Evangelicalism, False and True
by Joseph P. Braswell
October 1998

A popular theological method of the Middle Ages was that which was associated with Peter Abelard: sic et non (yes and no). If I may be indulged a bit, I would make use of this "both/and" approach to state my equivocating attitude toward modern evangelicalism. On one hand, I wish to assert that I have no problem whatsoever with evangelicalism. I certainly do not believe it to be deficient, degenerate, or dilute—a debased and substandard form of Christianity. Indeed, I would insist that I myself am an evangelical and am proud to be so identified. On the other hand, however, I do have serious problems with many who have arrogated this label to themselves and to their doctrines and practices: those who have come in popular parlance to be called "evangelical" by an all-too-common misapplication of this term to those who are not true evangelicals. Sadly, meaning is use, and, according to the common consensus of contemporary linguistic usage, "evangelical" is used to refer to various beliefs and practices that in my estimation are deficient, degenerate, and dilute. Thus, in one sense of the term, I can be referred to as an evangelical, while, according to quite another (and perhaps that which has now become the primary) sense of the term, I am opposed to that which would be called evangelicalism. Which is true—whether that I ought to be identified as an evangelical or whether I should be described as opposed to evangelicalism—depends on what we mean by the term or how we are employing it.

The problem here is that historically the word had an intension (or sense) based on its etymological origins. When some arrogated the term to themselves, "evangelical" came to be understood by extension (or reference) to denote those self-styled evangelicals. X calls himself an evangelical. If one wants to know what an evangelical is, simply look at X as an example of an evangelical. Evangelicals are those who are like X, and, by describing certain characteristics of X, one describes what an evangelical is. In other words, locate those who are called evangelicals, describe the characteristics of their beliefs and practices, and therefore denote those beliefs and practices as evangelical. Over time, therefore, the characteristics of those persons, beliefs, and practices become the intension or connotation—the accepted definition or meaning—of the term.

The Definition of "Evangelical"

From a strictly etymological perspective, "evangelical" denotes someone or something for whom or which the evangel serves in some manner as such a significant and distinguishing characteristic that it can be referred to as an identifying mark, making "evangelical" an adequately descriptive label for purposes of identification. Something or someone can be labeled as evangelical because the evangel is so prominent and notable a feature of the person or thing (including ideas) as to stand out sufficiently as a means of characterization that allows us a means of classification and differentiation (comparison and contrast). Accordingly, to be an evangelical is to be identified with the gospel (the evangel), and that identification should be to us a most-coveted and highly-prized badge of honor and distinction: glorying in the Cross and bearing the testimony of Jesus Christ. I would be most proud to be considered an evangelical in this sense, for that would indicate that I have let my light shine before men.

If we continue to restrict ourselves to etymology, in order for a person, group, movement, or theology to qualify as evangelical in designation, the gospel must in some sense be basic, central, and constitutive—especially characteristic of his or its emphases. The gospel must be to him or it that which is of paramount importance and of primary concern, and this emphasis must be clearly and unmistakably expressed. To be truly evangelical is to be gospel-defined (or gospel-identified), gospel-concerned, gospel-oriented, gospel-driven. Certainly, this emphasis on the gospel could conceivably lapse into a reductionism (nothing but the gospel), or the gospel could be understood very narrowly, but such an interpretation of evangelicalism is far from necessary from the etymological derivation. The emphasis on the gospel need only be a stress on its necessity (it is sine qua non for authentic Christianity), not on its presumed sufficiency (as though it were held to be all that matters). An evangelical need only assert that the evangel is to be at the heart and soul of genuine Christianity, and all else in some sense flows from it or is understood in terms of it, as vitally related to it. He need only maintain that the gospel sheds light on the entire "package" of Christian faith and life; it is our existential starting point and foundation, because it is constitutive of Christian self-understanding and self-definition, of any genuine sense of Christian identity. He therefore would insist that all other doctrines need to be brought into relation to the gospel as implicitly contained in it, that other affirmations of the Faith simply explicate gospel faith in its confession, explanation, expression, and application.1

Such evangelicalism is clearly expressed in the material principles of the Protestant Reformation, and the Reformation of the sixteenth-century is truly an evangelical movement in the best sense of the term. Sola Gratia, sola fide, and solus Christus are affirmations of the gospel. Luther held that the gospel (justification by faith) was that article on which the church stands or falls, and in his reforming efforts he judged everything by "what preaches Christ." Hardly intended in a narrow or reductionist fashion, these Reformational principles simply followed in the footsteps of the Apostle Paul, who determined among the Corinthians not to know anything but Christ crucified and insisted that our faith is in vain if Christ has not been raised in accordance with the received gospel. Whatever doctrine we might glean from Paul's epistle to the Romans (which is so rich in doctrinal content that it has often been viewed as a compendium of theology) is but the explication of the gospel as the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes, through which the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith. According to the evangelical understanding of the confessional and dogmatic-theological task, we enter into the field of Christian theology in all its breath and comprehensiveness through a deeper and fuller understanding of the meaning of the gospel, and evangelical theological study is faith—gospel faith—seeking understanding.

