What is an “Evangelical?” Part 2

This is the second half of an essay by Drew Keane discussing the meaning of the word “Evangelical.” You can find part 1 here.

Are you an evangelical? Posed with this question, some Anglicans will reply with a smile, “yes, of course!” while other Anglicans will frown “certainly not! Some Anglicans see it as a core component of their identity, while others as its very foil. These disparate responses raise the question, do they have the same thing in mind when they hear the word?

A month ago, I explored four senses of the word “evangelical” all of which are still in use to some extent. First, evangelical refers to the gospel of Christ (from the Greek εὐαγγέλιον). In this sense, it refers to all of Christianity, eastern and western. Second, it refers to a Protestant (in contrast to Roman Catholicism). Third, it refers to the Lutheran branch of Protestantism (in contrast to the Reformed branch). Fourth, it refers to a revival movement within 18th Century Anglo-American Christianity that was characterized by zealous preaching, hymn-singing, strict social morality. This sense of the word was originally interchangeable with “methodist” (before Methodism split off from the Church of England). Now I turn to the last three senses of the word.

Fifth, a party within Anglicanism opposed to the sacerdotalism of the Oxford Movement.

This is the sense of the word Nockles uses here: “Bishop Blomfield remarked in 1842 to Archbishop Howley, ‘we [i.e. the Bishops] have been worse treated by the Oxford writers than we have ever been by the Evangelical party in the whole course of our government in the Church’” (Oxford Movement in Context, 297).

In 1833 Oxford colleagues John Henry Newman, John Keble, and Edward Bouverie Pusey began publishing Tracts for the Times, initiating what came to be called the Oxford Movement. The central themes of the movement: Apostolic Succession conceived of as tactile, episcopal transmission; episcopacy as absolutely essential to (rather than expedient for) the Church; a mediatorial understanding of the priesthood; baptism as ex opere operato spiritual regeneration; localized, objective presence of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine of Communion. The original Tractarian focus was purely theological, unconcerned with ceremonial.

John Mason Neale and a group of undergraduates interested in “Gothic” architecture founded the Cambridge Camden Society in 1839; they believed that these doctrinal emphases necessarily expressed themselves in pre-Reformation architecture, ornament, and ceremonial, thus giving rise to the Ritualist Movement. These developments shifted the attention of Evangelicals (in the fourth sense), as they saw in Tractarianism and Ritualism as a direct assault on the evangelical (in the second sense of the word) theology of the Church of England.

Within the Church of England and the Protestant Episcopal Church in the US in the 19th C., the successes of the Tractarian and subsequent Ritualist movements precipitated nothing short of a redrawing of the Anglican map. Supporters of the Oxford Movement called themselves Anglo-Catholic. The name emphasizes solidarity with pre-Reformation Catholicism; they defined Anglicanism (a new term in the 19th C.) as neither Protestant nor Roman. Up until this time, Protestant had been an uncontroversial descriptor of the Church of England and her members. It was used positively by old High Churchmen, old Low Churchmen, and Evangelicals alike. Anglo-Catholics shifted the terminology — anyone who didn’t embrace their principles was now Low Church, replacing the older meaning of that word, latitudinarian. They appropriated to themselves the High Church label.

While still differing from each other, Evangelicals and old High Churchmen alike opposed the innovations of “the Oxford theology.” Evangelicals were generally more likely to organize themselves into formal societies and they were generally much more willing to work with non-Anglican Protestants than were the old High Churchmen. Moreover, their opposition was not always motivated by the same reasons. Within the overlap, some considered themselves Evangelical High Churchmen and there were High Church Evangelicals, divided by whichever category was seen as “core” and, consequently, how then to regard and relate to non-Episcopal Protestants (see Nockles’s The Oxford Movement in Context, pp. 284-286 and Bebbington’s Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, pp. 147-148). The Gorham Judgement of 1850 resulted in party lines being drawn more sharply. Some old High Churchmen found themselves on the side of the Anglo-Catholics, defending unconditional and immediate baptismal regeneration regardless of the personal faith of the recipient. Other High Churchmen along with Evangelicals sided with the Privy Council; i.e., that baptism is a sign and seal of spiritual regeneration but that regeneration proper is inseparable from repentance and faith in the recipient and therefore does not necessarily coincide with the administration of baptism.

The developments that led to this fifth sense of the word evangelical help to explain why in popular usage it became common to see “evangelical” used as a contrast to liturgical and catholic. Because evangelicalism (in the fifth sense) became so intensely focused on anti-Ritualism, certain ideas crept into the heart of the movement that are not biblical or even necessarily Reformed in origin. N. T. Wright perceptively describes these other influences:

“The Enlightenment, the Romantic movement, and existentialism have all thus used the rhetoric of the Reformation to press their own quite different agendas. And the result is that today in many churches, not least those within evangelical Christianity in its broadest senses, we find in all kinds of ways a complex of agendas which owe everything to these three cuckoos in the nest, especially the last two, almost nothing to the Reformation, and nothing at all to the New Testament.”

