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Rob Bell on “Evangelical”: Follow-up

posted by Scot McKnight

RobBell.jpgYesterday I posted a recent interview with Rob Bell about what an “evangelical” is, and I said I’d weigh in today. I don’t think Rob Bell has defined “evangelical” but given a set of statements that are true about the use of the term in the media (political conservatives, sometimes anti-intellectual) and that are reactive and corrective to that stereotype. We need to avoid falling for how the media define terms, and it is a constant temptation in sound byte format to make our point — and that usually blocks perspective and dimension.

I’m dubious that Rob Bell is even attempting to define “evangelical” in its fullness. I would not equate this interview with what Rob Bell believes about “evangelicalism.” 
Furthermore, he defined “evangelical” by appealing to justifiably important elements of one part of the term “evangelical” — its socially active pursuit of justice and compassion and the good. 
But what he said about “evangelical” is not enough, and it fits in with a trend, a rather flippant one, of folks thinking they can determine what an evangelical is or not. Before I get to the trend, a good definition.
To define “evangelical” we need to pay attention to those who have made it their life study to come to terms with this movement, and two scholars have done just that: Mark Noll in the USA and David Bebbington (The Dominance of Evangelicalism: The Age of Spurgeon And Moody (History of Evangelicalism)
) in the UK. They agree on this: 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. That is the standard definition of evangelical. This definition summarizes those who care about getting this term accurate. It is not a definition designed to exclude some of whom they are worried. It’s big tent definition, but it bears no ill-will toward others. 
Now my observation today: 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). 
My question: Why do these folks want to be connected to the evangelicals?
Now let me back down just a tad: no one is the final judge on who is and who is not an evangelical, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a general ballpark definition like that of Noll and Bebbington that deserves serious respect. I’d call on all those who say they are evangelical to measure themselves accurately. And I’d especially call on those being asked by the media to offer clear and accurate definitions because only such folks can correct — over time — the stereotypes.


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Rob

posted October 2, 2009 at 9:50 am


My serious question is, why does it matter? I left the use of the term evangelical 3 years ago and never looked back.
an evangelical is a Christian Protestant
I’m not protesting anything. I respect those that were back during the Reformation, but we’re past that aren’t we??
for whom the central ideas are the leading authority of Scripture
I believe in the authority of Scripture, but not in the same way that many “evangelicals” do or say I should.
the necessity of personal conversion,
Defined how? An ontological change that happens, or a change of worldview?
the centrality of the death of Christ on the cross as a substitutionary atonement
agree with the centrality of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, but not limited to one theory of 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.
Agree to some degree. You will be known by your love, not the level and amount of Bible reading and church attendance you have.



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Scot McKnight

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:04 am


Rob, thanks for your comments.
Well, it does matter because folks want to use the term and want to bounce off the term. So it used both to affirm what one believes and to disconnect from what others believe. And that means we have to be fair to all and to history to do our best to understand the term, and the best place to go to understand the term is to Noll and Bebbington, and those four points are from them.
I think what you are saying, and correct me if I’m wrong, is that you are not in fact an evangelical. I certainly don’t want to say Evangelical = Christian; Christian = Evangelical.
The issue that I’m trying to find a discussion around is why some want to use the label “evangelical” and not identify at all with the four categories.
You have any ideas on that?



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But But . . .

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:05 am


So why didn’t Rob Bell define evangelical using the four criteria you outline? Why was he hanging back when he was asked directly what an evangelical is?



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Jason Dye

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:07 am


Scot,
What are some examples of those you have in mind who are using the term ‘evangelical’ to self-describe, but do not hold to those tenants?



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Adam Lehman

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:09 am


I did find it odd that Rob defined evangelical as he did. We should know better by now though. If there is anything that Rob obviously loves, it is throwing off common labels and making listeners rethink the exact things we’re labeling.
Reminds me a lot of a Jesus character I follow…
Anyways, I think that those outside of the realm of “evangelical” tend to lean into the circle is this: we grew up in a time where to be non-evangelical was to be condemned to hell. Even now, I read your definition of evangelical and I think to myself, “I’m not sure that really defines me anymore.” Yet, I’d be terribly to throw off that label in public because so many would discredit anything that I said.



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Paul

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:09 am


Here’s why I believe they persist in using that definition. They simply want to discredit the true meaning of the word, or they want the word to be more encompassing and tolerant. I believe this type of person usually fits into one of these two categories.



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Virgil

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:10 am


Scot is making a great point; words mean things and if we criticize (or protest) worldviews or frameworks we need to have some common ground on which we carry out the criticism or the conversation.
What if we refuse to let Fox News or CNN define who we are as Christians? What if we let the Scripture define who we are?
We can say all day that we can be known by our love, rather than the reading of the Bible, but how do we know to love if not for reading the Bible? These false dichotomies are annoying and unnecessary.



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Patrick Oden

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:11 am


“Why do these folks want to be connected to the evangelicals?”
I don’t think it’s a question of “want to be” but rather a statement that they are connected and see movement within the movement–movement that is in a different direction than some of the Reformed influences feel it should go.
Evangelicalism in America not only has doctrinal definitions, it also has three pillars that defined it early on (and maybe ever since): Billy Graham, Christianity Today, and Fuller Seminary.
Rob Bell is a graduate of Wheaton College (Billy Graham’s alma mater) and Fuller Seminary. He has not fallen off to the side of either rejecting the faith or throwing his lot in with Catholics/Orthodox. He has maintained an approach which seeks to communicate the work and words of Christ to people. His use of communication,Scripture, etc. might be troubling to some, but so was the work of Billy Graham,Christianity Today, and Fuller Seminary.
And, as a slightly younger part of his generation, I’d say he’s a pretty good reflection of where a great many young Evangelicals are today.
He is an Evangelical because he is a product of Evangelicalism, a participant in its pillars, and a man who reflects more publicly what is happening in a broad way throughout the Evangelical world.



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John Vest

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:11 am


As a formal evangelical (by your definition), I think that what people are drawn to is the zeal that is often attached with “evangelicals”. As a pastor in a mainline denomination often lacking in zeal, it is the passion and sense of urgency of evangelicalism that I miss the most. I’m perfectly happy, though, to have moved away from the doctrinal constrictions you mention as central and essential to evangelicalism.



