Classic Evangelical – Rediscovering My Lost Identity
I have decided to embrace the word Evangelical. Here is my reasoning behind that choice.
When you see the word Evangelical? What kind of thoughts runs through your mind?
For years, I hated the word. I scoffed at Evangelical associating that word with narrow-minded, intellectually agnostic, and politically naive. Part of the problem was my own immaturity. Part of it was my own youthful rebelliousness. I mean let’s just go ahead and state the obvious. Evangelicals, by and large, have a pretty bad reputation in America.
I’ve been told by countless people that the word evangelical has become tainted by the media and academia. So much so that if you were to tell a person the reason for your beliefs was related to being an evangelical, then it may signal your own lack of education, ignorance, or even prejudice. I don’t think so. In fact, the more I study various Christian leaders in history, the more I see evangelical roots shared by many of the leading thinkers throughout history and even today.
To associate ignorance with the word evangelical only proves the ignorance of the person raising the accusation. History simply will not allow for that charge. Yet I am hard pressed to look past the impact of the Scopes Trial, Fundamentalist/Modernist controversies, and the Religious Right. These were certainly led by those who would identify themselves as evangelical.
Yet as I have continued to wrestle with my own beliefs and convictions, I have been searching for a word. I’m looking for a single way of identifying the stream of Christendom where I like to swim, without specific denominational alignment.
So let me start with a simple idea. Where does evangelical come from? The word evangelical comes from the greek word euangelion which is the word new testament scholars translate as gospel.
Euangelion is used several ways in scripture. The gospel writer, Mark, says in the opening sentences of his book, “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ” (1:1). He also describes Jesus as “proclaiming the gospel of God” (1:14). According to him, Jesus primary message was “Repent and believe the gospel of God” (1:15).
Matthew uses the phrase, “the gospel of the kingdom” (Matt. 4:23).
Paul uses gospel the most accounting for 59 out of 76 appearances in the New Testament. According to Paul, the gospel is “God’s power of salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). If you read the bible with any respect or care, it is very difficult to look past this recurring theme. The New Testament is primarily concerned with the gospel or good news of Jesus Christ.
An Old English Evangelical
The need to associate myself with the word Evangelical didn’t become clear to me until I read Diarmaid MacCulloch’s epoch work, Thomas Cranmer. In the opening pages of MacCulloch’s biography, MacCulloch used the word evangelical to describe the English church reformers who appeared in the early 16th century. His reasoning for the choice is helpful. He writes:
Evangelicalism is the religious outlook which makes the primary point of Christian reference the Good News of the Euangelion, or the text of scripture generally, (MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer, 2).
Now in fairness, he does go on to say it is a convenient “catch-all phrase.” And this is quite true to a certain extent. However, we need to keep in mind that MacCulloch is writing a history of Tudor England where he identifies Evangelicalism first appearing (1520-30’s) in the English-speaking world. Up to that point, Roman Christianity (with a few exceptions) dominated the English people. So by selecting Evangelical as his chosen label for the movement that occurred in England, MacCulloch is able to demonstrate the contrasting differences that led to the reshaping of the English church. Those differences continued throughout the English-speaking world and into today.
Here is why MacCulloch’s definition matters. I have realized that discarding a word simply because it has a “bad reputation” or “baggage” that comes along with it may be the wrong approach. We may be rejecting a word out of fear of the accompanying labels. Instead, we need to understand the rich history connected to the word. Every movement has its ups and downs. But if we understand the rich history that lies just past the downside, we might discover a great tradition waiting for us to grasp as our own.
These and other factors have led to my embrace of the word Evangelical.