The New Evangelicalism

Such is my etymologically derived understanding of what it means to be evangelical, and it is in this sense that I consider myself (and exhort all of us) to be evangelical. Yet, it is the sad fact that evangelical ascription has been co-opted, that it is now applied (misapplied) to denote the "born-againism" of those semi-Pelagian adherents to synergistic, decisional regeneration and the pietistic and emotionalistic tradition of revivalism and its invitation system. I have problems with evangelicalism so conceived and do not wish to be identified as an evangelical in this sense. My differences with such evangelicalism are evangelical differences—differences determined by the gospel itself.

Reformation Monergism

Luther recovered the gospel, and thereby instituted a truly evangelical revival, when he broke free from the Medieval-Scholastic Nature/Grace metaphysical scheme. In his significant breakthrough insight, faith was no longer understood by him as a natural preparation for grace, as the fulfillment of a condition for receiving supernatural grace by the performance of something that was within man's natural capacity to do. The soteriological scheme of Scholastic theology was synergistic, because Pelagian: God responded to man; man cooperated with God according to his native ability. Against this Pelagian synergism, Luther insisted on total inability: the utter incapacitation and absolute impotence of the natural man in abject bondage to sin. Faith therefore could not be a condition for grace, for it could not be exercised out of inherently human resources as a natural act performed of sinful man's own initiative for the purpose of man's fitting and preparing himself to be a suitable candidate for receiving grace. Faith itself could only be the result of a prevening supernatural act; it was a free gift of divine grace, resulting entirely from God's unconditioned, monergistic action. Justification thus was not obtained because of faith, merely through faith—a faith wrought in us. Rather than a cooperation of Nature and Grace (the synergism of mutual effort by both God and man), God acts unilaterally and exclusively, taking the sole initiative in a free act of sovereign grace—grace that is altogether prior to, and productive of, justifying faith. The sola fide arises out of, and is nothing other than, sola gratia.

The Re-emergence of Synergism

Sadly, among the heirs of the Reformation it did not take long for divine monergism to be lost again. Melanchthon, Luther's humanist protégé, made rapprochement with the free-will position that had been earlier advanced by his fellow-humanist, Erasmus (a position decisively repudiated by Luther in his On the Bondage of the Will), and accordingly attempted to reintroduce synergism into Lutheran soteriology, creating the controversy between the Philippists and the Flacians (or Gnesio-Lutherans) in Lutheranism. However, the great controversy (one with more widespread and enduring consequences that extend into—and flourish in—our own time) was in the Reformed churches, involving Jacob Arminius and the Remonstrant movement. The Remonstrants—perhaps better known as Arminians—were decidedly semi-Pelagian in their view of faith. In their theology the sola fide was coordinated with God's grace as the human fulfillment of a condition for the actualization of a saving possibility (a mere possibility) that God universally offers. Such a faith-contribution is itself a principle standing ultimately independent of God's action of grace; it owes exclusively to man's natural endowment with a free will and thus arises out of an inherent capacity of the natural man. Because election is God's response to foreseen faith, faith becomes to some extent the cause or basis of salvation, and we again have justification because of—conditioned on—faith, with Grace merely perfecting Nature. Arminianism thus reintroduced the dialectics of Nature and Grace by setting faith over against grace as an independent, autonomous principle.

The New Subjectivism

Obviously, because faith was no longer dependent on grace (but grace was instead made dependent on faith), faith had to be understood once again as a virtue in man that pleased God and to which God responded favorably. Thus, because salvation depended on both Christ and faith, confidence was placed first in one's own faith, rather than in Christ. The focus accordingly shifted from a theocentric to an anthropocentric perspective, one concerned with the essential quality of the faith-act (a concern with its intensity, its strength, its passion). In a move toward subjectivism, faith turned in on itself self-consciously in self-absorption and self-concern—self-righteousness. The power of faith as such—the way in which it was experienced and expressed—became a major emphasis, as attention was directed to the question of the sufficiency of the faith-virtuousness one had relative to the condition necessary for genuine conversion. Faith came to be understood as a subjective experience that one had to prepare oneself for (i.e., get "psyched up" for) by the proper, psychological manipulation of the emotions, for it was passion that moved one to choose to believe, and faith was purely a volitional act of self-determination. Given this opinion, the move from Arminianism, through Methodism, to revivalism was quite inevitable.

In this subjectivistic climate the glorious experience of being "born again" eclipsed the concern with being objectively right with God. As the emphasis on experience displaced justification, a gateway was opened to introduce into the heretofore "right-wing" of Protestantism (among the stepchildren of the Reformed) an essentially Anabaptist or enthusiastic mood, giving birth to perfectionism and the holiness movement, as well as to Pentecostalism and the charismatic movement. Even in its more moderate forms, modern evangelicalism gives evidence of owing a significant debt to "higher" or "deeper life" and second-blessing teachings that have origins in this revival of "left-wing" emphases of spiritual narcissism in which even the worship of God (which ought to be done solely to his glory) is gauged by what we get out of it, and the presentation of doctrine and life is concerned more with appeal than with truth.

