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Evangelical - What It Means
What does it mean to be an evangelical? Is George W. Bush an evangelical? Here are the views of Wheaton College historian Mark Noll; Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals; Steve Waldman, editor-in-chief of Beliefnet; and Amy Black and Alan Jacobs, professors at Wheaton College.

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Richard Cizik
National Association of Evangelicals

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…I think that George Gallup's definition is probably pretty good. He says that evangelicals are those who, first of all, believe the Bible is authoritative. It's infallible. This is a theological distinction which separates evangelicals from, say, mainline Protestantism, which generally veers from that kind of designation of the Bible as the authoritative word of God.

I think there's one way to understand the evangelical view of the Bible. It is viewed as the objective authoritative word of God, as opposed to the mainline Protestant view called neo-orthodoxy which holds, you see, that the Bible becomes the word of God in a kind of existential encounter with it.

So that's the distinction. It doesn't just become the word of God when you have an experience with God or an experience with the Word. It is objectively, authoritatively the word of God. That's what distinguishes evangelicals from, say, mainline Protestants.

Let's talk about the second tenet.

Evangelicals are also people of faith in the American Protestant community who believe that you must be born again. As Jesus said to Nicodemus in John 3:3, "You must be born again." And Nicodemus said, "Well, should I go back into my mother's womb?" And Jesus said, "No. But you have to be born of the water and the spirit." In other words, you have to have your heart changed by him, by Jesus.

Frankly, millions of Americans, unbeknownst to some people in New York and other elitist institutions, actually have had this kind of experience. Their hearts "have been warmed," as John Wesley said, by Jesus Christ, who lives today and reigns over matters private and matters public. That's what evangelicals believe.

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amy black
Assistant professor,Wheaton College

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When I think of a definition of evangelical, one of the things that makes an evangelical faith look different, perhaps, than others, [is] there's an emphasis on the personal. There's an emphasis on the individual nature of salvation.

There are different phrases for having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. But it's ultimately about each person as an individual making what we would call a faith decision; deciding if indeed you ascribe to this theology or not, if indeed you believe that Jesus is who he claimed to be, and that he is divine, and if that makes a difference in your life. …

Second, another hallmark of evangelicals is you get a sense that there is one source of religious truth. Again, this gets back to biblical authority. But there's that idea of the Bible is the truth and the Bible is the one path to eternal life. Evangelical Christians are going to be much more, I think, in unison telling you that Christianity is the truth, and it is the way to eternal life, and it's not one of multiple options. So if you believe Christianity is truth by definition, from an evangelical perspective, it means that other understandings of the divine are false. I think that's, again, a hallmark.

Then finally -- and this is where the term comes from -- the whole idea of evangelizing, that you need to tell others. If you believe that you know something is true and you believe it has eternal consequences, then you want to share that with other people. You don't want to just hold that to yourself and be silent about it. So there is a sense of wanting to make converts, wanting to let people know the Gospel, the good news, so that they would be a part of it, as well.

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Steve waldman
Editor-in-Chief, Beliefnet

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Evangelicals claim President Bush as their own. Yet Bush is a member of the United Methodist Church. Is Bush an evangelical or is he a Methodist, or is he both? Can you be both?

You certainly can be evangelical and Methodist. I think a lot of people assume that evangelical means Baptist. But evangelical is a style, and an approach to your personal faith that actually cuts across a lot of different Christian denominations.

In fact, a lot of evangelical churches now are non-denominational. Distinctions like Methodist, or Presbyterian are less important than they used to be. And so you can be evangelical and be a Methodist.

Would you say Bush is an evangelical?

I think if you look at the definition, the characteristics of an evangelical, he pretty much fits it. He talks about having a personal relationship with God. He talks about having had a transformational experience. He talks about the centrality of the Bible in his life.

The only characteristic of evangelicals that he probably wouldn't say he has is the obligation to evangelize. And as he has appropriately said, that's not really the proper role for the president of the United States. But in three out of four of the characteristics that you often see of evangelicals, he fits the bill.

Why doesn't he call himself an evangelical or a born again? I think for political reasons, probably. That he knows that the word "evangelical," in some sectors, is a scary word. And that the word "born again," I some sectors, is a scary word.

So he talks about the importance of God, which is actually kind of a popular concept, without talking about being evangelical or a born again, or part of the religious right, or anything like that, that carries baggage.

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Alan jacobs
Professor, Wheaton College

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Tell me what it means to be evangelical.

One of the jokes that evangelicals like to tell is that you know you're an evangelical if liberals think you're a fundamentalist and if fundamentalists think you're a liberal. There is something of that middle ground character to evangelicalism.

One of the things that people often say is that there are four characteristics that mark evangelicals. But it seems to me that there are two that you can grab hold of that are most important. One is the belief that the Bible is the word of God, that it is authoritative, it's binding upon us, that we need to be obedient to it.

The other thing is an emphasis on evangelism on the idea that the Gospel is not just for a few, but for everyone, and that it's the job of everyone who is a Christian to let everyone else know about the good news of Jesus Christ. I think all of us would be committed to that in one way or another. Now, of course, we will then have some interesting conversations about what the Bible means.

The fact that we are all committed to the authority of Scripture doesn't mean that we have exactly the same ideas about what every passage and Scripture means. We might have very different ideas about how it is that you're supposed to carry out the task of evangelism. Some people are happy to stand on street corners and pass out tracts. Other people would like to infiltrate organizations like PBS and work from within the structures of power in our society. But those two commitments, I think, are really at the heart of what it means to be an evangelical.

