. They received degrees from the most elite universities and interacted with cultural leaders with intellectual sophistication. Billy Graham, Wheaton College, Christianity Today, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary are some of the people and institutions associated with the new evangelicalism.
A fourth use of the word evangelical has arisen lately but not from Christians themselves. The modern media has taken to using the word evangelical for all protestant Christians who hold historic Christian beliefs, not distinguishing neo-evangelicals from fundamentalists. Fundamentalists in their cultural isolationism have developed some bizarre ethical, religious and cultural practices which the new evangelicals as a whole do not participate in. But media outlets regularly report on these outlier groups and associate them with evangelicals as a whole. Also the media has made the word evangelical equivalent to the political religious right. Certainly some neo-evangelicals would self identify themselves this way politically, but not all. Some would say they are democrats and others who identify themselves as conservatives politically would refuse to associate with the religious right. The media is over simplifying the definition of the word evangelical and by doing so is misusing it and mislabeling people.
I have been asked if we should stop using the word since the media is misusing it and giving a false impression of who we are. I would say no because, 1) this is a biblical word. It is a part our spiritual heritage from God’s Word. God is the one who has given it to us. We are a gospel people. And 2) its previous historical uses are all still accurate to us. We are protestants. We are pietistic protestants. We are culturally and intellectually engaged pietistic protestants. Despite the media’s misuse, I think we have to keep using it and carefully explaining it to outsiders.