Evangelicalism is a large umbrella movement that includes many submovements as well as several thousand parachurch organizations in North American and around the globe. The basic beliefs of this evangelical movement are centered and grounded in Jesus Christ. As John R. W. Stott, the twentieth-century British evangelical leader, has observed: “The highest of all Christian motives is neither obedience to the Great Commission nor love for sinners, but rather zeal for the glory of Jesus Christ – a concern for his majesty and glory in all things.” Alister McGrath has noted that in addition to the majesty and lordship of Jesus Christ as the only Savior of sinful humanity, evangelicals have built the core of the Christian faith around the following: the Trinitarian God; salvation by grace through faith; the need for personal conversion, and the truths made known to us in a fully inspired, truthful, and authoritative Bible.
Evangelical interpreters as diverse as Timothy George (Baptist), Mark Ellingsen (Lutheran), Alister McGrath (Anglican), Mark Noll (Presbyterian), David Bebbington (British Baptist), George Marsden (Reformed), and others such as Tommy Kidd, Michael Hamilton, Barry Hankins, and Doug Sweeney are all in consensus agreement with this core understanding of evangelicalism. Evangelicalism has a historical meaning and a ministry connectedness, but we need not fail to see that it also includes a truth claim, a theologically and historically shaped meaning. As Kenneth Kantzer, the founding dean of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, has reminded us, we cannot and must not miss the fact that evangelicals have emphasized the formal and material principles of the Reformation, which include the necessity of a belief in the fully inspired, totally truthful, reliable, and authoritative Scripture alongside a commitment to the transformational power of the gospel, understood in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Carl F. H. Henry, the foremost evangelical theologian of the twentieth century, maintained that the term evangelical has roots in the Greek term “euangelion,” meaning “good tidings” or “good news.” Yet, he said, the good news is not the dramatic death of Jesus of Nazareth. Nor is the incarnation per se good news, nor the sinless life of Jesus per se, nor the Lord’s return per se. For humanity in the grip of sin, all such realities are terrifying. The good news, he claimed, is the scripturally anticipated-and-fulfilled promise that God’s sinless Messiah died in the place of otherwise doomed sinners, and moreover, that the crucified Redeemer arose bodily from the dead to resurrection life as helmsman of the eternal, moral, and spiritual world.
Evangelicals believe that salvation is by God’s grace alone through faith in Jesus Christ. By grace believers are saved, kept, and empowered to live a life of service. Evangelicalism is more than intellectual assent to creedal formulas, as important as these may be. It is more than a reaction to liberalism and theological error. An understanding of evangelicalism certainly is more than a call to return to the past. It is the affirmation of and genuine commitment to the central beliefs of orthodox Christianity, as these beliefs have been courageously retained in various eras and contexts. James Leo Garrett Jr., the premier Southern Baptist theologian during the second half of the twentieth century, maintained that Southern Baptists are denominational evangelicals. Indeed, it can be affirmed that Southern Baptists are Baptist evangelicals and evangelical Baptists.
While the media’s understanding of evangelicalism for the past four decades has been almost exclusively focused on politics since the rise of the Moral Majority and “born again” president Jimmy Carter, we believe this really misses the heart and soul of evangelicalism. At its best, evangelicalism is better understood as a kind of grassroots, gospel-focused, warm-hearted ecumenism, with roots in the sixteenth-century Reformation and the eighteenth-century awakenings, and which emerged as a self-conscious theological and renewal movement after World War II. The media definition neglects evangelicalism’s conversionist narrative and sadly shifts its meaning away from the movement’s historic theological understanding.
Evangelicalism in the twenty-first century, however, is anything but a united flourishing movement in North America. In fact, with the death of Billy Graham (d. 2018), the movement’s unity has almost disappeared. While some aspects of evangelicalism are thriving, others are embattled. Some within the movement have sadly lost their theological compass, having become untethered from both Scripture and tradition, resulting in a postevangelical drift. At the same time, it must be noted that evangelicalism is not necessarily dying in America. It is alive and well, but alive and well in, among, and across intercultural contexts. We take heart in the fact that ethnic minority churches are expanding and growing, especially among Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and African Americans. These churches must be nurtured and strengthened, even as we pray for the majority of primarily white congregations, which now are seemingly plateaued or in decline.
We realize the need for recognizing our rapidly changing demographic patterns in this country coupled with Christianity’s expanding global contexts, especially across the Global South. Evangelical movements and denominations that thrive must remain connected to their heritage and tradition, while exploring and working together in rapidly changing demographic settings as well as the expanding global context, working cooperatively in a renewed way.