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Travis Greene

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:12 am


Scot,
It’s because many do believe that Evangelical = Christian; Christian = Evangelical. Particularly here in the South. So to decline to identify yourself as evangelical is, to many, to admit that you’re going to hell. If they are pastors of flocks that are more conservative than they are, to not identify as evangelical would be to lose their career. If their family is evangelical, it would be to move into the category of lost or apostate. Constantly affirming “yes, I do believe in the Bible” and “no, I have not lost my salvation” is no fun at Christmas. It’s easier to use a codeword that each party can define to their own satisfaction and keep the peace.



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Mike Todd

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:12 am


Here’s another idea: Let’s just stop using the term. We’re all trying to figure out what it means to follow Jesus. These little alley fights about what some Christian term means distract us from that primary task.
Another thought: At least in the US, the term evangelical has taken on a decidedly political meaning. As a result, it really doesn’t matter what self-identified evangelicals think the word means… it’s what the rest of the people think it means that matters. Which leads me back to my first point.



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chad

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:14 am


In many ways I would have to agree with both Rob and Scott here. I think the term has been high jacked in many ways and so it is no longer a good descriptor for a certain set of beliefs and outlook on the world. People use the term because they want to tap into some of the political/religious fervour that is associated with it.
There is an ice cream company close to where I live that proudly parodies other companies on its t-shirts. They provide caricatures of the other products which still gets you to link that other brand with their product. Even though they have nothing to do with the product of the other brand, they are trying to high jack power for their own brand.
For many people if you claim to be an evangelical, you are okay. If you don’t you are not okay. The term Evangelical has a large “brand” awareness. Many people use it even when they do not agree to those four points because they want to use the power of the term’s brand association.



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mark riddle

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:17 am


Scot, on Rob’s blog he mentioned his frustration that the Boston paper didn’t represent what he actually said very well.
just a heads up.



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Kristen

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:17 am


I have no great desire to be called “evangelical” — but among a whole whole whole lot of (often very goodhearted, warm and loving) people, when they say “Christian” what they mean is Evangelical.
“So and so went to Liberal Seminary — and was still a Christian upon graduation!” That sort of thing.
Of course, as they are goodhearted, warm and loving people, they are more than delighted to include Catholics and Orthodox — as long as they think like Evangelical Protestants. After all labels are unimportant in this day of ours, being Christian is what counts — and of course the distinctives of Evangelical Protestants are not distinctives but simply what it is to be “Christian.” Errr … close but no banana.
To a significant extent it seems to me, “Evangelical” has (for good or for ill) grown beyond its historical content to mean “real Christians who actually believe stuff and do not address prayers ‘To Whom It May Concern’.” And I can understand wanting to be considered within that camp.



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Rob

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:19 am


You’re correct Scot, I don’t consider myself an evangelical. Your question is a good one though: why do people still want to call themselves that and not subscribe to those 4 tenets?
Well, maybe they are concerned with the perception of them by their peers? Meaning, they may be struggling through similar things like I did when I abandoned the term, but since I’m not a public figure, or a leader in any particular denomination, I didn’t see any backlash from abandoning it. Others may not have that freedom.
Or they may not like all that is happening theologically in circles where people have left the evangelical camp (I can sympathize there), so to distinguish themselves they will still fall back to the differentiating term, even if not fully subscribing to all that accompanies it? Don’t know honestly.



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Scot McKnight

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:20 am


Mark, thanks for your reminder. I did emphasize that we should not equate that newspaper article with what Rob thinks or how he defines evangelical. I do not personally believe that is his personal definition…
but the big point is also that we who are asked by media for such things need to resort to historic, accurate definitions. If we don’t, who will?
And, I still am baffled by many who want to say they are evangelical but who have little to do with any of the four points.



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Kenton

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:21 am


My dos centavos: people want to belong and connect. Sometimes people grew up evangelical, but have moved away from one or more of your four-point evangelical structure. Still, it’s a part of their self-identity and they don’t want to abandon it altogether. They want to connect to where it was they came from, and they want their children to connect to it too.



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Kevin J Bowman

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:24 am


I like Rob come out of a heritage of evangelicalism. I know and understand my heritage in such a way, that I have deep roots of love for the 4 fold definition of evangelicalism.
At the same time, while I would no longer be defined by those things, in the way I was at the time I was more established in the traditional thinking of my heritage; it is my love and respect of that tradition that makes me resistant to alienate myself from these People I love. After all, I am “evangelical” in so much that relationships are much more important than labels.
To me it is much like a Jew coming to faith in the earliest days of the church. As a Jew did not cease to be a Jew once joining the church, instead that Jew saw his faith as an extension and a fulfillment to the cultural heritage of the faith system he was already a part of. By that I remain distinctly evangelical as a the early Jewish believer would have remained distinctly Jewish; and I am a part of something more, and something different. At the same time, in my mind a fulfillment of my cultural heritage through Christ.
I could not want a better heritage than the evangelical tradition I was raised in, at the same time, I could not be limited to remain bound by it’s institutional limitations.



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jim bonewald

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:24 am


I get that we need to look at what the term evangelical means today, but is that not a definition that rose out of a defining, maybe even co-opting, of the term in the early 1920s?
What I hear people say who want to re-claim, re-define the term is that they want to go back to an early time period, when the term evangelical meant a whole different set of commitments than the ones that arose out of the particular controversies of the 20th century,



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Your Name

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:25 am


A question back to you, Scot: Why is it important for you to preserve the term evangelical in its traditional form?
It is, after all, a term that describes a certain Christian worldview, in a certain historical period, in a certain part of the world. And now the world is changing, and so must our vocab.
Changing our language is not necessarily the same as changing the truth in which we believe. Especially since we are NOT dealing with confessional language here.



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Brian

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:26 am


Mark Riddle…can you provide a link to Rob’s blog and these comments? I wasn’t aware he had a blog. Thanks.



