Recent Developments in the Definition of Evangelicalism

The second half of the twentieth century saw a spike in discussions pertaining to Evangelical identity. During these discussions the term “Evangelical” came to be used with greater intensity and was deployed in an increasingly technical manner. This phenomenon was in no small part due to the Evangelical renaissance, where New and Conservative Evangelicals came to global prominence. This paper examines the two distinct approaches to defining an Evangelical that were used in this period, with particular reference to the propositional approach of John Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones and the phenomenological approach of David Bebbington. The paper finishes by considering the merit of these two approaches in the present day. 

A Calvinist is identified as such by the doctrine she believes; an Evangelical not so.[1]

The polarising effect that such a statement will have among Evangelicals is testament to the division that exists between those seeking to define Evangelicalism. To some this statement is anathema, for it is absurd to define an Evangelical without primary reference to their theological convictions; to others the relative unimportance of doctrine compared to other historical and social factors makes such a statement perfectly agreeable. This is the division that exists and it is one that is causing considerable confusion and consternation amongst those seeking to be clear-headed about their perceived Evangelical identity. Are Evangelicals primarily recognisable by the doctrinal propositions to which they actively subscribe, or by observable and phenomenological traits which they may or may not consciously determine?

The division described did not occur in a vacuum but developed in the latter half of the twentieth century. During that time the term “Evangelical” underwent an intensification of use and was subject to increased scrutiny and technicality of deployment. The spike in discussions surrounding the term occurred in what Alister McGrath calls, “an Evangelical renaissance in the West”.[2] D. W. Bebbington, a key figure in the evolving process of Evangelical definition, identifies the character of this period:

The post-war Evangelical renaissance was a movement among those of firmly orthodox belief. Although the most striking resurgence of the traditionalists was in the Church of England, there were similar developments in other existing denominations and in new church groupings. Those with attitudes to the Bible that had come to be labelled conservative in the interwar period gained greater prominence.[3]

Brian Stanley divides the Evangelical renaissance of this period into three stages. Stage one runs from the mid-1940s with a move by certain leaders to establish a centre ground between modernist and fundamentalist positions. Stage two spans the “long 1960s” (1958-1974) and is where a consensus of Conservative Evangelicals in Britain and New Evangelicals in North America establish and maintain a leading influence. Stage three from the mid-1970s to the present, represents a diffusion of styles and divergent trajectories within the movement, leading to loss of consensus.[4]

The definition of Evangelicalism will not be settled here. Rather by examining how the term “Evangelical” has intensified in use and become increasingly specific and technical in deployment, it is hoped that it will be better understood. Indeed it seems doubtful that a definitive definition of Evangelicalism can be reached. If Stanley is correct in identifying the present time as one of decline in consensus and divergence in understanding, then the definitions offered are only going to be more difficult to present as either representative or normative and enforceable. This point is illustrated by the vast quantity of academic and popular writing on the subject of Evangelicalism. Furthermore, beyond this sizeable written debate is an unquantifiable bulk of formal discussion through seminars, sermon series and organisational websites, as well as informal discussion and opinions of ministers, clergy, para-church leaders and lay people. The possibility of defining an Evangelical will be revisited in the conclusion, but first the process of intensification of the term’s use and increased technicality of its deployment must be considered.

The propositional approach

Kenneth J. Stewart analyses the 1971 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary to demonstrate that,

Of the term “evangelical” the O.E.D. indicates that it is a term which “since the Reformation has been adopted as a designation of certain theological parties who have claimed that the doctrines on which they lay especial stress constitute the gospel.” By 1619 the term can be used in combination with others, such as “the Reformed evangelical religion”. In the eighteenth century, the term was “applied to that school of Protestants which maintains that the essence of the gospel consists in the doctrine of salvation by faith in the atoning death of Christ”.[5]

The brief linguistic study that Stewart gives outlines the propositional approach to defining an Evangelical. The approach states that the term can be traced back at least to the Reformation and is defined by gospel beliefs with particular emphasis on justification by faith. The term “Evangelical” has, then, an historical precedent but in his study Stewart does not find a use of the term “Evangelicalism” until it appears as a dismissive aside in 1831.  It is important to note that in his search for a linguistic argument, Stewart finds only general references to Evangelicals. The deployment of the term is not particularly technical or specific and, though applied to numerous groups, there is no single Evangelicalism. Rather Stewart states:

I do not advocate a sclerotic insistence that Evangelicalism is not subject to change… I do advocate that we be more prepared than formerly to speak about Evangelicalisms, i.e. varying expressions or manifestations of the evangelical faith in different centuries or eras as well as diverse cultures.[6]

This propositional approach dominated stages one and two of the Evangelical renaissance. This can be best shown through a study of two vital Conservative Evangelical leaders: John Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Albeit with differences between them, these two leaders present a vision of an Evangelical movement which is defined by doctrinal propositions. Though Lloyd-Jones has important things to bring to a study of this period, the clearest voice and Conservative Evangelicalism’s most prominent leader was Stott. Stott’s importance is hard to overstate and Derek J. Tidball has said: “much of the revival of Evangelicalism can be traced to Stott’s influence”.[7] It is important to recognise that there were several factors to his great influence. Two of them were the student group Inter-Varsity Fellowship (IVF) and the evangelist Billy Graham. They show how “Evangelical” came to be used in a more intensified and technical manner through the first two stages of the Evangelical renaissance.

