And I’m not . . .

. . . an evangelical, that is.

Jason Woolever posted an interesting entry several days ago about what it means to be an evangelical and I’m finally getting around to commenting. It’s not that I have a problem with Jason’s post. It’s more that I have had some problem finding a good, current definition of what it means to be evangelical. I think Jason’s points would generally be accepted by most people who call themselves evangelicals in my experience. (I know, not a scientific sample, but since I’m only concerned with how I use the label, that works.)

I’ve been having trouble with the evangelical label for some time, most recently when I read some evangelical commentaries on Daniel and found that their critical views were more liberal than mine. I’ve even been called an evangelical by a few people myself. So I think Jason’s list is a rather convenient opportunity to examine some key points.

So let me look at these points one by one:

1) They believe that Jesus is the only Savior of humankind.
This means that no other religious pathway, other than Jesus, will lead to God. There is no forgiveness of sins without the shedding of blood. Every human being has sinned. The only available candidate to die for another’s sins is one who has no sins of his/her own. Jesus, the only sinless human being, is the ony substitute who has ever lived. He paid the sin debt for the entire human race in his blood.

I would say rather that Jesus is the defining path to God. The incarnation tells me that God reaches out to us, and is willing to reach all the way and go all the way. As the incarnation of God, Jesus subsumes any other way in which God has contacted us, whether that is by personal revelation, prophetic voice, mystic experience, or the creation itself. In that way I can understand that people who may not know or acknowledge Jesus may nonetheless be saved. They can follow the path without knowing about it. I think this interpretation is faithful to both the more Pauline statements, but more importantly to the statements of Jesus such as the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46).

2) They believe that the Bible is God’s Word.
This doesn’t mean that Jesus is not the Incarnate Word of God. While Jesus is the Incarnate Word of God, the Bible is the written Word of God. One could say the Bible is the Word of the Word (hat tip to Mike Rayson). This means that even the parts of the Bible that are written by Paul, Peter, John, or Solomon, are the Word of God. This also means that in order to get a full picture of who Jesus is, one must look as much at what Paul said about him as one must look at what he said about himself. (Emphasis mine)

I could go along with this statement up until the underlined part. In order to be faithful to the way in which God has chosen to reveal scripture, I believe we need to recognize the differences between the historical and cultural context, as well as the personal perspective of the individual Bible writer. Thus the gospels are more definitive than Paul in writing about the life of Jesus. It seems to me that this is a fairly obvious reading of the texts. I am unsure how so many Christians arrive at the point of defining the teachings of Jesus through the words of someone who did not follow him in his lifetime when the tradition that comes through the people who did know him is available.

3) They believe that the Bible should have the final say in understanding every moral issue. This means that if scientific research suggests that a different moral understanding of a behavior might be appropriate, the evangelical would stick with what the Bible says on the issue.

I think this element is nonsense. I hear it from many fundamentalists and evangelicals, and it’s the “Sunday School” answer (everyone who loves Jesus, raise your hands!), but the Bible provides us with principles and an access to divine revelation, but it is not totally comprehensive, and despite the efforts of many to make it address all moral issues, there are many that it simply does not cover.

Ethics and moral choices require a much more substantial response than this.

4) They believe that the miracles in the Bible (the Virgin Birth, the Physical Resurrection of Jesus from the Dead, etc) were actual historical events.

While I would not expect believe in every miracle precisely as recorded, I do accept the two miracles specified. I do not, however, believe that one can prove any miracle historically, because history is a method based on probabilities, and miracles are not merely improbable, they’re impossible (within the natural world). But having accepted the big miracle of the incarnation in the first place, minor physical details like a virgin birth of bodily resurrection seem kind of trivial to me.

5) They believe that heaven and hell are both very real eternal destinations.

I’m not sure what “real” means with regard to spiritual things, but I do end up having to use it anyhow, so I’ll not quibble about that here. As for “eternal” I tend to believe that hell represents the final destruction of all that is evil, and thus hell is not as eternal as heaven. That, however, is another substantial topic.