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jay

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:26 am


At some level it doesn’t matter to me what the technical definition of “evangelical” is. Especially when people who call themselves evangelical exhibit behavior marked by self righteous contempt – the very opposite of the kindness scripture calls us to. It is His kindness that leads to repentance. Evangelicals (and I’m speaking of those deeply and passionately committed to the 4 markers above) do not have a broad reputation for being kind (read: abortion and homosexuality). One might provide me an excellent and even redemptive technical definition of the Masons – but they still creep me out.



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Anette Ejsing

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:26 am


A question back to you, Scot: Why is it important for you to preserve the term evangelical in its traditional form?
It is, after all, a term that describes a certain Christian worldview, in a certain historical period, in a certain part of the world. And now the world is changing, and so must our vocab.
Changing our language is not necessarily the same as changing the truth in which we believe. Especially since we are NOT dealing with confessional language here.



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Andy De Jong

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:27 am


I think both Bell & Knight have their points but I find myself with Rob Bell asking, Why does it matter? Once we define a term aren’t we also then defining who is in and who is out? I know plenty of “Christians” who think they are “in” and are considered by others to be “in”. They go to church together Sunday after Sunday. But tragically their lives exhibit little in the way of radical obedience to Christ Monday through Saturday, especially when it comes to the most difficult disciplines of all – forgiveness and love.
These two guys create a tension in which I believe many of us find ourselves. I’m good with living in this tension because it forces me to both recognize my need for God’s wisdom and the discerning wisdom of others. If ever I feel I’ve arrived (aka – fit the definition therefore I’m in), both God and others become less necessary.
Andy De Jong



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Scott Morizot

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:31 am


When I read that definition, the first thing that came to my mind was a fragment of something I heard on some Orthodox podcast. I don’t remember the source or the full litany, other than the fact that it was kinda catchy. But the phrase was “it is Evangelical, but not Protestant”. (I also recall the phrase “Orthodox, but not Jewish” and something about pre-denominational.)
Since the root of “evangelical” seems to be tied to the idea of one who proclaims the euvangelion of Christ, it’s always struck me as somewhat arrogant for a sub-group of Christians to try to appropriate the label for themselves (and presumably excluding all the rest).
It also strikes me that it’s not really the centrality of the Cross that’s important to those who want to be known by this label, or even the idea of substitution, but rather the very specific and narrow idea of penal substitutionary atonement. (Which, for the record, I don’t see as one valid option among many, but rather as an idea that says some very wrong things about God.)
Nor does it seem to me that “authority of Scripture” is the defining characteristic, since there are relatively few Christians who do not view Scripture as holding great authority, but rather a particularly narrow and anachronistic view of the way that authority is seen and exercised.
And are there Christians who don’t believe that everyone must, over the course of their lives, commit and continue to commit to following Jesus of Nazareth? I’m not convinced that can be reduced to a single experience of some conversion event, however dramatic the experience might be nor to any particular list of things to do.
Personally, I’m not sure there’s a long-term future to this group’s attempt to appropriate a term that rightly seems to belong to all Christians. But I also don’t view it as particularly important.



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Scot McKnight

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:32 am


Anette, I don’t think that set of four factors is just historical but also the lines of connection from 18th Century to today.
Think of a term like “Lutheran”: you can’t just change what that term means as it has a historic origin, a lengthy set of connections, and then modern formulations in continuity and adaptation.
The same with “evangelical.” It’s an 18th Century movement (and not simply a Reformation term) and continuity with that movement is how the term is defined by the best thinkers in the field.



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David J Tooley

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:34 am


By the definition presented above, I am an evangelical. I will not run from being called such simply because the enemy has twisted its meaning through popular media. The word “Christian” has also been twisted, creating a wide and varied response from the general public. I will still call myself a Christian. If I am only defined by these words than I have failed to serve my Master well. My words and actions are what truly define me. If my comings and goings do not bear out the true meaning of Christian or Evangelical than I deserve to be labeled as such by popular culture. However, if by my life and example I am able to bring public perception back to their true meaning of these words, than I have served my King and His Kingdom well. May it be so.
Evangelical Christian,
David J. Tooley



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Mike Clawson

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:35 am


“Why do these folks want to be connected to the evangelicals?”
Without knowing which “folks” you specifically have in mind, it’s almost impossible to answer your question.



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Bret

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:35 am


So, a Catholic cannot be evangelical? I’d say I’ve met some. How about an Anabaptist? I am one, and it is not really a fit to lump us in as Protestants, as during the Reformation, Anabaptists set themselves apart as a “Third Way”, Protestants responded by in some cases killing Anabaptists. Other than narrowing the definition with “Protestant Christians” instead of just “Christians”, I’m fine with this definition of evangelical.



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Ellen Haroutunian

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:38 am


I have to wonder if all the emphasis on knowing exactly what *kind* Christian one is (and another is) actually distracts us from the source of our identity, the living Jesus. I do believe we need to preserve truths about this boundary breaking God of ours but how necessary are all the labels and differences? Doesn’t this expose the “who will be greater in the Kingdom” mentality in all of us? I imagine when we finally see His face all of those trappings will melt away. After all, we are not saved by the quality or tenor of our theological convictions or definitions, but by the resurrected, living and present Christ.



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ryan byrd

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:38 am


“I would not equate this interview with what Rob Bell believes about “evangelicalism.”
to expand on what commenter mark riddle said, rob bell-on twitter-over the span of several tweets, clarified that he was somewhat misrepresented in the published interview, saying,
“Ever done an interview and then read it and realized they left out most of what you said? Maddening.”
if you read the 4 tweets after that, he gives some good insight on the roots of the word ‘evangelical.’ i think he’s right when he says the word ‘evangelical’ has been co-opted. sometimes words connote something other than the intended meaning. definitions are somewhat fluid, i would say, based on a particular cultural connotation. i think that’s what bell (and many others) are suggesting.



