The Bible might be a good place to start when attempting a definition of evangelical. After all, every Christian denomination in the world would claim that they are the correct manifestation of the church, at least as they would interpret the Bible. The problem remains, we would be hard pressed to say that there were evangelicals in the Bible, just like we would be hard pressed to say that there were Protestants, Catholics, Coptics, or Orthodox. The uniqueness and diversity of evangelicalism’s contemporary expressions must beg the question of who can actually define it. That is, who has the right to put a definition on a term with so many different manifestations.
Undeniably the idea of “evangelical” originates in the Bible. Etymologically, evangelical finds its roots in the Greek word euangelion, simply translated good news. In as much as evangelicalism concerns itself with the proclamation of the good news, namely the assertion that an historically identifiable Savior came into the world (Luke 2; John 1) with a message from God (John 17:1) that He desires all people to come to the knowledge of truth (1 Tim 2:4) and be transformed from an allegiance to their own self-glorification (Rom 3:23) to an allegiance to the one true God (Acts 17:30), then we might correctly say that there were evangelicals in the Bible in spite of the apparent anachronism.
When we consider the exponential growth of the early church, we might be tempted to say that there were evangelicals in the first four centuries. After all, one would expect a religious group bearing the moniker evangelical to actually evangelize. This certainly happened prior to the politicization of Christianity in 323 AD.
Graph 1: Growth of Early Christianity (Cooper and Till 2020)
The issue with suggesting there were evangelicals in the Bible lies in the fact that the context in which definitions of evangelical occur today is distinctly different from the context of the first century. First, while there were a set of Scriptures in the first century church, namely the Hebrew Scriptures, today’s evangelical places a primacy on the New Testament as the expression of the new covenant revealed in Jesus Christ (Heb 8:13). The New Testament, subsequently, helps to clarify what the Christian tradition has called the Old Testament. However, the first Christians did not have the privilege of a book called the New Testament and relied upon the transmission of the teaching of the apostles; what the Apostle Paul called “traditions” (2 Thess 2:15; 1 Cor 11:2).
Some evangelicals might find it difficult to appreciate that the Catholic Church finally determined the canon of the New Testament at the Council of Trent in the 16th century. This Counter Reformation to Martin Luther’s (an early evangelical) Reformation sought to address his low view of several books of the New Testament (Hebrews, James, Jude, Revelation) and set the corpus of the 27 New Testament books once and for all.
No doubt, evangelicals are keen to argue that the Muratorian fragment demonstrated an early corpus of the New Testament. This 7th century Latin fragment translated from a Greek manuscript dated in the second century contains most of the New Testament books we have today. Nevertheless, the fragment aligns more closely with Luther’s version of the New Testament than with our current one. Still, Athanasius of Alexandria, most famous for his defense of the nature of Christ at the first ecumenical council, composed a canon of the 27 books of the New Testament in 367 AD. Yet, his canon was not generally accepted by the universal church. All this to say that the church most definitely possessed what we call the New Testament as early as the second century, but consensus did not occur until the 16thcentury.
Second, the sundry expressions of church in the 21st century raises serious questions of whether or not an evangelical identity might be found in the first Christians. The various ideas of church governance (Episcopal, Presbyterian, Congregational), the form of baptism (sprinkling, immersion), and the meaning of the Lord’s supper (Transubstantiation, Consubstantiation, Memorial) are all held by different Christians including some evangelicals. All support their various ecclesiological traditions from Scripture. So, is there one, unifying understanding of the church? Apparently, after 21 centuries we are still unable to answer this question.
Third, there does not appear to be clear agreement to the purpose of the church. There are some evangelicals who believe that social justice sums up the purpose of the church. God is, after all, a just god who demands us “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Others are just as adamant about an apologetic of the faith. Peter himself said, “always be prepared to make a defense [apologian] to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). Finally, there are those who see the social justice advocates as leaning too far to a social gospel while the apologists lean too far to the modernists and point to gospel proclamation as the sole mission of the evangelical. After all, Jesus Himself commanded, “Go, make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:18).
So, were there evangelicals in the Bible? Perhaps, but wholly unlike the kaleidoscopic evangelicalism we see today.