I was intrigued by this post over at Scot Mcknight’s blog regarding evangelicalism and how to properly define this seemingly nebulous term. I’m not an expert on the history of the word “evangelical” and I suppose the proper definition is found in the eye of the beholder. I’ve always generally understood the word to mean that one has “good news” and in light of that news is compelled to share it with others. In that sense, everyone is an evangelical of some sort, even if your sharing the good news of how great the new Richard Dawkins book is. Mcknight uses a definition by a few guys I’ve never heard of who I’m sure are a lot smarter than me. Here it is:
An evangelical is a Christian Protestant for whom the central ideas are the leading authority of Scripture, the necessity of personal conversion, the centrality of the death of Christ on the cross as a substitutionary atonement, and the importance of a life of active following Jesus, seen in such things as Bible reading, prayer, church attendance, and deeds of compassion and justice.
McKnight boils this definition down to four basic components; Bible, conversion, cross, discipleship. I’m not really interested in challenging these definitions. As far as I can tell, based on my experience of evangelicalism, they don’t seem to be off-base. But reading Scots post got me to thinking about how his four components can be categorized into two sub-categories; 1) abstract thought and 2) concrete physicality. The first three (Bible, conversion, and cross) are all exercises of the mind and the last component (discipleship) involves physical behaviour which ideally exhibits the manifestations of whatever cognitive understanding one comes to through their view of the Bible and what it teaches.
In his post, Mcknight bemoans the notion that so many today who don’t profess an emphasis on all four components still call themselves “evangelical”:
I’m seeing a baffling desire by many who almost never talk about any of the above four ideas (as central to what they believe) but for some reason want to be called “evangelical.” They make a point to say they are evangelical. To be committed to justice or compassion as the central pursuit in life does not make one an evangelical, though evangelicals should be committed to justice and to compassion — and shame on those who aren’t. But what makes an evangelical is a commitment to the above four ideas (Bible, conversion, cross, discipleship).
To be clear, while I’m not sure what I think about McKnight’s complaint, I don’t intend to challenge him specifically on the point he’s making here. But his post got me thinking about what ultimately makes evangelicalism tick. It seems to me that evangelicals have emphasized a “saving knowledge” of the Gospel. Out of McKnight’s four components to evagelicalism, only the first three seem to be non-negotiable by evangelical standards. Of course, in theory, most evangelicals will say that faith without works is dead, but if someone lives a wretched life yet converts on their death bed in a merely cognitive sense to orthodox Christian doctrine, most evangelicals would agree that person is “saved,” whatever that means. But it doesn’t seem to be the case when we flip the scenario. If that same person on their death bed does something incredibly gracious and compassionate right before they die, that’s not the same and it’s still tough nuts for them. They won’t have the good fortune of escaping eternal punishment. Inherent in evagelicalism is a bias towards a salvation through a cognitive understanding of God and the scriptures. How that understanding inspires our actions is secondary and in some cases not necessary at all. Why is this? I’m not saying one can or needs to work their way to salvation. I’m just saying that if the primary marker for salvation is what a person thinks, that’s a theology I’m not remotely interested in.