On the Uselessness of the Terms “Evangelical” and “Evangelicalism”

The term “evangelical” is neither viable nor useful today.  There is no doubt about its popularity, both inside and outside of so-called “evangelicalism,” but there remains tremendous confusion regarding the specific meaning of the term.  There exists no theological or social standard which might be helpful in precisely defining the nature of what constitutes someone an evangelical, and even the historical meaning of the term is largely ignored today.  When used, the term “evangelical,” having become so ambiguous, is incapable of communicating anything precise and is, therefore, not viable or useful.  That said, I personally do not have a particularly negative view of the term itself, or even of the evangelical movement, but I simply think that the term “evangelical” does not and cannot accomplish what it seeks to communicate.  For that reason especially, I do not think it is a helpful term.

In a consideration of how to define and locate evangelicalism, Timothy Larsen mentions the classic Bebbington Quadrilateral, along with its four marks (conversionism, activism, bibilicism, crucicentrism), as the most generally accepted definition of the movement (Larsen, “Defining and Locating Evangelicalism,” in Larsen and Treier, 1).  Evangelicals are thus marked by their emphasis of these four categories: the need for a personal conversion experience; the necessity of good works and evangelism in the Christian life; the authority of the Bible as God’s written Word; and the centrality of the atonement of Jesus Christ on behalf of sinners.  Bebbington’s Quadrilateral came to be widely accepted as the best definition of the movement.

Yet, I am not convinced that the Quadrilateral is viable or useful today.  This is not due to its inherent inaccuracy (for I think Bebbington has rightly pointed out some evangelical distinctives), but because the definition does not say enough about the movement.  My criticism is similar to Larsen’s when he says that without additional geographical, historical, or theological context, “the term ‘evangelical’ loses its utility for identifying a specific Christian community.  For example, if no context is made explicit, an argument could be made that St. Francis of Assisi was an evangelical” (Larsen, “Defining and Locating Evangelicalism,” in Larsen and Treier, 2).  The Quadrilateral casts too wide a net in its attempt to define the evangelical movement, and thus it has the potential to capture some fish, like St. Francis of Assisi, who should not be identified as evangelicals (for geographical, historical, or theological reasons).

Douglas Sweeney says that “evangelicals comprise a movement that is rooted in classical Christian orthodoxy, shaped by a largely Protestant understanding of the gospel, and distinguished from other such movements by an eighteenth-century twist” (Sweeney, 23-24).  Here Sweeney adds an historical context as part of his definition, though conspicuously absent is a robust articulation of theological emphases, as found in the Quadrilateral.  Yet Sweeney clarifies his definition by saying that an evangelical is someone who adheres to: “(1) beliefs most clearly stated during the Protestant Reformation and (2) practices shaped by the revivals of the so-called Great Awakening” (Sweeney, 24).

Among the reasons I reject this definition as useful is the fact that, like the Quadrilateral, it does not say enough.  Yet paradoxically, perhaps Sweeney’s definition and further clarification says too much, for elsewhere he says, “not all evangelicals are Protestants” (Sweeney, 24).  How an evangelical can be someone who adheres to “beliefs most clearly stated during the Protestant Reformation” and yet not a Protestant is something which should signal a deficiency in the definition.  If that is true, then seemingly any professing Christian can be an evangelical.  Thus the definition of the term “evangelical” as employed by Sweeney is not helpful in identifying a specific Christian movement.

Timothy Larsen provides the most sophisticated definition of an evangelical to be considered here when he says,

An evangelical is: 1. an orthodox Protestant 2. who stands in the tradition of the global Christian networks arising from the eighteenth-century revival movements associated with John Wesley and George Whitefield; 3. who has a preeminent place for the Bible in her or his Christian life as the divinely inspired, final authority in matters of faith and practice; 4. who stresses reconciliation with God through the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross; 5. and who stresses the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of an individual to bring about conversion and ongoing life of fellowship with God and service to God and others, including the duty of all believers to participate in the task of proclaiming the gospel to all people (Larsen, “Defining and Locating Evangelicalism,” in Larsen and Treier, 1).

The connection between this definition and the Bebbington Quadrilateral is apparent, though Larsen’s definition goes further and is more precise.  It adds geographical, historical, and theological context which aid the definition in identifying the specific Christian movement known as evangelicalism.

This is the best of the three definitions given, and if I were to pick one for my own use it would be this one.  It seems to me that this definition does, in fact, capture the essence of what it means to be evangelical, given the additional geographical, historical, and theological context.  But the reason I continue to shy away from thinking that the term “evangelical” is viable or useful is because the term as it is employed by most today simply does not mean what Larsen’s definition says it means.  The misuse and misapplication of the term over time has gutted it of any real value, rendering it useless at best.

Nevertheless, I do think that there exists something which for the purposes of this essay can be called “evangelicalism.”  While I do not think the term “evangelical” is helpful in any way, nor would I even advocate for the use of the term “evangelicalism” to describe this movement, I still think there is actually something which I will here call “evangelicalism.”  I get the sense that there exists a movement consisting of self-consciously Protestant Christians who are generally conservative theologically and politically.

Even so, I would not say that “evangelicalism” is a helpful label for this movement of self-consciously Protestant, generally conservative people, for the same reasons I do not think the term “evangelical” is helpful.  The purpose of labeling something is to clearly identify it, but the labels “evangelical” and “evangelicalism,” because they are so ambiguous today, do not serve to clearly identify anything.  Therefore, I do not think that the label “evangelicalism” can or should be applied to this group of people.  My calling the movement “evangelicalism” in this essay should not signal my endorsement of the term; rather, it should only signal that while I do not think “evangelicalism” is a useful term, it nevertheless is the most popular one.

Historically, evangelicalism was a theological movement.  But I am not convinced that the same could be said of the movement today.  At best, I think that contemporary evangelicals are primarily known for their political views rather than their theology (even if their theology functionally informs their political views, though I get the sense that this is not the case overall).  There are a number of reasons for this identification, not the least of which was the apparent connection between the large turnout of evangelical voters and the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency.

Another reason for this identification is that theology has very little place in evangelicalism as a whole.  It is interesting to consider that the first thing David Wells argues, after claiming that “evangelicalism has been emptying itself out,” is, “gone now is [evangelicalism’s] doctrinal fabric” (Wells, 2).  Theology once held pride of place in the minds of evangelicals, but now, after a time of self-emptying, politics has taken the place of theology.  Evangelicals are now known primarily for their politics because most evangelicals are far more well-versed in politics than in theology.  What used to be a theological movement (stemming primarily from the influence of Jonathan Edwards) has morphed into a political movement, centered around shared conservative societal values rather than around biblical and theological convictions.  (It should be noted that this is another reason I reject the term; because of its political baggage, the term “evangelical” does not communicate what many hope to communicate with their use of it.)


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