Are Reformed "Evangelical" or "Evangelicals"?

Lee Irons raises the question of the relations between Reformed Christians and American evangelicals.  Much of this discussion comes down to definitions and I don’t recall that Lee offered a definition. In the immortal words of President Nixon, ” let me say this about that.”  Judged on the basis of  the Reformed confessions  and the classic reformed of theology of the 16th and 17th centuries, there can be no doubt that the Reformed  theology, piety, and practice,  is evangelical.  The great difficulty in this discussion is that, in our time, the word the evangelical no longer denotes what it did in the 16th have the 17th centuries.

Since the 18th century, and particularly since the middle of the 19th century, the word of evangelical has come to denote what I call  “the quest for illegitimate religious experience” (QIRE). By that  I mean to say that to be an evangelical, in the  modern sense, is to be on a quest for the immediate experience of the risen Christ, apart from Word and sacrament ministry, apart from the means of grace.

Further, it’s not at all clear what it means to say that one is “an evangelical” any longer. As Darryl Hart has pointed out in Deconstructing Evangelicalism, the particulars of “evangelicalism,” raise real doubts about whether any such thing really exists any more. Consider that one can be an “evangelical” and affirm inerrancy in the traditional sense or deny it. One can hold to divine sovereignty or deny it. One can hold to the historic doctrine of the Trinity or deny it (via social Trinitarianism). One can affirm the historic Protestant doctrine of justification sola gratia et sola fide or deny it (via NPP or FV). One can affirm an open canon or deny it and be an evangelical. Today there are Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic evangelicals. Perhaps the greatest difference between the old definition of evangelical and the modern is that to be a modern “evangelical” is to deny the doctrine of the church—which follows from the pietist/QIRE trajectory of evangelicalism since the 18th century.

Does this mean that Reformed confessionalists have nothing in common with evangelicals? Not at all. I have much in common with orthodox evangelicals who continue to confess the historic doctrines of grace (e.g. ACE, T4G, Gospel Coalition; I’m not sure the WHI guys would want to be called “evangelicals” in this context) who take a different (e.g. pluralist) view of the church or sacraments. I guess that my Reformed friends who work with those orthodox evangelicals take a somewhat different view on this than I do. That’s okay.

Perhaps it would be helpful to distinguish between being “evangelical” and being “an evangelical”? I am the former but not the latter. I deny that much of what has become “evangelical” in the modern period is really evangelical at all. What does modern, post-canonical glossolalia have to with the the evangel? What does the health and wealth message have to do with the evangel? What does taking back America (or any form of the so-called “social gospel”) have to do with the evangel? What does the emerging movement have to do with the evangel? I haven’t even raised the specter of the appalling theology of worship and the consequent practice of most contemporary evangelicals.

Does that make me a snob or an elitist? I don’t think so. The “evangelicals” (e.g., proponents of the 1st Great Awakening) accused the Old Side Presbyterians of the same thing. If I question “every member” evangelism I get accused of being unregenerate or unconcerned about the lost. The first time it happened I was a little stunned but by now I’ve gotten used to it. No I’m not an elitist—I can match plebian, working class roots with the best of ’em. No I’m not quenching the Spirit—not unless you are the Apostle Paul! I am conscious of the democratization of American religion, however, (thank you Nathan Hatch) and I’m critical of those those trends among contemporary evangelicals and in the confessional Reformed churches.

Reformed confessionalists are evangelical, but after 30-40 years or so of calling “evangelicals” back to the historic definition I think it’s time to admit that we lost and we lost a long time ago. We lost when the Old Side and New Side merged. We lost when Charles Hodge put the value of a “national” Presbyterian church above confessional subscription. We lost in 1929 and we lost again in 1936 and in 1994. The evangelicals don’t need the confessionalists any more and they aren’t listening anyway. It’s been a long time since Carl Henry was attending Van Til’s lectures and Carl Henry isn’t the face of the evangelical movement any more. It’s Roger Olson or Rob Bell or Brian McLaren. My friends who are trying to save evangelicals from themselves are fighting a rear-guard action. If they were doing it from the editorial board of Christianity Today or Wheaton or Fuller Seminary, there might be hope for “the evangelicals” but they aren’t and there isn’t. That doesn’t mean that I’m hopeless. Despair is a sin and we confess that Christ is risen, his Spirit has been poured out and that his word will not return empty.

