The Desirability and Possibility of a Universal Definition of Evangelicalism

Definitions of evangelicalism are almost a dime a dozen. It seems like everyone today has an opinion on what counts as truly “evangelical.” Some find the term so ambiguous that they argue it should be dispensed with altogether. Others seek to find a new definition. Most people just don’t care.

The Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals, a center of research established at Wheaton College by Mark Noll and Nathan Hatch, outlines the definition of contemporary evangelicalism in the following way:
There are three senses in which the term “evangelical” is used today as we enter the 21st-century. 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. A second sense is to look at evangelicalism as an organic group of movements and religious tradition. Within this context “evangelical” denotes a style as much as a set of beliefs. As a result, groups as disparate as black Baptists and Dutch Reformed Churches, Mennonites and Pentecostals, Catholic charismatics and Southern Baptists all come under the evangelical umbrella—demonstrating just how diverse the movement really is. A third sense of the term is as the self-ascribed label for a coalition that arose during the Second World War. This group came into being as a reaction against the perceived anti-intellectual, separatist, belligerent nature of the fundamentalist movement in the 1920s and 1930s. Importantly, its core personalities (like Harold John Ockenga and Billy Graham), institutions (for instance, Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College), and organizations (such as the National Association of Evangelicals and Youth for Christ) have played a pivotal role in giving the wider movement a sense of cohesion that extends beyond these “card-carrying” evangelicals.
This statement provides a very helpful “lay of the land.” Evangelicalism is used in each of these three senses: type, style, and movement. In what follows, I am going to look at a few different ways of defining evangelicalism, most of which fall in the first category of type, but some which blend these together. The question I will pursue is whether a “universal definition” of evangelicalism is desirable and even possible. My main focus will be on John Stackhouse’s new definition of evangelicalism, which seeks to combine type and movement together. That is, he wants a definition of evangelicalism which specifies a very particular group of people that all share a very specific list of beliefs. First, however, let’s look at some other definitions.

A brief look at some “popular” definitions of evangelicalism is illuminating. The Evangelical Theological Society, for example, has a very simple approach: define what is absolutely essential in terms of doctrine (“mere evangelicalism”), and ignore everything else. So their definition is very basic: “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs. God is a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory.” For the ETS, scholastic metaphysics + Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy = evangelicalism. Everything else is adiaphora.

By contrast, the National Association of Evangelicals (founded in 1942) claims to represent the broad “evangelical” constituency, and they do so by leaving out the more controversial particulars while at the same time providing a lengthier list of “mere evangelicalism”:

• We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.

• We believe that there is one God, eternally existent in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

• We believe in the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, in His virgin birth, in His sinless life, in His miracles, in His vicarious and atoning death through His shed blood, in His bodily resurrection, in His ascension to the right hand of the Father, and in His personal return in power and glory.

• We believe that for the salvation of lost and sinful people, regeneration by the Holy Spirit is absolutely essential.

• We believe in the present ministry of the Holy Spirit by whose indwelling the Christian is enabled to live a godly life.

• We believe in the resurrection of both the saved and the lost; they that are saved unto the resurrection of life and they that are lost unto the resurrection of damnation.

• We believe in the spiritual unity of believers in our Lord Jesus Christ.

The problem with this list is that it is too broad to count as a description of evangelicalism, unless we reduce “evangelical” to “orthodox” or “traditional” Christian. Any conservative member of a denomination, including most Catholics and Orthodox, would probably be able to sign on to this statement. We might call this statement “mere traditional Christianity.”

The most widely-used academic definition has to be that of David Bebbington, who drafted what is now known as the “Bebbington Quadrilateral”: crucicentrism (inclusive of christocentrism), biblicism, conversionism, and activism. Evangelicals are centered on the reconciling work of Christ on the cross, the authority of Scripture, the necessity of a changed heart, and active works of love in the world. George Marsden came along and quite rightly added a fifth term: transdenominationalism. While “biblicism” is often taken to exclude Catholics (who uphold Sacred Tradition alongside Sacred Scripture), the addition of transdenominationalism more explicitly limits evangelicalism to a particular movement within Protestantism, one that is not denominationally “fixed.” That is, evangelicalism views denominational boundaries as dispensable; they are unnecessary demarcations which can and should be ignored when it comes to the work of the gospel.