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ChrisB

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:39 am


Why do people want to call themselves evangelical?
In addition to what’s been offered above…
These pastors are going to try to start new churches. Their members will almost certainly come from evangelical churches. It’s one thing to be perceived as a reform movement in the church you grew up in; it’s another thing entirely to be perceived as a new branch, a second protestant movement, that is leaving the theology of the old behind.
If you want people to come to your church, you can’t scare them off.
And, for the pastors and their flocks, it’s hard to separate yourself entirely (in name) from the church of your youth.



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RJS

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:43 am


Scot, and Anette (#23)
I do consider myself evangelical – because those four elements are, in fact, central: Bible, Conversion, Cross, and Discipleship.
Now the terms have been restricted in meaning by a number of people – so Bible as authority does not mean Chicago Statement type inerrancy (which is an illogical man-made construct) – but nonetheless Bible is central as God’s story. We cannot simply discard the parts we don’t like and assume that we have moved past interaction with this story in its reality.
Conversion – well what conversion means will differ from person to person, but if there isn’t in some fashion a real concrete Turning to Jesus I do not see how one can be a Christian. We are not born that way, we have to embrace it as some form of conscious decision, even if the decision is better characterized as a conscious decision not to walk away from the faith of our youth.
Cross – ok substitutionary atonement is a bit restrictive but is certainly an important part of the whole, and atonement is a central concept. Here I like your development in “A Community Called Atonement”. (And cross is incomplete without resurrection!)
Discipleship – absolutely essential. This includes “spiritual discipline” (prayer, bible reading, …) and life transformation – which means it impacts vocation, avocation, and world view. Loving God is incomplete without active commitment to love others.
I find that the word and package has value – despite the fact that it has been co-opted to contain other things in the package. In fact I do not know what other word I could use to describe the centrality of that package to describe my view of the Christian faith.



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Jim

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:46 am


Wondering why the word “mission” is not explicit in the four criteria???



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Pat

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:47 am


Hmmm…I see both of your points. In some ways, Rob, (with all due respect) I do feel your responses are a reaction to the highjacking that has taken place and I can’t say that I disagree with you. When you love someone or something and see it being abused, you tend to want to disassociate yourself (I know that I do). But I learned a long time ago, that just because someone perverts something, doesn?t make the thing itself bad. For instance, I?ve heard people misuse scripture for their own selfish benefits and while I was turned off, I had to learn that their misuse of God?s Word didn?t change His Word. I had to learn to separate the two. I think the same is true with evangelicalism. If we allow those on the fringes to define the movement and thus abandon it, aren?t we doing it a disservice? Our voices need to be heard. After all, that is what some on the far right have been saying for quite some time, which is how they got so involved in the political process; they made a decision to let their voices be heard. Unfortunately, their voices have not always done the Church or Christ justice. However, the tension that I feel is speaking out and causing confusion and divisiveness such that it will discredit the credibility of the Church as people regard us confused and wonder who they should believe. I also like the definition Scot provided. It is more complete and as we know, even with that definition there will be many expressions of that truth. As to why people want to be associated with evangelicals, for that I have no answer except that maybe people have gravitated to the label as they saw the power that was leveraged and the attention that those in the movement received. People like power, even if it?s religious power and if they think the scale is going to tip in their favor they will jump on the bandwagon. So sad?.



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Rob

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:51 am


In some ways, Rob, (with all due respect) I do feel your responses are a reaction to the highjacking that has taken place and I can’t say that I disagree with you.
you mean Rob Bell, not me right?



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Patrick Oden

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:51 am


Looking over the list of Evangelical beliefs…
Do Evangelicals believe in the resurrection?
Maybe this list isn’t necessarily the best one to continue to understand Evangelicalism, as it assumes certain interpretations and it leaves out other pretty vital pieces.
Brad Kallenburg, in an article on homosexuality in the church, offered three different guidelines that I’ve found very useful in considering Evangelical thought, practice, and ethics.
First, Evangelicals are ?committed to the Biblical text as functioning authoritatively for the shaping of Christian identity.? The Bible is the basis for who we are as a people and defines what our ethics entail. While the issue of hermeneutics is still open, what is clear is that to alter, adjust, or re-evaluate a specific ethical question in the Evangelical world one must first wrestle with the pertinent Biblical texts to discover what light may be shed on a particular issue. The authoritative nature of the Bible is assumed within the Evangelical community and will be so in any response which is given. That this is not true in the wider world, and even in other Christian communities is certain. We, however, must look to the Bible first in order to even begin to debate the issue of homosexuality, and how as Christians we should respond to its presence within our community.
I’d say Bell very much takes seriously the fact we have to look to Scripture–and the whole of Scripture. That he emphasizes different parts in different ways doesn’t rule him out of Evangelicalism.
The second characteristic which Kallenberg identifies is that of the concern for character in our discussions. This includes the character of the individual as well as the character of the church body as a whole. We, as a community, are not isolated but understand that God is at work and we must take seriously how he is working in the lives of those around us. We must not wrestle with simply the theoretical, but must engage those around us, and work through the issues which are thrust upon us.
Much of Bell’s efforts are a response to how Evangelicalism has stumbled or failed. He recognizes the need to reach out to people, and does so in a way that takes stock of the present culture, engaging men and women who are at different stages of faith and life. The reality is the questions that are often being asked of the church are quite different then what a lot of the church wants to answer, and what a lot of apologetics are designed to address.
Finally, Kallenberg stresses the Evangelical concern for God?s moral law and reasoning which is part of God?s intent and purpose for who we are. We believe there is a moral pattern which God intended humanity to follow. As creatures created by the Creator, we are not simply left to do whatever we please, but rather have been placed in a world of specific rule and order, both physical and moral. Because of our fallen state, however, we understand this incompletely, and must therefore wrestle with various issues seeking to find God?s plan for who we are, and to seek to follow this plan as well as we possibly can.
In wrestling with various issues we can’t limit it to the classically important Evangelical hot topics. Racism, sexism, respect for the environment, for each other, issues of poverty, etc. are all part of the various issues–as is reflected by other key Evangelical leaders. We cannot simply do as we please, but take seriously our roles as God’s people within this troubled world. We look for ways to best reflect this Kingdom ethic. And this reflection goes well beyond avoiding the “vices of the barroom”.
I think Rob Bell is an Evangelical according to these guidelines.