1. Inter-Varsity

Alister Chapman recognises the vital place of Cambridge University in Stott’s formation and in particular his involvement in the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (CICCU). The illustrious Evangelical history of CICCU predates Stott’s arrival and Bebbington cites the organisation that it would lead to, IVF, as perhaps the most significant factor in the advance of Conservative Evangelicalism.[8] CICCU was founded in 1877 after an undergraduate mission lead by clergyman Sholto Douglas. In the following decades similar missions to Oxford and new emerging universities expanded the student work, leading to various agencies being established before the Student Christian Movement (SCM) emerged in 1905. The new movement encouraged missionary endeavour, but its greatest strength would also become its weakness: “the pressing needs of the missionary field could make doctrinal differences seem comparatively unimportant.”[9] Martin Wellings identifies the factors which led to SCM’s doctrinal broadening:

The pressures of modern thought, growing diversity in practise in public worship, different emphases in theology, varying attitudes to biblical criticism and opposing strategies for the assimilation of scientific knowledge imposed a considerable strain upon the Evangelical school. In the first three decades of the twentieth century that strain led to fragmentation.[10]

The missionary impulse and the desire of SCM to broaden its appeal and be more theologically accommodating, led to a breakaway by the more conservatively-minded CICCU. It disaffiliated from SCM in 1910 and with several likeminded Christian Unions eventually formed IVF in 1928. Seeking to be doctrinally clear and learning its lesson from SCM, “IVF took steps to avoid any broadening of its platform by creating a firmly evangelical basis of faith to be subscribed to by all officeholders.”[11] The doctrinal basis of IVF (now Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship [UCCF]), remains to this day an important document for Evangelicals. Those who drafted the original statement in 1924 sought to be faithful to the values of mission and interdenominational cooperation. Reflective of this, the main theological sources were the Thirty-nine Articles and the Westminster Confession of Faith, yet consisted only of those perceived fundamental truths of Christianity, which ran to eight points.[12]

This is the Evangelical thought world that Stott entered as an undergraduate. The values of IVF clearly remained with Stott as Chapman acknowledges in his assessment of Stott’s view of the Church of England:

Stott loved the music, the liturgy, and the theology of the Church of England but, like Eric Nash, he loved it most because he believed it was “the best boat to fish from”… He longed to see people converted, and saw the Church of England as the most likely means for that to happen.[13]

Chapman considers IVF a highly formative influence upon Stott. Indeed his relation to the student body would be ongoing through his entire ministry. IVF then can be considered doubly important in the Evangelical renaissance; firstly, for its clear stance upon doctrine and commitment to mission in the early twentieth century; and secondly for acting as a training ground for the movement’s key leader, as well as numerous others.

2. Billy Graham

The second factor in the Evangelical renaissance was Billy Graham, who held numerous crusades in Britain from 1954 onwards:

Graham mounted a twelve week crusade at Harringay… which was attended by over 2 million people and recorded 36,431 responses. He returned again to Glasgow and Wembley Stadium the next year as well as conducting a mission to Cambridge University… Subsequent visits in 1966, 1967, 1984, and 1991 may have had less media impact, and less sensational results, but saw Graham, and the Evangelicalism he represented, becoming increasingly acceptable.[14]

For all this popularity, Graham’s appeal was not universal and though in America he was considered a New Evangelical, his perceived fundamentalist approach in Britain won him various detractors. In 1956 the Bishop of Durham, Michael Ramsey, accused Graham of being both a menace and a heretic.[15] It was, however, this polarising effect that helped raise the Conservative Evangelical profile.

By declining to support (Graham), many liberals eliminated themselves from the mainstream of Evangelical life in Britain. To those who supported him, a category extending beyond the conservative Evangelicals but having them as its core, he administered a powerful tonic.[16]

Graham is perhaps the person who most linked the New and Conservative Evangelicals together. These self-styled New Evangelicals emerged in the wake of the fundamentalist controversy of the 1920s. In this sense the New Evangelicals learnt much from Gresham Machen: “The intellectual renaissance beginning with the rise of neo-evangelicalism in the 1950s was inspired in part by Machen’s example.”[17] Through various theological colleges, associations and publishing organs the New Evangelicals sought to move beyond the obscurantism of Fundamentalism and borrow the social concerns of Liberalism, forging a new middle way between the two. Christianity Today, the New Evangelical newspaper sought,

…to plant the evangelical flag in the middle of the road, taking a conservative theological position but a definite liberal approach to social problems. It would combine the best in liberalism and the best in fundamentalism without compromising theologically.[18]

Stott was a key partner of Graham in Britain. Indeed, it was this partnership which led to perhaps the single greatest achievement of the Conservative and New Evangelicals: the Lausanne Convention of 1974.

The Lausanne Convention was a remarkable achievement. Hosting some 2,700 participants from over 150 nations, it was convened by the desire of Graham to “unite all Evangelicals in the common task of the total evangelisation of the world.”[19] Chaired by Stott, it showed Evangelicalism to be not just a Western, but a global, force. As such, Time magazine commented on the gathering as, “a formidable forum, possibly the widest-ranging meeting of Christians ever held”.[20] The Lausanne Covenant was the result of this first convention, outlining the doctrinal commitments of the group and seeking to define what Evangelical theology was, with Stott acting as its chief architect. The Covenant is an example of a globally-representative definition of Evangelical doctrine, consisting of fifteen theological propositions and pledges of commitment to evangelism and social action. The Covenant was conceived as a centrepiece of Evangelical unity and activism.[21]

The achievement of the Lausanne Convention demonstrates the global mass appeal of the term “Evangelical”. The partnership of Stott and Graham, as they themselves represented the Evangelical renaissance in their respective countries, surely both demonstrates and explains the spike in interest in the terminology in the later twentieth century. Indeed, such are the heights that the New and Conservative Evangelicals reached, it may lead one to question whether the discussions around Evangelical identity were in fact simply caused by them. If Harold Ockenga, who coined the New (or Neo) Evangelical name, had chosen another term, perhaps we would be discussing that instead. Whether this is a valid question or not is discussed with reference to D. G. Hart in the conclusion.

