Are We Evangelicals?

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It’s a turbulent time to be an evangelical in America, leading some Christian scholars who subscribe to  historic evangelical beliefs to suggest that it is time to drop the term.

In 1975, Charles Colson published Born Again, the story of his conversion from Richard Nixon’s “hatchet man” to evangelical Christian and founder of Prison Fellowship. Meanwhile, Jimmy Carter was running for President of the United States. Carter made no secret of his Christian faith, so a reporter asked him if he was born again. Carter replied that he was, and the term “born again,” along with the moniker “evangelical,” entered the vocabulary of everyday English. Time proclaimed 1976 “The Year of the Evangelical.”

Carter might have been a born-again Christian, but his policies proved to be too liberal for some of his fellow evangelicals, leading to the emergence of the Moral Majority, a conservative political action party that claimed much of the credit for the 1980 election of Republican President Ronald Reagan. Since then, the term “evangelical” has come to be associated with the Republican party, right up to the 2020 election. Surveys showed that 81% of those claiming to be evangelicals (mainly white people) voted for Trump in 2016, and similar percentages did again in 2020. This accounts for the shockwaves that went through the secular media for a short spell in late 2019 when the retiring editor of Christianity Today (CT), Mark Galli, stated in print that Trump should be removed from office. Evangelical leaders loyal to Trump downplayed the significance of CT compared to that of the millions influenced by TV evangelists.

It’s a turbulent time to be an evangelical in America, leading some Christian scholars who subscribe to historic evangelical beliefs to suggest that it is time to drop the term. A professor from Baylor University, writing before either of the above developments, opined in the Atlantic that “Evangelical Has Lost Its Meaning” (Sept. 22, 2019).

What about the Christian Reformed Church? Are we evangelicals? I wish to argue that, despite such popular (mis)understandings, to be biblically Reformed is in fact to be historically evangelical. Let me explain by starting with the historical roots of evangelicalism.

The English word “evangelical” comes from the Greek euangelion, meaning “good news” or “gospel.” However, a distinct movement known as “Evangelicalism” has been traced to the Evangelical Revival of the 18th-century Great Awakening. This revival had affinities with the 16th-century Protestant Reformation as well as the Puritan and Pietist movements of the 17th century. For instance, Martin Luther (1483-1546), referred to the evangelische kirche (evangelical church) to distinguish Protestants from Roman Catholics.

There is general agreement that 18th-century evangelicalism consisted of four main elements: belief in the divine inspiration and authority of the Bible; an emphasis on Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection as the basis of our salvation; the need to be converted or born again; and an activism that involved spreading the gospel at home and abroad, including social action. To varying degrees, these elements are still true of those we think of today as evangelicals. They cross denominational lines and now even include some who identify as “evangelical Catholics.”

How does the Christian Reformed Church understand its relationship to evangelicalism, both in its past and present forms? The denomination has been a member (with a few years’ break) since 1943 of the National Association of Evangelicals in the United States. This organization issues position papers on social and ethical issues that are compatible with our views. The Canadian branch of the CRC is affiliated with the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada as well as the more theologically mixed Canadian Council of Churches. In sum, the CRC has clear ties to evangelicalism.

In its earlier years, however, the CRC defined itself as Reformed, distinct from evangelicalism, and there are still those who would do so. Specifically, they are suspicious of the revivalist, conversion-based emphasis of the original 18th-century definition of evangelicalism compared to our more covenantal theology of salvation. A fairly typical example of this attitude would be “I Never Was an Evangelical, and I Never Want to Be,” a 2017 essay in Reformed Journal.

Alternatively, Neal Plantinga, former president of Calvin Theological Seminary, has popularized the idea of being Reformed as an “accent” within the broader world of Christian conversation. Meanwhile, other CRC members who have been influenced by the charismatic movement, the late Billy Graham’s crusades, or other expressions of the broader evangelical movement do not hesitate to identify as evangelical. Which perspective is correct? Are we, in fact, evangelicals?

