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RELIGION: "Evangelical"

I said "The use of the word "evangelical" is tricky". Jim Bowman replies: "You have it right. Very tricky. John Huyck offers a good description of its varied definitions. One thing that might be worth expanding on is how the term came into prominence in the early 1950's and how it relates to "fundamentalism.".

"Fundamentalism" was an outgrowth of the conservative Protestant reaction against "liberalism" in the 19th century; the turning point seems to have been the Scopes Trial, after which fundamentalists disconnected from public and social involvement. "Liberals" were defined as those Christians who were departing from a more literal interpretation of Scriptures, and whose Christianity seemed to focus on social issues to the exclusion of purely "spiritual" ones. Fundamentalists seemed to have more interest in the saving of souls, liberals more interest in saving society. At least that was a common perception. "Doctrinal," or "Biblical purity" became and still is in many circles, the focus. There are many within this group that still believe in and fight for the sole use of the King James Bible, and there even those who believe ONLY the 1611 version is authoritative. I have seen church marquees in South Carolina that inform "A 1611 King James Church." The Christian radio group I work with receives literature and phone calls from time to time condemning our use of non King James Version (KJV) Bible Verses in our fund-raising literature. I have had some very funny conversations with some. One man asked me if we used the KJV in our broadcasts to China. When I reminded him that our broadcasts are in Mandarin, he then asked me if the Chinese Bible we used had been translated from the KJV. When I told him that the Chinese Bible, like the KJV had been translated from Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic, he then asked if the Bible were LIKE the KJV. Realizing I was fighting a losing battle, I said "yes." There is no reasoning with people like that.

The advent of Billy Graham's ministry muddied the waters. Billy was interested in "souls," but he was also interested in cooperating with "liberal" Christians, including Roman Catholics. This controversial move created a huge scandal and debate within conservative churches. Extreme fundamentalists ("fighting fundies") condemned Billy, and excommunicated any minister who would cooperate with Graham crusades -- and still do! But Billy's example helped to galvanize major segments of the more open-minded, conservative Protestant community. More open-minded colleges and seminaries came into existence; some fundamentalistic ones converted to a more open stance. The term "evangelical" came to include the definitions: a Christian who 1)believes in Scriptural authority but is open to varied interpretations 2) is conservative in theology but willing to consider debate 2)tends toward interdenominationalism 3)believes that the "saving of souls" is of ultimate priority, but NOT to the exclusion of social concern. 4)is willing to engage personally in public and political life and is not necessarily Republican.

However the term "evangelical" is a battered and abused word, and has so many subjective definitions throughout the world. Even the Presbyterian church I attend, which is theologically conservative, defines an "evangelical" as an overly aggressive exponent of Christianity, which is not theoretically correct.

Finally, for linguists and etymologists, the word derives directly from the Greek "euangelizo" - "I announce good news." The word "angel" itself is in the root - "announcer." (Thus we evangelicals are clearly angelic, and those of us who use radio to do our work, the most angelic of all). "Gospel" is the English noun for what it implied in the verb "euangelizo."

Jim Bowman recommends In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language,and a Culture, by Alister E. McGrath, New York, Doubleday, 2001. You may know that Dr. McGrath is currently Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University, and Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.

Ronald Hilton - 2/4/03