posted Oct 14, 2009, 11:50 PM by Hector Falcon   [ updated Jul 28, 2012, 5:04 PM ]
The term evangelical has lost most of its original original meaning. In fact, there is little agreement on just what the term means with regard to the Christian faith. There has been such an effort to work in unity that there is little agreement on what it means to be an evangelical and what evangelical believe to be true. In this section we will take a closer look at this term and how it has taken a more liberal direction with regard to its beliefs.

What is an Evangelical?

Before going any further, we need to address a problem of nomenclature: What is an evangelical? After all, when people call themselves Catholics, they generally mean that they are members of the Romish communion joined to the papacy. But when people call themselves evangelicals, the designation does not denote affiliation with any particular denomination or creedal formula. So what is an evangelical? How should we define the word?

"The word evangelicalism derives from the Greek euangellismos. The evangel is the good news or gospel, and throughout the New Testament it designates the message of salvation. Paul was not ashamed of this gospel, and throughout the New Testament it designates the message of salvation. Paul was not ashamed of this gospel, for 'it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek' (Rom. 1:16). Because it was the mes sage, the indispensable message of salvation, the Apostle pronounced the curse of God upon those who preached any other evangel whether himself or an angel from heaven (Gal. 1:8)."[1]

Historically, the term evangelical was used to designate a person's association with specific views about the evangel, the gospel. During the reformation, the term identified those who held to the evangelical proclamation of the reformers: that is, the term referred to Protestants.[2] The popish detractors of Protestants sometimes called them "gospellers" ­ another term which points to the content of the Protestant faith.[3]

Now, as we have already shown, the theology of the reformation was based upon the gospel of God's sovereign grace in saving sinners. Mankind is dead in trespasses: men bear the guilt of sin and are dominated by the power of sin; they are totally incapable of contributing to their own deliverance from either the guilt or power of sin. Justification comes by grace, based upon Christ's merit alone, received by faith alone. Sanctification follows as a separate but related process, whereby the redeemed sinner progressively grows in practical godliness.

Since reformation doctrine is simply a statement of the biblical evangel; and since contemporary evangelicalism generally rejects this doctrine of sovereign grace; then it follows that modern evangelicalism isn't really evangelical at all, according to this historic usage of the term.

John Gerstner summarizes the historical progression of the term: "As used in the Bible then, the term euangellismos refers to the way of salvation and was so understood subsequently. At the Reformation it came into prominent usage precisely because the Roman Church seemed to Protestants to have lost the gospel way of salvation. In the reformers' formulation and well into the nineteenth century, evangelism was God's way of salvation, not only in the offering of it to men but in the applying of it to their hearts as well. Last century, however, the evangel began to be seen more as the divine offer of grace and not so much as the divine application of grace."[4]

The term evangelical has undergone a further shift in usage, in that it is now commonly used to describe a shared experience, instead of a common commitment to a body of doctrine. In previous centuries, the term pointed objectively to a set of beliefs, a body of truth concerning redemption, held by Protestants. Most "conservative" Protestants no longer hold these doctrines; but large numbers of these "conservative" non-Catholics have had an emotional religious experience; further, they possess a zeal for sharing their experience with others.[5] The common denominator of experience becomes the bond of unity, and it cuts across denominational boundaries, making creedal differences largely irrelevant to those who share a similar religious experience.[6] Thus the term evangelical has shifted from an objective focus to a purely subjective one.

The problem of definition is clouded by modern writers, like Keith Fournier, who wish to extend the term evangelical even further, to include Roman Catholics. Fournier writes in a congenial manner. He uses lingo popular among evangelicals.[7] Nevertheless, he candidly states, "I am a Roman Catholic, not by accident or mistake but by heartfelt conviction."[8]

Fournier's theological convictions become apparent as he takes the reader through a meandering description of his personal experiences. During his narrative, he endorses many of Roman Catholicism's distinctive doctrines and practices: justification as a process, transubstantiation and the sacrifice of the Mass, baptismal regeneration, praying before images, free will and denial of human inability, charismatic experiences, the rosary and devotion to Mary.

When Fournier recounts preachers and scholars of the past, he jumps from medieval figures to later figures such as Wesley, Finney, Loyola, C.S. Lewis, and Billy Graham. Fournier's omission of the Protestant reformers from his list of great men of the faith is quite telling. Early in his book, Fournier mentions reading some of the writings of the reformers. But he reserves his praise for others, especially papal mystics and heretical "Protestants" (such as Finney, Wesley, Graham, Lewis).