Rather than identifying with the four characteristics of evangelicalism, the CRC, especially since the mid-1970s, has identified three distinct but related “minds” in Dutch Calvinism. These are the doctrinalists, who stress the importance of sound doctrine as found in our confessions; pietists who like to read the Bible devotionally and emphasize the believer’s personal walk with God; and, transformationalists who seek to apply biblical and Reformed principles to the surrounding culture. Transformationalists draw inspiration from Abraham Kuyper, a 19th-century Dutch Calvinist theologian. The CRC’s identity statement What it Means to Be Reformed outlines these three positions helpfully and notes: “Obviously these three emphases or minds are overlapping. No hard and fast line can be drawn between them.”

This is well put, but how different is this from evangelicalism? I argue it is not essentially different, and that in fact to be biblically Reformed is to be evangelical. To come to this conclusion, I will draw from the words of Richard Mouw, president emeritus of Fuller Seminary. Mouw is back at Calvin University, where he taught philosophy from 1968-85, now serving as senior fellow at the Paul B. Henry Center for the Study of Christianity and Politics.

Mouw identifies himself with both the transformationalist—or as he prefers to call it, culturalist—and pietist minds. In a 2012 article in the Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology, Mouw affirms, "I certainly have strong affinities with that kind of culturalist emphasis; indeed I have been much influenced by it. … But in the final analysis, I am a pietist. And truth be told, I think Abraham Kuyper was also a pietist.”

Pietism, which originated in 17th-century German Lutheranism, has become an almost derogatory term for those who emphasize a “personal relationship with Jesus” at the expense of cultural involvement. Mouw is aware of this tendency and warns against it, while arguing that what is best about pietism and evangelicalism is “the priority of the religion of the heart that in turn must then give direction to our heads and our hands” —in other words, a personal, prayerful relationship with God in Christ that leads to faith in action.

Abraham Kuyper was certainly concerned with cultural transformation, but he was also a doctrinalist who led a movement out of the predominantly liberal mainline church of his day. Moreover, he emphasized the need for personal piety in such devotionals as To Be Near Unto God, and he admired the Puritans. The point is that the three strands in Dutch Calvinism, rather than being in tension with one another, belong together and issue from a transformed heart that is “near unto God.”

A biblical balance of head and hands arising out of a renewed heart in the Kuyper-Mouw tradition, I respectfully suggest, is Reformed evangelicalism at its best.

Discussion Questions

  1. What does the term “evangelical” mean to you? Do you identify with it?
  2. Of the three “minds” of doctrinalist, pietist, and transformationalist in the Christian Reformed Church, which do you have an affinity with? Why?
  3. How do we foster a biblical balance between these three “minds” in our own lives and in our churches?
  4. Do you agree with the author that to be biblically Reformed is to be evangelical? Why or why not?

 

About the Author

J. Cameron Fraser is a retired Christian Reformed pastor in Lethbridge, Alta., who now concentrates on writing as well as preaching.

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Comments

What a great article--informative, and giving evidence of being informed.  More than that perhaps, it doesn't get caught up in the political hyper-partisanship of the day.

I admit I saw the title before clicking on it and thought, "Not another article denouncing 'Christian Nationalism' in the shadow of January 6 while at the same time trying to see how many Christians can be judged as being in that 'other' group".   I was delighted to find the article was not that. :-)

I would add this to the article: whatever Christians may decide to do in terms of embracing or rejecting or divorcing themselves from the word "evangelical," politicians of today will use the term (as a praise or as a condemnation) for the sole purpose of attracting some voters and denouncing others.  And sadly, what politicians do with the word will have a greater effect on its definition in the minds of the broader population than what those who actually are "evangelicals" (by a historical and meaningly definition -- see this article) claim for the word.    

I am an Evangelical. I want to tell the world about Jesus and the Good News of salvation through Calvary's cross. We are Christian Reformed. We are Evangelicals. Christ indwells us. We must continue to identify as Evangelicals. We will not be cancelled. 

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