Evangelicals on the Meaning of Evangelicalism

Over at The Jesus Creed blog, Scot McKnight invites his readers to share their reflections on the meaning of the oft-contested term “evangelical.”

McKnight offers his own definition, too, drawing upon the work of David Bebbington and Mark Noll:

Evangelicalism is a movement in the Protestant church shaped by differing but clear emphasis on four beliefs: the centrality of the Bible, the centrality of the atoning death of Christ, the centrality of the need for personal conversion, and the centrality of an active mission to convert others and to do good works in society.

McKnight’s a smart guy, of course, and brings a wealth of knowledge to this ongoing debate within (and outside of) the Christian Church. But I’ve got to admit that the most enlightening elements of this blog post come in the Comments section. I was fascinated to read the way that thoughtful evangelicals (presumably the bulk of McKnight’s readers) characterize the movement of which they are a part. Here are some words of wisdom from the commenters:

When evangelicalism began calling for defining and affirming propositional statements about “truth” and ceased being a vibrant contrast culture in terms of *way of life,* it became another entity tolerated by a pluralistic culture.

–“John W Frye”

It seems to me that there is one more characteristic of the old evangelicalism and that is “generous orthodoxy”. Thus evangelicalism was not limited to Arminian or Reformed or other particular disputable understandings of scripture. Evangelicalism was not separatistic as I see many are who now call themselves evangelicals. Fundamentalism was a descriptive term rather than a movement unlike the old evangelicalism which was a movement.


My impression is that [evangelicalism] is exploding outside of North America (growth & influence) eg. China house church movement, Evangelical Anglican’s in Africa, Pentecostalism in Latin America. Comments so far seem to be focused on the US Evangelical church.

–“steve martin”

There are 65 (and counting!) other comments on McKnight’s post — I encourage you to read them here.

I’m fascinated by this discussion for a number of reasons, but mostly because I hope to contribute to the evolution of the term “evangelical” with my thesis, “Born-Again Brethren: New Evangelicalism and the Cultural Transformation of a ‘Plain People.’” I think the Brethren in Christ offer a few new vantages on this historical movement.

HT = John Fea


About Devin Manzullo-Thomas

Father to Lucas. Husband to Katie. Prof and administrator at Messiah College. PhD student at Temple University. Member of Grantham BIC.
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2 Responses to Evangelicals on the Meaning of Evangelicalism

  1. Tom Grosh IV says:

    Thank-you for bringing McKnight’s post to our attention! As you suspect, I have comments and I really appreciate your thesis topic. I’ll get back to comments when time permits. …

    BTW, have I mentioned to you that McKnight will speak for the Christian Scholar Series at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ on February 19? Hope you can join us for the day 🙂

  2. Tom Grosh IV says:

    A little bit more:

    Last night in “Spiritual Formation in Ministry” (Evangelical Theological Seminary, Myerstown, PA), we discussed the Evangelical Stream (based on Foster’s “Streams of Living Water”).

    I largely agree with Bebbington/Noll, who could be summarized (with all the pluses/minuses) as

    * Biblicism
    * Conversionism
    * Crucicentrism
    * Activism

    I appreciate that in “How to Be Evangelical Without Being Conservative” (Zondervan, 2008), Roger Olson adds “Respect for the Great Tradition of Christian doctrine.” May it truly be so.

    Our Professor, Laurie Mellinger, shared with us Olson’s short and long definition of Evangelical. I hope this perspective is found in the Brethren in Christ.

    Short: “evangelical is not so much a matter of adherence to a set of doctrines … as it is a matter of an experience and a spirituality centered around the Bible, Jesus Christ, and his cross, and conversion, devotion, and evangelism” (2008, 25).

    Longer definition: “By ‘evangelical’ I mean a religious and spiritual habit of the heart that values having a healthy, growing, personal relationship with Jesus Christ manifested in a ‘conversational piety.’ Conversational piety is the network of interrelated beliefs and practices that include repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as God, Lord, and Savior; commitment to the Bible as God’s inspired written Word as uniquely authoritative for Christian life and practice; daily devotions and regular worship and Bible study; cross-centered devotion that regards Jesus’ death on the cross as the turning point of history and personal life; and active participation in social transformation through evangelism and charitable caring of the poor and oppressed” (2008, 26).

    Brief comment: I think ‘plain people’ in general bring to the table a passion for community, way of life (based upon the Sermon on the Mount), family, and mutual submission which is sorely lacking in much of Evangelicalism. All I have time to say at this point, except that I really appreciate your research and am looking forward to what you uncover/conclude.

    Keep pressing on in the upward hope of Christ Jesus as part of the people of God.

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