New Evangelical Apologetics

This anthropocentric concern with a mass-appealing marketing strategy carries over into evangelical apologetics. In order to evoke the faith of the natural man we must appeal to him in terms of his own tastes, sense of justice and fairness, and canons of rationality. The natural man must be massaged; he must be shown respect and deference. We must tell him that he is basically good, appealing to how sincere he is as a seeker of truth and how wise and open-minded he is in considering Christianity as an option. We must show him how becoming Christian will benefit him pragmatically (e.g., boosting his self-esteem, providing "fire insurance"). We must appeal to him in his presumed autonomy and provide him with reasons that he finds acceptable. Because Nature/Grace has been revived, it is to natural reason that we appeal, allowing the natural man, on the basis of his own principles, to be the judge. As such, there is no place allowed for the radical antithesis between the so-called wisdom of this world and the wisdom of God that Paul places at the very heart of the gospel.2

New Evangelical Worldliness

Because this emphasis on antithesis is lost, evangelicalism, for all its concern with pietistic otherworldliness that owes to its obsession with glorious conversion-experiences, has tended to be quite worldly. There is no radical repentance, for there is no root-and-branch repudiation of autonomy (Nature). Nature simply needs supplementation: the addition of a second story of Grace that is confined to a narrowly-conceived sphere of personal (read: private) devotion and to churchly activities in which evangelicals can retreat from the world to "get high" in the Spirit. Cloistered in the realm of Grace, they long for their coming escape from the world into heaven, viewing the gospel as the salvation of their ethereal souls that is concerned with the "sweet bye and bye" of the otherworldly hereafter. Upon going back into the world of everyday life, though excited about their future prospects, they largely conform to an unreformed, unreconstructed world and live an essentially unreformed and unreconstructed, natural life that more-or-less accepts what is as the norm. Their form of world-denial (retreat from history) leads to a laissez faire acceptance of—a passive resignation toward—the world as it is, including the spirit of the age.3 They make common cause with unbelievers because, though they are forgiven their sins and have a dimension of experience denied to the unbelievers, they perceive there to be no substantial difference between themselves and the unbelievers in most areas of life and no word of God to the sphere of Nature shared in common by believer and unbeliever. In the affairs of the realm of Nature, Christianity is largely irrelevant, and the dialectic of escapist separation and conformity takes the place of the Biblical calling of distinction (applying the antithesis) and transformation (dominion faith).

Real Evangelicalism

The Biblical gospel—the articulus stantis of authentic evangelicalism—is the gospel of the Kingdom, proclaiming that our God reigns and that the appropriate response to his Kingly reign is repentance and submission to his righteousness. It calls us to confess Jesus as our Lord. He is to be acknowledged as Lord in every area of our lives without exception; his lordship is total and all-encompassing. While we believe in our hearts, the implications of this faith—its fruit and consequences—are to flow out of our hearts to impact and determine every endeavor and relationship, registering itself in all the contexts of our existence and in our every activity, for out of the heart flow the issues of life. Christ's redemptive blessings flow "as far as the curse is found" (and we believe in total depravity!); wherever sin abounded, God's grace superabounds to establish the reign of life and righteousness. That grace constitutes us holy instruments of God's righteousness (his righting action) in the world unto the triumph of grace over sin across the full spectrum of human affairs, making our bodies (our interface with the world, our means of externalizing our faith in works) living acts of worship in offering the world back to God and unto his glory by whatsoever we do. By the gospel we are renewed in the image of God and must take up the dominion charge given to the images of God, bringing to bear the lordship of Christ on every point at which our lives make contact with the world as we work out our salvation and serve as instruments of the extension of the Abrahamic Blessing in fulfillment of the Great Commission.

Reclaiming True Evangelicalism

This is evangelical faith; anything else is a counterfeit based on "another gospel." We are the true evangelicals, and we should reclaim this term from those who have usurped it. The true evangelical is not ashamed of the gospel; without compromise or accommodation, he embraces its offense, neither adding to nor subtracting from it but, setting it forth in purity and fullness, he boldly announces: "Here I stand." Let us therefore not follow after a multitude to do evil, tacitly consenting to the prevalent corruption of a venerable term. Let us instead challenge the so-called (the spurious) evangelicals, judging them in terms of the evangel and calling for an authentic evangelical recovery and evangelical revival.

Joseph Braswell has done undergraduate and graduate work in philosophy at the University of South Florida, but his real interest is in theology and Biblical studies. He has published several articles in various journals (including the Westminster Theological Journal, the Journal of Christian Reconstruction, and the Chalcedon Report). He currently resides in Palatka, Florida and is engaged in research and writing. He can be reached at 1520 Prospect St., Palatka, FL 32177-5935.

This article copied The Chalcedon Foundation