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On the Evangelical Identity

February 12th, 2005 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Dr. Andrew Jackson over at ran an excellent series of posts on the evangelical identity some weeks ago. They should be required reading for any evangelical bloggers hoping to jump in to the fray. A sample:

What we have become acutely aware of is that a honest knowledge of Evangelicalism and the central role it has played throughout American history is absolutely essential to understanding the American character. A growing evangelical awareness of family history is an important means of giving the movement a sense of historical location and rootedness, as well as access to theological, pastoral and spiritual resources that can be of continuing relevance to the church. The rediscovery of the evangelical heritage is of major importance to the long-term future of the movement, for all attempts to interpret the past are indirect attempts to understand the present and future. As an individual deprived of memory becomes disoriented and lost, not knowing where he has been or where he is going, so the church without a thorough understanding of its past will be disabled in dealing with its present and its future. This is the situation which popular American Evangelicalism presently finds itself.

Read the whole thing. Jackson’s series (seven posts in all) can be found here. (You will have to scroll down a bit).

Rightly eschewing sociological interpretations of ‘evangelical,’ Jackson instead describes Evangelicalism “as both a set of essential theological convictions rooted in historic Christian orthodoxy through the Protestant Reformation, and a spiritual ethos of conversion and renewal.” Though presumably historically accurate, it’s not clear whether the “spiritual ethos” of evangelicalism is now limited to “conversion and renewal”. The overwhelming emphasis on ecstatic worship in much of evangelicalism seems to go beyond any sense of “renewal.” What is most interesting, however, is that after characterizing evangelicals as having this “spiritual ethos”, Jackson complains that we lack the same ethos: “There is a serious anxiety among many Christians today that the greatest weaknesses facing modern Evangelicalism is its lack of a credible, coherent and distinctive spirituality and renewal. There is a desperate need to develop evangelical forms of spirituality.” In other words, evangelicals lack one of the distinguishing marks of evangelicalism.

Have evangelicals ceased to be “evangelical”? If Jackson is right, then we have. What Jackson laments as missing from evangelicalism he also posits as a description of evangelicalism. If we’re not to lose another word through redefining it (see “gentleman”), then we must preserve the historical content of “evangelical.” Contemporary evangelical problems must be given evangelical solutions, otherwise it is not clear that they will be evangelical solutions. If one of the key components of your identity is missing, then you must look back to when you had it and learn from that period. The way forward is the way backward.

Dr. Jackson isn’t alone in his attempt: see also the try from Dr. Mike Russell, who seems to fall off the “mere-Christian” side of the horse.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.