Most recently, John Stackhouse of Regent College (Vancouver, BC) has written a new definition of evangelicalism that takes its bearings from Bebbington and Marsden. Stackhouse is an evangelical theologian and the senior advisor for the Centre for Research on Canadian Evangelicalism (CRCE), an initiative of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC). Stackhouse views the attribute of “transdenominationalism” to be essential because it “helps to mark off evangelicals from the more generic category of ‘fervent orthodox Protestants,’ a category that would include, say, conservative Lutherans or conservative Anglicans, who generally have little to do with any other kind of Christian.” Consequently, he finds the term “evangelical Catholic” to be at least oxymoronic, if not entirely nonsensical.

His revised definition of evangelicalism is an attempt to identify a very specific group of people. He was motivated to attempt a redefinition because of the inability of pollsters and academics to specify who they mean when they refer to “evangelicals.” (He cites Ron Sider’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience as a particularly bad example.) As a result, he offers six attributes and he insists that all six are necessary in order to identify an “evangelical”:
[T]his set of criteria functions properly only as a set. There is nothing peculiarly evangelical about any of them singly, of course. It is only this set that helps scholars, pollsters, leaders and interested others “pick out” evangelicals from Christians in general or observant Christians in general or observant Protestants in general, and so on. Thus it must be employed as a set, without compromise, as in the common polling practice of counting as evangelicals those who score “highly” on some scale derived from such criteria. No, evangelicals do not compromise on any of these values.
So what are these values? Here is Stackhouse’s universal definition of evangelicalism:
Orthodox and Orthoprax: Evangelicals subscribe to the main tenets—doctrinal,
ethical, and liturgical—of the churches to which they belong.

Crucicentric: Evangelicals are Christocentric in their piety and preaching, and emphasize particularly the necessity of Christ’s salvific work on the Cross.

Biblicist: Evangelicals affirm the Bible as God’s Word written, true in what it says and functioning as their supreme written guide for life.

Conversionist: Evangelicals believe that (1) everyone must trust Jesus as Saviour and follow him as Lord; and (2) everyone must co-operate with God in a life of growing spiritual maturity.

Missional: Evangelicals actively co-operate with God in his mission of redeeming the world, and particularly in the proclamation of the gospel.

Transdenominational: Evangelicals gladly partner with other Christians who hold
these concerns, regardless of denominational stripe, in work to advance the Kingdom of God.
Of all the available definitions of evangelicalism, Stackhouse’s version is probably the best one available, though it has its problems. It’s about as close as one can get to a “universal definition” of evangelicalism, though as I will argue in a moment, it demonstrates the final impossibility of any such universal definition.

Stackhouse’s definition is obviously a reworking of Bebbington’s definition. Stackhouse has added Marsden’s transdenominationalism, changed activism to missional, and added an extra term to emphasize the orthodox and orthoprax nature of evangelical faith. Not all of these changes are positive, in my opinion. Marsden’s term is crucial, since it captures the nature of evangelicalism since the so-called neo-evangelical movement of the 1960s and 1970s, spearheaded by the likes of Carl Henry. Nothing defines American evangelicalism more, in my opinion, than its willingness to disregard denominational affiliation to get something done. This is embodied in the non-denominational/non-conformist movement within American Christianity, a movement in which I was raised. The independence of American evangelicalism is partly why a universal definition is an impossibility.

Stackhouse’s two major changes to Bebbington’s quadrilateral are both ambiguous, with mixed results. First, the change from activism to missional is misleading and theologically questionable. Stackhouse has distinguished between conversion and mission in his definition in order to highlight the importance of making a decision for the gospel before actively engaging in the work of the gospel. Certainly, this is a standard evangelical distinction. But we could just as easily make the case for changing conversionism to missional and leaving activism. The reason for this is that conversion cannot be distinguished from mission; we are converted to the gospel as we are converted to the work of God’s in-breaking reign. Our initation into God’s kingdom has to be identified with our participation in this kingdom. There can be no gap between conversion and mission, because our being is located in act. Like the church, our being is constituted in our mission of evangelical witness to Jesus Christ.