Reformed confessionalists are evangelical. We do long to see the true gospel preached truly to everyone and we do expect Christ to operate sovereignly and graciously through his gospel to call his elect from every tribe and tongue. We do long to see Christ’s church full. We long to see sinners coming to a knowledge of their sin and to a saving knowledge of Christ. We long to see those sinners growing in the grace of discipleship but, if I can presume to speak for confessionalists, we don’t have much confidence that contemporary evangelicalism is in any shape to do most of that. Most “evangelicals” today can’t tell you the evangel and there’s no consensus on what the Christian life looks like. Asking evangelicals to do evangelism and discipleship is like asking a hospice patient to lift weights. It’s not only fruitless it’s cruel.

I’m evangelical, just as I’m catholic, and biblical but I’m not “an evangelical” because I still believe, preach, teach, and confess unequivocally the law and the gospel, because I confess that Christ established a visible, institutional church through which he intends to administer his kingdom and that it is to that entity that he has entrusted the ministry of the gospel and the ministry of the signs and seals of the kingdom.

Follow up post.

See these related posts:

Resources On Defining Reformed

Presbyterians and Quakers Together

Reformed and Pentecostal?

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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20 comments

  1. Scott

    I don’t think I could say it any better. Thank you for the clear articulation.

  2. Being distracted with other things, I wasn’t paying attention then. What happened in 1994?

  3. I expect Scott has in mind Evangelicals and Catholics Together, but he can tell us.

  4. I actually agree with your account, Dr. Clark, but not your judgments, insofar as I agree that the Reformed have lost the battle in constricting the evangelical movement to Reformed confessionalism, but I think this is a good thing. And we can thank the great men at Fuller, Wheaton, Trinity Evangelical, Christianity Today, The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and so on. In other words, I’m not a 5-point Calvinist, and I think developments in biblical studies and the natural sciences require an appropriation of, respectively, certain historical-critical conclusions and certain evolutionary claims.

    Consider that one can be an “evangelical” and affirm inerrancy in the traditional sense or deny it.
    Yes, and thank God many of us evangelicals have been able to better account for the text.

    One can hold to divine sovereignty or deny it.
    Most Lutherans and, of course, many others in the 15th and 16th centuries denied divine sovereignty as well, that is, as defined by the Calvinists. So, are the Lutherans not truly evangelicals? And I suppose Remonstrants, Methodists, non-Reformed Anglicans, General Baptists, etc. are illegitimate evangelicals as well.

    One can hold to the historic doctrine of the Trinity or deny it (via social Trinitarianism).
    Okay, we’re just nitpicking here. Certain presentations of social Trinitarianism are compatible with classical categories, while those presentations which are not (e.g., feminist social Trinitarianism) are not considered evangelical by the vast majority of those in evangelical churches.

    One can affirm the historic Protestant doctrine of justification sola gratia et sola fide or deny it (via NPP or FV).
    Once again, the Reformed do not get to define “evangelical” — they didn’t in the 16th, 17th, 18th centuries and they don’t today. While no evangelicals are arguing for a strict NPP, certain scholars are appropriating certain NPP insights into their accounts, and I don’t see this as negating their evangelical credentials.

    I realize that just touching on these issues is not sufficient, but I thought I would register a voice for the “other side” of the evangelical movement — or, I guess, the “only side” of the evangelical movement if the Calvinists pull out of the NAE, ETS, EPS, etc.

  5. Kevin,

    I don’t think anyone wanted to “constrict” evangelicalism to Reformed confessionalism. Some of us did want to keep it tethered to the Reformation. The evangelicals have chosen to live in Munster rather than in Geneva. Have fun with Roger and co. Last time it didn’t go well.

    As to the 16th and 17th century, well, the confessional Protestants invented “evangelical.” The fanatics re-defined it in the 18th and 19th centuries, you’re talking through your hat in re the 16th and 17th centuries inasmuch as the Anabaptists weren’t Protestant in any recognizable sense (having rejected justification sola fide etc).

  6. Scott

    Given the original typo, I guess I could have said it better. But now that you have fixed that, I go back to my original statement.

  7. Regarding your ‘Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience’ meme I’m reminded of the saying: Those who couldn’t hear the music thought those who were dancing were crazy.

  8. JS,

    Tell it to Gilbert Tennent. The “can’t hear the music” meme dates to his critique of the Old Side and before that to Thomas Muntzer’s critique of the magisterial Protestants in the Reformation.

    The only music I hear is the Word of God preached and made visible in the holy sacraments.

