Evangelicalism–a basic summary–part I

The following is adapted from the excellent Dictionary of American Christianity (Intervarsity Press). Part II of the article can be found here. Part III is here. The whole thing was given as a talk to a group of psychiatric residents (doctors-in-training) at a Twin Cities hospital. The talk’s final and, for me, most interesting part, on “Evangelicals and psychiatric services,” can be found here.

What is evangelicalism, in distinction from other Christian movements? It is not a single denomination, with its own organization. Rather, it is a movement in Christianity emphasizing the classical Protestant doctrines of:

•           salvation

•           the church, and

•           the authority of the Scriptures,

and characterized by

•           stress on a personal experience of the grace of God, usually termed the new birth or conversion.

There are well over 50 million self-described evangelicals in the US and Canada today.

The movement has been shaped by:

•           16th c. Protestant Reformation, esp. as expressed in English Puritanism

•           the “evangelical revivals” of the 18th c.—which I’ll explain in a minute, and

•           the conservative reaction to modern America in the 20th c.—fundamentalism

The Protestant Reformation, 1517–60

•           Four major expressions: Lutheran, Reformed or Calvinistic, Anglican, and Anabaptist—almost all evangelical denominations today derive from one of these four branches

•           They shared with the historic Catholic tradition the doctrines of Jesus Christ, the Holy Trinity, the universal sinfulness of humans, the resurrection of the body and the life to come. Confessed with other Christians the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds.

•           But they restated the gospel, challenging medieval doctrines of salvation and the church.

•           In particular, Reformation Protestants answered four questions differently than had the medieval church:

1.       What must a person do to be saved?

•           Medieval RC church: “Justification before God comes by a combination of faith and good works.”

•           Reformers: “A person is justified in God’s sight through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ alone. Good works are the fruit of this relationship, but are incapable of obtaining it.” This is the cornerstone doctrine of Protestantism: “Justification”—that is, being saved from sin and made right in God’s eyes—“by faith alone.”

2.       Where does religious authority lie?

•           Medieval RC church: “Christians find out what they must believe and how they must live from the sacred institution established by JC on Peter and his successors, the bishops of Rome.”

•           Reformers: “Christians find all truth necessary for their faith and behavior in one source, the Bible, the written Word of God.”

3.       What is the church?

•           Medieval RC church: “The true church is that sacred hierarchical and priestly institution that JC founded on Peter, the first pope, and on the apostles, the first bishops.”

•           Reformers: “The true church is not a sacred hierarchy. It is a community of faith in which all true believers share the priestly task, not with some physical sacrifice but with spiritual ones of praise, gifts, and service to God and one another.”

4.       What is the essence of Christian living?

•           Medieval RC church: Argument for monasticism and certain spiritual disciplines as the best way to live as a Christian and ensure one’s salvation.

•           Reformers: “The essence of Christian living lies in serving God in one’s calling whether in secular or ecclesiastical life. All useful callings are equally sacred in God’s eyes.”

“Today, the RC Church no longer condemns the Reformers, and many Protestants no longer accept the Reformation explanation of the gospel [in every detail]. But the basic questions and their answers explain why at the time of the Reformation the term evangelical was use to designate Lutherans and their attempt to renew the church on the basis of the authoritative Word of God, and why still later it was applied collectively to Lutheran and Reformed communions in Germany.”

The evangelical revivals, 1720–1860

In the 17th century, the Reformation defense of the gospel hardened into an argumentative, academic orthodoxy. “Calvinists argued about God’s eternal decrees and Lutherans about the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper.” The result, a faith that was “legal, acceptable, orthodox, and generally lifeless. Justification by faith was a doctrine to debate more than a life to experience.”

A series of renewal movements arose, however, and gave new meaning to the old term “evangelical.” Now that term came to mean “born again” Christianity, “the experience of the Holy Spirit in a life-changing way.”

Late 17th-c. Southern Germany: Pietism

18th-c. Northern Germany: Moravianism

18th-c. England: Methodism

18th-c. America: The Great Awakening

[The next post will give a brief outline of Edwards and the Awakening]

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