These developments set the stage for the revivalism to follow.

Sixth, heirs of the revivalism of Charles Finney, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham.

We’re nearing how the word is mostly commonly used today. This sense of the word evangelical seems to be a natural (though not the necessary or only possible) development of the fourth and fifth senses of the word. This sense differs in some significant ways with the classical principles of the Reformation. It has its roots in the Arminian theology of John Wesley and his doctrine of “Christian Perfection,” as developed by Charles Finney’s revivalism. Horton calls Finney “the tallest marker in the shift from Reformation orthodoxy, evident in the Great Awakening (under Edwards and Whitefield) to Arminian (indeed, even Pelagian) revivalism.” Finney is the model and inspiration for Dwight Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham.

Regarding the origins of this trend, David Winter notes

“Billy Graham’s crusades (which millions attended) made “an enormous impact” on the Church of England. According to Canon Winter, before Graham arrived in 1954 there was only one evangelical bishop in the Church of England. But afterwards, ‘theological colleges were full of young evangelical men who had been converted through Billy Graham and came with that approach and message’.”

Whether or not this kind of evangelicalism can be said to be essentially one with the fourth and fifth senses discussed above is open for discussion. It is certainly true that this expression of evangelicalism can trace its roots back to Methodist revivalism and many who use the word would see little to no distinction between these groups. But it is equally true that the theological foundation of Finney’s evangelicalism could be seen as a rejection of the second second sense of evangelical and it is certainly at odds with the predominantly Reformed views of 18th C. evangelicals and the 19th C. anti-ritualists. This kind of revivalism still thrives today as a subculture that exists alongside formal denominational structures. In some cases it works from within the establishment, but it also contributed to a mass exodus from the mainline denominations in the 20th C. to be discussed below.

Seventh, an American phenomenon characterized by opposition to theological and political liberalism, this sense of the word is a collective name for the institutions formed by the mass exodus of members from the mainline Protestant denominations in the 20th C.

This sense is, of course, a legitimate heir of the sixth sense of the evangelical, but is distinguished in that it describes those who, at various points in the 20th C., formed alternative denominations to the mainline Protestant denominations in direct response to the theological, political, and social liberalism that gained ascendancy within the leadership of those bodies.

The catalyst in this development was the controversy over biblical inerrancy. The OED records that this word — formerly used disparagingly by Protestants to describe the Roman understanding of Papal authority — began to be used in debates over the bible in the 1880s.

Presbyterians A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield of Princeton Theological Seminary were leading scholars representing the evangelical position; their co-authored 1881 article “Inspiration” argues against the conclusions of Higher Criticism, though not, incidentally, through ignoring or dismissing scientific or historical discovery (Warfield, for example, accepted and argued for biological evolution as the mechanism of God’s creation of the varied forms of life).

This debate came to a head with Professor Charles Augustus Brigg’s 1891 lecture “The Authority of Scripture” at Union Theological Seminary, in which he argued that Christians must be willing to re-examine their “orthodoxy” and understanding of the scriptures in light of scientific and historical discoveries. As a Presbyterian minister, Briggs was brought up on charges of heresy and suspended by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in 1893. In response, Union Theological Seminary severed its formal ties to the Presbyterian Church and Briggs moved from the Presbyterian to the Protestant Episcopal Church, in which he was ordained in 1898.

In 1910 the Presbyterian General Assembly passed the “five fundamentals” (whence the word “fundamentalism”) as a requirement for ordination: belief in the (1) inerrancy of scripture; (2) virgin birth; (3) substitutionary atonement; (4) bodily resurrection of Jesus; (5) authenticity of Jesus’ miracles. The Auburn Affirmation of 1923 challenged the authority of the General Assembly to impose this standard and thereby exclude alternative theories regarding the teaching of the scriptures. The Auburn Affirmation characterized the “Fundamentals” as an affront to “evangelical liberty”:

“We do not desire liberty to go beyond the teachings of evangelical Christianity. But we maintain that it is our constitutional right and our Christian duty within these limits to exercise liberty of thought and teaching, that we may more effectively preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the World.”