I am also drawing somewhat upon Stackhouse’s own writings on mission and evangelism, particularly his Books & Culture essay. In that essay, he talks about how our notion of mission has to expand beyond simply preaching the gospel. He writes:
To confine the scope of salvation to those who have heard certain facts about Jesus and who come to accept him on this basis, therefore, is not necessitated by the Bible, and in fact is not even the best way to understand the Bible. . . . God is not interested in saving merely human souls. He wants human beings, body and soul. . . . The Christian gospel therefore is not a narrowly spiritual one, but literally embraces everything, everywhere, at every moment. Every action that brings shalom—that preserves or enhances the flourishing of things, people, and relationships—is the primary will of God for humanity. . . . And our mission to the world extends far beyond evangelism. Yes, evangelism is the special work of the church, for only we Christians have been entrusted with the great good news at the center of God's redemptive plan, at the heart of which is the life and work of Jesus Christ. But our evangelism itself issues a call to “life abundant” that embraces everything good in the world, not just the spiritual.
Here Stackhouse includes evangelism within the scope of God’s mission. Certainly, he would still want to identify a distinct moment of conversion, but that moment has to be understood within the larger framework of mission. Our conversion to God is a conversion to God’s missional shalom. We are converted to the kingdom of God, and thus to a life shaped by that kingdom. While our participation in the mission of God demands that we make a decision for Jesus Christ, to separate conversionism and mission as Stackhouse does in his definition of evangelicalism is misleading. It also runs against the changes within evangelicalism in recent years. The emphasis on mission captures the transformation within evangelicalism away from the narrow form of conversionism made popular by people such as Billy Graham toward a broader understanding of conversion—one that encompasses all of life, cannot be reduced to a “moment” of conversion, and is translatable into other cultures.

Stackhouse’s use of mission also presumes that people are in agreement about what “missional” means. But even on that point we find a plurality of views, all of which could claim the word “missional” without being disingenuous. Personally, I find Stackhouse’s definition above to be highly problematic, though I assume unintentionally so, based on the very fine discussion of mission in the article I mentioned above. The problem with his definition of missional is located in the language of cooperation, which he uses twice. In defining conversionism, he says that believers “must co-operate with God in a life of growing spiritual maturity.” And then—somewhat redundantly, since it isn’t clear that the second aspect of conversionism is really all that distinct from his definition of missional—he says under the rubric of “missional” that believers “actively co-operate with God in his mission of redeeming the world.” For both, cooperation with God is a deeply misleading notion. We never cooperate with God in the sense that our action is somehow independent of God’s action. Rather, our action takes place entirely within the prompting, empowering, preserving, and sanctifying action of God. But this participation with God is entirely asymmetrical: we are dependent upon God, but God is not dependent upon us. The language of cooperation disguises this asymmetry, and theologically it leans in a non-evangelical (i.e., non-Protestant) direction. Perhaps Stackhouse is more of a semi-Pelagian than I originally thought, but for now I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume by “cooperation” he merely means “participation,” which is a very different word.

Let me recap what I have said about conversion, mission, and activism. By collapsing activism and mission, Stackhouse wants to underscore that our activist involvement ought to be placed within the scope of God’s mission of reconciliation. He also wishes to locate evangelism within this missional framework. The advantage of this move is clear: evangelism and activism are no longer separated into separate categories, but they are now integrated into the larger umbrella category of God’s mission in which we participate as God’s covenant partners. The disadvantage is equally clear: there is now a separation between conversion and mission, between being and act, which I have argued elsewhere is fundamentally at odds with what missional theology proclaims. A second option that I mention above would involve collapsing conversionism and mission. This rectifies the being and act problem, but it leaves activism hanging out by itself. One advantage of this move is that it highlights the sociopolitical impulses of evangelicalism as something distinct and worthy of mention besides their missional impulses (always recognizing that these go together). Bebbington’s use of activism was, in part, an effort to acknowledge the significance of evangelical social engagement. That is disguised somewhat in Stackhouse’s definition, unless you are aware of the semantic depth of the word “missional.”

I think the best solution would be to collapse both conversionism and activism into missional. I would then define missional in the following way: Evangelicals believe that (1) everyone must respond to the word of the gospel that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior with heartfelt trust and faithful obedience, and (2) that obedience must take the form of active participation in God’s mission of reconciliation through the ecclesial “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18). This ministry of reconciliation necessarily includes the proclamation of the gospel, but it also encompasses the whole range of active witness to Christ’s Lordship, including all manner of social, political, and economic engagement. Having this kind of fulsome definition of mission is a more theologically sound alternative to both Bebbington and Stackhouse.

