What is an Evangelical?


More than twenty years (1996) ago a group of reformed evangelicals gathered in Cambridge, MA and there disseminated a call to reformation among evangelical Christians.

The group is known as the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and represents that part of evangelicalism that is united around a reformed confessional identity, typically expressed in the Westminster Standards–the doctrinal basis of denominations like the Presbyterian Church in America, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the denomination in which I worship, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

That call for reformation, sadly, has largely gone unheeded even among some of the denominations from which the signatories hailed, which has–at least in part–contributed to the continued decline of evangelicalism into something that has come to be associated (perhaps unfairly) with a particular political outlook and, in addition, with all sorts of negative associations.

The current spate of worthwhile discussions about evangelical identity gives us a chance to revisit some of the core affirmations found in that part of evangelicalism that is descended from the magisterial reformers, especially Calvin.

IVP Academic (2017)

As an aside, similar projects have been undertaken in others parts of evangelicalism.

One worthy project is Chris Gehrz and Mark Pattie’s recent book The Pietist Option.  Pietism was, in some ways, an impulse to recapture the heart of the Christian faith.

In the aftermath of the reformation it became apparent that the diversity of views that had previously existed–and there had been held in check–within in the structure of the Roman Catholic Church would now have room to explore their distinctive approaches to theology.

Over time some Christians believed that while theological debate was important, it had arguably robbed the faith of its heart for Christ. Pietism attempted to correct that.

Ironically, German Pietism came to birth a generation of scholars whose focus on the heart and on Christ as center would, in turn, lead to a renunciation of some of the fundamental beliefs of the Christian faith (in the 19th Century).

One lesson we may take from these examples is that in every generation we face new temptations that have the potential to derail our faith. Arguably what makes me a “conservative” or “traditionalist” is my impulse to return again to “the old paths” and to attempt to walk in them (see Jeremiah 6:16).

When I say that I am an evangelical here’s what I mean:

  1. Rooted in the Reformation
  2. Centered on the Bible
  3. Centered upon Christ
  4. Dependent upon divine grace
  5. Enlivened by living faith
  6. Pursuing God’s glory in all things

This outline reveals my identity as a reformed evangelical. Evangelicalism is at its best when its rooted in a Protestant tradition bigger than itself. Arguably where evangelicalism has become diminished it is because it has cut itself off from a broader tradition and created a ghetto.

By this I don’t meant to suggest that evangelicals must be members of the mainline denominations. I think the time for such a strategy is now over. There are, however, plenty of ways in which to faithfully live out a vision of the Christian life connected by covenant to God and other another outside of these denominations.

In the coming weeks we’ll be taking a look at each of these distinctives with the hope of pulling them together to show that what is often critiqued as evangelicalism is actually a counterfeit.

How do you define the term “evangelical”?



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