Regardless of this, 1974 can be seen as the pinnacle year of the Evangelical renaissance. It also gives significant credence to the assertion made, that the term Evangelical underwent an intensification of use in this period. To demonstrate the claim that the term also came to be used with increased precision and technicality, the definitions given by Stott and Lloyd-Jones can be examined.

3. John Stott’s definition of an Evangelical

Stott’s Evangelical Truth is perhaps his clearest and most definitive definition of an Evangelical. Given the influence which Stott had amongst Conservative Evangelicals, his definition is as close as one may hope to find of an official definition of the Evangelical renaissance. For Stott, one is first a Christian, second an Evangelical and third an Anglican or equivalent.[22] Such a position demonstrates the importance Stott placed in the Evangelical identity over and above a confessional or denominational identity. This also means that a specific and elaborate definition is required. To this end, Stott begins with three disclaimers of Evangelical identity aimed at combatting misnomers. Firstly, he states that Evangelicalism is not a recent innovation, but the faith of the apostles. Secondly, it is not a departure from Christian orthodoxy. Indeed, for Stott the Evangelicalism that he belonged to is the faith articulated in the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds. Such orthodoxy can be traced back through Billy Graham, George Whitefield and John Wesley, the Puritans, John Wycliffe and Augustine to the New Testament. Thirdly, Stott is at pains to differentiate Evangelicalism from the Fundamentalism of the early twentieth century and does this through ten observations, which show a clear affinity with the New Evangelicals.[23]

Stott then identifies the “tribes” of Evangelicalism and what tenets these have in common. Identifying commonalities in a six-fold definition offered by Packer[24] and Bebbington’s fourfold definition (see below), Stott decides on just three unifying biblical propositions:

In seeking to define what it means to be an Evangelical, it is inevitable that we begin with the gospel. For both our theology (Evangelicalism) and our activity (evangelism) derive their meaning and their importance from the good news (the evangel)…. It would therefore, in my view, be a valuable clarification if we were to limit our evangelical priorities to three, namely the revealing initiative of God the Father, the redeeming work of God the Son, and the transforming ministry of God the Holy Spirit. All other evangelical essentials will then find an appropriate place somewhere under this threefold or Trinitarian rubric.[25]

Stott devotes a chapter to unfolding this threefold rubric and applying it to the activities of Evangelicals, showing their emphasis on the Word, the cross and the Spirit. Under “Revelation”, Stott deals with the distinction between special and general revelation; the progressive unfolding of God’s revelation through history; illumination and the need for personal revelation; the authority, perspicuity, sufficiency and inerrancy of Scripture. Stott concludes,

“Evangelical people are first and foremost Bible people, affirming the great truths of revelation, inspiration and authority. We have a higher view of Scripture than anyone else in the church.”[26]

Stott’s chapter on the cross places the death and resurrection of Christ at centre of the Christian faith. For Stott the cross is the basis of a human being’s acceptance before God by means of penal substitution; the cross is the Christian’s justification bringing both forgiveness and renewal; and it is the pattern of discipleship.[27]

Thirdly, Stott discusses Evangelical identity with reference to the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s work is outlined in terms of regeneration with particular reference to the new birth, assurance and holiness. Stott argues that Evangelicals should have a high view of the church. He makes a differentiation between the visible and invisible church and emphasises the church’s purity and charisma.  He considers the nature of Christian mission with particular reference to the place of social action, the miraculous and revival.

This exposition of a Trinitarian basis for Evangelicalism ends with various pleas for integrity, stability, truth, unity and endurance. Pleading for unity, Stott gives twelve categories he considered adiaphora, that is to say areas of legitimate disagreement. These are: the sacraments, church governance, worship style, charismatic gifts, the role of women, ecumenism, Old Testament prophecy, the extent of sanctification, the relationship between church and state, what constitutes mission, and eschatology.[28] It is a positive and inclusive note encouraging all Evangelicals to embrace the centrality of the gospel and work out their differences.

4. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ definition of an Evangelical

Lloyd-Jones deserves more space than he is given in this paper. Though his influence upon the Evangelical renaissance was not what Stott’s was, it was none the less significant and remains so in certain quarters. Lloyd-Jones was central to Conservative Evangelical ascendancy, starting and supporting various Evangelical organisations. Most notably he served as General Secretary to IVF where, for a time, he was considered informally to be the group’s chief theologian during stage one of the Evangelical renaissance.[29] As became clear in his definition of an Evangelical, Lloyd-Jones was increasingly perturbed by what he saw as Conservative Evangelicals accommodating the Ecumenical Movement. Unlike Stott, Lloyd-Jones was not a supporter of Graham and his crusades. In this sense then, it was by his own volition that Lloyd-Jones was peripheral to Conservative Evangelicalism by the end of stage two of the Evangelical renaissance.