In addition to the change of activism to missional, Stackhouse added a section on orthodoxy and orthopraxy. But this, too, is problematic. For some, the term might seem unnecessary, even redundant, yet it emphasizes the fact that evangelicalism accepts the central dogmas of the Christian faith and seeks to abide by the commands of God in our daily lives. However important this may be, there are major problems with including “orthodoxy” as part of one’s self-definition. Quite simply, whose orthodoxy, or which orthodoxy? Who or what defines what is “orthodox”? Even if we accept the first four ecumenical creeds (though even that decision is rather arbitrary), which is about as far as most evangelicals are willing to go, how do we interpret those creeds? Do we simply adopt the philosophical-metaphysical substructure? Most evangelicals reject the doctrine of deification, but that is at the heart and center of the Chalcedonian Definition. The problem with a term like “orthodox” is that it invariably involves power relations. The term itself has very little content, because apart from the churches that claim to have the definitive interpretation of these creeds, people are left to interpret them in various ways, not unlike the interpretation of Scripture itself. So without a definite content, the term “orthodox” becomes a way to distinguish who is “right” and who is “wrong,” who is “in” and who is “out.” The term functions like a gate or even a weapon. Its usage generally involves some kind of arbitrary exclusionary violence. And what’s most problematic is that the term is used among evangelicals (take the whole “open theism” debate as a case in point), in which both sides feel that they can abide by the label. In such cases, who is the judge? Without an evangelical magisterium, the term “orthodox” becomes more or less what the terms “evangelical” and “Christian” have become today—anyone who wants to claim the word can. At the end of the day, while I understand the reasons for including it in this definition of evangelicalism, I have to wonder whether it results in simply more confusion and damage.

Finally, we have to ask, who is excluded by this definition? Well, pretty much anyone who defends a particular denomination or tradition as intrinsically superior to all other traditions and would thus avoid or seriously delimit ecclesial partnership and ecumenism. This would include most Roman Catholics (except on sociopolitical matters, such as pro-life and anti-gay marriage agendas) and Eastern Orthodox, but it would also exclude, for example, the Reformed orthodox (such as the OPC, aka “Reformed fundamentalists”), as well as many within the mainline denominations, including Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Episcopalians. A few anabaptists/baptists might be excluded if they see themselves carrying on a tradition which excludes transdenominational cooperation, but I suspect that is rarely the case.

Personally, I think Stackhouse is correct to make transdenominationalism a central ingredient in the definition of evangelical, only because, like him, I feel like the word loses any real meaning once it becomes an adjective applicable to any tradition—so long as those within that tradition emphasize things like Scripture, mission, and orthodoxy. I would be willing to argue that transdenominationalism is the key characteristic of contemporary evangelicalism, more central even than the emphasis upon the authority of Scripture, which is common to conservative Christians of all traditions. However, I want to be clear: by defining evangelicalism in this kind of narrow way does not mean that the word cannot have a secondary, more general application. The point here is that if we are trying to identify a particular subgroup (even subculture) within the Christian church, Stackhouse is correct that we have to be as specific and narrow as possible so that we know what we’re talking about. When we water down definitions so as to include the widest possible range of people, it ends up rendering these terms completely useless.

Yet there is a sense in which a term like “evangelical” will always be useless, and necessarily so. And this is the point with which I want to close. I have titled this (very long) post “The Desirability and Possibility of a Universal Definition of Evangelicalism.” (Readers who are knowledgeable about Barth should immediately notice that this is a reworking of a 1925 essay by Barth titled “The Desirability and Possibility of a Universal Reformed Creed.”) I have briefly examined definitions by ETS, NAE, Bebbington, and Stackhouse in order to chart the pursuit of a universal definition of what it means to be “evangelical.” While I support the attempt to specify as carefully as possible this particular group of people, I remain unconvinced that any definition will ever actually suffice.

The basic problem is that even the most seemingly straightforward terms—such as “orthodox” and “biblicist”—remain irreducibly complex and diverse. These terms resist any singular meaning, and they are certainly not self-evident. There are very few evangelicals who actually agree on what these terms mean. Stackhouse recognizes as much when he says that one has to abide by his definitions of these terms for the overall definition to work. But that just underscores the problem. The attempt to formulate a universal definition which will result in “accurate” polling data (as if that were even possible) requires that someone assume the role of evangelical magisterium. Someone has to determine what these words actually mean in order to specify who is in and who is out.

But it is my conviction that evangelicalism, at its heart, resists precisely this kind of magisterial power. If it is anything, evangelicalism is the rejection of any singular form or tradition in favor of a concrete, personal, and anti-institutional faith. I suggest defining evangelicalism not as a type or movement but rather as an attitude, as a particular disposition. Evangelicalism is not a substance whose attributes can be examined; it is rather an actualistic mode of being which resists any definitional foreclosure and instead bursts open our concepts, pluralizing and multiplying the dimensions of Christian faith—though always under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. This helps to explain why evangelicalism is marked by transdenominationalism, and why talking about “evangelical Catholics” is a problematic use of the word.

