The Theology of Evangelicalism

The theological core of evangelicalism is the Word of God: both written (Scripture) and incarnate (Christ).  As Daniel Treier notes, “evangelicals recognize the Bible as God’s Word in a particular way.  Scripture itself identifies God’s Son Jesus Christ as the final, ultimate divine Word or speech (Heb. 1:1-3)….Evangelicals [consequently] realize that Scripture being God’s Word in written form means it bears corresponding witness to the incarnate Logos” (Daniel J. Treier, “Scripture and Hermeneutics,” in Larsen and Treier, 37).  Scripture provides the data for evangelical theological construction, and Christ, particularly his person and work, stands as the norming concept in evangelical theologizing.  All evangelical theology is accountable to Christ and should be expressly laid down in (or at least strongly implied by) Scripture.

With that theological core in mind, there are a variety of theological commitments which are necessary to hold in order to be an evangelical.  A high view of Scripture as the Word of God is perhaps the most important of these commitments, for every other theological commitment comes ultimately by way of divine revelation in Scripture.  An understanding that the only true God (monotheism) exists as three co-equal, co-eternal persons (biblical Trinitarianism) is also required to be an evangelical.  Kevin Vanhoozer asks, “will [global evangelical theology] stay Trinitarian?” (Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “The Triune God of the Gospel,” in Larsen and Treier, 28).  The implication of this question is that as it stands, global evangelical theology is necessarily Trinitarian.  I would also say that the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is also a required theological commitment for evangelicals to hold.  This means that a belief in macroevolution, even in the form of theistic evolution, places one outside the bounds of evangelicalism.

The doctrine of creation also includes the creation of man and woman in the image of God.  Cherith Fee Nordling says of creation and the imago dei, “Genesis tells a creation narrative of divine-human relation and image-bearing” (Nordling, “The Human Person in the Christian Story,” in Larsen and Treier, 66).  The Bible speaks of God’s act of creation, which rules out any notion of macroevolution, and the doctrine of the imago dei is upheld on this ground.  Yet the doctrine of the fall of humankind, along with a robust understanding of sin, is also necessary to be an evangelical.  Nordling adds, “sin enters as the image-bearers deny Yahweh as creation’s ultimate source of wisdom…The resulting falsehood and alienation leads to death and dissolution.  Creation suffers as a consequence (Gen. 3:17-18; Rom. 8:20-23), and the temple-palace and the image-bearers both fall into ruin” (Nordling, “The Human Person in the Christian Story,” in Larsen and Treier, 67).

The doctrine of salvation by grace alone, for the glory of God alone, on the basis of the person and work of Christ alone (with particular reference to his atonement as a satisfaction for sin), through faith alone, taught ultimately in Scripture alone must also be present in order to be an evangelical.  These five solas of the Reformation are the most visible connections that evangelicalism has with its Protestant forebearers, and a rejection of any one of them places one outside of evangelicalism.  This is especially apparent, as Sweeney argues, when considering that “most interpret [Rom. 3:28] in light of the Reformation doctrine that we are saved by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide) in Christ alone (solus Christus).  All agree that right doctrine comes from the canon of Scripture alone (sola Scriptura).  In sum, evangelicals cling to the gospel message as spelled out in the Bible” (Sweeney, 24-25).

The work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration, conversion, sanctification, and the creation of the church is necessary for one to be an evangelical.  Finally, a robust understanding of the end times must also be present to be considered an evangelical.  A belief in heaven and hell, as well as the second coming of Christ, cannot be excluded from an authentic evangelical theology.  This outline of doctrine comprises a rather standard way for evangelicals to structure their systematic theology, examples of which can be found in the work of such evangelical theologians as Wayne Gruden and Millard Erickson.

The Reformation emphasis on the doctrine of justification through faith alone has often been regarded as an essential theological commitment of evangelicalism, but it has recently been questioned by many, both within and without evangelicalism.  The standard definitions of evangelicalism (seen above in Essay One) usually incorporate a note about the movement’s theological relationship with the Protestant Reformers, and this is most clearly seen with reference to both movement’s conceptions of salvation, particularly the notion that justification comes through faith alone.  But this notion has been recently questioned.

The most infamous example of this is found in the document known as “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.”  An ecumenical gathering of evangelicals and Romans Catholics produced the document that was subsequently criticized by some theologians in both camps for its lack of a clear statement about the respective understandings of the doctrine of justification.  Officially, Rome has not revoked the anathema it pronounced at the Council of Trent against those who hold to an understanding of justification through faith alone.  The point here is that those evangelicals who participated in the crafting of this document, perhaps inadvertently, signaled that justification through faith alone is not necessarily a central doctrine in evangelical theology.

Interestingly, the Statement of Faith of the National Association of Evangelicals contains no mention of the doctrine of justification through faith alone.  One of the largest evangelical parachurch organizations produced a statement of faith in which justification is completely ignored.  This too should signal that the doctrine of justification through faith alone is perhaps not as crucial to evangelical theology today as it has been historically.

These examples demonstrate that the main issue facing evangelicalism in this regard is probably not the redefinition of the doctrine of justification through faith alone, but rather that the doctrine is simply ignored in large measure by many evangelicals, including many evangelical preachers and pastors.  But to the extent that the doctrine of justification is either redefined or ignored, the theological substance of evangelicalism must be altered as well.  The material principle of the Reformation was justification through faith alone, and evangelicalism inherited this doctrinal distinctive from the Reformers.  It functioned as the centerpiece of evangelical soteriological reflection for hundreds of years.

That said, I do not agree with this attempted diminishment of the doctrine of justification.  Fundamentally, the doctrine speaks to how one stands in a right relationship with God and, therefore, is of extreme importance not only for theological reflection, but also for practical life.  This doctrine stands as the most obvious disagreement between Rome and evangelicalism, and it should not be redefined in a way that makes evangelical Protestantism more palatable to Roman Catholicism.  But I also disagree with the diminishment of the doctrine on the grounds that it really did serve as an important marker for evangelical theology for hundreds of years.  To simply jettison what was once critical to one’s theological identity seems to me to be a move in precisely the wrong direction.


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