Who Exactly Are the Evangelicals?


It feels like a renewed storm, or at least a squall, has been gathering around the term “evangelical” lately. More and more self-described evangelicals are realizing that not everyone believes the same things, even about the core doctrines. In response, some have begun to write manifestos which attempt to re-articulate the characteristics of an evangelical identity. Others are authoring books and holding conferences which aim to re-center the movement as a whole. Still others have decided it’s best to pitch the term altogether and call themselves “post-evangelicals.”

But the problem is hardly new. It’s never been easy to determine who the evangelicals are because evangelicalism has always been a diverse movement. Luther wanted his followers to be called “evangelicals,” meaning gospel-people (it was his enemies who nicknamed his followers “Lutheran”). The other branch of the Reformation was also happy to share the evangelical designation (the orthodox Lutherans coined the term “Calvinists” as a way of distinguishing Reformed views of the Lord’s Supper from their own). Then, with the advent of the pietism and revivalism, the label “evangelical” went in all sorts of directions. Today, it’s such an ambiguous moniker that some historians find the best definition to be George Marsden’s: “anybody who likes Billy Graham.”

Yet with just a little bit of historical perspective, it’s not difficult to see why such storms, or squalls, are perennial: the evangel is forever becoming separated from the evangelicals, which is exactly why it’s so hard to know who the evangelicals are.


The term “evangelical” moved into common use during the Reformation in an effort to clarify and proclaim the gospel. Anglican, Presbyterian, and Continental followers of Bucer, Calvin, Knox, and Beza also liked the term “Reformed” because their goal was not to start a new church or denomination, but to reform the historic church. Still, Lutheran and Reformed churches, in spite of their important differences, stood shoulder to shoulder in defending the gospel from distortions from both Rome and the Anabaptists.

The advent of pietism and revivalism, however, complicated matters. At first, pietism was a reform movement within these Lutheran and Reformed churches, encouraging a deeper connection between doctrine and piety. Eventually, however, pietism began to look more like Anabaptist spirituality. Revivalism (British and American) also pushed pietism further away from its Reformation roots.

A crucial price of admission to the evangelical camp even in the First Great Awakening was being pro-revival. Many Lutheran and Reformed ministers were ambivalent about the very idea of expecting seasons of revival, suspecting it of harboring a low view of the ordinary ministry of the church. But by the Second Great Awakening, there was no question. The focus shifted from an emphasis on God’s saving work in Christ through God’s ordained means to an emphasis on human decisions and efforts through pragmatic methods and “excitements.” The major personality behind the second awakening, Charles G. Finney (1792-1875), even rejected the doctrines of original sin, substitutionary atonement, justification through faith alone, and the supernatural character of the new birth.

The Second Great Awakening, represented by Finney, created a system of faith and practice tailor made for a self-reliant nation. Evangelicalism—which is to say, late eighteenth-century American Protestantism—was an engine for innovations. In doctrine, it served modernity’s preference for faith in human nature and progress. In worship, it transformed Word-and-Sacrament ministry into entertainment and social reform and created the first star system in the culture of celebrity. In public life, it confused the kingdom of Christ with the kingdoms of this world and imagined that Christ’s reign could be made visible by the moral, social, and political activity of the saints. There was little room for anything weighty to tie the movement down, to discipline its entrepreneurial celebrities, or to question its “revivals” apart from their often short-lived publicity.

