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Evangelical Is the New Fundamentalist

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Written by Basil on 01/30/2008 8:31 PM. Filed under:

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“If your reading of the Bible inspires you to help the poor, that is passionate religious commitment. If it leads you to denounce homosexuality, you are a fundamentalist. In the modern U.S. context, the term “evangelical” is well on the way to acquiring such connotations, as a label for intolerant (white) social conservatives.” (Jenkins, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” Christianity Today

What does this word mean, really? When we sometimes find it thrown about as a synonym for “social conservative,” or even “fundamentalist,” “anti-progressive,” and essentially, “knuckle-dragging neanderthal,” perhaps it’s important to understand what the word really means. After all, Archbishop Paul, primate for many years of the Orthodox Church of Finland, boldly asserted, in a line famously quoted by many Orthodox parish brochures and bulletins: “The Orthodox Church is evangelical but not Protestant.” If you think if you think “evangelical” means any of the previous “synonyms,” this statement will catch you by surprise. By “surprise” I mean here, “It’ll be nonsense.” (Clever Orthodox evangelists should take note.)

“Evangelical” comes from the Greek word evangelos (ευάγγελος)…

I just lost you, eh? I said, “…comes from the Greek…” and you pretty much checked out. That’s cool. As it turns out, etymology does not determine the meaning of a word. Context does. So, several years from now, there may very well be a note beside “evangelical” in style guides like the one currently in the Associated Press Style Guide for “fundamentalist” indicating that it is largely pejorative and subjective and should only be used if part of a religion’s name, such as the “Fundamentalist Church of Christ (Abilene Synod).” (I just made that name up, by the way. No offense meant to any real members of a church that may have that name in reality.)

In this case, it actually happens that “evangelical” has not gone over this cliff quite yet, so etymology does make a difference. Why? (Or, really, as you are probably already asking, why should you care?) Because it’s good news! Evangelos means “good message” or “good news.” The good news in this case is just this: That of Matthew 1.21-23:

‘She will give birth to a son and you must name him Jesus, because he is the one who is to save his people from their sins.’ Now all this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: Look! the virgin is with child and will give birth to a son whom they will call Immanuel, a name which means ‘God-is-with-us’.

It is the commitment to the fullness of this good news that marks the evangelical Christian and differentiates him from others. As it happens, this denotes a wide range of beliefs. Evangelical Protestants — which is what most people mean when they simply say, “evangelical” — are not by any means a mass of droids with singular, unified views on anything. Some think environmental harmony is as interesting as midnight infomercials, some eat only carrots and parsley to protect Pooh and Benji from evildoers, while others think that stewardship means to rape the earth and throw away the husk. In other words, there’s a spectrum of thought within evangelicalism that goes from white to black and spans every crimson, indigo, and cerulean color in the middle.

Just thought I’d share.

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6 Responses to “Evangelical Is the New Fundamentalist”

  1. Gregory Says:

    I hope every person on the planet reads this post to clear the air. I try to drop little disorienting phrases in my conversations to wake people up to this fact, by using “evangel” and “evangelical” as proper nouns in places that people wouldn’t normally apply them, but alas, it doesn’t works its disorienting-orietations on them, it ususally just disorients…

  2. Theodora Says:

    This all actually goes to show that labels are completely useless when applied to people. Let’s stick with using labels for jam and research samples.

  3. Basil Says:

    If we stopped using labels, the labels would just get absurdly long. We would belong to “That Group of People Who Claim Jesus as the Founder of Their Group and Direct Descent in Faith from the Group of People That Jesus Sent Out” instead of “the Church.” It would get crazy, and language would stop having meaning. Thankfully, such an absurd situation will never happen because humans, it seems, have an innate need to structure their understanding of the world. It goes for people and research samples. And jams, jellies, and preserves.

  4. Theodora Says:

    I sometimes thought I’d scream if I heard ONE MORE PERSON in the Orthodox church say, “We have a category for that!” 😉

    I get what you’re saying, Basil, but I think at the very least we need to be aware that labels are shorthand for very complex concepts — and then NOT get upset when someone else uses our label for their different complex concept.

  5. JohnNicholas Says:

    Context does indicate the meaning. I have never found the word confusing. Used to describe a political candidate it means one is kinda dessicated intellectually and a potential closet bigot. Used in a strictly religious sense Evangelical means that the great commission is preeminent and the people do a lot of evangelizing, i.e., preaching to strangers. Is this too simple?

  6. jacob Says:

    (typos correction and expansion)

    D. G. Hart, a Protestant “Evangelical,” wrote a book a number of years ago entitled Deconstructing Evangelicalism in which he argues that the term as popularly used and applied is largely meaningless when it’s examined and deconstructed. The Emerging/Emergent Movement and those it’s influencing, by their loosely identifying themselves as Evangelicals, and/or by refusing to identify themselves as Evangelicals, will also cause the term to become less and less useful.

    The fact that Evangelical (as you note, from to euaggelion – “the good news”) can be applied to any person or group or church that seeks to spread the Gospel/Good News of Jesus Christ, from Roman Catholics to Orthodox to Lutherans to Baptists to Bible Church members to Non-Denominational Protestant Charismatics to Mormons(!), means that in some ways it’s synonymous with the word “Christian.”

    Protestant “Evangelicalism” as popularly used was an spinoff from Fundamentalism, and seems to hold The Inerrancy of Scripture (often as defined by The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy) as it’s sine qua non. The fact that the past President of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), Francis Beckwith, reverted to Roman Catholicism, yet still felt that he could in good conscience sign and ascribe to the ETS Doctrinal Statement, is further evidence that “Evangelicalism” suffers some definitional deficiencies, IMO.