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Topical  Studies



What Evangelicals Believe

Robert  Bowman, Jr.


The word evangelical is used in a variety of ways:


  1. Usually capitalized, as an adjective to refer to something associated with the Gospels found in the New Testament.

  2. Also usually capitalized, as a synonym for Lutheran. This usage derives historically from the use of Evangelische in German to refer to the Reformation movement associated with Martin Luther.

  3. Sometimes capitalized, more properly not capitalized, as a noun or adjective referring to that segment of Protestant Christianity that affirms a conservative theology based on the Bible as infallible or inerrant revelation. Note that not all Lutherans are “evangelical” in this sense.

  4. Never capitalized, to describe a religious group as fervently committed to propagating its beliefs.


There are variations and permutations of these uses, but the above four are by far the most common uses of the word in English.


The term evangelicalism, on the other hand, is far narrower in usage, and applies only to the tradition of conservative Protestant Christianity (#3 above). It is in this sense that we use the term when we speak in an unqualified manner of “evangelicals.”


What, then, do evangelicals believe? It is best to begin by observing that evangelicalism is a subset of orthodox Christianity. That is, evangelicalism is a particular movement that affirms the essential theology of orthodox Christianity and, in addition, makes affirmations that it regards as crucial to a sound Christian faith.


Standards of Orthodoxy


Orthodoxy is defined as adherence to the system of doctrine represented by the theological and Christological creeds of the early church. These are, minimally:


·        The Apostles Creed (ca. 100-150)

·        The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (325, revised 381)


Arguably, a full-bodied orthodoxy also includes:


·        The Athanasian Creed (late 4th century)

·        The Definition of Chalcedon (451)


In the area of the doctrine of salvation, orthodoxy is identified with the Augustinian tradition of sola gratia (“by grace alone”) over against Pelagianism.


·        Sola gratia is implicit in the Nicene Creed. Salvation results from Christ’s work (which dominates the creed) and that of “the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life.”

·        Pelagianism was condemned at the Council of Ephesus (431) and the Second Council of Orange (529).

·        Sola gratia is affirmed by all three major branches of Christianity (Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant).


In sum, orthodoxy is adherence to the basic theological standards of historic Christianity, specifically the doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and salvation by grace alone.


Standards of Evangelicalism


Evangelicalism can be defined theologically as adherence to the Reformation principles of sola scriptura (“Scripture alone” as the infallible source of doctrinal truth) and sola fide (justification “by faith alone”) within the context of orthodoxy. The theological boundaries of evangelicalism are reliably expressed in the international, interdenominational statements of faith and confessions of the evangelical movement. This means that the following are reliable expressions of evangelicalism:


·        World Evangelical Alliance (1951)

·        Lausanne Covenant (1974)

·        Manila Manifesto (1989)


Denominational or regional confessions, though they may be soundly evangelical, are not normative or necessarily representative of evangelicalism as a whole.


Evangelical theology—in particular, the principle of sola fide—is essential to a sound proclamation and understanding of the gospel. Thus, while we do not hold that only evangelicals are orthodox Christians, we do maintain that reliably sound forms of Christian faith, piety, and life are to be found only in evangelicalism.


Biblical inerrancy historically is an integral and foundational doctrine of evangelicalism. Two excellent expositions of that doctrine are the Chicago Statements on Biblical Inerrancy and Biblical Hermeneutics. These do not carry the kind of normative character of the WEF or Lausanne statements, but may be profitably consulted to understand what evangelicals generally mean by biblical inerrancy.