  9. Kevin,

    As to most 16th-century Lutherans denying divine sovereignty, that would be a surprise to those who wrote the Book of Concord and it would most certainly be surprise to Martin Luther, who wrote The Bondage of the Will! Yes, the Lutherans came to deny reprobation, but they certainly teach unconditional election. This is one of the distinguishing doctrines of the LCMS (and I think the Wisconsin Synod).

  10. Thanks, Dr. Clark, great entry! I’m tired of arguing about it with others though, and am beginning to feel like that hospice patient at times! Must remember,the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church, thank God!

  11. Although I am just a layman, not many people have had the breadth of experience as me in as many different “evangelical” churches as I have had. I have been a Deacon in a Baptist Church. I have been a Chairman of Stewardship and Board member of a very large United Methodist church. For each of the following churches, I attended regularly for more than one year: Calvary Chapel, Assembly of God, Reformed Church of America, Presbyterian Church of America, and certain non-denominational churches. I was raised in the Christian Reformed Church. All these churches considered themselves “evangelical”.

    No Reformed preacher or teacher that I have read or heard “utterly scorns and detests the label (“evangelical”)”. However, they do not want to primarily be known as an evangelical, because it is not descriptive enough and because it includes churches that promote or tolerate Arminianism.

    For example, if someone asks me where I am from, I may say: “Florida or St. Petersburg”. To say I am an “Evangelical” is like saying “I am an American”. It may be true, but it is not as descriptive as most people want to know.

    For another example, if I say that I am “evangelical”, most people will think of Billy Graham and crusades and altar calls. The focus is on the persuasive power of Billy Graham and the free will of “I have decided to follow Jesus”.

    A “Reformed” identity does not “smacks of spiritual pride and elitism”. It is just descriptive.

    Many, if not most “evangelicals” really do not think of themselves as “blood-bought Christians”, because they believe that Christ died and shed his blood for everyone, and yet, they would be the first to admit that his blood did not buy everyone. Many, if not most “evangelicals” are self-centered, free-will-centered, and choice-centered, not in the sense that they believe that they honor their self more than God, but in the sense that they believe that salvation is ultimately dependent on man’s free will as opposed to God’s election.
    Regarding the “gospel”, is it really the “gospel” or “good news” to believe that salvation is ultimately dependent on man’s free will election?

    Reformed believers do not regard the differences with most evangelicals as “differences over secondary matters”. In regards to love, love “does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth;” I Corinthians 13:6.

    Maybe , ‘A search on the keyword “Reformed” on the PC(USA) website turns up 3860 results (compared with 552 results on the OPC site). Consider also the very existence of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.’ PCUSA is a much, much larger denomination than OPC, so you would expect many more results of just about every word. More importantly, for each use of the word “Reformed”, which denomination honors the term “Reformed” more?

    In conclusion, most people do prefer descriptions which are not “most general” but rather “most descriptive”. Let the “Reformed” who think that their distinctives are important, and who particularly want to distance themselves from Arminians, call themselves “Reformed” rather than “evangelical” without being thought of as proud or elitist. Thank you.

  12. I respectfully disagree. Please show me historically that one must be confessional to have the label reformed. And who decides which confession. Many people involved in the Evangelical movement are confessional (Lignon Duncan, Sproul, Mohlel-the SBC standards and the seminary confession) yet you would seem to exclude them. But there is one point I do agree with which was not a point you made but it can be implied. When an American Calvinist evangelical calls him/her self reformed it does have a different meaning then when a Christian in any other country calls him/her self that.

  13. Dr. Clark, thaanks for this post. You have spoken well for many of us who are increasingly frustrated with being known as “evangelicals.” I pray for my own PCA to resist the trend away from gospel ministry which is truly “evangelical.”

  14. Dr. Clark, what I am wondering is why you are quick to give up on the definition of the term “evangelical” and not call yourself one, and yet you fight so hard for the term “Reformed” even though (I would guess) 90% or more of those identifying themselves as Reformed, even in confessional denominations like the PCA, do not define it by the Confessions as you do?

    Wouldn’t it be more consistent to either a) give up on the definition of “Reformed” and accept its present usage, as you are doing with “evangelical,” or b) fight equally hard for a correct definition of “evangelical,” such as those in ACE?

  15. Elnwood,

    I’m not giving up on “evangelical.” Did you miss this part:

    I’m evangelical, just as I’m catholic, and biblical but I’m not “an evangelical” because I still believe, preach, teach, and confess unequivocally the law and the gospel….

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