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Clint

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:52 am


WOW…. Arrest me for what I *might* do?



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Kenton

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:52 am


You can’t change what “Lutheran” means??? Really??? The term “gay” has changed quite a bit since “Deck the Halls” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” mostly by people calling themselves “gay.” Changing “Lutheran,” by contrast, is a piece of cake.
Do you think most people who self-identify as “Lutheran” would be recognizable as “Lutheran” to Lutherans in 17 century Germany?



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Kirk

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:57 am


This era of distinction and definition deepened with Hodge and Warfield at Princeton. Sure, covenants and creeds are maps. Unless we do the deep recon, the research, we do not come to know ourselves as we are, and subsequently as we are not. God is also known by what God is not (as well as being revealed and known by what and who God is). If God has distinct boundaries and thresholds in his own “persons” – when we start with such deeply personal uni-diversity, we can build our ideas, covenants and creeds appropriately (circular, telescopic and retrograde). But, we don’t like boundaries much. We don’t like the word don’t… so human and self-mesmerizing we are (in a yoda like voice over).
When we respond to the overbearing agenda of propaganda (which basically attempts to form peoples attitudes apart from the work of the Spirit of Christ), it is a losing battle. Propaganda can never define the Spirit of Christ, the embodiment, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and ongoing embodiment of God… in heaven and amidst his own people.
Where is the propaganda on the inside the “people of God” that is dangerous? Where are the lines drawn inside the sandbox of God’s family that just don’t matter? If we continue to make heroes out of our teachers and champion straw men to support worldviews, we are facing the wrong direction while our King encroaches on the horizon like the Sun amidst the dew of morning.



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Jennifer

posted October 2, 2009 at 11:06 am


If you ask the average person on the street what an evangelical is, I seriously doubt you are going to get anything close to the (very good) definition used here. The culture has changed the meaning. We either need to ditch the term (I almost never use it, and though I love my church, I’m embarassed by its presence in the denominational name – Evangelical Covenant Church) OR, we need to redefine it to the culture, and adding the value of justice and compassion can do that.



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AHH

posted October 2, 2009 at 11:08 am


Another angle is whether the 4-fold “definition” of “Evangelical” is prescriptive or descriptive. If it is the latter, I think the premise of this post is somewhat off-base.
Fundamentally, one can think of “evangelical” as being committed to the evangel, to the Gospel. Bebbington and Noll have described what being committed to the Gospel meant for a certain group of people in a certain period of history.
But if some today see the Gospel a little differently (more emphasis on kingdom, more on community and less individualistic, more facets to atonement, Biblical authority framed in a less foundationalist way, etc.), what is wrong with such people saying “the Evangelical label should include us; the description that applied in the Billy Graham era needs to be expanded”?
We agree that the popular media description of Evangelical as “culture-war Bible-thumper with Sarah Palin’s politics” is a bad definition, but unfortunately it really does describe a significant fraction of U.S. “evangelicals”. If we can say that the word should mean something different than the media’s semi-accurate description, what is wrong with saying that it should include some people who don’t quite fall inside the Bebbington description?
I also agree with those who pointed out the cultural issue that, in many church circles (including my own church at the conservative end of the PCUSA), one has to self-identify as “evangelical” in order to have any credibility as a faithful Christian.



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Anette Ejsing

posted October 2, 2009 at 11:31 am


Fair enough, Scot. And yes, that set of four factors has remained constant through historical changes.
But sometimes we do more than just adapt and modernize. We also reinterpret.
Take your example, Lutheranism, and the most recent issue with homosexuality. Right now social justice (one of the four factors) in Lutheranism is specifically about protecting this minority group. In the process of formulating this emphasis, however, we redefine (or at least expand) what we mean by human sexuality.
But we all remain Lutherans, regardless of our vote. The factor survives our vote. But we have redefined what it means.
That’s why confessions are stronger than factors and why I think holding on to the factors of evangelicalism is like holding on to a certain fix-point in the history of Christianity. I do not see why it would be the same as holding on to Christian faith itself.



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robyn

posted October 2, 2009 at 11:32 am


(i don’t have time to read all of the comments, so this may have been said.)
Can’t we agree that Rob gave an interview and a “journalist” reduced it to an article?
Further, that Rob didn’t set up an interview to discuss the term evangelical? because it seems unfair that we’re discussing the shortcomings of his theology/practice whereas he would not pretend that the article encompasses his views. The context of Rob Bell’s theology on evangelical thought and practice is enormous.
i’m concerned that we, in the Jesus community, are hot-buttoning (we’re actually making that a verb!) issues that should be dealt with in more of a, “yeah, go read Rob’s twitter page and see his reaction” kind of way. my opinion is that we should have squashed this, versus growing it.
There is a lynch mob waiting for Rob Bell, and I’m concerned we’re feeding it.
Does the definition of evangelical need discussion? Sure.
Does America at large suffer from an an anemic understanding of the term? Absolutely.
But should we use Rob as our scapegoat to start that conversation? I’m concerned that the answer to that is no. Americans have arrived at anemic definitions of evangelical because we’re not good researchers anymore. And in kind, most people aren’t going to research Rob Bell’s positions before they join the lynch mob. And initiating lynch mobs—not really on the plate that Jesus suggests we eat off of.
I think this discussion needs to take place outside of the Boston Globe article. Rob Bell was immediately unhappy with it (to say the least!), and I think we need to give him the space from that article that he deserves. He didn’t write it. Let’s please let it go.
Maybe instead we can study how we, as evangelicals, can better relate to and engage with the media so as to redefine this term we’ve lost: evangelical. We could many use an education in just how to do that.
And yes, let’s discuss the term. But let’s please not use people by name. It feels terribly divisive. I don’t think we’re good “differentiators” right now. We skip right to judgmental and divisive, and I think as church leaders we need to guard against that sadly developed cultural norm.



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Anette Ejsing

posted October 2, 2009 at 11:40 am


RJS #33
I consider myself evangelical too. For now. The irony is that I support Rob Bell’s audacious move away from the traditional use of the term, but have quite a few issues with the content of his new position as Merely-A-Follower-Of-Jesus.
I think evangelicalism is about to turn the top of its own curve as the dominant descriptor of the faithful.



