28 March 2007

GodWordThink: Evangelicals?

What is an Evangelical? Am I one? Do I want to be one? asks Richard from Cyprus in GodWordThink: Evangelicals?

It's a good question, because the word "evangelical" now has so many different meanings that it is difficult to know what people mean by it unless they define it each time they use it. It seems that secular journalists, especially in America, use it almost as a synonym for "fundamentalists", yet not many years ago one of the big disputes between different Protestant groups in America was precisely the dispute between "Evangelicals" and "Fundamentalists", who were at odds with each other on a variety of issues.

Richard in his post examines the differences between US and UK evangelicals. In part, these differences are cultural, but as Richard points out, they are also theological, and two groups of self-styled evangelicals seem to have quite different understandings of what they are, and what evangelicalism is.

In part the problem is that "evangelical" is basically an adjective that has been pressed into service as a noun, and the noun meanings are beginning to take over the adjectival ones. Orthodox Christians can easily describe their faith as "evangelical", since it is based on the good news of Jesus Christ.


Les said...

Thanks Steve. This is a very insightful post. The word "evangelical" has become largely a cultural word with much negative baggage. The one thing that i appreciate about aspects of the "emerging" church is the need to find other ways of describing ourselves to non-believers.

The Scylding said...

Well, due to the cultural baggage it carries, I'm not excited about being called an 'evangelical'. Though I fall within the protestant sphere of Christianity, the only adjectives I'm happy about are orthodox (small o - sorry Stephen) and catholic (small c).

I grew up in evangelicalville, and sectarian variations on that theme, so maybe my distaste for the term has some basis in personal experience?

Dougald Hine said...

Here in the UK, I regularly get wound up by journalists who see fit to pronounce on the politics of the Anglican Communion while using the word "evangelist" when they mean "evangelical" (in the politicised sense). When I talk to fellow journalists about this, I compare it to a political correspondent who can't distinguish between a conservative and a conservationist: yes, they have a common root, but they signify quite different things.

But, reading your post, I recognise that the error may well arise from the grammatical quirk of an "adjective... pressed into service as a noun". Well put!

Steve Hayes said...

I think the poit is, which cultural baggage does it carry? Richard drew attention to differences between US and UK evangelicalism, but I think in South Africa evangelicalism has come of the characteristics of both, and perhaps a few others as well.

Steve Hayes said...


An analogous linguistic problem, especially with journalists, is the use of the term "cult" to refer to a group of people. Are, say, the Jehovah's Witnesses a "cult". Ther answer is no: they practise a cult, like most other religious groups, but it's an abuse of language to think that they can be a cult.

I suppose one could say that some US evangelicals practise the cult of the Bible.

The Scylding said...

Cult of the Bible? Certainly - and I've seen it - but let us remember, it is the Bible through modernist eyes.

I would describe modern evangelicalism as a 2 headed beast - there is the emotional head - happy happy happy and now we're saved; and then there is the 'intelectual' version - especially common among reformed and some baptists - if youu have faith in justification by faith, then you're saved, note the shift of the object of faith from Christ to a simple statement. Also, evangelicalism tends to be anti - sacramental. I know there are some who call NT Wright the head of the evangelical portion of the Anglican church, but I don't think that would apply to a SA or US definition of the word. Personally, I don't think there is much of a difference between American and SA evangelicalism any more. The fundamentalist vs evangelical battle of the early 20th century is over, and they have merged - especially the intellectual head of evangelicalism. But the basis on which modern evangelicalism stands, is modernism. At least that's how I see it....

Steve Hayes said...


You'll have to define "modernism"! Fundamentalism started as a protest against modernism the the theological sense, which the Fundamentalists saw in such things as higher criticism and "Liberal Protestantism" generally. I would agree that Fundamentalists were and probably still are imbued with the spirit of modernity, but modernism?

South African evangelicalism includes groups such as Africa Enterprise, which was influenced by both UK and US evangelicalism, and though nondenominational, has had people from various denominations in it - Anglican, Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostals of various kinds and so on.

The Scylding said...


By modernism I mean enlightment, and post-enlightment thought - ie evangelicals have been attacking modernism with its own tools...

Yes, I'm aware of AE and others, but in the last 2 decades or so, SA evangelicalism have swung towards the American variety, or so it appears.

BTW, with your missiological interests, you'd enjoy this...


Steve Hayes said...

evangelicals have been attacking modernism with its own tools

Right on!

And I've been out of touch with Soputh African evangelicalism for the last 20 years, so you're probably right.

I liked the map -- wish I could find a way of showing it to my church history students!


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