Fournier's agenda is clearly popish. His ecumenism does not extend to participation in non -Romish administration of the sacraments. At one point he states: "As a Catholic Christian, I believe the Eucharist is the sacrament of unity. And because the church is divided, I embrace my church's position that I cannot participate in the Eucharist with Christians of other traditions. We are not one. We must long to be one, and it should grieve our hearts that we cannot go to a common table.We cannot pretend there aren't differences in our understandings of the Eucharist, or the Lord's Supper. There are differences, and they are real and important." Earlier in the book, he says, "I believe it would be ingenuine for believers who do not agree on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist to join this sacrament of unity. I long for the day when it will be possible for all Christians to share this sacred meal either here or in the wedding feast of heaven, which it symbolizes."[9] Thus, the eventual unity envisioned by Fournier will only be achieved if evangelicals accept Rome's terms of surrender, and join in the corrupt worship of popery.

Throughout his writings, Fournier uses a tactic that most evangelicals will find disarming. He employs the lingo of evangelicals and uses language calculated to soften the contrast between Protestants and Romanists. As we shall see in the next chapter, this tactic is also exhibited in the document, "Evangelicals and Catholics Together."

Readers should not be fooled by such an approach. William Cunningham, the eminent 19th -century Scottish theologian, has remarked: "There are two different and opposite lines of policy which Romish controversialists have pursued upon this subject [justification], according as seemed to be most expedient for their interests at the time. Sometimes they have represented the doctrine of the Reformers upon the subject of justification as something hideous and monstrous ­ as overturning the foundations of all morality, and fitted only to produce universal wickedness and profligacy; and at other times they have affected a willingness to listen to the grounds on which Protestants defend themselves from this charge, to admit that these grounds are not altogether destitute of weight, and that, consequently, there is not so great a difference between their doctrine in substance and that of the Church of Rome. They then enlarge upon the important influence which the alleged errors of the Church of Rome on the subject of justification had in producing the Reformation ­ quote some of the passages which show the paramount importance which the first Reformers attached to this subject ­ and proceed to draw the inference that the Reformation was founded upon misrepresentation and calumny, since it appears, and has been admitted even by learned Protestants, that the errors of the Church of Rome, even if they were to admit for the sake of argument that she had erred, are not nearly so important as the Reformers had represented them to be."[10]

The appropriation of the term evangelical by religious special-interest groups has further exacerbated the problem of definition.[11] Has the term lost all connection to its historical usage? So it seems. The result is that the term evangelical is utterly meaningless, unless an author clearly indicates how he is using the word.[12]

The present author has wrestled with the problem of definition while preparing this essay, and I have generally restricted my criticisms to self-styled evangelicals. While some criticisms will not apply to all individuals who regard themselves as evangelicals, there is abundant evi dence to illustrate the sad factors which are sinking the ship of contemporary evangelicalism.

Footnotes on Chapter 5

1. John H. Gerstner, "The Theological Boundaries of Evangelical Faith," in The Evangelicals: What They Believe, Who They Are, Where They Are Changing (Abingdon: Nashville, 1975), p. 22. The a.v. renders Rom. 1:16, "it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek."

2. 'Despite the dominant usage of euangellismos in the New Testament, its derivative, evangelical, was not widely or controversially employed until the Reformation period. Then it came into prominence with Martin Luther precisely because he reasserted Paul's teaching on the euangellismos as the indispensable message of salvation. Its light, he argued, was hidden under a bushel of ecclesiastical authority, tradition, and liturgy. The essence of the saving message for Luther was justifi cation by faith alone, the article by which not only the church stands or falls but each individual as well. Erasmus, Thomas More, and Johannes Eck denigrated those who accepted this view and referred to them as "evangelicals." ' John H. Gerstner, "The Theological Boundaries of Evangelical Faith," p. 23.

3. The term Protestant itself is derived from the Latin word protestari, which means to witness, confess or testify. The idea is one of giving a public testimony to the truths of the Christian faith. Once again, we see the Protestant reformers were described by a term which points to their content of their faith.

4. John H. Gerstner, "The Theological Boundaries of Evangelical Faith," p. 35. See chapter 1 above. Also note Gerstner's statement regarding 20th-century evangelicalism. It has "lost some important aspects of its Reformation heritage, especially as these relate to the doctrines of grace, the depth of human depravity, and the indispensable need of God's saving initiative not only in sending his Son, Jesus Christ, to accomplish salvation but also in inclining sinners to accept it" (p. 31).

