Am I an Evangelical?

Allan H. Harvey

Am I an evangelical? What a silly question. I have certainly applied that word to myself in the more than 20 years since I became a Christian late in High School. As one committed to Christ and to the "evangel" – the Good News for the world, it was natural to call myself evangelical. I have also tended to choose that word instead of "born again," which, while accurate, conjures up bad images for many people.

In recent years, however, I have recognized that my credentials as an evangelical would be suspect to some who claim that label. There seem to be two main areas that would cause some of my evangelical brothers and sisters to exclude me from their circle.

My first "problem" is that I consider the Bible to be inspired by God, trustworthy and reliable in matters of faith and practice. That's apparently not enough. I don't subscribe to the doctrine of Biblical "inerrancy," which has become a litmus test in some circles. Because I am not devoted to this idea of a perfect book (by modernist standards of perfection invented by fallen humans), I am out of step with many evangelicals. In addition, I believe it is a mistake to address scientific questions to the Bible, and I tend to trust scientific results as descriptions of how God's world operates. Can one be an evangelical and still accept that the Earth is billions of years old and that the theory of evolution gives at least a large part of the story of how God created living creatures? Some would say no.

My second "problem" is that I am politically moderate. I don't like Rush Limbaugh, and I wish James Dobson had kept his focus on families rather than moving into political activism. I favor stronger gun laws, and I think we need to do better at conserving energy and caring for the creation over which God has given us stewardship. I even (gasp) voted for Bill Clinton (though with no enthusiasm), making me out of step with today's American evangelical subculture.

So what does this mean? Should I abandon the evangelical label? Is it others who are out of step? Is "evangelical" a big enough tent that we can coexist? I'd like to look at a little history, then at the two problem areas I identified, before offering some final thoughts.

Historical Context

Most of this historical information is taken from the book Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity by Alister McGrath (InterVarsity Press, 1995).

A few centuries ago, the word "evangelical" was essentially synonymous with "Protestant." This is still the case in Germany, and to some extent in Lutheran churches. The modern usage in the English-speaking world can be traced to the period after World War II, when it was applied to a movement of theologically conservative Christians who distanced themselves from fundamentalism (a term that could also use a thorough analysis). It was not a total repudiation of fundamentalism, but rather an attempt to correct some perceived deficiencies. The main aspects of fundamentalism that the new evangelical movement rejected were its tendency to separate from society rather than engaging the world, and its anti-intellectualism. Some, notably Billy Graham, also felt that fundamentalism's emphasis on doctrinal purity got in the way of winning souls.

McGrath, after saying that evangelicalism is difficult to define, suggests six "Evangelical Distinctives." They are:

  1. The supreme authority of Scripture as a source of knowledge of God and a guide to Christian living.
  2. The majesty of Jesus Christ, both as incarnate God and Lord and as the Savior of sinful humanity.
  3. The lordship of the Holy Spirit.
  4. The need for personal conversion.
  5. The priority of evangelism for both individual Christians and the church as a whole.
  6. The importance of the Christian community for spiritual nourishment, fellowship, and growth.
I note that neither of my "problem areas" reflects conflict with any of these principles (indeed, I would affirm all six), though the first conflict area arises from more extreme forms of #1.

The Battle for the Bible

The Bible is important. Therefore, Christian communities naturally develop doctrines about the Bible. These are (or should be) less important than foundational doctrines like the Trinity, but they still have value. It is safe to say that an evangelical Christian would affirm the inspiration of Scripture (as stated for example in II Timothy 3:16), and consider it trustworthy for the purposes outlined in that passage (instruction for salvation in Christ, training in righteousness, equipping for good works). Some people, however, have taken things farther. The idea has arisen of the Bible as a "perfect book," where perfection is defined not in terms that would have been familiar to the Biblical writers but rather by modern Western rationalism. The dominant expression of this idea is the doctrine of "inerrancy." Those who don't subscribe to this doctrine are sometimes dismissed as holding a "low view of Scripture," a phrase often spoken in the tone one would use for "they sacrifice virgins to volcanoes."

I actually agree with many of the principles of inerrancy, and others are at least unobjectionable. But a few aspects go beyond what the Bible says about itself and set up indefensible positions. The idea that every detail, even those irrelevant to the purpose of a passage, must be "perfect" requires wild interpretational contortions to explain things like differing details in the Gospel accounts of Peter's denials, or the differing order of creation events between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, or the biological misclassification of the hare in Lev. 11:6, or the misreporting of what Jacob bowed over (Gen. 47:31) in Heb. 11:21. Long lists of such trivial "errors" have been compiled, and some Christians have been inventive beyond belief (for example, postulating that Peter actually denied Jesus nine separate times, not three) in trying to explain them away.

I also find unbiblical the dismissal of the idea of God "accommodating" his revelation to the limitations of his audience by communicating within their (flawed) framework of understanding. Examples would include references in the Old Testament to the "firmament" (the solid dome believed by ancient peoples to be above the Earth, holding back the waters above), and Jesus calling the mustard the smallest of all seeds (Mark 4:31). Hard-line inerrantists reject the notion that God might phrase things in the incorrect scientific terms of the day in order to better communicate. This is often accompanied by a declaration that "God cannot lie." But is it a lie if loving parents tell their 3-year-old that there is "a baby in mommy's tummy?" Scientifically, that is wrong (the uterus is not the stomach), but it makes the point in terms the child can understand. Isn't our loving heavenly Father allowed to do the same? We even have a statement from Jesus (with regard to divorce in Mark 10) that God had previously accommodated his revelation, allowing something that was less than his perfect desire, due to Israel's hardness of heart. If God can accommodate revelation to our level in a matter of morality, why not in less important matters such as scientific details?