Lloyd-Jones gave three addresses to the 1971 International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES) annual conference.[30] The manner of his beginning demonstrates that Lloyd-Jones saw something of a crisis amongst Conservative and New Evangelicals: a shift in position which had seen numerous Evangelical institutions become liberalised. He cites the Free University of Amsterdam, the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church and the Christian Reformed Church (both in America) as examples. Against the backdrop of these “fallen” institutions, Lloyd-Jones’ first address focuses on how one may begin to recover an Evangelical identity. He outlines the twin dangers of being so narrow that one causes schism and so broad that one becomes an ecumenist. Lloyd-Jones singles Graham out for criticism, along with certain Evangelicals who were promoting the supposed orthodoxy of Karl Barth, and others who were championing the deist, Malcolm Muggeridge, for evangelistic purposes.

Lloyd-Jones begins his second address in an unexpected manner: “I am concerned to define an evangelical in a way which goes beyond statements of belief.”[31] As we will see, that is not because Lloyd-Jones believed Evangelicals were non-doctrinal, but rather wished to guard against a dead orthodoxy. The address then proceeds to focus on the characteristics of an Evangelical. Four guiding principles are provided: preservation of the gospel through submitting oneself to the authority of Scripture; learning from, though not being tied to, history; stating not just what one is for but also what one is against; and not adding to or subtracting from Scripture, with particular reference to Roman Catholic doctrine. With these guiding principles in mind, Lloyd-Jones outlines characteristics which he believes “are almost as important as the particular doctrines to which (an Evangelical) subscribes”.[32] An Evangelical is entirely subservient to the Bible. Here Lloyd-Jones importantly identifies, as Stott did, that being Evangelical is the most important Christian identity marker:

The next thing about the evangelical is that he uses this term as a prefix and not as a suffix. Here again, I think this is something that is going to be increasingly important in the years to come. What I mean by that is that the first thing about the man is that he is evangelical. The particular denomination to which he belongs is secondary; it is not primary. In other words, there is all the difference in the world between talking about an evangelical Baptist and a Baptist evangelical. I am contending that our man is evangelical first. He may be a Baptist, he may be a Presbyterian, he may be Episcopalian, but he is primarily, first and foremost, evangelical.[33]

Such an Evangelical is always watchful for error; distrustful of reason and philosophy’s contribution to theological thought; and avoids the trappings of academia. An Evangelical takes a low view of the sacraments; a critical view of history; is always ready to act on their beliefs; they keep their religion simple and untainted by needless tradition and are always concerned about the doctrine of the church. Lastly, of particular concern should be the emphasis placed upon the new birth, interest in revival and concern for evangelism.

Reserved for Lloyd-Jones’ final address are those doctrinal propositions which mark an Evangelical. There are similarities to Stott in choice of doctrine and the differentiation between primary and secondary importance. Lloyd-Jones, however, takes the opportunity to note again the dangers of relativising doctrine in the manner that he felt had been done by those advocating the Ecumenical Movement of his time. For Lloyd-Jones the found-ational truths are: Scripture as the supreme and sole authority; the rejection of evolutionary theory; the fall of man; the rejection of the concept of a state or territorial church; a correct understanding of the sacraments. As Stott does, Lloyd-Jones ends with a call to generosity in secondary matters, including predestination and election, the mode and subjects of baptism, church polity, eschatology and spiritual gifts.

5. Conclusion

Though there are clear differences between these two Conservative Evangelical leaders, they display important similarities. Firstly, the belief that a Christian should identify as an Evangelical before their denomi-national marker. That is to say, that there is an understanding of the Christian faith which is distinctly Evangelical. Such a stance shows a firmness of belief in the Evangelical label. The intensified use of the Evangelical term is understandable when it is considered of utmost importance. If one considers oneself first a Baptist or Presbyterian, then the greatest concern will be to define those terms. Neither Stott nor Lloyd-Jones sought to define their denominational identity with anywhere as much vigour as they did their Evangelical identity. Both sought increased precision in defining the term, which is understandable when one considers the times. Both men, though reflecting the thought world of stage two of the Evangelical renaissance, were writing in stage three, where Evangelical identity had become less homogenous and more diffuse in belief and practice. Both authors pleaded for a return to what they saw as widely believed by Evangelicals in previous decades. As Evangelical belief and practice became less unified, Stott and Lloyd-Jones both articulated more specific and technical definitions. The Evangelical renaissance of the later twentieth century can thus be shown to have both intensified the use of the term Evangelical through its popular appeal and, particularly as the renaissance petered out, led to increased specificity in definition. As the new millennium beckoned the intensity and technicality of the use of Evangelical was only to become greater.

The phenomenological approach

Innocuous as David Bebbington’s 1989 study Evangelicalism in Modern Britain seemed, it would come to herald a landmark in defining Evangelical identity. Timothy Larsen highlights the importance of the study:

Bebbington’s four Pillars of Evangelicalism have no rival anywhere near as influential or popular and are unlikely to be replaced by an alternative structure any time soon… in Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, David Bebbington made as significant and substantial a contribution to scholarship as the author of a book could ever hope for, in the ambitious way that he related church history to other forms of history and wider cultural developments. Along the way, he also happened to provide us with the standard definition of evangelicalism.[34]

Larsen identifies two important points: the influence and popularity of Bebbington’s study and the innovative nature of it as it related church history to other historical phenomena. That this definition has become the consensus in the twenty-first century is indicated by its adoption by The Cambridge Companion to Evangelical Theology (CCET). CCET defines an evangelical as:

