Who is an Evangelical? I consider myself an evangelical Christian—I grew up in a home with my father being a passionate evangelical Presbyterian pastor. I attended an evangelical flavored church all my life. I attended and graduated from an evangelical seminary with two graduate degrees. I’m also ordained by an evangelical denomination.
Yet, the question does come up here and there, from within the church as well as outside the church. In a book by Bradley R. E. Wright, (interestingly titled) Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites…And Other Lies You’ve Been Told: A Sociologist Shatters Myths From The Secular And Christian Media, he as a sociologist states that that the term “evangelical” seems to be understood differently among the general public, as well as being unclear whether it is used as a label to a denominational affiliation or as a link it to a behavior of particular group of Christians. I think this confusion certainly became true in the recent election. One could go to a university, a local mall, or a church and ask what does it mean to be an evangelical, and perhaps there can be 20 different answers from 20 different people.
Sorting through the history of the term, historian David W. Bebbington seems to have put together a meaningful definition of what it means to be an evangelical—and generally well accepted among evangelicals of various denominations and traditions.
So what/who is an evangelical? An evangelical is a follower of Christian doctrine and practice, conforming to orthodoxy (right teaching) and orthopraxy (right practice) of Christian tradition. The obvious foundational and unchallenged belief as an evangelical would be the unique saving power of Jesus and the gospel message.
As Bebbington points out, specifically, an evangelical is a Protestant Christian who exhibits the four characteristics of Biblicism, conversionism, crucicentrism, and activism. Biblicism is belief in the supreme authority of the Bible. Conversionism is belief that authentic Christianity always includes a radical conversation to Christ through repentance and faith that is based on a personal relationship with Jesus. Crucicentrism is belief that all aspects of Christian life and service are centered around the cross. Activism is belief in being concerned for and involved in positive social transformation through evangelism and action.
The four above characteristics are generally well received by most Christians who claim to be “evangelical.” In addition, theologian Roger E. Olson adds a fifth criterion of “having respect for the great tradition of Christian doctrine.” As part of Protestantism tradition, one should have proper respect for the early church fathers’ works, as well as respect for those who have protested for Sola Scriptura, for they have formed and developed the great doctrines of the Christian church. This would not mean strict adherence to any particular doctrine based on mere tradition, but to have reverence and uphold the history-tested belief system. This last criterion would distinguish us from Catholics, fine-tuning the term Evangelical.
On a personal level, as a chaplain who works in a pluralistic environment of healthcare and military, I would like to add four additional characteristics to the above mentioned five: To define what it means to be an evangelical chaplain serving in extra-church capacity.
First, one would hold to the view of Biblical inerrancy and inspiration. Inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture is the belief that it is the Holy Spirit who has produced the books of the Bible, and that they are living, active, and powerful (Heb. 4:12), and because this is so, Scripture is from God. As Scripture is from God, the books of the Bible would bear God’s attributes, and are identified by his attributes. With the omnipotent, omniscient, and perfect God as the author of Scripture, the Bible is to be acknowledged as inspired and inerrant.
Secondly, an evangelical chaplain would hold to the belief and understanding that the Christian tradition is a knowledge tradition. Christian philosopher J. P. Moreland argues that teachings of Christianity are to be understood as a body of knowledge, not a set of faith-practices based on mere belief. Like medicine or science, Christianity is a tradition that is built upon knowledge. And because Christianity is a knowledge tradition, it has authority to make statements about reality and give input on all facets of a believer’s life. We can make truthful claims of God, angels, creation, heaven, hell, and/or salvation. This does not mean absolute certainty in knowledge without doubt, as philosophically speaking, absolute certainty is an unrealistic and unattainable ideal. Rather it means having faith in God as the God of truth (knowledge) and that faith can co-exist with doubt, as doubt is not the opposite of faith, but of certainty. It would not be a contradiction for a believer to hold onto the Christian tradition as a knowledge tradition, as a Christian can still have faith with doubt in certain aspects of his/her walk as a believer in the triune God.
Third, in regards to worldviews, as professor Charles Kraft states in his book, Christianity with Power, Christians would need to embrace the biblical supernaturalistic worldview, mainly sourcing our affirmation of the validity of a supernaturalistic worldview and reality from Jesus himself of the Bible. Our world is not all about what we experience through the five senses—there is a supernatural realm to deal with as well. An evangelical chaplain would not affirm a naturalistic worldview, but a supernaturalistic one. Why? Since Jesus lived and acted out in a supernaturalistic worldview, as followers of Jesus, the logic seems simple enough.
Fourthly, an evangelical would need to hold fast to the dualist view that human persons consist of both soul and body. This view in particular becomes more important as chaplains deal with death on a regular basis. Whether one is a police, fire, healthcare, or military chaplain, s/he just may be the only person in the group or community who is trained and sufficiently knowledgeable to answer the soul question properly. There is universal consensus in the Christian tradition that the soul separates from the physical body at death. This is also an orthodox belief of Christianity. The existence of a soul is an important belief to affirm as questions of the afterlife will arise in a chaplain’s ministry. If there is no soul, then there would be no need for heaven or hell—and the Bible teaches of the existence of heaven and hell.
To sum up, the four criteria for the traditional definition of evangelical is to believe in Biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism. I do greatly appreciate the additional criterion of “having respect for the great tradition of Christian doctrine.” This fifth criterion helps to narrow any gaps that existed. And to further fine tune the definition for evangelical chaplains operating in various secular, government, and non-religious institutions, I propose additional four: the belief of inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, Christianity as knowledge tradition, having a supernaturalistic worldview, and the holding to a dualist view of body and soul.
Perhaps the last four are implied within the five criteria of being an evangelical, but that’s what fine tuning of definition is supposed to do—to narrow it down. If you consider yourself an “evangelical,” my hope is that we all think and ponder carefully of our identity in this increasingly pluralistic, postmodernistic, post-Christian world.
Rev. Dr. Joseph Choi is ordained by the ECA (Evangelical Church Alliance). He is also a U.S. Army Reserve chaplain, and a healthcare chaplain Board Certified by APC (Association of Professional Chaplains). He holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from Talbot School of Theology.