An Evangelical Response to 'An Evangelical Manifesto'
- Wednesday, May 14, 2008
LOUISVILLE -- Who are the evangelicals? The issue of evangelical identity and definition has been central to the evangelical project from its very beginning in America. Given the nature of the movement, definition is elusive and constantly contested.
The release of "An Evangelical Manifesto" on May 7 caught the attention of the national media, and thus it represents yet another opportunity for evangelical definition. The document also represents a challenge, for its framers hope to redefine the movement in the context of our unsettled times.
The Manifesto, released at a press conference at the National Press Club, represents an agenda. The press release offered by the organizers makes that clear:
"Such dynamics prompted a group of theologians and Christian leaders of considerable academic wisdom to carefully draft 'An Evangelical Manifesto.' This three-year effort has sought to reclaim the definition of what it means to be an Evangelical –- a term that, in recent years, has often been used politically, culturally, socially -– and even as a marketing demographic.
"Recognizing that many people outside the movement now doubt that Evangelical is ever positive, and many inside now wonder whether the term any longer serves a useful purpose, they organized a core committee to draft a document that reclaims the term and the calling for both the culture and community of faith. The theological root traces back to the Greek word "euangelion" for 'good news or Gospel.'"
An identity crisis is the diagnosis, and the framers intend to "reclaim the definition" even as many "now wonder whether the term any longer serves a useful purpose." The framers of "An Evangelical Manifesto" clearly believe that the term remains useful. Redefining its use is their aim.
I did not sign the Manifesto, though I find many elements of the document to be very appealing and elegantly composed. I have friends among those who signed the Manifesto, and friends among those who will not sign. In the end, I cannot sign the document for several reasons. These reasons are rooted in my own concern for evangelical identity, and my belief that this document says far too much on the one hand, and far too little on the other.
The authors of the document include Timothy F. George of Beeson Divinity School and author Os Guinness of the Trinity Forum. They certainly make their case in lamenting the subversion of the term "evangelical." I join them in concern that "the confusions and corruptions surrounding the term 'Evangelical' have grown so deep that the character of what it means has been obscured and its importance lost."
The document says a great deal about this confusion, and much of it is helpful and prophetic. I am in total agreement with the argument that Evangelicals "should be defined theologically, and not politically, socially, or culturally."
But when the Manifesto presents a theological definition of Evangelicals, it turns out to be a rather minimal definition. Evangelicals, the document asserts, "are Christians who define themselves, their faith, and their lives according to the Good News of Jesus of Nazareth."
Those are wonderful words filled with Christian content, but they are also words that would be claimed by many who would never claim to be evangelicals. The definition is just not sufficient. The document proceeds to identify several defining beliefs of evangelicals. Among these convictions is the belief that "the only ground for our acceptance by God is what Jesus Christ did on the cross and what he is now doing through his risen life, whereby he exposed and reversed the course of human sin and violence, bore the penalty for our sins, credited us with his righteousness, redeemed us from the power of evil, reconciled us to God, and empowers us with his life 'from above.'"
That is a substantial statement of the Gospel, but it leaves out the question of the exclusivity of salvation to those who have come to Christ by faith. The use of the phrase "for us" in strategic sentences makes one wonder if room is left for some manner of inclusivism or universalism. The door is certainly not adequately closed. Do all of the signatories announced on May 7 affirm that sinners must come to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ in order to be saved? This is one of the most crucial questions for evangelical identity.
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