1. An orthodox Protestant

2. One who stands in the tradition of the global Christian networks arising from the eighteenth-century revival movements associated with John Wesley and George Whitefield;

3. One who has a preeminent place for the Bible in her or his Christian life as the divinely inspired, final authority in matters of faith and practice;

4. One who stresses reconciliation with God through the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross;

5. One who stresses the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of an individual to bring about conversion and an ongoing life of fellowship with God and service to God and others, including the duty of all believers to participate in the task of proclaiming the gospel to all people.[35]

The fact that the CCET exists is testament to both an intensification of use and the increased technicality, even beyond that of the Conservative Evangelicals. D. G. Hart observes this trend anecdotally:

Between 1980 and 2000, a tsunami of studies on Evangelicalism in the United States deluged the field of American religious history. One way of measuring this historiographical storm’s devastation is by looking at reference works – placid places that seem impervious to surging waters and powerful currents. As irksome as bibliographical guides may be, the ones covering American religion tell a remarkable tale. For instance, in what had been an industry standard when this writer entered graduate school in 1983, Ernest R. Sandeen and Frederick Hale’s American Religion and Philosophy (1978), an annotated bibliography on American church history, Evangelicalism created barely a ripple. In the subject index, Evangelicalism did not appear (Evangelical did so only in the name of specific denominations), and in the title index, only four books or articles begin with the e-word… But within fifteen years, the flood of historical literature on Evangelicalism had become so large that bibliographers could fill two volumes with books and articles on Evangelicalism.[36]

Very quickly then, intensification of use and the increased technicality of the definition can be demonstrated. Leonard Sweet surveys the historians responsible for the wave of American studies on Evangelicalism around the time of Bebbington’s seminal study. He terms them: “observer-participants… forcing evangelicalism to see itself as heir of its own past.”[37] Observer participants are those who “participate in the daily life of the people under study.”[38] This is to say that they themselves are Evangelicals and, more specifically, second-generation New Evangelicals, continuing the project of those they are heirs to and implicated in the research that they produce. In this group Sweet includes Joel Carpenter, Nathan Hatch, George Marsden, Mark Noll, Harry Stout and Grant Wacker as the most prominent contributors. From a British perspective, David Bebbington must surely be added for it is without doubt that his fourfold definition of an Evangelical has become the default for academics and increasingly so for church leaders and laypeople.

1. David Bebbington’s definition of Evangelicalism

Larsen shows that, though they were largely ignored when Bebbington’s work was first published, his quadrilateral of evangelical priorities has come to define his work and is easily the most widely discussed aspect of his study.[39] The quadrilateral consists of conversionism, activism, biblicism and crucicentrism, which for the most part can be observed at other points in Christian history, but only observed together in the transatlantic revivals of the early eighteenth century in such a way that they constituted Evangelicalism. Bebbington details conversionism as where “preachers urged their hearers to turn away from sins in repentance and to Christ in faith”.[40] Activism he describes by quoting Jonathan Edwards to the effect that, “persons after their own conversion, have commonly expressed an exceeding great desire for conversion of others. Some have thought that they should be willing to die for the conversion of any soul.”[41] Biblicism is a devotion to the Bible as the source of spiritual truth. [42] Finally, crucicentrism is the understanding that the doctrine of the cross is the focus of the gospel.[43] Mohler calls this approach “phenomenological” because this “definition of Evangelicalism is rooted in observation. It is descriptive rather than normative.”[44] The approach stands in contrast to the propositional approach taken by Stott and Lloyd-Jones. Indeed, consider the instance of an IVF campus meeting. The doctrinal basis is not considered to be descriptive of the group that the meetings would generally attract, but required as normative belief of those leading and, by inference, attending.

Bebbington’s approach is, then, phenomenological and leads to a definite era demarcating the beginning of Evangelicalism. Though Bebbington finds certain continuity with the Reformation and Puritan eras, the year 1735 and the conversions of Howell Harris and Daniel Rowland are the beginning of Evangelicalism in his study. After conversion experiences these men began “travelling South Wales, gathering large audiences and preaching the arresting message that salvation could be known now”.[45] Harris, having been refused Anglican ordination several times for “enthusiasm”, became the founder of Welsh Calvinistic Methodism.[46] Shortly after, George Whitefield and the Wesley brothers had similar conversion experiences. While at the University of Oxford, Whitefield was converted from the rough ways of an innkeeper’s son when, in his own words: “a ray of Divine light… instantaneously darted upon my soul, and from that moment, but not till then, did I know I was a new creature”.[47] Whitefield joined the “Holy Club” which was led by John Wesley.[48] Wesley, the later founder of Methodism, was an Anglican priest. Both he and his brother Charles underwent conversion experiences at a Moravian society formed by Peter Böhler in London in 1738:

(John Wesley) said that his “heart felt strangely warmed” and that he felt “an assurance that Christ had died for me”. He then adopted the Moravian practise of claiming that he was now a Christian, “justified by faith alone”, whereas before he had been trusting in his own righteousness.[49]

Renowned respectively for their preaching and organisational skills, Whitefield and Wesley became two of the most influential men in the phenomenon of the transatlantic revivals or Great Awakening. The phenomenon was not limited to Britain, but was found sporadically in other parts of Europe and most notably in the American Colonies. The Congregational minister Jonathan Edwards became a significant apologist and theologian of the revivals, and together with Whitefield and the Wesleys he is considered foremost in the “eighteenth-century Revival, a quickening of spiritual tempo in Britain and beyond”.[50]

