Written by Frank James
Friday, 30 August 2013 00:00
For many contemporary Americans the term “evangelicalism” leaves a bad taste in their mouths. David Kinneman’s encounter with an unnamed detractor makes this point all too clear. The unnamed detractor described an evangelical as someone who is:
“…very conservative, entrenched in their thinking, antigay, anti-choice, angry, …illogical, empire builders, they want to convert everyone and they generally cannot live peacefully with anyone who doesn’t believe what they believe.”
Not exactly a ringing endorsement of evangelicals.
I must confess that the antics some of self-described evangelicals have made me ashamed. I don’t like admitting this, but we all know it is true. The meanings of words do change over time, and in recent decades the term evangelical has acquired some regrettable baggage. However, when the urge hits to abandon the label, I find it difficult to walk away. There is something about this word evangelical that I find irresistible.
It is hard to ditch the “euangelium” which is the New Testament word for the “good news” of the coming of Jesus Christ, the salvation he brings, and the inauguration of his kingdom. Historically, an evangelical is one who embraces the euangelium. In the broadest sense, evangelicalism has been the vital pulse in Christianity from its first century origins. It also was deeply influenced by the theological eruptions from the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation. The followers of Martin Luther and of other Protestant reformers identified themselves as evangelicals, even before such labels as Lutheran or Reformed came into use. The first Protestants appropriated the term because they were convinced they had recovered the euangelium which they believed had been obscured by the post-Constantinian church. History has seen many other permutations of evangelicalism, but by the nineteenth century it had become closely identified with American Christianity. For good or ill, this remains so.
Even with all the distasteful associations that sometimes accompany the word evangelicalism, how can I walk away from one of the most theologically rich and missionally potent words in the Bible? In the final analysis I can’t. But neither can I allow the term to be co-opted by consumerist superficialities that seem to rule American evangelicalism. Instead, I would propose we send evangelicalism to rehab.
In a very real sense that is what my colleagues and I at Biblical Seminary are trying to do—rehabilitate evangelicalism. We recognize that American evangelicalism has problems both in substance and in perception, but we are committed to recapturing the richness and the power of the euangelium. We want to embody what it means to be truly evangelical—to be good news for a world that desperately needs to hear, see and experience how good the Good News really is.
Frank A. James III is the President of Biblical Seminary. He formerly served as Provost and Professor of Historical Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He has two doctorates, a D.Phil. in History from Oxford University and a Ph.D. in Theology from Westminster Theological Seminary/Pennsylvania. He is one of the founding members of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture (with InterVarsity Press) and has authored and edited nine books. His latest book, Church History: From Pre-Reformation to the Present (Zondervan), has just been published. See also http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/frank-a-james