Evangelical = “One who believes the Good News about Jesus Christ”

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Herbert Chilstrom

This definition of evangelicalism does not come from David Bebbington, but from Herbert Chilstrom, the first presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

As Chris Gehrz shows us in his recent piece at The Anxious Bench, the word “evangelical” has a long history:

Chilstrom’s spiritual forebears ultimately seized the term not only from their “Romish” antagonists, but from other Protestants. “The newly self-identified Lutherans,” writes Diarmaid MacCulloch of late 16th century Germany, “took over the once-general Protestant label ‘Evangelical’ to describe their Churches, just as the non-Lutherans were monopolizing the name ‘Reformed.’”

It was such Lutheran churches that Philipp Spener hoped to reform in 1675, when he lamented the spiritual deadness of “our Evangelical church, which according to its outward confession embraces the precious and pure gospel, brought clearly to light once again during the previous century through that blessed instrument of God, Dr. Luther, and in which alone we must therefore recognize that the true church is visible…”

This leads Gehrz to wonder whether American evangelicals have “kidnapped” the term:

In a sense, Chilstrom is absolutely right. Even many of those participating in last week’s “evangelical consultation” at Wheaton College — the “evangelical Harvard” — fear that their cherished word has been taken over by a particularly noxious political movement. “When people say what does it mean to be an evangelical,” complained convener Doug Birdsall of the Lausanne Movement, “people don’t say evangelism or the gospel. There’s a grotesque caricature of what it means to be an evangelical.” What Fuller Seminary president Mark Labberton calls the “crisis of evangelicalism” has been “caused by the way a toxic evangelicalism has engaged with these issues in such a way as to turn the gospel into Good News that is fake.”

And yet… even if Birdsall and Labberton could somehow bring evangelicals back to the Evangel in such a way that they renounce the culture warring of the Religious Right, wouldn’t Chilstrom still feel like his term had been kidnapped? Wouldn’t any leader of an avowedly “Evangelical” mainline church want to contest the notion that other Protestants — but not him — have a high view of Scripture, recognize the centrality of the Cross, seek conversion, and practice evangelism and social action?

Read his entire piece here.