Who Is An “Evangelical Theologian?”

The problem, of course, is that “evangelical” has so many meanings

After all, there is no evangelical membership committee who decides who is and who is not truly evangelical. And who wants there to be? The only people I know who want there to be such want it to be they!

 

I’m currently working on a rather lengthy chapter on evangelical theology for an edited book to be published by a major university press. Because the book is aimed at a general audience, not a specifically evangelical one, I feel a burden to explain who counts as an “evangelical theologian.” Who does “evangelical theology?”

The problem, of course, is that “evangelical” has so many meanings. I have identified (in The Westminster Handbook to Evangelical Theology and The Pocket Guide to Evangelical Theology among other places) six distinct meanings of “evangelical.”

First, it sometimes means Protestant and especially Lutheran. Anyone who has traveled on the European continent knows this. This is the meaning of “evangelical” in the name of the largest Lutheran denomination in the United States (the ELCA).

Second, it sometimes means a certain party in the Church of England (and, I assume by extension, the Anglican Communion). Historically, it’s the party descending from non-separatist Puritans, but today it is the party associated with people like John Stott and N. T. Wright.

Third, it sometimes means that form of religious life, of Christian devotion, witness and worship, influenced by pietism and revivalism–”heart Christianity,” “experiential Christianity.” This meaning looks back to the pietist movements in Europe and the Great Awakenings in Great Britain and North America in the 1700s and 1800s. All those contemporary Christians who carry on that ethos, within a generally orthodox Protestant frame of reference/belief, are “evangelical.”

Fourth, it sometimes means conservative Protestantism especially in Great Britain and North America that reacts against liberalism in biblical studies and theology and emphasizes Protestant orthodoxy as normative for authentic Christianity. This is “confessional Protestant orthodoxy” and is usually, but not always, Reformed in orientation.

Fifth, it sometimes means the post-WW2 neo-evangelical movement that for decades looked to Billy Graham and his favored institutions and leaders for leadership. This is trans-denominational, post-fundamentalist evangelicalism, a loose network and affinity group of relatively conservative Protestants at the core of which, for decades, stood the National Association of Evangelicals, Christianity Today and various ministries associated with or loosely identified by some kind of appreciation of Billy Graham.

Sixth, it sometimes means whatever a media talking head means by it–usually (in the last two decades) the Religious Right.

When I talk about “evangelical theology” I am referring to the fifth definition above. The other definitions are simply too broad or too narrow to be meaningful, although I trace the neo-evangelical movement’s roots back into Protestant orthodoxy and pietism-revivalism. And I don’t mean by “evangelical theology” only theology done by members of the Evangelical Theological Society or churches affiliated with the NAE. The post-WW2 neo-evangelical movement is broad, deep and diverse.

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