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Chris Miller

posted October 2, 2009 at 11:48 am


A very significant discussion. It is important that we understand what our terms means, else we are not in the same ballpark at all. I believe Noll and Bebbington have given us the big tent definition — at least a solid working definition for being an “evangelical.”



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Jeff Lutz

posted October 2, 2009 at 11:49 am


It seems to me that the evangelical tag is one of those words to make one stand out. What I mean is this: when I was a kid, people who believed in Christ, were called Christians, then as a teen the “Born again” tag crept in. As if they needed something extra to make sure people knew that they believed in Christ and didn’t just go to church. Then it seemed somewhere in my early adulthood, that the term evangelical started to be thrown around. I sometimes think that these words get added on when the more conservative or orthodox or what have you think that the terms that have always been used are being watered down and some sort of distinctive must be used.



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Darren King

posted October 2, 2009 at 12:22 pm


What do we do though when even the terms within a definition have shifted in functional meaning for people?
For instance, one can still technically define a term like “American” the same way we did two hundred years ago. But the functional meaning – the one that really matters, I would argue – has changed a lot.
I think that’s true for the term “evangelical” too. So much so in fact that I still contest, as I have before, that the term is largely functionally meaningless now.
Sometimes a meaning is stretch so much that its more water than it is lemonade. Know what I mean?



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JohnB5200

posted October 2, 2009 at 12:28 pm


Let me present my somewhat more jaded view.
Leaders that have made a name for themselves, who are popular, who have built an “empire” or legacy are naturally reluctant to jeopardize that.
This is true in business, politics and in the church.
How often do Repubs become Dems and visa versa. Rare enough that it’s a huge deal.
When was the last time you saw a world-recognized Evangelical leader change their position on a major point of doctrine?
What if RC Sproul or John Piper came out as Arminians? Can you imagine the shockwaves? Or, if John MacArthur spoke in tongues? Or Mark Driscoll came out in favor of women pastors? And on and on.
Such a change would mean immediate career suicide. Their “empires” would collapse overnight.
Rob Bell is well aware that if he came flat out and unequivocally denied the virgin birth or espoused universalism,(not that I am attributing these things to him) that his book and speaking deals would dry up.
Right now he is edgy and controversial. If he gave up the label “evangelical” he would just be another irrelevant, ignored old-school liberal.
Why still use the label “evangelical?” Because “evangelicals” are a force you cannot afford to tick off or abandon and still have a hope of being popular.



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robyn

posted October 2, 2009 at 12:36 pm


to my point-
Re:#45
and respectfully. and i mean that.
But Rob Bell’s position is not that he is simply a follower of Jesus. Anyone who knows the context of his teachings of late knows that he is very much making a strong move back to genesis 1-2 and beginning there. Beginning there and moving forward. Giving life as a human an enormous context. His theology is “merely” nothing. It is an *enormous* work.
We cannot discuss a leader or his or theology based on quotes from a magazine. Or one sermon. Or one interview.
This conversation regarding the understanding of the term, “evangelical,” has GOT to take place outside the context of any one particular leader, theologian or pastor (or combination).
Please.
Shalom.



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Ted M. Gossard

posted October 2, 2009 at 12:56 pm


With AHH I agree that evangelical has to be broadened, though I think the categories stated do have plenty of room for variation. It is interesting how it seems to me Pentecostals are sometimes differentiated from evangelicals, though according to the definition or description here, they certainly fit in, with an emphasis on the work of the Spirit and missions.
As to Rob Bell listen to his sermons online.
I will say there is a strong sense among evangelicals that unless you agree with their political agenda, you don’t fit in. Are they then evangelicals, if they make a certain kind of political mindset central enough that those not in step are questioned as to their faith, or is this just an in-house problem?



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Ted M. Gossard

posted October 2, 2009 at 1:28 pm


I’m suggesting indeed that a political ideology is at least part of a serious divide within evangelicalism. And there are evangelicals who have expressed determination to take back evangelicalism, and in their taking back of it, you are excluded, Scot.
It’s on matters on which equally committed Christians disagree. But really has nothing to do with the upholding of the standard Noll and company describe for evangelicals.



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BenB

posted October 2, 2009 at 1:28 pm


Scot,
For some, like myself – it is their membership, licensed ministry, and commitment to an evangelical denomination.
However, My Evangelical denomination, at a University level (not necessarily at the local church level) is moving in the direction of it’s fore bearers – The United Methodists and the Anglicans. So we become more “liberal” or “mainline” as time goes on. However, we are still an Evangelical denomination, and we certainly still hold to a VERSION of those four commitments.
However, what happens when we mean something slightly different from what many others want to say when they affirm those 4 ideas? Most Evangelicals would not consider someone else to give the Bible authority when their model for “authority” is best described by Marcus Borg.
The problem is those ideas leave a lot of elbow room and room for re-evaluation.



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Richard Jones

posted October 2, 2009 at 1:36 pm


While I like Rob Bell and I agree with his stated values, I, too, would not equate those ideas with evangelicalism, nor would I desire to. I feel no need to cling to the evangelical tag. JohnB5200′s view may be more accurate than he thinks. People want to hang on to tags of orthodoxy for various reasons (maintain client base, not to offend old seminary prof, etc.). Maybe Bell was trying to redefine evangelicalism, believing that the present form of Christianity has been co-opted by politics, extremism, dualism, etc. I would agree. BUT I would not try to call what I hold to evangelical. Bell is a smart guy, so there is probably more to what he was getting at than what has been reported. I believe that forward-thinking, progressive Christians should step out from the evangelical or orthodox labels and be who they are.



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John C

posted October 2, 2009 at 2:14 pm


I’m coming in on this late, but the fourth point of the Bebbington definition is actually activism/mission rather than discipleship. i.e. Evangelicalism is a movement that actually evangelises – it actively seeks conversions by preaching the Cross from the Scriptures. But Bebbington knows that many (most?) Evangelicals have never divorced evangelism from social action, so his fourth point is point is activism/mission rather than simply evangelism.
I suspect that one reason people want to hold onto the Evangelical label (even when their commitment to the Bible and the Cross is pretty diminished) is that they want in on the action that tends to come with Evangelicalism, which because of its activist/conversionist drive has remained one of the most dynamic sectors of modern Christianity.