5. The experience is often said to be that of the new birth, or conversion. The "testimonies" of these evangelicals usually revolve around the pivotal moment of their "decision," regardless of whether the decision was made at a mass rally, in a one-on-one conversation, or as a result of some other provocative event (or events).

As we have noted earlier, the modern conception of conversion is radically different from the biblical position of the Protestant reformers. We firmly hold to the necessity of the new birth, and rejoice in the news of a sinner's true conversion to God. But the momentous conversion of a sinner genuinely occurs only by the sovereign operations of God's Spirit, in connection with the true gospel.

6. Gerstner says, "Others may imagine that anyone who shows religious earnestness, regardless of his views, or who engages in evangelism, regardless of the evangel which he preaches, can be called an evangelical. Those who have self-consciously assumed this title, however, insist that they have done so on account of their theology." John H. Gerstner, "The Theological Boundaries of Evangelical Faith," p. 33

The present writer is not convinced of Gerstner's last assertion. As we contend in portions of this chapter, evangelicals often see themselves more in the subjective terms of their religious experience, than in the objective terms of their theology. The attitude Gerstner rebuts has become all too much the norm. Anyone with religious zeal, even if he preaches an heretical evangel, is warmly accepted as an evangelical by other evangelicals.

7. Fournier speaks of conversion, using the expression, 'inviting "Yeshua," Jesus, God's Son into my heart to be my Savior.' Evangelical Catholics (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990), pp. 33-34; cf. p. 41. Even here, he doesn't mean exactly the same thing as most evangelicals, since Fournier views conversion as an ongoing process (see p. 15), whereas evangelicals employ the term to describe a one-time event.

8. Evangelical Catholics, p. 59.

9. Evangelical Catholics, pp. 161, 17.

10. William Cunningham, Historical Theology, (1862; rpt. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1979), vol. 2, pp. 4-5.

11. "As evangelicalism has continued to grow numerically, it has seeped through its older structures and now spills out in all directions, producing a family of hybrids whose theological connections are quite baffling: evangelical Catholics, evangelicals who are Catholic, evangelical liberationists, evangelical feminists, evangelical ecumenists, ecumenists who are evangelical, young evangelicals, orthodox evangelicals, radical evangelicals, liberal evangelicals, Liberals who are evangelical, and charismatic evangelicals. The word evangelical, precisely because it has lost its confessional dimension, has become descriptively anemic. To say that someone is an evangelical says little about what they are likely to believe (although it says more if they are older and less if they are younger). And so the term is forced to compensate for its theological weakness by borrowing meaning from adjectives the very presence of which signals the fragmentation and disintegration of the movement. What is now primary is not what is evangelical but what is adjectivally distinctive, whether Catholic, liberationist, feminist, ecumenist, young, orthodox, radical, liberal, or charismatic. It is, I believe, the dark prelude to death, when parasites have finally succeeded in bringing down their host. Amid the clamor of all these new models of evangelical faith there is the sound of a death rattle." David F. Wells, No Place for Truth, or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), p. 134.

12. Yale historian Sydney Ahlstrom has noted there is no "uniformity of usage for this sacred and solemn term." He states that no single usage has been normative, so that "historians who sail these seas have been as helplessly caught in the currents of popular usage as the humblest fisherman." In a footnote, Ahlstrom illustrates the "difficulties of definition" with a brief summary of contemporary evangelical authors: '[Bernard] Ramm praises Scholastic Orthodoxy, tends to reject modern thought and yet speaks of 35 to 40 million evangelicals located almost everywhere. Bloesch calls evangelicalism a "mood," yet names nine hallmarks and then undoes that sign of precision by throwing out dozens of names from St. Theresa of Avila to Bonhoeffer. Shelley, as an historian of the National Association of Evangelicals, is more inclusive than Ramm, less eclectic than Bloesch, and more inclined to stress "a true decision for Christ." Bloesch somewhat confusingly speaks of a new evangelicalism replacing the old "Neo-Evangelicalism of the forties and fifties. All three distance themselves to varying degrees from fundamentalism, but do not exclude it.' Sydney Ahlstrom, "From Puritanism to Evangelicalism: A Critical Perspective," in The Evangelicals: What They Believe, Who They Are, Where They Are Changing (Abingdon: Nashville, 1975), pp. 269-70, 288 (note 1).

by Kevin Reed