As is certainly evident in the case of the Wesleys, Bebbington points to the influence of continental pietism as an important and distinctively Evangelical demarcation. Charles Wesley came into contact with Lutheran pietists in 1731 and read the works of Philip Jakob Spener “urging the need for repentance, the new birth, putting faith into practice and close fellowship among true believers”.[51] As his conversion experience indicates, John Wesley was also to be profoundly influenced by these principles and practices. Bebbington notes: “Pietism had already achieved in Lutheranism a great deal of what (Whitefield and Wesley) were to undertake in the English-speaking world.”[52] Pietism had its foundation in the German Lutheran Church and the innovations of Spener (1635-1705), a Lutheran minister. Earlier in that century Germany had experienced the devastating effects of the Thirty Years War (1618-48) which, given its religious origins, left a weariness upon the German people. The church became marked by a formalism and insincerity among church leaders.[53] In a 1675 preface to a publication of Johann Arndt’s sermons, Spener outlined his Pious Wishes (Pia Desideria), as a proposed antidote to spiritual decline in the German church:

Spener criticised nobles and princes for exercising unauthorised control of the church, ministers for substituting cold doctrine in place of warm faith, and lay people for disregarding proper Christian behaviour.[54]

Though Spener pointed back to Luther and the Reformation, he altered the teaching of the Reformers along his own lines – for instance stressing the importance of new birth in salvation, rather than the Reformers’ emphasis on justification. He also focussed upon the personal and individual aspects of faith at the expense of the Reformers’ greater stress upon churchly piety. During Spener’s time in Dresden (1686-91) he met August Hermann Francke, with whom he founded Halle University which was to become “the centre for Protestantism’s most ambitious missionary endeavours to that time”.[55] Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf (associate of both Francke and Spener) was head of the Moravian Church and was an influence on Wesley when they came into contact on a missionary trip to Georgia.[56] Given these influences it is the opinion of Richard Turnbull that there is a Reformed foundation to the eighteenth century revivals, however they reflect “the arrival of pietistic encounter into reformed theology.”[57]

The history outlined above is not remarkable in and of itself. What makes Bebbington’s study stand out is the contention that Evangelicalism was an expression of the Enlightenment. For Bebbington, Evangelicalism’s “emergence was… an expression of the age of reason”.[58] That is to say that in this period of history, the revivals represented not a rejection of the Enlightenment, but a christianising of it. This flies in the face of Lloyd-Jones’ assertion that Whitefield and the Wesleys rejected the philosophy of their day.[59] Bebbington gives various reasons for his assertion but here it can only be briefly illustrated by looking at John Wesley’s ministry. Wesley drew out the implications of his thought and use of logic in putting his point across, such that he could say: “it is a fundamental principle with us that to renounce reason is to renounce religion, that religion and reason go hand in hand, and that all irrational religion is false religion.”[60] To think that the revival movement was “devoted to resisting the Enlightenment’s march of mind” would be totally misguided.[61] Indeed, Bebbington asserts that Wesley was a man of his time and embraced the philosophical position of the Enlightenment for the advancement of the Christian faith. More Enlightenment principles can be identified in Wesley’s pragmatic approach to ministry (particularly field preaching), the desire for the education of the masses, humanitarianism, social conscience and political tolerance.[62]

2. Conclusion

By the twenty-first century there is clearly an intensification in the use of the term Evangelical as a defining Christian marker. The technicality of the term has been shown to have developed from a vague usage merely pertaining to the gospel, to a specific propositional understanding and finally to an even more specific phenomenological definition. Various authors are right to point out the innovative nature of the Bebbington thesis and its adaption of the way in which Evangelicals are defined. But perhaps more attention should also be paid to the way in which New and Conservative Evangelicals also intensified and refined the term. This paper cannot settle whether a propositional or phenomenological approach constitutes a more or less accurate definition. It is however hoped, that by demonstrating the evolving nature of the definition of Evangelicalism, that the discussion may at least be held with clearer terms in mind. To further facilitate such discussions, the final section of this paper turns to issues around the contemporary use of the two approaches.

Contemporary usage of the propositional and phenomenological approaches

It is helpful to be reminded of the quotation used at the introduction to this paper: A Calvinist is identified as such by the doctrine she believes; an Evangelical not so.[63] The responses to this statement will be either positive or negative depending on whether a propositional or phenomenological approach is preferred.

1. Contemporary usage of the propositional approach

There is obvious appeal for church and para-church leaders to advocate a propositional definition of Evangelicalism – to stand, for instance, behind the UCCF doctrinal basis or the Evangelical Alliance’s statement of faith, seeking to promote what should be normative of all Evangelicals. In broad agreement with the insistence of Conservative Evangelicals throughout the twentieth century to the present day, the crucial position of doctrine in any Christian movement has to be affirmed. When one is seeking to sustain a contemporary Evangelical organisation or fellowship, any approach which fails to be doctrinal is highly problematic. Insistence that the Evangelical movement or institution could be shaped by shared priorities over and above shared doctrine is, in effect, to relativise the content of belief. The content of John’s Gospel, for instance, is “…written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). Such a statement is inescapably concerned with defining those who follow Christ as those who believe. Such belief however, leads one to be specific about those beliefs, which will be expressed in propositions. Experience of course is vital to belief, for one cannot believe unbeknownst to oneself. Yet the promotion of experience and the implication of belief in activism, above the articles of belief themselves, is to confuse the relative importance of each part of belief and its implications. To believe in anything, one must be clear on what is being believed. When seeking to shape a contemporary movement through definition, an Evangelical must be primarily doctrinal if they are to be Christian at all.