Of course these issues show up most often with the early chapters of Genesis, where some insist on a "concordist" position that assumes Genesis and science must be made to "line up." In my experience, all attempts at concordism end up either twisting science (as in the embarrassing "creation science" movement), or twisting Scripture (attempting to interpret away things like the firmament and the creation of the Sun after the Earth), or both. Such approaches, in asking the Scripture questions it is not trying to answer, end up dishonoring the Author of Scripture (who is also the Author of nature). I think God wants us to read Scripture with its purpose in mind, as expressed in the quote attributed to a Cardinal sympathetic to Galileo, "The purpose of the Bible is to tell us how to go to Heaven, not to tell us how the heavens go."

The "perfect book" approach creates at least two problems. First, it sets up a false dichotomy where the Bible is either perfect or worthless. It becomes a house of cards, where one "mistake" (no matter how irrelevant to the message) means that we can't trust the Bible at all. We have no business dictating to God how he must communicate by imposing such a human-created standard. If we want people to trust the Bible’s message, we should not set up an artificial definition of "trustworthy" that will be a stumbling block to those who see minor imperfections in the texts. Second, it often seems to produce Christians whose focus is on defending the book, with Jesus as an afterthought. I once heard a preacher say "we are a people of the Book," but more fundamentally we are a "people of the Person," namely Jesus Christ. Jesus himself spoke in John 5:39-40 against those who made the Scriptures their main focus. When faith becomes Bible-centered rather than Christ-centered, it becomes idolatry.

I like to think of the Bible as a treasure map. A treasure map has no intrinsic value; it only has value to the extent it serves its purpose of helping us find the treasure (in this case, Jesus Christ). If we don't pay attention to the map, we are unlikely to find the treasure. But it doesn’t really matter if there is a smudge in some insignificant corner of the map, or if a palm tree is drawn in a scientifically incorrect manner, as long as it does its job of leading us to the treasure. If we spend too much time arguing about the smudges or about how perfect the map is, we may get so focused on the map that we lose sight of the treasure.

I write all this not to convince people that my view of the Bible is the precisely correct one. I merely wish to make the case that it can be held while maintaining a strong commitment to Jesus and to the authority and inspiration of Scripture. If such a view is not acceptable for an evangelical Christian, then we must conclude that, with regard to their approach to the Bible, "evangelical" and "fundamentalist" are synonyms.

The Apostle Rush Limbaugh

I only recall walking out on a church service on two occasions. The first time was when I had just moved and was looking for a church home. I decided at one church I visited that, although the program did not say it, I must have shown up on "white male guilt Sunday." I heard a lot of "politically correct" language, very little of the Gospel, and I slipped out during the last hymn. The second time was in the church in that same area that I had eventually joined. The speaker (not the regular pastor) started with a tape from some Christian artist describing America’s purported Christian founding. At first I thought I'd be able to handle the historical inaccuracy, but when the roll call of allegedly great men of God reached Thomas Jefferson (an opponent of Christianity in his day), that was too much for me to stomach and I quietly left. I later heard that the actual sermon was not as much of a "let's take back America like the Muslims took Iran" tirade as I had feared from that introduction.

There seems to be an assumption among many evangelical Christians that we must all follow the political agenda of Rush Limbaugh, Pat Buchanan, and everything associated with what the media like to label "the Christian right." Sometimes it seems like "Christian" has become more of a political label than a faith commitment. I don’t want to dive into politics here, but if I did I would ask questions like: Would God who is no respecter of nations want "America first" attitudes that devalue the rest of his world? Shouldn’t Christians who are supposed to think first of others care more about stewardship of God's creation than about our right to a wasteful lifestyle? With all Scripture's cries against oppression by the rich, should we really favor repealing an estate tax that is paid by the wealthiest 1% or so of Americans?

Rather than expound on this at length, I will recommend the book Cease Fire: A Search for Sanity in America's Culture Wars by Tom Sine (Eerdmans, 1995). Sine, an evangelical himself, takes on the unbiblical assumptions of the "Christian right" and the less noisy but similarly mistaken Christian left. Sine argues for a "third way," in which Christians would not allow themselves to be co-opted into serving secular political agendas. He argues that we need less knee-jerk following of Rush Limbaugh and Karl Marx, and more thoughtful consideration of what following Jesus Christ means in the public arena. Reasonable Christians may come to differing conclusions on some issues, and that's OK. But people should not be dismissed from the evangelical circle if their conclusions differ from Christians (and non-Christians like Limbaugh) who would presume to speak for us in the political realm.

Final Thoughts

Maybe it is just semantics, but I like the word "evangelical" and want to remain a part of that family. Tempted as I am on occasion to wash my hands of it, that word has enough good things associated with it that I can't just abandon it. I hope we can maintain it as a term for all who are personally committed to follow our Lord Jesus Christ, who rely on the Bible for inspired and authoritative guidance on their journey, and who seek in union with the Christian community to share the Good News with the world. We must resist the forces that are stripping this word of its historic meaning and turning "evangelical" Christianity into something that is merely a less insular, more political form of fundamentalism.

I don't know how best to go about reclaiming the word. Continuing to apply it to myself and other Christ-centered, non-fundamentalist Christians is one small step. Objecting to those who try to draw a more narrow circle around the word is another. Ultimately, usage determines meaning, and maybe "evangelical" is irretrievably far along the path to joining other good terms that have been ruined by misuse, like "born again" or "creation." But I'm not ready to give up on it quite yet.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this essay are the opinion of the author of this essay alone and should not be taken to represent the views of any other person or organization.

Originally posted August 2002. Page last modified June 2, 2007