… You said that a joke amongst evangelicals is -- liberals think you're a fundamentalist and fundamentalists think you're a liberal. So what is it about being evangelical that makes evangelicals moderate?

I'm not sure that many evangelicals would want to be called moderate. But if you do look at a range of Christians, in which you have liberal Christians at one end and fundamental Christians at another end, I guess we're sort of in the middle there, and therefore occupy a kind of moderate position.

Let's take a couple of examples that would illustrate this moderate character. Evangelicals are going to emphasize the authority of Scripture far more than liberal Christians will. However, they are not so strict and not so unanimous in their belief in how to interpret Scripture. Among fundamentalists, there would be almost universal consensus that the Book of Genesis is a literal historical narrative, that the creation was done in six days. In fact, that's one of the things that has historically marked fundamentalists -- this belief that Genesis is a very straightforward historical narrative. Evangelicals are not likely to be so quick to come to that conclusion.

In fact, these days maybe most evangelicals would not. That's hard-- I really don't have the information to back that up. But I think that is a fair guess. Yet we nevertheless believe the Genesis is not a completely mythical story, it's not a completely fictional story. It is a story which is rooted in certain kinds of historical truth.

But it's not necessarily the six-day creation. I don't believe it's a six-day creation. I don't believe it's that sort of historic narrative. But I think that there's still that commitment to reading Genesis as the word of God that you would not necessarily find in liberal Christians. So there's one example in which there is this kind of moderate--

Saying that the Bible is the truth, something that was written and gathered together so many years ago -- doesn't that feel a bit archaic to you as a professor, as an academic intellectual thinker? How do you really say that that's the truth?

I think everyone who claims that the Bible is truth lays hold of that claim by faith. But it's no uninformed faith, and it's not faith that is unmarked by reflection and serious intellectual engagement. But it would be dishonest not to say that there is a very strong element of making a commitment to the authority of Scripture and testing it out, seeing how it works. It's not something that very many people would come to automatically or easily. But it is something that's worth a try, is what we would say.

Then there is that task of measuring it, testing it to see if it does answer to your experience and your beliefs, but also, the other side of the coin -- testing your own beliefs and your own experience against what Scripture says.

These are ancient books. They are very old. They come from a very strange culture. It may seem odd to say that books that are so old can be authoritative for us today. But I think one of the things that evangelicals tend to believe, or believe pretty strongly actually is in what G.K. Chesterton called the "democracy of the dead," the idea that we, in the early twenty-first century Western world, do not have a monopoly on truth.

We're very aware of all the ways in which we have learned things that are unknowable to previous cultures and perhaps even to other cultures that exist today. We're very aware of all the knowledge that we have that our predecessors and that our neighbors in other parts of the world don't have. But it's very hard for most of us to imagine that there may be things that other cultures knew, that other cultures know, and that past cultures knew that we have lost or that we have forgotten.

So it seems to me that there is something very consistent with being a serious intellectual and asking the question, "Do I really know everything? Do people in my time and my place and my culture have a monopoly on the truth? Or might it not be possible that, if I really study carefully these ancient writings, that I may discover that there is a wisdom there that is not accessible to me through any of the means that I normally use to get information in modern America?"

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mark noll
Historian and professor, Wheaton College

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How would you define the word "evangelical?"

"Evangelical" designates both a trait of churches, religious practices, networks. It designates a certain series of convictions or actions, practices. The beginning of the modern movement and its American phase is in the mid-18th century, with revivals in the British Isles, North America, the West Indies.

Jonathan Edwards, John and Charles Wesley, and George Whitefield are key beginning figures. From those movements have descended a wide array of religious organizations, churches and voluntary groups, and they are the evangelical movement.

But there are also a series of characteristics and designations, beliefs and practices -- of which four have been designated by the British historian, David Bebbington, and provide a very good summary designation of what evangelicals do and believe.

His four characteristics are: a very strong belief in the Bible as the primary religious authority; a commitment to the practice of conversion, so that people need to be changed in a Christian direction as a basis for participation in the life of God. The third characteristic that he mentions is activism, especially a willingness to tell other people about the message of salvation in Jesus Christ. The fourth characteristic is a special assessment of the work of Christ on the cross. The death and resurrection of Christ is the heart of the Christian faith.

These four characteristics do work quite well to designate a broad family of religious interest.

Are there certain denominations that fit underneath this, and others that don't?

Evangelical is a slippery word, because it can be used to designate certain religious groups or denominations. But then it also can be used to transcend denomination. So there would be in the United States evangelical Presbyterians, evangelical Episcopalians, evangelical Lutherans.

But there would also be lots of individual congregations that would be evangelical in some general sense. The Southern Baptist Convention, which is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, would certainly be evangelical. Although because it is its own thing, and it's so big in the southeastern part of the country and large in other parts of the country, many Southern Baptists do not use the word "evangelical" for themselves, though everyone outside knows that they are.

So the word is plastic. The concept is not precise. Evangelical movements have been identified and identifiable. Evangelicals recognize each other, often by how they sing hymns, and what hymns. But it's not a hard and fast designation.

The word "evangelical" does designate a limited range of beliefs and practices. But it's not a word like Baptist or Presbyterian or Roman Catholic, because its designation is for a certain characteristic way of being religious.

Evangelicals tend to operate against tradition, but there are some traditional evangelicals. Evangelicals historically have been opposed to the Roman Catholic Church. Today, there are Roman Catholics who call themselves evangelicals. So the word is flexible, but it does have a core of meanings that have been associated with it.

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posted april 29, 2004

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