However, a propositional approach is difficult to argue if one wants to be inclusive. A real problem for Evangelicals wishing to be propositional, is that those who deny certain key propositions do not in any measurable way become less outwardly Evangelical. The impulse of some to fence Evangelicalism through propositions is a grand ideal, but it is difficult in reality. In recent years Rob Bell has served as an example of this, though he is by no means alone. Suspicions were raised as to the Evangelical nature of Bell’s theology, and the publication of Love Wins confirmed these suspicions for some. Stephen Holmes summarises:

Prior to the publication, a promotional video had been posted on YouTube, generating concerned and dismissive responses from several Evangelical leaders associated with a recently-founded organisation known, rather grandly perhaps, as The Gospel Coalition.  These responses suggested that one committed to the doctrines Bell would expound in his (not-yet published) book could no longer be considered Evangelical. The pithiest – but characteristic – response was John Piper’s now-famous comment on Twitter, “Farewell Rob Bell”.[64]

For an organisation such as The Gospel Coalition to respond with such force demonstrates its desire to place Bell firmly outside of their boundaries (though Bell had no association with the Coalition). Yet were they successful? Whether Bell is still an Evangelical depends on whom you ask. From the phenomenological or sociological perspective he probably is an Evangelical, given his publishing deals, conference speaking and retained popularity. Rather than walking away from Evangelicalism, Bell has in reality led parts of the movement to a more liberal theological position. Holmes serves as a theological advisor to the UK Evangelical Alliance (EAUK) and is supportive of Bell in the article quoted above. Indeed on the EAUK website, Derek Tidball concludes his review of Love Wins: “those who wish to criticise this book need to earn the right to do so by being as passionate about sharing Christ’s love as Bell himself is”.[65] Regardless of the perceived piety of Bell, it is clear in Love Wins that Bell opens the door to a universalist theological position. This deserves the strongest criticism possible. EAUK go some way in doing this by stating their outright rejection of universalism and grave misgivings about second chance repentance and restitutionism.[66] But the organisation does not seem to place Bell outside of the bounds of Evangelicalism. The general director of EAUK, Steve Clifford comments:

Rob Bell is a valued brother in Christ and has felt it important to raise publicly some difficult areas of Christian theology that many people feel uncomfortable with. The issues he raises reflect genuine but complex questions that Christian theologians have wrestled with over centuries. We hope that Christians who disagree with Rob will nevertheless model how good debate should be conducted.

The press release then points to the organisation’s set of principles which relate “to how evangelicals should conduct their relationships with each other”.[67] Such a response demonstrates at the very least a sympathy with Bell and a level of tolerance of his theological position. Those defining Evangelical through propositions will be glad of EAUK’s theological reassurances, but may be concerned that the organisation still considers the issues that Bell raises to be debated within the realm of Evangelicalism. Though a clear doctrinal position is established by EAUK in its response to Love Wins, the organisation’s willingness to engender discussions between Evangelicals which may or may not lead some to agree with Bell’s arguments, makes the boundaries of Evangelicalism unclear. Indeed, the response of EAUK demonstrates the difficulty of balancing doctrine with representation in defining an Evangelical.

A second notable issue for those seeking a propositional approach is the manner in which the phenomenological definition has undercut it. In a time when the standard definition of Evangelicalism is observational, those using the categories of the Conservative Evangelicals find their narrative absorbed into a broader descriptor of which they are not entirely comfortable. An example of this can be found in the exchange between Robert Letham and Donald Macleod conducted in Evangelical Quarterly. Letham uses the standard academic definition (i.e. Bebbington) and challenges the notion whereby Evangelicals, “consider as axiomatic that theirs is the quintessential expression of the Christian faith”.[68] Macleod does not accept the academic definition used by Letham and points to a succession of Scottish Evangelicals who for him are defining, before coming to the Church of Scotland polemicist Hugh Miller:

Evangelical stalwarts such as Chalmers were direct successors of Erskine, Henderson, Rutherford, Melville and Knox; and beyond that, of the apostles… Evangelicalism was simply “pure, efficient, unmodified Christianity”. The idea that he represented a movement whose pedigree extended no further back than the 18th century would have filled Miller with horror.”[69]

In response Letham summarises his criticism of Macleod’s definition:

(I)t is too wide in its lack of historical demarcation. (Macleod) appears to regard every preacher and teacher of the evangelion through history as an Evangelical… According to the common definition I adopt, Macleod finds himself penned in with sheep not to his liking. He wants to understand evangelicalism in terms of what it should be in his eyes rather than what it is.[70]

This final observation perhaps touches on a vital point: does a propositional approach describe what Evangelicals actually believe in the third stage of the Evangelical renaissance? Studies such as those by Wells and Carson demonstrate that even those once considered at the core of the Conservative and New Evangelicalism are not unanimous in doctrine or practice.[71] If there is not a set of propositions which can comprehensively contain the meaning of Evangelical, then perhaps that suggests a propositional approach is not viable. The generous categories offered by the phenomenological approach means that those wishing to define Evangelicalism propositionally find they are now merely conservatives in a movement of which they are not typical and cannot control.