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Scot McKnight

posted October 2, 2009 at 2:17 pm


John,
Good pushback, and I deserve it: when I wrote “discipleship” I was thinking of Bebbington’s “activism,” which he defines in all kinds of dimensions, including evangelism and social justice and Bible reading. (No?) So, I opted for a word that does more justice to Bebbington’s ideas on this side of the water than “activism.” (That word sounds almost exclusively social over here.)
Push back more if you think it needs it.



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John

posted October 2, 2009 at 2:24 pm


I have always felt that those who would not generally think of themselves as evangelical would sometimes identify with them in order to ‘get them onboard’ with whatever agenda they were espousing. I have seen it with conservative politicians drumming up support for their causes, as well as those concerned with social justice. I see God as being involved with all of creation, not as an idea to be co opted to get others to support your cause.



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Phil

posted October 2, 2009 at 2:27 pm


Why do so many people want to redefine an elegantly simple Greek word that means “good news”? I will always believe an evangelical to be one who is committed to the radical notion that the message of Jesus is always (and must always be)”good news”. A non-evangelical, then, is a person who finds a way to transform this “good news” into some sort of burdensome “bad news”!



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Tim Seiger

posted October 2, 2009 at 2:27 pm


Ok, I did not read back through all 51 comments so if this was covered I apologize. I wonder if Rob Bell would have articulated what Noll and Bebbington were quoted above as saying but left out the “deeds of compassion and justice” part would there be the same level of outrage, or any outrage at all? I suspect it would have gone by unnoticed. Sad, really.



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Seminarian Steve

posted October 2, 2009 at 3:50 pm


The interview was about a book/tour.
Go to the tour, Christ was glorified.
The interview was short, the answer was short. Bell thought the article was “maddening” he then gave some clarification on Twitter. My whole seminary is doing a conference (including Noll) trying to understand what evangelism even is today.
This discussion can be a helpful one but let’s try to not lose the context and limitation of an interviewers one question. This larger discussion is a classic example of Protestant Post-Modern Emergence. In the quest to understand defining terms, we lose all defintion.



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Pat

posted October 2, 2009 at 4:27 pm


Yes, Rob, Pat-35 comments were directed to Rob Bell.



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Pat

posted October 2, 2009 at 4:28 pm


Yes, Rob, the comments I made at #35 were directed to Rob Bell.



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elias tannous

posted October 2, 2009 at 4:34 pm


it is very intresting that the bible (or a theory about it) gets the first place while the resurrection doesn`t even get to the list of what defines an evangelical.



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John C

posted October 2, 2009 at 4:53 pm


Scot – I can see why you opted for discipleship, though I guess Bebbington sees that as included in conversion/new birth. Activism refers to the key Evangelical characteristic of being outward looking – the church is the only organisation that exists for non-members – both through evangelism and social action. Still, that should be part and parcel of discipleship.



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AHH

posted October 2, 2009 at 5:21 pm


elias #63,
While I don’t know the full context of Bebbington’s list, maybe the reason the resurrection is not mentioned is that it is presumed to be part of what defines any Christian. I think the list is trying to give the distinctives that characterize “Evangelicals” in contrast with other categories of Christians.



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Calvin C

posted October 2, 2009 at 5:50 pm


Scot.. by ‘these folks,’ I assume you mean people like Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and the late Jerry Falwell who quite publicly identify themselves as “evangelical” — and in most contexts defined the term as more of a voting bloc or a group of people opposed to certain ideas or groups rather than people committed to the values of the Bebbington Quadrilateral.
I hate using the word “fundamentalist” as a moving target for anyone more conservative than me — but in their cases I really do think all 3 of them were really much more committed to Christian fundamentalism (and even identified as such) until that faction of Christian and even the term itself fell into the wayside due to its anti-intellectualism, isolationism.. and, well… anger.
I proudly identify myself as evangelical along Bebbington’s definition and dislike the idea of abandoning certain terms merely to avoid their negative connotation (e.g., those who never identify as “Christian” and prefer “Christ-follower.”).
However… I can scarcely imagine a more anti-Christian, anti-evangelical environment than what many of us face now short of actual public persecution. This is especially true in more liberal communities in the Northeast, the West Coast, and college towns throughout the country.
I recently had a frustrating conversation with a non-Christian about a large local Evangelical Free church. This person commented, “Yeah I heard they’re ‘evangelical moderates’… like.. evangelical but not as extreme or ridiculous or conservative as most evangelicals.” Trying to explain to her that “evangelical” should be defined as a high view of Scripture or along the lines of Bebbington was just exasperating… and her views are certainly not uncommon!
At what point do we give up on the word “evangelical” or what do we do about the way the term has been hijacked? In most circles, I feel like the word is now synonymous with “fundamentalist” or “Religious Right” among both the majority of non-Christian Americans AND the Christians many of us think are giving us these PR problems.



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Friend of Rob

posted October 2, 2009 at 5:51 pm


FYI -
Rob Bell (the real one) has sorta responded to the lynchmob on his twitter feed.
from http://twitter.com/realrobbell
realrobbell: Ever done an interview and then read it and realized they left out most of what you said? Maddening.
realrobbell: A bit of history: the word evangelical comes from the Roman Empire propaganda machine- it was an announcement proclaiming Caesar is Lord…
realrobbell: The first Christians took the phrase and tweaked it, saying “Jesus is Lord.” That, of course, could get you killed. No one challenges Caesar
realrobbell: To confess Jesus is Lord was to insist that peace does not come to earth through coercive violence but through sacrificial love…
realrobbell: That is still the question, is it not? Whose way? Jesus or Caesar? Power and might and domination – or bloody, thirsty, hanging on a cross?



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TBDickerson

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:05 pm


Perhaps a “point system” would be appropriate. One could consider oneself a “one point,” “two point,” “three point,” or “four point” evangelical…How many permutations would that allow?