It is notable that both those favoring and opposing the “Fundamentals” regarded themselves as evangelicals. Princeton Seminary, after all, was founded during the 18th C. “Great Awakening” by revivalists inspired by George Whitefield. When, however, Princeton Seminary’s board signed the Auburn Affirmation, a group of faculty, led by John Gresham Machen left Princeton to found Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929 as an “orthodox” alternative. Later, in 1936, Machen helped to establish the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

A similar narrative, sometimes called the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy, played out in most of the mainline Protestant denominations at some point during the 20th C. New theological colleges to educate more conservative clergy and new denominations were formed. A second wave of denominational splits was precipitated by the ordination of women (PCUSA: 1956; UMC: 1956; UF: 1957; SBC: 1964 [discontinued in 2000]; LCA (now ELCA): 1970; TEC: 1979). More recently, the Anglican Church in North America was formed in 2009 largely in response to the 2004 ordination of an openly gay man as bishop of New Hampshire. While in the early 20th C., both factions in the denominational realignments generally regarded themselves as evangelicals, by the latter half of the century the mainliners had distanced themselves from that label, and the popular press was using the word to designate all the break-away denominations.

To characterize the whole controversy in theological terms is, of course, to seriously oversimplify, for this phenomenon also largely falls out along urban-suburban lines. The urban churches, by and large, remained in the old denominations; new congregations formed in the growing suburbs more often joined the newly formed alternative denominations. In opposition to, in particular, Brown v. the Board of Education, Johnson’s “Great Society,” and Roe v. Wade this sub-culture became increasingly involved in national politics.

For the popular media evangelical primarily describes a distinct US political movement. This political sense traces its roots to the strict social morality of the 18th century methodist movement, but its modern embodiment emberges in the 1976 U.S. presidential election, when evangelicals rallied behind Jimmy Carter. In the Presidential election of 1980, Ronald Reagan successfully wooed this group, sometimes called the Religious Right, into his coalition, bringing about a major political realignment. The election numbers lend support to the claim that this sense of the word evangelical is a socio-political phenomenon at least as much as it is a theological one. NPR reports that many evangelical leaders stand by the president despite the ways in which his statements and behavior may conflict with their own stated beliefs. The personal morality of Trump has certainly exposed a tension within the unofficial coalition of Billy Graham-style evangelicalism and the GOP.

This seventh sense of the sense of the word is how the late Rachel Held Evans used it when she described her decision to join the Episcopal Church:

“I felt drawn to the Episcopal Church because it offered some practices I felt were missing in my evangelical experience, like space for silence and reflection, a focus on Christ’s presence at the Communion table as the climax and center of every worship service, opportunities for women in leadership and the inclusion of LGBT people.

“But I know plenty of folks who were raised as Episcopalians who have become evangelical, drawn by the exciting and energetic worship or the emphasis on personal testimony and connection to Scripture.”

Here evangelical is used as a contrast to Episcopalian, although a significant minority of clergy and laity within the Episcopal Church regard themselves as evangelicals, as Richard Kew notes in this article for Covenant. Note too that differences regarding worship are also assumed here to be part of the distinction; as noted above (under the fifth sense) it is common to see evangelical and liturgical set up as contrasts. Held also identifies the ordination of women and inclusion of gender and sexual minorities as distinguishing features (though plenty of Anglicans who do not regard themselves as evangelical disagree on these issues, as do plenty of evangelicals who aren’t Anglicans).

Conclusions.

Many may feel that the seventh sense of the word has entirely eclipsed the older senses, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. The Rt. Rev. Rod Thomas, a leader among Anglican Evangelicals, defines the word in the second, fourth (and possible fifth) senses I’ve explored:

“I believe profoundly the Church of England is at its heart an evangelical Church – if you look at its formularies, Book of Common Prayer, Thirty-Nine Articles, Ordinal. These are very Protestant and very much in line with an evangelical understanding of the gospel.”

So, what any given writers mean when they use the word remains a somewhat tricky matter. The label evangelical is very dear to many Anglicans, while to many others it is either a distinct category from Anglicanism or an insult of the worst kind. Since it is currently used in several different senses, some of which are at odds with each other, it is not surprising that many prominent Christian writers have written to explore the meaning of the word, for example, Garwood Anderson and Michael Horton. Sometimes context alone is enough to clarify the meaning. Other times, the label evangelical is hurled about by interlocutors who have yet to realize they are talking past each other. Gerrish notes (in the passage with which I began the last essay) that “over time [party labels] tend to become more misleading than helpful; adopted as substitutes for careful distinctions, they may even come to serve the abuses of complacency and disparagement of others.” Debates over labels can be fierce because they are, at their core, debates over identity. It is my hope that a close look at the complicated history of a commonly used and misused label may shed light on the identity questions and help us to discuss them better.


Drew Keane

Drew Keane is a Lecturer in the Department of Writing and Linguistics at Georgia Southern University. He served on the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music for the Episcopal Church from 2012 to 2018. His current research focuses on residual orality in 16th C. English religious prose.


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