2. Contemporary usage of the phenomenological approach

Holmes’ basic assertion as to the non-doctrinal nature of Evangelicalism is reasonable when considered in terms of the current prevailing definition. The Bebbington thesis uses observational categories, thereby making one an Evangelical by a set of largely non-doctrinal factors. Given the overwhelming contemporary popularity of the Bebbington thesis, Holmes is then well within his rights to claim Evangelicalism is not primarily doctrinal.  Indeed, as far as what is historically descriptive, there is little doubt that the Bebbington thesis has much to offer and broadly speaking gives helpful categories for understanding what characteristics constitute an Evangelical. Yet what makes for a good historical tool is not necessarily as helpful in the contemporary church. This is where Holmes’ assertion of the non-primacy of doctrine for an Evangelical becomes highly problematic. A large question hangs over Holmes’ use of Bebbington’s thesis for the contemporary church: what person calling themselves Christian or what Christian movement has not primarily been identifiable by what they believe? Holmes states: Evangelical doctrine is Missional doctrine, through-and-through, and that which does not serve the cause of mission is, necessarily, not important in a truly Evangelical theology.”[72]

This presents difficulties in that it takes a historically descriptive principle and makes it into a normative principle for the contemporary church. What is descriptive of an Evangelical historically, does not necessarily mean that it is an acceptable position in the present. Because a historic movement has a tradition of shaping theological reflection around a controlling hermeneutic of mission is not to say that this tradition deserves such a position of esteem. Indeed, this is Letham’s point when asking “Is Evangelicalism Christian?” Letham compares the Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed and Westminster Confession of Faith with the emphases of Evangelicalism. He concludes:

All three creeds declare that all things, human beings centrally included, exist for the glory of the triune God. They assert that Christianity is a churchly faith, confessed corporately, together, in the context of the holy, apostolic, catholic church and in connection with the ministry of the sacraments. Evangelicalism, in contrast, is essentially man-centred. Human spiritual experience, in regeneration and sanctification, is dominant.[73]

Making historic observations from a time period is one thing, as indeed, is agreeing with the innovative conclusions drawn by recent historic endeavours. However the promotion of those characteristics as normative in the contemporary church is quite another matter. Holmes is not alone in his use of Bebbington as a normative template for contemporary Evangelicalism. The contributions of John G. Stackhouse and Roger E. Olsen to The Spectrum on Evangelicalism likewise use Bebbington’s quadrilateral of priorities as their template.[74] Such an approach allows for a far broader categorisation of theological opinions than the other contributor, Albert Mohler, who advocates the propositional definition.[75] The example of Open Theism is used by Mohler, placing it outside of the bounds of Evangelicalism, whereas Stackhouse and Olsen locate it within. That Open Theism represents an aberrant doctrine of God and his sovereignty is demonstrated elsewhere.[76] A designation such as “Evangelical” should be able mark out error, however Stackhouse and Olsen demonstrate that the phenomenological approach fails on this crucial point. Instead of defending against error, the definition is so broad and unsuited to use in the church that it condones and even encourages it.

A final consideration is that though the strength of Bebbington’s quadrilateral is bringing together disparate groups under a single banner, its generous categories may still not be enough. Carl Trueman notes:

it seems the Bebbington quadrilateral is increasingly less useful in understanding evangelicalism today, whatever strengths the definition may retain for historical analysis. Nowadays, evangelicalism is so diverse that its identity cannot be discovered in shared doctrine or experience, apart from what little can be stated about it negatively (as in, Evangelicals are not catholic and not mainline). [77]

3. A cynical approach

It has been suggested by Hart and Sweet in particular, that because the observer-participant historiographers belonged to the same thought world created by the New Evangelicals – as it were breathing the same air – that even though they sought a different definition, they belong to the same project. The New Evangelicals created a new movement in North American Protestantism which they labelled “Evangelical” and propositionally defined. The New Evangelicals worked hard to avoid the obscurantism of their Fundamentalist forebears and remain in the mainstream of American culture. For Hart the historiographers belong to the New Evangelical movement and assume its categories as they go about their historical work.  Hart sees this particularly in the way the historiographers produce work shaped more by current secular academic interests than a churchly faith. Seeing then the desire for mainstream popularity laced through both New Evangelicals and the next generation of historiographers, Hart sees one as the product of the other. Their particular realm being that of academic history, the historiographers have sought to emulate their forebears in their own sphere and conceived an historically-focused definition of Evangelicalism. Thereby the New Evangelicals inadvertently created their own phenomenological history by the example they set to the next generation. It is through the application of this logic that Hart claims: “Evangelicalism is a fantasy”[78] — not at all a longstanding tradition, but devised by New and Conservative Evangelicals as theologically conservative, and given historic backbone by the historiographers who followed. To Hart’s mind the definitions are not in competition: one is merely the embellishment of another’s invention. The label can therefore be abandoned without much concern.


For good or ill the designation “Evangelical” is very deeply rooted in people’s minds, denominations and para-church organisations. The attempt to abandon the word seems unrealistic, given the level to which people are invested in it. What Hart’s observation does support, however, is the main argument of this paper, that it was during the second half of the twentieth century that the term Evangelical evolved. It did not necessarily change in substance initially, but ultimately did so through intensified use, and  increased specificity and technicality of deployment. Whether the two definitions are worthy of use by church and para-church leaders is an ongoing discussion. However, as those considering themselves Evangelicals become more disparate in theology and practice, it may only become more difficult to ascribe any particularly distinctive doctrinal or observational points of reference that hold them together. Whether this renders the terms obsolete for the present time is then a very real question.