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John W Frye

posted October 3, 2009 at 1:47 am


It seems we need several levels of meaning for “evangelical.”
Historical: The Noll/Bebbington description
Attitudinal: The distinction between cool-headed and angry fundies
Economical: For those within the tent who have things to market; it’s where the money is
I think evangelical in the popular mind is a territory, large in scope, between “the liberals” and the “fighting fundamentalists.” The popular evangelical is clueless to the 4 traits in the N-B description.



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angusj

posted October 3, 2009 at 3:49 am


Re Noll’s and Bebbington’s definition: “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.”
While I agree that this is a pretty good definition of evangelical it’s particularly noteworthy in the lack of any mention the Spirit. I think this epitomizes a problem with many evangelicals (and I’d call myself an evangelical) who IMHO tend to hold a lopsided view of the Trinity.



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Christopher Harvey

posted October 3, 2009 at 8:21 am


The point that Rob seems to be making (and Calvin above) is that ‘evangelical’ has already been hijacked. It’s too late to reclaim it, and we will have to move on with other words and ideas to describe our beliefs.
Use of the word in an academic context where both parties agree on a common definition is still worthwhile, but not in public.
And, I agree that the term is a ‘wide tent’ which also dilutes it’s usefulness. There appears to be a wide gap between many evangelicals to the point that they malign, slander and curse others within that tent (which undermines a lot of that Christ following doesn’t it).



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cas

posted October 3, 2009 at 8:57 am


I’ve emailed Michael Paulson, who I met last year at Brandeis University, where he is on the board of the Gralla Fellowship program that I attended for a week. He struck me as an eminently fair and sensitive reporter. I’d be really surprised if he took Bell’s statements out of context, etc.
I’ll post his response if and when he replies to my email.



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Patrick

posted October 3, 2009 at 2:14 pm


RJS way back at 33 – love the way you put that, thanks.
Although in my culture (Republic of Ireland) I don’t tend to use the term evangelical (since it is either unknown or likely to be misunderstood) I cannot think of another word that captures that heartbeat of Bible, Cross, discipleship and conversion.
The word is also a unique bridge builder between like-minded Christians across the globe – as with the World Evangelical Alliance and all its constituent national alliances. Naturally this has been a very American conversation, but the (often negative) American experience expressed in many comments here is not necessarily shared elsewhere around the world.
On Scot’s original question. There have been Catholic groups here very keen to describe themselves as evangelical. Hard to know why – it is hardly popular, powerful or prestigious! Tends to be connected to a charismatic spirituality that stresses belonging primarily via a common experience of the Spirit, So historic doctrinal differences between Catholics and evangelicals are downplayed or ignored …



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Michael W. Kruse

posted October 3, 2009 at 4:23 pm


John Stackhouse wrote a piece in “Books & Culture” two years ago in response to Ron Sider’s “Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience.” Stackhouse demonstrates quite well why we need to be precise with our language in our critiques:
What Scandal? Whose Conscience?



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cas

posted October 3, 2009 at 6:14 pm


I emailed Michael Paulson this morning and told him about the discussion here regarding his interview with Rob Bell. My email included the following:
On September 30, RealRobBell tweeted: “Ever done an interview and then read it and realized they left out most of what you said? Maddening.”
The interview did seem really short. I kept clicking on the next page icon trying to find page 2, but got a different article several times.
Was part of the interview missing?
Did you take his comments out fo context?
Was the Q&A published out of context?
Michael Paulson responded:
I published a relatively lengthy (for a blog) transcript of much of my
interview with Rob Bell on my blog, at this link:
http://www.boston.com/news/local/articles_of_faith/2009/09/rob_bell.html
A shorter version appeared in the paper the following Sunday — we reverse publish abbreviated excerpts from my blog in the Sunday paper every week.
I was not aware that Rob Bell had any concerns about the interview until you e-mailed, and I’m sorry to hear that. In answer to your questions, the published Q&A is not a full transcript of our conversation, but does include the bulk of the exchange — as is common practice, I made some judgments about what to publish for length and clarity. But nothing is out of context — I’m not even sure how that could happen in a Q&A, because you see the questions, and you see his answers, with no interpretation or added commentary from me. And his answers are quite internally consistent, or at
least seem that way to me — late in the interview, when I ask a question about the relative paucity of explicity religious language in his answers, he doesn’t say, ‘You are misrepresenting what I said,’ but instead explains why he uses the language he does. Obviously, if he now feels that the answers don’t fully reflect his thoughts (which is what he seems to say in his Tweet), I’m sorry to hear that, and would certainly be open to posting more if he were to contact me — there are certainly occasions on which I wish I had said more or phrased something differently — but I am confident
that the exchange as published fairly reflects the relatively brief phone conversation that he and I had last month.



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cas

posted October 4, 2009 at 1:26 pm


I should add that Michael Paulson granted permission for his email response to be posted here.



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j savio

posted February 15, 2010 at 8:05 pm


I remember my days studying theology in college and at Trinity (deerfield, IL) divinity school. 72-80
I remember that we were discussing Fundamentalism vs Evangelicalism. I always thought of Fundamentalists as separatists, screaming on street corners with megaphones, passing out tracks everywhere, defense of the KJV or expressing their faith in simplistic and narrow often negative diatribes. Evangelicals believed most everything a fundamentalist did with some exceptions to the above points and other topics such as segregation, dispensationalism was optional not essential, spiritual gifts were actually a reality and did not end with the formation of the Bible. I suppose what I am getting at is that to define “evangelical” one must understand the context in which it formed. Then add to that the influence of the Charismatic movement of the 70′s and 80′s and the influence of Christian television on the psyche of these new evangelicals and the non-evangelicals watching from the sidelines. The four standards defining evangelicalism in the above comments are no doubt true, but to truly understand the movement one must consider the influences that formed it and the evolution of the movement. I would add one more point, evangelicalism as I have experienced it always requires evangelism at home (Jerusalem) and beyond through missions (Judea and the world).
Not sure this is that relevant to the above discussions but it just popped into the noggin.



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