Certainly, there are many self-proclaimed evangelicals who seek to pin down a very narrow definition of evangelicalism in order to apply the label to themselves and to very few others, if any. But I contend that this kind of semantic violence is what constitutes fundamentalism—the redefinition of terms to validate one’s own ideas over against the ideas of others. That’s not to say that people like Stackhouse are fundamentalists. By no means! Rather, it is to suggest that the attempt to locate a universally applicable definition of what is “essentially” or “truly” evangelical is itself an anti-evangelical project.

In the end, even Stackhouse’s own definitions are far too ambiguous, as I have already explained above. Words like “orthodox” and “missional” simply do not carry a fixed content, even when defined by Stackhouse. The ambiguity cannot be explained away; it is irreducible. The diverse range of meanings belongs to the words themselves. Any pursuit of a universally fixed meaning is an act of exclusionary violence which runs counter to the truest impulses of the evangelical spirit.

I am not suggesting that we dispense with these definitions. They may be quite necessary and helpful in certain contexts. But we have to remember that these are contextual definitions which serve very specific purposes. They cannot and must not be used to “define” evangelicalism, as if one could specify who is an evangelical and who is not on the basis of these definitions. Evangelicalism is not a tradition like Roman Catholicism or Reformed orthodoxy, both of which are grounded in specific creeds and confessions, carried on by specific catechetical instruction. Evangelicalism is not a quantifiable entity that can be scientifically objectified and examined. On the contrary, it is, as I have suggested, an act. It is an attitude or disposition. Evangelicalism approaches the Christian faith in a non-conformist manner, tearing down the walls of division and the barriers of tradition in order to facilitate the establishment of a personal, missional faith.

Evangelicalism is thus, in a very real sense, anarchic in nature: it resists attempts to universally fix or define what is truly Christian. Instead, it remains radically open to redefinition and recontextualization. Its missional character flows from the fact that no institution or tradition or culture can possibly be the sole bearer of the truth. In its best forms, therefore, evangelicalism is simply the openness of the church to the radical interruption of the gospel of Jesus Christ.


the don said…
very, very, nice!
Anonymous said…
Thanks for posting this. It will be helpful to my own dissertation research on evangelical higher education.
Anonymous said…
I can split my understanding of "evangelical" into two time periods:

pre-2004: I understood Stackhouse's "missional" distinctive as the only distinctive quality of evangelicalism. I am not sure why, but I never thought of the others.

post-2004: Evangelical is a political demographic in the US, of course. ;-)
Anonymous said…
Although I would look at the late 1970's at the defining moment when evangelicalism began to be more and more associated with "the Right" as Himmelstein argues quite convincingly. Carter was supposed to be the evangelical President and that did not work out so well. Bush and Palin are responses to that initial failure and they have not seemed to pan out well - only polarizing the political base even more by defining what looks to be a sectarian political body. Look to the founding of Liberty University, Regents College in the 70's and more recently Patrick Henry College all as responses to this sectarian impulse in the conflation of politics and evangelicalism.
Dear Ben,

Some good thoughts in this post. You might like to see a few of our recent discussions on Evangelicalism and a new book which investigates Bebbington's quadrilateral.

See here:

and here:


Dear David,

In regards to my last comment. Please forgive the slip of the pen--I had been reading Ben's Faith and Theology blog in addition to yours and inadvertently typed his name instead!


Anonymous said…
Hey David, great post. Appreciated your definition of missional.
Anonymous said…
You write: "I suggest defining evangelicalism not as a type or movement but rather as an attitude, as a particular disposition." Wonderful idea. Too bad the American Evangelical Church remains torn between what it is becoming and from whence we have come. Growing pains. I remain an Evangelical Fundamentalist and a committed Barthian student. With that context in mind, I must remark as to the supposed need for a carefully worded Statement of Faith. I suppose such statements are necessary (really?) but why is it that virtually none of them begin with a statement that reflects the fact of the Sovereignty of God, the self-revelation of God in Christ to Man and a notion of Lordship which allows God the privelege of making order out of [evangelical and denominational] disorder. Instead, we put verbal/plenary at the top of the list with anythingGod coming in a distant 2nd ! Incredible.
John Smithson (retired pastor)
A 5th year Barthian layman with 3 blogs reflecting Karl Barth's emphasis if not his specific polemic. I am "in the trenches" for the Pastor. He is gone and needs our support and even defense.