Evangelical Or Reformed?

I consider myself an “evangelical” four days a week.  The other three, well, I’m not so sure.  This ambivalence toward the label seems to be part and parcel of being a Reformed (especially confessional) Christian in America today.  To be Reformed is necessarily to be suspicious of “those American evangelicals”, with their mega churches and praise bands.  The real issue, of course, is not the size of the church building or the type of music played within.  The real divide is theological.  The majority of Christians in American today who call themselves evangelicals do not hold to the major tenants of the Magesterial Reformation (Lutheran, Reformed, and Anglican).  This was not always so.

According to Mike Horton, in a recent article on the relationship between Reformed and evangelical Christians, “Luther’s followers first called themselves “evangelicals” (from “evangel,” meaning gospel), and the term became virtually identical with adherence to the key tenets of the magisterial Reformers, in distinction from Rome and Anabaptism.”  So the label “evangelical” was first coined by Lutherans, and for most of its subsequent history was almost synonymous with “Reformed.”  Moreover, according to Horton, it was these evangelical Lutheran, Reformed and Anglican churches that founded the modern missions movement and the World Council of Churches.  When these ecumenical organizations and many of the denominations represented by them began to stray from orthodoxy into liberalism, the label “evangelical” was used to describe doctrinal fidelity and rigorous orthodoxy.  “Evangelical”, “missional”, and “doctrinal” were all terms that went hand-in-hand.  Alas, this was a different time.

According to Horton, things began to change for the worse:

Somewhere along the way, however, the evangel became increasingly separated from evangelism; the message became subservient to the methods. Today, it is taken for granted by many that those most concerned about doctrine are least interested in reaching the lost (or, as they are now called, the “unchurched”). We are frequently challenged to choose between being traditional or missional, usually with little definition offered for either. Where the earlier evangelical consensus coalesced simultaneously around getting the gospel right and getting it out, increasingly today the coalition is defined by its style (“contemporary” versus “traditional”), its politics (“compassionate conservatism” or the more recent rediscovery of revivalism’s progressivist roots), and its “rock-star” leaders, than for its convictions about God, humanity, sin, salvation, the purpose of history, and the last judgment.

Horton traces one of the main causes for this change to the Second Great Awakening, and especially to one of its leading figures, Charles Finney.  The problem, he says, is that such “revivalist” movements and leaders essentially constituted America’s own Counter-Reformation.

Going beyond Rome’s Counter-Reformation in the direction of Pelagianism, Finney denied original sin, the substitutionary atonement, justification, and the supernatural character of the new birth; and he created a system of faith and practice tailor-made for a self-reliant nation.  Evangelicalism…was the engine for innovations. In doctrine, it served modernity’s preference for faith in human nature and progress. In worship, it transformed Word-and-sacrament ministry into entertainment and social reform, creating the first star-system in the culture of celebrity. In public life, it confused the Kingdom of Christ with the kingdoms of this world and imagined that Christ’s reign could be made visible by the moral, social, and political activity of the saints. There was little room for anything weighty to tie the movement down, to discipline its entrepreneurial celebrities, or to question its “revivals”…

Horton is quick to admit that this broad-stroked picture focuses only on the negative and ignores the positive, but he believes such a picture is necessary because, in his estimation, the average is still a “net loss.”  His solution (which I have expounded upon in much more detail here) is that we should treat “Evangelicalism” not as a substitute for the local church, adopting minimalist “Merely Christian” statements of faith, but rather as a kind of “village green”, where different robustly theological traditions (such as Lutheran, Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, etc.) can all come together both for dialog and debate as well as joint projects (such as missions), without abandoning their very distinctive traditions.

In the coming weeks, I will be expounding upon some of the traditions of the Reformed wing of Evangelicalism (including that perennially touchy subject of Predestination).  My hope is not to distance Reformed theology from American evangelicalism nor to “take back” the label, but simply to demonstrate how one can be both deeply planted in a single tradition (and, moreover, taking the finer details of that tradition very seriously), without somehow ceasing to be evangelical.   In the meantime, I would like to hear readers’ thoughts on Horton’s proposed idea of looking at Evangelicalism as a “village green” (or Lewis’s “Mere Christianity”).  Is it a helpful solution?  Is it practical?  Let me know!

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David Nilsen

David graduated from Biola University in 2008, with a B.A. in Philosophy. He studied Historical Theology for three years at Westminster Seminary in California (his essays on Theology, Church History and Eastern Orthodoxy can be found here). David has been blogging about Philosophy, Politics and Culture since 2004. He has contributed to The White Horse Inn and The Gospel Coalition. You can also follow him on Twitter.