6) They believe that the only way to escape hell is through faith in Christ. They would say that this does not make God unjust, unloving, or unfair, because hell is what humans deserve for being desperately wicked. God’s love and desire to redeem wicked human beings is demonstrated in the cross of Christ. Evangelicals do not find the doctrine of hell incompatible with God’s incredible love for the human race.

Up to the last sentence, see point #1. As for the last sentence, I think that only with the most vigorous twisting of logic can one make “incredible love” and “burning eternally in a real hell” compatible. You either have to trash the concept “love” or do something with hell.

7) They believe the earliest Christians, including the apostles, were evangelicals. This means that being “an evangelical” is not some new invention, but what it really means to be a Christian.

I don’t believe in an orthodox age and I don’t believe most of these doctrines were brought to full definition during the time of the apostles. I’m comfortable with that, because I believe that part of the function of the church is to continue to live in relationship to Jesus Christ in our time and place. Developing doctrines “about” what we have experienced as a church body is a continuing process. So I’m happy to have my faith called a new invention at the same time as I’m happy to see it rooted in tradition.

Again, I appreciated Jason’s effort to make a short and clear example of what an evangelical actually is. Doubtless many people will disagree with him and yet call themselves evangelicals. For the reasons I’ve specified, I don’t use that label.

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  1. I’m really stumped by this: “In that way I can understand that people who may not know or acknowledge Jesus may nonetheless be saved. They can follow the path without knowing about it.”

    Could you expound on it a bit, because it sounds like you mean works can get us to heaven. Or are you talking about “the heavens declare the glory of God” kind of thing, where a person who has never had the opportunity to hear the gospel can still go to heaven? I guess what I’m asking is – are you saying that people can reject Jesus and still go to heaven?

  2. “Is that any clearer?”

    No. Perhaps the Vicodin is slowing me down, but I’m still not grasping what you mean – or at least, I hope the way I’m interpreting it is wrong. In my experience, plenty of lost people live lives similar to – in fact, sometimes even “better” than Christians. My mother is lost – she explicitly rejects Jesus’ sacrifice – yet she took in three coworkers after Katrina, and one, who is terminally ill, still lives with her. She has taken on the expense (on a legal secretary’s salary, no less!), emotional stress, and time demands of a terminally ill person that is no relation and to whom she has no obligation. They weren’t even friends before Katrina. If this is not Christ-like behavior, I don’t know what is. But it will have no effect on what happens to her after she dies. And I go to church with people who are saved but still struggling with sin that by worldly standards is quite serious – often unsuccessfully.

    I just don’t see how behavior is relevant to salvation. If it wasn’t for the thief on the cross, why would it be for someone who behaves in an opposite manner? And how can sanctification occur before justification?

  3. This is certainly food for thought. Thanks for posting it. I call myself an evangelical, but haven’t thought about what that means as carefully as I should have. This post will certainly help.

  4. I’m not usually very tense about labels, but I hate creating expectations in others that will certainly be disappointed. But labels also tend to drift. I would really like to see a survey to confirm or deny this, but it seems to me that the term evangelical is drifting toward the left, which has given rise to terms like “conservative evangelical.” Since I’m to the left of “conservative evangelical” and my perception of “evangelical” includes “conservative” I avoid the label.

    Added to that, I read a definition of evangelical just yesterday (Evangelical Alliance Basis of Faith HT: 42)
    with which I can substantially agree.

    Labels are confusing!

  5. A short 2 points about labels: If one actually uses a dictionary definition of the attribute assigned as a label things become much less confusing as most labels are simply misapplied. The other note is that the labels liberal and conservative are almost exclusively used from a secular perspective yet applied in a religious perspective. In a sense I believe such people need to either recommit to their faith or leave it for a life of pure politics. Doing so would allow them to see more clearly the boundaries of each and what attributes, rather than labels, really mean in each.

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