"Unity without verity is no better than conspiracy." - John Trapp

Monday, September 04, 2006

Ancient Boundaries

Some move landmarks; they seize flocks and pasture them. (Job 24:2 ESV)
Dan Phillips has an excellent discussion starter on his blog about the death of any meaning for the word "Evangelical". Dan is not the first person, nor likely to be the last, to discuss how many people who use that phrase to describe themselves no longer hold to doctrines that in former times defined what it meant to be an evangelical.

Near the end of that post and in the comments there is a discussion about what term could be used to define those who historically would have been evangelicals but now wish to distinguish themselves from the ever broadening meaning of evangelical. Dan notes that Fundementalist is already corrupted and Reformed is too specific. So what can be used?

A Historic Option

One possibility I have considered is falling back on the Five Sola's. These are:
  • Sola Scriptura - The Bible alone is the final authority for faith and practice
  • Solus Christus - Jesus alone is the only way to God
  • Sola Gratia - By grace alone is salvation provided to humanity
  • Sola Fide - Through faith alone do we individually experience that salvation
  • Soli Deo Gloria - For the glory of God alone is salvation accomplished in this manner
This is an excellent summary of five key doctrines (more details on what these doctrines mean and how they might be applied can be found in The Cambridge Declaration). If these were used, we could refer to historic evangelicals as "5 sola" Christians or "5A" Christians (five alones).

A Systematic Option

Another option would be to take a cue from some major systematic theologies. For instance, Charles Hodge breaks down his systematic theology into four main sections:
  • Theology Proper (Triune God)
  • Anthropology (Original Sin)
  • Soteriology (Penal Substitution)
  • Eschatalogy (Literal Return)
Strong has a similar structure, but inserts Ecclesiology (Universal and Local Church) before Eschatology. Berkhof uses Strong's categories plus adds a section on Christology (Fully Divine and Fully Human) after Anthropology (it should be noted that the names are not exactly the same, but the area of focus is; for example, Berkhof's "Anthropology" is "The Doctrine of Man in Relation to God"). Acronyming the six areas you get T.O.F.F.P.U.L.L. (Triune God; Original Sin; Fully Divine; Fully Human; Penal Substitution; Universal Church; Local Church; Literal Return).

This could be shortened to T.O.F.P.U.L. or other defining words/phrases might be used.

Let's Be Serious

Really, I don't think we're going to start calling each other Toffpull's. The point is, if we are going to do this, we need to start with defining what it is that defines us. Coming up with a cute (or vibrant, or witty, or clever, or whatever) word, phrase or acronym will not be enough. As Dan notes in his article, even the famous TULIP is at times problematic, where particular redemption is probably better than limited atonement and effectual calling better than irresistable grace (and maybe other changes as well). The word/acronym needs to fit the content, and not the content the word/acronym.

What we are talking about is a word to replace evangelical. In an article trying to define evangelicalism, it is noted that there are three senses in which evangelical is typically used. The first of these is the more historic definition:
The first is to see as "evangelical" all Christians who affirm a few key doctrines and practical emphases. British historian David Bebbington approaches evangelicalism from this direction and notes four specific hallmarks of evangelical religion: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
Phil Johnson has a similar definition of what evangelical meant historically:
In other words, in the historic sense of the word, when we speak of the evangelical movement, we're speaking of those who share 1) a commitment to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture; 2) a belief in the necessity and the efficacy of Christ's atoning work; and 3) a profound sense of urgency about getting the gospel message to the uttermost parts of the world.
I'm not sure how, particularly in one short blog post, we bring these two definitions together with some of the key doctrinal points to create a new term for evangelical. I do think that an acronym has advantages in that it can represent more full statements that are harder to stretch to cover theological distortions (addendum: see this recent "reprint" by Phil over at Pyromaniacs about how mainstream evangelicals look more and more like mainstream denominations, and are therefore encouraged about mainstream denominations.).

Regardless of what term might be introduced in the future, we need to be aware that the term evangelical is no longer helpful in defining who we are. The word has essentially lost its meaning and we need something that expresses, in a positive sense, those things that unite us. Perhaps most importantly, we need to know that not everyone who calls himself an evangelical will affirm the Scriptures, the necessity of the atonement, or the need to preach the gospel to those holding other religions. It is to be lamented that this is the case, but such are these times in which we live. The landmarks have been moved.


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