The Perils of Definition

Tuesday, June 12th 2007
Mar/Apr 2001

Two extremes can be found in the project of defining Evangelicalism. On the one hand, there is the infinitely elastic approach that treats this task as if it were a matter of defining cyberspace-far too diverse to characterize. On the other hand, there are those who are ready to reduce Evangelicalism to one of its component parts. For our quite limited purposes, I will simply state rather than demonstrate my own operating definition. We must first distinguish between evangelical Christianity as a common set of convictions (i.e., the term used adjectivally) and Evangelicalism as a network of churches and especially parachurch institutions in the United States. The one we could call the theological definition, the other a socio-historical one. According to the former, "evangelical" refers to the familiar distinctives of the magisterial Reformation in the sixteenth century, as they are reflected also before that movement and since. According to the socio-historical definition, one is regarded as an evangelical if he or she stands in the tradition of pietism and revivalism. Undoubtedly, these two definitions already point up the tensions between Reformed/Lutheran and Wesleyan accounts, the former reading pietism and revivalism as declensions and the latter reading them as improvements.

A more socio-historical interpretation might regard Evangelicalism as a sympathetic critique of the Reformation and its aftermath. David Lim, summarizing other scholars, describes Evangelicalism as the form of Protestantism "modified after the Reformation by European movements (such as Pietism, Puritanism, and Wesleyan Methodism) and North American ones (such as Revivalism, Fundamentalism, and Pentecostalism)." (1) From this perspective, Evangelicalism encompasses those movements that, while acknowledging some essential continuity, in one way or another regarded the Reformation and its confessions as deficient-either in practice (pietism) or in doctrine as well (anabaptism and, later, revivalism). The debate over Pentecostalism's place in the taxonomy of evangelical movements only highlights the question as to whether Evangelicalism actually exists or whether it is merely a construct that generates dangerous and wasteful power plays over the copyright.

1 [ Back ] David Lim, "Beyond Success: Another 'Great Awakening' Through U.S. Evangelicalism Soon?", The Evangelical Roundtable, ed. David A. Fraser (St. Davids, PA: Eastern College and Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1987), 212.
Tuesday, June 12th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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