Somewhere along the way the evangel became separated from evangelism; the message became subservient to the methods. American religion was becoming worthy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s eventual characterization: “Protestantism without the Reformation.”[1]

“Extremes meet,” noted Princeton’s B. B. Warfield toward the end of the nineteenth-century about the conservative pietists and liberal rationalists. “Pietist and Rationalist have ever hunted in couples and dragged down their quarry together. They may differ as to why they deem theology mere lumber, and would not have the prospective minister waste his time in acquiring it. The one loves God so much, the other loves him so little, that he does not care to know him.”[2]

Warfield’s Dutch colleague Herman Bavinck observed, “Powerful movements, like those that Pietism had called forth in Germany and Methodism had unleashed in England and America, all had in common that they shifted the center of gravity from the object of religion to the subject. Theology followed this track in the systems produced by Kant, Schleiermacher, and their schools.”[3] The educated wing of pietistic Protestantism in America tended to become assimilated to modernism, while its fundamentalist wing provided an ever-fresh crop of cynical and disillusioned young people to find the former a more attractive option. Yet modernists like Harry Emerson Fosdick and fundamentalists like Bob Jones, Sr. could recall Finney and his legacy with fondness.


However, the Reformation stream in American evangelicalism hadn’t dried up completely. Old Princeton was an especially fecund source for renewing and defending the legacy of true evangelicalsm. Lutherans like C. F. W. Walther, Presbyterians like Archibald Alexander, Congregationalists like Timothy Dwight, Episcopalians like Bishop William White, and Baptists like Isaac Backus could recognize a core of Reformation convictions that they shared in common, over against the rising tide of infidelity. Much good came (and still comes) out of evangelical cooperation on the mission field, in common diaconal ministries, and in faithful scholarship.

Churchmen like Warfield and Hodge regarded themselves as evangelicals in the distinctively Reformation sense and struggled to bring American Protestantism into line with this definition. They were also staunchly committed to and personally involved with the vast missionary endeavors of their denomination at home and abroad, bringing them into constant fellowship and cooperation with other evangelicals.

Nevertheless, Warfield was already beginning to see that the tension between competing visions of evangelical identity was making it more difficult to remain an unqualified supporter of the evangelical cause. In 1920, a number of evangelicals put forward a “plan of union for evangelical churches.” Warfield evaluated the “creed” of this plan, as it was being studied by Presbyterians, and observed that the new confession being proposed “contains nothing which is not believed by Evangelicals,” and yet “…nothing which is not believed …by the adherents of the Church of Rome, for example.” He wrote

There is nothing about justification by faith in this creed. And that means that all the gains obtained in that great religious movement which we call the Reformation are cast out of with window…There is nothing about the atonement in the blood of Christ in this creed. And that means that the whole gain of the long mediaeval search after truth is thrown summarily aside…There is nothing about sin and grace in this creed…We need not confess our sins anymore; we need not recognize the existence of such a thing. We need believe in the Holy Spirit only ‘as guide and comforter’—do not the Rationalists do the same? And this means that all the gain the whole world has reaped from the great Augustinian conflict goes out of the window with the rest…It is just as true that the gains of the still earlier debates which occupied the first age of the Church’s life, through which we attained to the understanding of the fundamental truths of the Trinity and the Deity of Christ are discarded by this creed also. There is no Trinity in this creed; no Deity of Christ—or of the Holy Spirit.[4]

If justification through faith is the heart of the evangel, Warfield wondered, how can “evangelicals” omit it from their common confession? He asked, “Is this the kind of creed which twentieth-century Presbyterianism will find sufficient as a basis for co-operation in evangelistic activities? Then it can get along in its evangelistic activities without the gospel. For it is precisely the gospel that this creed neglects altogether.” Again, the evangel had become separated from the evangelicals. “‘Fellowship’ is a good word,” Warfield concluded, “and a great duty. But our fellowship, according to Paul, must be in ‘the furtherance of the gospel.'”[5]

The diagnosis of American Christianity offered by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (“Protestantism without the Reformation”) after his lecture tour in the United States seems justified. He wrote,

God has granted American Christianity no Reformation. He has given it strong revivalist preachers, churchmen and theologians, but no Reformation of the church of Jesus Christ by the Word of God. . . . American theology and the American church as a whole have never been able to understand the meaning of ‘criticism’ by the Word of God and all that signifies. Right to the last they do not understand that God’s ‘criticism’ touches even religion, the Christianity of the church and the sanctification of Christians, and that God has founded his church beyond religion and beyond ethics….In American theology, Christianity is still essentially religion and ethics…Because of this the person and work of Christ must, for theology, sink into the background and in the long run remain misunderstood, because it is not recognized as the sole ground of radical judgment and radical forgiveness.[6]


