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Seeking the Evangelical Essentials
"Evangelical" means different things to different people. Yet there is a core of essentials that defines Evangelicalism.


Evangelicals are undergoing another transition in their collective identity, and though it is not yet clear what they shall be, understanding that identity is important to their future.

… Canadian Evangelicals suffer from a inferiority complex because they do not know themselves.

Evangelicals "need to understand where they have come from, so they understand where they are going," said George Rawlyk in a lively telephone interview. The history professor at Queen's University, Kingston, Ont. claims that Canadian Evangelicals suffer from a inferiority complex because they do not know themselves.

But knowing oneself is not easy. The tolerance for diversity that created the current climate of openness among Evangelicals also challenges attempts to formulate an identity.

"The definition has become progressively elusive," said John Franklin, philosophy professor at Ontario Bible College.

The essence of Evangelical identity remains sure: being Evangelical means "that one can have a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ as personal Saviour and Lord," said John Vissers, senior minister at Knox Presbyterian Church, Toronto. He summarized this as "the heart of Evangelicalism."

But try defining belief and practice, the twin aspects of identity, for the whole community today and you find the essentials have become the bare essentials.

Doctrinal rigidity no longer provides ready boundaries. As they matured, many Evangelical denominations moved toward the centre. There is also wide acceptance that though some doctrines are primary, such as salvation, others, such as modes of baptism can be called secondary and should not be defining issues.

Nor do differing understandings of the Church or appropriate worship patterns confine the discussion. Even within denominations great variations are welcomed. The United Baptist Convention of the Atlantic Provinces has "liturgical" churches such as First Baptist in Halifax, founded early in the 1800s, and others that are very informal, said executive director Eugene Thompson. His church, Grand Bay, outside St. John, N.B. provides flexibility for praise and for prayer ministry within a structured service.

A look back

History reveals that Evangelicalism has worked through other changes in expression. The movement began in the 16th century with the Protestant Reformation's challenge to medieval Catholic teaching on salvation and the Church. The Dictionary of Christianity in America says that "between 1520 and 1560, the Reformation assumed four major expressions: Lutheran, Reformed or Calvinistic, Anglican and Anabaptist, forerunners of modern Baptists and Mennonites." With the Reformation's restatement of the Gospel came the use of the word Evangelical from the Greek evagelion, good news.

… in the 1960s, a charismatic wave reawakened openness to the experiential as a way of knowing God.

From 1720 to 1860 the Evangelical revivals "gave a fresh meaning to the term "Evangelical," and "born again" came into use, reports the Dictionary. Pietism, Methodist revivals, the Great Awakening in America and 19th-century revivalism gave birth to new denominations.

In the early 20th century, fundamentalists' attempts to defend orthodox Protestantism against modernism eventually isolated them from contemporary culture and from other Protestant movements. After World War II many conservative Protestants moved away from this separatism to develop new Evangelical forums for cooperation.

Then in the 1960s, a charismatic wave reawakened openness to the experiential as a way of knowing God. According to Stanley Grenz, professor at Carey Hall and Regent College in Vancouver, Evangelicalism "in a sense has been experiential from the beginning." But this, he said, was partly lost in the fundamentalist focus on the rational and on doctrine.

Four elements

In seeking the essentials of belief, generally all roads today lead back to a historian at the University of Stirling in Scotland. In Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, David Bebbington framed four characteristics which he says are "the special marks" of Evangelical religion and which many others use as a basis for a common understanding. The "quadrilateral of priorities" is:

… he called Evangelicals "Gospel people."

• Conversionism—a belief that lives need to be changed;

• Activism—the expression of the Gospel in deed;

• Biblicism—a particular regard for the Bible;

• Crucicentrism—an emphasis on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

In their introduction to Evangelicalism, editors Bebbington, Rawlyk and Mark Noll, McManis Professor of Christian Thought, Wheaton College, reworded the categories as:

• A stress on the New Birth;

• A reliance on the Bible as ultimate authority;

• A focus on Christ's redeeming work as the heart of essential Christianity;

• An energetic, individualistic approach to religious duties and social involvement.

The categories have received varying degrees of attention over time. In the 18th century, conversion gained prominence when many understood it as "a sudden transforming experience involving all the sensory perceptions," wrote Rawlyk and Noll in the introduction to Amazing Grace. During the fundamentalist/modernist controversy, the Bible took centre stage as arguments raged over inerrancy (verbal inspiration, word by word), infallibility (inspired, and in essence the Word of God), and higher criticism.

Ian Rennie, dean and vice-president of Ontario Theological Seminary emphasizes the relationship of all four essentials. During an interview in his office, he said that the Bible is inspired not just as fact and teaching but also because the Holy Spirit's power accompanies it. To him, cross-centred implies Christ-centred and Gospel-centred; he called Evangelicals "Gospel people." Then he described conversion—having to come to a personal, saving knowledge—as "one of the glories of Evangelicalism." In activism, he said, we release tremendous amounts of energy "out of gratitude and in obedience."

Gordon Smith, dean of Canadian Bible College and Theological Seminary in Regina affirmed the uniqueness of Scripture and added some specifics of his own. As essentials, he included:

• Faithfulness to the ancient creeds with particular reference to the uniqueness of Christ;

• A strong emphasis on experiencing the new life through the ministry of the Holy Spirit;

• Commitment to missions and Evangelicalism;

• Commitment to fellowship with God's people.

From belief to practice

When it comes to essentials in practice of lifestyle, no handy list exists to guide the discussion.

… many Evangelicals rejected what they saw as the legalism of fundamentalists and sects, but have "failed to substitute a better ethic."

"There are various emphases here, but if pushed you would get into trouble pretty quickly," said Ron Kydd, who teaches history at Eastern Pentecostal Bible College in Peterborough, Ont. Some generally accepted guidelines, he said, would include Bible reading, prayer, church attendance and strictly avoiding certain kinds of behaviour such as sexual immorality and cheating.

In the recent past, consensus on specifics was lost as baby boomers reacted against authority and narrowness of attitude. At the same time, more Evangelicals went to college and university and as a result became increasingly open on moral issues, according to Rawlyk.

"Being Evangelical means responding to and living out the Gospel," said John Stackhouse, associate professor of religion at the University of Manitoba, who sees a decline in living the ideal of a disciplined life. He says that many Evangelicals rejected what they saw as the legalism of fundamentalists and sects, but have "failed to substitute a better ethic."

Yet seeing evidence of faith in character and conduct remains an ideal. Asked how people in the pew define Evangelicalism, Smith commented that they emphasize "love of God and Jesus evident in transformation" over beliefs.

The future

The charismatic/Pentecostal movement will remain the strongest influence in shaping Evangelical identity according to numerous writers, scholars and leaders. Rawlyk said the "charismatic is on the leading edge of Evangelicalism as it moves into the next century."

Many are optimistic about the shape Evangelical identity can take. Evangelicals are not a persecuted remnant, said Rawlyk; rather they are a significant force. They were important in the 19th century, declined in the 20th, but now are becoming Canadian mainstream. "Once defensiveness goes," he said, "Canadian Evangelicals can be far more creative and positive."

Rennie has "a sense of expectancy that God is going to awaken the Church in the Western world." He said that Christians who follow Bebbington's four-fold points have the kind of theology that has a future.

Krysia P. Lear is a freelance writer and editor in Toronto.

Originally published in Faith Today, May/June, 1995.
http://www.faithtoday.ca

 

 
 
 
 

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