“To assume” is to make an ASS out of U and ME. How true. And to assume we know what an evangelical is is to do likewise. We cannot now say that everyone who calls himself an evangelical knows what an evangelical is. That day has sadly passed. The time was when an evangelical was someone who was distinguished from all other professing Christians and from the world, but that day has long passed.
The very term ‘evangelical’ is a limiting term. It distinguishes theological positions and the people who hold them. It is a term that sets apart those who hold a particular theological position from those who do not. There are those who do not agree with opening up this subject because, they say, ‘We all know what an evangelical is.’ But do we? There are so many brands of evangelical that one could be excused for being confused. The argument is that as long as a man makes certain biblical noises, he is an evangelical. Or, so long as he subscribes my confession of faith, he is an evangelical. It is all about being formally correct, regardless of what a man really believes and preaches. It’s about saying the right things with the right words at the right time to the right people.
Surely this makes a nonsense out of the meaning of a once highly-honoured term. The fact is that nothing is static, nothing stays the same; things and ideas are always developing, changing. And this is as true within the church as outside her. The meaning of the term evangelical has been thrown into a theological melting-pot, and what is emerging does not resemble what was thrown in. It is being changed, altered, and developed. And people tend to go with the new developments rather than hold on to the established facts.
Take, for example, Calvin’s teaching on the atonement which is found scattered throughout his Institutes, his treatises and tracts, and his commentaries but especially in his sermons. There you will find that with the exception of the Saumur Academy, starting with Beza, Calvin’s successor in Geneva, many theologians accepted a developed form of Calvinism which became known in England as Owenism. What the reformer taught on this crucially important doctrine was developed and altered by his well-meaning followers.
The implication here is that Calvinism has to be re-defined in order to bring it into line with what the reformer believed and taught. Now the same is needed to be done to the term ‘evangelical.’