Today, some of the ill fruit of pietism and revivalism live on. Many take it for granted that those who are most concerned about doctrine are least interested in reaching the lost (or, as they are now called, the “unchurched”). Evangelicals are frequently challenged to choose between being traditional or missional, two camps which are typically described with nothing more than caricatures. Where the earlier evangelical consensus coalesced simultaneously around getting the gospel right and getting it out, increasingly today the coalition is defined by its style (“contemporary” versus “traditional”), its politics (“compassionate conservatism” or the more recent rediscovery of revivalism’s progressivist roots), and its rock star leaders, rather than for its convictions about God, humanity, sin, salvation, the purpose of history, and the last judgment.

I realize that not all such “creeds” today are as minimalistic as the one evaluated by Warfield. Nor has American Christianity been without its own defenders of the faith. In its statement of faith the National Association of Evangelicals affirms the Trinity, the deity of Christ, “the vicarious and atoning death through His shed blood,” and the necessity of a supernatural rebirth. However, there is no mention of justification—the article of a standing or falling church—and the only conviction concerning the church is belief in “the spiritual unity of believers in the Lord Jesus Christ.” Baptism and the Supper are not even mentioned.

Ironically, genuinely evangelical faith today is often found outside of the evangelical movement, and within evangelicalism it is contested on many fronts. Increasingly, it has become common for evangelicals to question the authority (much less the sufficiency) of Scripture and the basic tenets around which evangelicals of various stripes were formerly able to unite. According to every major survey I’ve seen, most American evangelicals are ignorant of many of the basic truths of Christianity. Instead, there is a pervasive “moralistic, therapeutic deism,” as sociologist Christian Smith has documented. The fact that people growing up in evangelical churches are as likely—and in some studies, more likely—to embrace this sort of amorphous spirituality over against the Christian creed makes you wonder what is “evangelical” about “evangelicalism.” Has the evangel left the evangelicals?

At the same time, one often encounters winsome defenses of historic Christianity, including the Reformation’s insights, from what might have seemed like the most unlikely sources.


For all of this, I remain convinced that there is still a place for being “evangelical.” Why? Quite simply, because we still have the evangel. In my view, evangelicalism, then, serves best as a “village green,” like the common parks at the center of old New England towns, for everyone who affirms this evangel. It’s a place where Christians from different churches meet to discuss what they share in common, as well as their differences. They help keep each other honest.

In its present phase, the church is a pilgrim people. I think that the Reformed confession is the most faithful summary of the Bible’s teachings. Yet my faith is enriched by encountering Christians from different traditions who challenge me to think more deeply and fully about emphases I might have missed.

The village green also provides a common area where Christians can witness to non-Christians concerning the hope that they share, and a common space where our neighbors in a particular community can be served by Christian love. The danger comes when the village green becomes dominated by a nearly Pelagian atmosphere and self-confidently imagines that its Big Tent is the cathedral that reduces actual churches on the green to mere chapels.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Protestantism without the Reformation,” in  No Rusty Swords: Letters, Lectures and Notes, 1928-1936, ed. Edwin H. Robertson, trans. Edwin H. Robertson and John Bowden (London: Collins, 1965), 92-118

[2] B. B. Warfield, “Our Seminary Curriculum,” in Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield—I, ed. John E. Meeter (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1970), 371

[3] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Vol 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ, ed. John Bolt; trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 556

[4] B. B. Warfield, “In Behalf of Evangelical Religion,” in Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield—I, 386

[5] Ibid., 387

[6] Bonhoeffer, op. cit.

Michael Horton

Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of systematic theology and apologetics at Westminster Seminary California.

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