  • http://notesfromasmallplace.wordpress.com/ Jake Meador

    A good friend of mine who has a PhD in American religious history from Notre Dame has said something similar. He thinks we need evangelicalism as a big tent common identifier amongst American Protestants. However, Evangelicalism by itself isn’t enough. We need Anglican Evangelicals and Reformed Evangelicals and Baptist Evangelicals – Evangelicalism by itself isn’t big enough or robust enough to sustain individual Christian lives, let alone viable long-term Christian movements. That’s what the more specific traditions must do.

  • Anonymous

    Is there any difference between an evangelical and a mere Christian?

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.nilsen David Nilsen

    I don’t think so. Historically, “evangelical” would have been a way to distinguish “mainline” Protestants (that is, Reformed [including Independents and Baptists], Lutherans and Anglicans) from Roman Catholics and radical Anabaptists (the modern-day equivalent of which would be some charismatic denominations).

    Today, though, if you take the Evangelical Theological Society as exemplary of what it means to be considered “evangelical”, then the term would apply to Roman Catholics and Pentecostals as much as it does to Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists, etc. The dividing line between evangelicals and non-evangelicals has switched from being about the particulars of the evangel (faith alone vs. faith and works) to “conservative” vs. “liberal” (with the doctrine of inerrancy being the litmus test).

    Now, I still think that common usage of the term “evangelical” does tend to mean conservative Protestants as opposed to Roman Catholics, but with recent cases such as Frank Beckwith returning to Rome and calling himself an “evangelical Catholic” (or “Catholic evangelical”), as well as the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” documents, which attempt to suggest that there is not really any significant difference between the two when it comes to the Gospel itself, I think that such a distinction isn’t likely to hold sway much longer.

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  • http://intellectual-wannabe.blogspot.com/ Woodrow

    If one is using the term “mere Christian” as C.S. Lewis did, then “evangelical” definitely does not equal “mere Christian.” I have a great deal of respect for Frank Beckwith, Scott Hahn, et al., am a convert to the RCC from evangelicalism myself, and do not like the term “evangelical Catholic” unless it means that you as a Catholic individual are evangelizing people. If it’s supposed to suggest there are no theological distinctions between the two camps regarding what salvation is, how it’s administered, etc., it is a terrible and *deceptive* term. However, there may be an element of truth in that phrase since many evangelicals, at least at the popular level, don’t hold to many of the classic Reformation doctrines on salvation and justification. How many evangelicals today believe 1) they were/are not either totally or radically corrupt, and/or 2) they were/are capable of deciding for or against God with no help from Him?

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.nilsen David Nilsen


    I couldn’t agree more! That’s exactly the problem that Dr. Horton is addressing. “Evangelical” used to mean simply Lutheran/Reformed/Anglican (until “Anglican” became essentially synonymous with “Anglo-Catholic”, but that’s another discussion altogether!). Today, however, most American “evangelicals” are closer to Rome in their soteriology than they are to the 16th century Reformers, so there is no longer a reason to limit the term “evangelical” to only Protestants. Even though there is currently a resurgence of Calvinism within American evangelicalism, I seriously doubt that Reformed/Presbyterian/Lutheran Christians will ever be able to lay exclusive claim on the title “evangelical” again.

    Also, Lewis explicitly used “Mere Christian” as a placeholder for anyone who held to Nicene-Chalcedonian Christianity, which would include Catholics and Protestants. Read his intro to Mere Christianity.

  • elnwood

    I’m told that in the UK, “evangelical” still has a “reformed” connotation.

  • http://disjournal.blogspot.com Dpaultaylor57

    With respect, I have been a Christian for more than three decades and I’m having trouble understanding the significance of this discussion. But I do recall warnings about “quarreling about words” (2 Tim 2:14) and “foolish controversies and genealogies.” (Titus 3:9)

    “Genealogies” here can include tracing the theological lineage of a term like “evangelical.” Is there something inadequate about what Jesus said, “A tree is recognized by its fruit”? (Matt. 12:33)

  • Dvopilgrim

    I just stumbled upon this post, since it’s close to Reformation Day. In my Reformation Day post two days ago, I also referenced Horton’s article, him being my seminary professor. Here are my thoughts on the words, “Evangelical,” “Protestant,” “Gospel,” and of course, “Reformed.”