The Evangelical Identity, Part 1 of 4

Cultural fragmentation, pluralization and globalization have raised the issue of evangelical identity in fresh ways. These factors, along with the explosive growth of theologically conservative Protestantism worldwide as well as Trumpgelicalism and evangelical deconstructionism in the United States have prompted many to ask what it means to be “evangelical Christians.”  Western evangelicalism has tended to define itself in terms of the Reformation.  Over the next three weeks we will draw upon the works of Alister McGrath, Kwame Bediako, and Thomas Oden to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of defining evangelicalism in terms of the 16th century Reformation.  The conclusion will discuss the missiological implications of formulating an “evangelical identity” based upon the Reformation. We begin with Alister McGrath.

The future belongs to those who can relate the heritage of the past to the realities of the present.

Alister McGrath

Alister McGrath

In 1995, Alister McGrath published what must now be a classic text entitled Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity (Intervarsity Press) as a critique of the evangelical movement.  The purpose of the book was to help the evangelical community be aware of strengths and weaknesses in the evangelical movement that has its roots in the Reformation.  Motivated by the conviction that the movement has a continuing role to fulfill, McGrath hoped to open a dialogue in the worldwide community of evangelicalism.

McGrath’s historical overview of the movement defines it in terms of the Reformation.  He believes that it is essential for today’s evangelicals to know their history in order to insure that the same mistakes made in the past will not be repeated.  Hence, through historical awareness evangelicals will have a deeper appreciation for the movement’s distinctives and for the non-evangelicals attraction to it.  Appealing to James I. Packer, he suggests that correct evangelical theology can only be found in the Reformation and consequently, it is this theology that will preserve evangelicalism (1995:116).

The rootedness of evangelicalism in the Reformation is important to McGrath because of what he sees as the fragmentation of the movement.  It is the very diversity of evangelicalism that draws him to the assertion that there is a danger of losing identity and corroding doctrine.  However, according to McGrath, evangelicalism is unified in six overarching convictions and it is the holding of these convictions that will assure the preservation of evangelical identity in the midst of diversity.

  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. (1995: 55-56)

While these six convictions are foundational to McGrath’s understanding of evangelicalism there are variations between evangelicals.  These variations occur in at least three manners.  First, evangelicals differ on the emphasis of convictions.  Second, the precise interpretation of the convictions is contingent on the traditions that evangelicals follow.  Third, evangelicals may select additional convictions that are believed to be justified in Scripture and history (1995: 85-87). These variations come as a result of the world-wide growth of evangelicalism and yet these variations contribute to the potential loss of identity.

McGrath’s answer to the potential loss of identity is surmised in his statement, “The future belongs to those who can relate the heritage of the past to the realities of the present” (1995: 112). Therefore, an evangelical identity can be conserved and nourished as it rediscovers its roots and it is here that McGrath suggests that the New Testament and sixteenth-century Reformation are essential (1995: 115). But should the two be so intrinsically tied?

Next Week: The Ghanaian THEOLOGIAN Kwame Bediako

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