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Thursday, March 4, 2010

What is Evangelical Christianity?

I have entitled my blog, Why I De-Converted from Evangelical Christianity. There is considerable confusion today over exactly what constitutes Evangelical Christianity. So, I want to take the time to clearly define what I mean when I use the term Evangelical.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines evangelical as: emphasizing salvation by faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ through personal conversion, the authority of Scripture, and the importance of preaching as contrasted with ritual.

The English word originated around 1531, according to Merriam-Webster. This, of course, was the time of the Reformation. Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Chapel in 1517 and the Reformation was on. During Luther's lifetime, the churches which followed his teachings were known as Evangelical Churches. It wasn't until after his death that they came to be known as Lutheran Churches. Eventually, evangelical became more or less synonymous with Protestant.

Going back to the Merriam-Webster definition, note that there are essentially five components to it.

1. Salvation by Faith
2. Atoning Death of Christ
3. Personal Conversion
4. Authority of Scripture
5. Importance of preaching vis-a-vis ritual.

Each one of these beliefs were forged in opposition to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church of the 16th century. Salvation by faith alone (sola fide)apart from works was the great re-discovery of Martin Luther. In his study of Paul's Letter to the Romans and especially chapter 1 verse 17 (For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: "The righteous will live by faith."), Luther became convinced that the teaching of the apostle had been lost in the Roman Catholic Church of his day. He felt that good works and rituals had been added to faith and thereby destroyed the pure grace of God in salvation. Thus, his emphais on salvation by faith alone.

This faith, however, must have the correct object. It can't be faith in the sacraments of the church or faith in one's good works but faith in the atoning death of Christ as the payment for one's sin. Luther and Calvin were very instrumental in developing what would later be called the penal substitutionary doctrine of the atonement.

When one came to rest his or her faith in the atoning work of Christ, one was converted. Later evangelicals would call this experience being born-again, being saved, or accepting Christ as one's personal savior.

Luther and the Reformers insisted that the ultimate authority for Christians was not the pope nor the church but the Bible itself (sola Scriptura). This has always been a hallmark of evangelical Christianity.

The URL for my blog is When I was a Christian, I considered myself a Fundamentalist and an Evangelical. What is the difference in the terms? The term fundamentalist orginated in the early part of the 20th century as evangelicals took a stand against Modernism or theological liberalism. They maintained that there were certain doctrines that were fundamental or essential to the Christian faith. While there was never complete unanimity on the fundamentals, they always included the verbal inspiration of the Bible, the virgin birth, the substitutionary atonement, the bodily resurrection and the second coming of Christ. These doctrines were some of the specific ones being denied by the theological liberals of the day.

Until the late 1940's, the terms evangelical and fundamentalist were more or less synonymous. There might have been a slight difference in emphasis. Fundamentalist were known more for what they were against whereas Evangelicals were known more for what they were for. In 1948, Harold Ockenga called for a New Evangelicalism. One that would be more open to dialogue with liberals. He felt that evangelicals should infiltrate the liberal seminaries and denominations rather than separate from them. Some evangelicals embraced Ockenga's call and others rejected it. Those who rejected it preferred to be called Fundamentalists. Thus, separation from liberalism became the hallmark of the fundamentalists.

Today, both terms, evangelical and fundamental, have taken on different connotations. Fundamentalism has become a term of derision and is used to refer to just about any kind of religious fanatic, including abortion clinic bombers, Mormon polygamists, and Islamic terrorists, etc. Evangelicalism has become a catch-all term to refer to just about any Christian who is not a theological liberal, a cultist, or a Roman Catholic. There is a great diversity of beliefs within modern day evangelicals from self-help gurus like Joel Osteen to charismatic healers like Benny Hinn to religious right leaders like James Dobson.

So, in order to clarify, when I use the terms evangelical or fundamentalist, I am using them in the historical sense of the terms.


  1. Dr. Pulliam,

    You have a gift for writing and clearly expressing your ideas. Matched with your scholarship I can't wait for a book. Until then, I'll read your blog.