What Does ‘Evangelical’ Mean?

Starting today, the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) is holding its annual meeting in Providence, Rhode Island. This is the second meeting since the group’s then-president Francis Beckwith shocked his peers by announcing his return to the Catholic Church and resigning from the presidency, which he has already described on this site here. Last year Beckwith came to the meeting and gave a well-attended talk, and at this year’s meeting Brazos Press will be releasing his book Return to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic.
As one of the few Catholics at last year’s meeting, I found that many people wanted to talk about Beckwith and his conversion, and every one of them was curious rather than combative. I did overhear some harsher judgments, but of the sort that ascribe someone’s errors to personality or experience and not to sin or rebellion, which would have been many Evangelicals’ default explanation for such apostasy in the past.
In my experience — I’ve been to three ETS meetings, including the last two — the more learned and cosmopolitan Evangelicals who go to the ETS meetings are, in their attitude to the Catholic Church, divided among a sizable group of traditional anti-Catholics, for whom Catholicism is such a serious error that a Catholic cannot be a real Christian; a bigger group who have not changed their minds on the theological issues but see Catholics as fellow believers (which is further subdivided between those who think Catholics are Christians in spite of their distinctive beliefs, and those who think they are Christians through their distinctive beliefs); liberalizing Evangelicals, who seem to like Catholics mainly because they’re not Evangelicals; and troubled Evangelicals, many but not all of them on their way to the Church, who see in the broad Catholic tradition an answer to the problems they see in Evangelicalism, chief among them the lack of any defining authority.
As a friendly outsider, it seems to me that the last group has seen a problem to which there is no widely satisfactory Evangelical solution. The movement is broadening, inevitably and unstoppably, because almost every member is attached to the title, the community, and (to some extent) the heritage, but many are also attached to new theologies and causes that stretch the movement further than many others think tolerable.
At its annual meeting in 2003, the ETS voted — after much controversy — on the continued membership of two theologians who seemed to doubt God’s knowledge of the future, and thus to violate the Society’s doctrinal statement. The statement includes only a belief in inerrancy — "The Bible alone and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written, and therefore inerrant in the autographs" — and a belief in the Trinity, the latter added a few years after the founding only to keep out Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The group’s Executive Committee had already voted unanimously to let Clark Pinnock stay, because he agreed to change a comment on St. Paul in a recent book he said did not represent his views (it could be interpreted as claiming that Paul was wrong about the Second Coming). They voted 7 to 2 to expel John Sanders, who in his recent book had described some biblical promises as conditional.
About 2,000 members gathered in the hall at the convention center for the debate, which lasted a couple of hours. Sanders defended himself, arguing that he believed in inerrancy but thought that on exegetical grounds the fulfillment of some apparent promises depends on human action. His opponents argued that he was wrong, though none engaged his exegetical arguments.
In the end, a third of the members voted to remove Pinnock, despite the Executive Committee’s acquittal; while 63 percent, a little less than the two-thirds required, voted to remove Sanders. There were immediate talks of splits and new societies, but three meetings later the ETS approved the addition to its bylaws of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy to explain what inerrancy means. This seems to have held the Society together, at least in the sense that it will not split, though it may continue crumbling at the edges.
I say this because the matters that divide them cannot be successfully settled by a better definition of inerrancy alone. Evangelical thought is not (as too many Catholic apologists insist) an exegetical free-for-all. Inerrancy, as nearly every self-identified Evangelical defines it, rules in a lot and rules out a lot.
But it leaves unanswered the question of what to do when members disagree theologically, so that — whatever side you happen to be on — some members inevitably read the inerrant Scriptures erroneously. Traditional Evangelicals view with alarm the increasingly popular movements for "open theism," sexual egalitarianism, and an affirmative view of other religions, which more progressive Evangelicals see as signs of maturity. These are divisive differences because each side produces a very different form of Christianity.
I sat through the long debate over Pinnock and Sanders, and were I a member, I would have voted to acquit both of them. Sanders made a convincing argument for the plausibility of his reading of the promises and provided examples of other promises that his opponents themselves read as conditional. The difference between them was an exegetical dispute, not a theological one, and none of his critics showed why his arguments were incompatible with a belief in inerrancy. They showed only that his arguments were incompatible with a belief in inerrancy as they would apply it in these cases.
Even with the Chicago Statement‘s explanation, the term cannot by itself define Evangelicalism and set the limits of their mutual enterprise. Indeed, Pinnock told the meeting that both he and Sanders could affirm the Chicago Statement.
The ETS’s problem, it seems to this sympathizer, is that it is both a movement and a theological identity. Everyone believes that this movement still stands for something — that the title "Evangelical" has specific, forceful, and counter-cultural content. It is still a word to rally the troops and stir them into battle. The ETS is not just a fellowship of generally conservative Protestants.
The movement and the identity were once so closely intertwined that no one noticed the distinction, but now those who still identify with the movement — and with each other as members of the movement — have diverged greatly in theology, and will keep diverging, with no end in sight. The title still has value in their world, so few are going to give it up.
The divergence between members and the resulting expansion of their movement’s effective self-understanding is the kind of thing that happens so incrementally that even those who notice the growing differences don’t want to make a fuss about them, especially as doing so would do no good. No one is going to expel an old friend because he’s moved a few feet outside the pale, even if he seems intent on going further. Besides, the group still has a clear identity in relation to the rest of their world, the world of American seminaries and divinity schools.
In these cases, the movement keeps going until the divisions can’t be ignored, usually because a prominent conservative member raises the alarm (the liberalizing members obviously don’t see the problem). This usually doesn’t happen until lots of members, including some old and prominent ones, have moved well outside the pale and say that the walls are now much farther out than they were, and the pale much bigger.
The now mixed movement has the problem of deciding whether the movement (but how defined?) decides the theological limits, or the theological limits (but whose?) define the movement. But it is too mixed to answer this question with adequate clarity. The closest thing the ETS has to a supreme court or a Magisterium is its members gathered at the annual meeting, and they couldn’t even muster enough votes to expel John Sanders, despite the pleas of some of the Society’s most important leaders, including one of the founders.
At the debate over Pinnock and Sanders, the two sides usually seemed to be talking past each other. Their critics thought their position obvious and did not understand how someone like Sanders could believe in inerrancy and read the passages at issue as he did. A former president of the Society said after the vote, "Surprisingly, many took the position that our doctrinal basis was unclear. I am personally at a loss to understand what is unclear." I didn’t think it was surprising at all.
An effective definition of "Evangelical" — one that lets them decisively settle the matters that divide them — is pretty much unachievable in the ETS as now constituted. It can only be found by a degree of doctrinal specificity many don’t want, and one that, at this point, couldn’t be reached anyway without coercing or expelling a large minority.
But nevertheless, one thing they all know: Catholicism is out. As a Catholic, that makes perfect sense to me, and I applaud that degree of clarity in a world in which too many real divisions are simply declared unreal. Catholicism is not "Evangelicalism Plus" — Evangelicalism with a few additions, like the papacy and devotion to Our Lady, and a stricter moral code. It is a profoundly different way of seeing things and of living the Christian life. Our Evangelical brethren, to their credit, see that.
I am cheering for my friends among the traditional Evangelicalsto prevail in the struggle to define the ETS, though I don’t think they will be successful, given the current political realities. But I hope and pray they will, because they are, perhaps unexpectedly, the most fruitful Evangelicals for a Catholic to talk to.

David Mills is the former editor of Touchstone magazine and is now writing a book on Mary. He and his family were received into the Church in 2001.


David Mills is executive editor of First Things and author of Discovering Mary.

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