Recognizing that evangelicals in North America are much less than the 35 percent of the total population, as some have previously thought, is essential for us to understand. Being aware that the unity of the evangelical movement, or perceived unity, is threatened by politics, key doctrinal differences, racial tensions, a variety of approaches to church ministry and worship, and diverse opinions on ethical and social issues is essential for our own self-awareness, not to mention for efforts related to missional and ministry collaboration. D. A. Carson notes that there have always seemed to be generational conflicts of one sort or another within the North American and British evangelical movements. Arguably, they appear to be more pronounced as the rate of cultural change has accelerated, making it far more difficult for older generations to empathize with a world so different from the one they knew just a few decades earlier.
Because of this rapid cultural change, alternative trajectories are being offered to the church as we move further into the twenty-first century, trajectories which in some ways are not unlike those offered in the early decades of the twentieth century. At this time, we must seek a trajectory that is faithful to Scripture and respectful toward the best of our history, and that at the same time is applicable for the global future of the evangelical movement.
A century ago, liberalism began to flourish by adapting the Christian faith to the changing culture, even identifying with it. Shaped by the influence of Friedrich Schleiermacher and Horace Bushnell, as well as popularizers like Harry Emerson Fosdick, Henry Ward Beecher, and Philips Brooks, liberalism and its wide-ranging influence seemingly had great momentum. By the time of World War I, half of all denominational leaders in America were self-identified liberals, as well as about one third of all pastors and more than half of all publishing house leaders and college/seminary faculty. During this time, the Christian faith began to be redefined in terms of naturalistic and human-centered perspectives that tended to dominate, thus rejecting the unique historic and orthodox claims of the Christian faith.
In the twenty-first century, we are seeing the rise of secularization, a growing interest in a vast and amorphous spirituality, a new atheism, the rise of the “nones” (those with no religious affiliation), all shaped by and within a postmodern culture. At this time, evangelicals should not repeat the errors of the past century. We need not fall into the waiting arms of a revisionist liberalism or other postevangelical trajectories. At the same time, we would be wise to avoid movement toward a reductionist fundamentalism with its own trajectories.
What is needed now is a recognition that North American and European evangelicalism has been weakened in large sectors of the church and is under assault in our secular culture, resulting in a great evangelical recession. With the establishment of the Center for Global Evangelical Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (announced publicly by President Adam Greenway in November of 2021 at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society), we are calling for the recovery of the best of evangelical theology, a renewed commitment to historic orthodoxy, and a reclaiming of the best of the Christian tradition in its classical and Reformation expressions (exemplified in the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene and Chalcedonian affirmations, primary commitments found among the Reformers and the Radical Reformers, as well as key aspects of Pietism, Puritanism, and Revivalism), affirming the fundamentals of the Christian faith without being entrapped by legalistic fundamentalism. The work of the Center will not only involve efforts to recover the best of evangelical theology represented by Carl F. H. Henry, Billy Graham, J. I. Packer, Millard Erickson, Thomas Oden, James Leo Garrett, Kenneth Kantzer, D. A. Carson, and several other significant thinkers and leaders, but will simultaneously work to create a context for evangelicals to commit themselves to a cross-cultural, intercultural, and global evangelical future.
The Center will be shaped by convictional commitments to the life of the church and the great tradition of historic Christian orthodoxy. In an age of rising secularism and advancing pluralism, the Center will not be satisfied to declare theological neutrality. Following the paths proposed by James Leo Garrett Jr., the Center for Global Evangelical Theology at Southwestern will emphasize commitments to denominational evangelicalism, stressing the importance of being Baptist evangelicals and evangelical Baptists. The Center for Global Evangelical Theology reinforces our robust and historic Baptist identity, just as Baptists have sought to further a robust evangelical identity.
As we move into the third decade of the twenty-first century, at a time when evangelicalism is searching for renewal and a recovered sense of identity and unity, the Center for Global Evangelical Theology at Southwestern will not only provide serious opportunities for engaged study of evangelical thought, evangelical theologians, and evangelical theological movements, but the Center will seek to provide a growing context for encouraging and strengthening the global evangelical movement, grounded in a commitment to the fully truthful, authoritative, and sufficient Word of God and the transformational power of the gospel message, prayerful that the Lord will use the Center to bring about renewal in both church and society.
The Center will encourage conversations between evangelical theologians and thinkers from other theological traditions; and will also sponsor conferences and lectures on “Evangelical theology and Baptist life” as well as “Evangelical theology and . . .”, while providing support for the academic programs focused on the study of global evangelical theology. New courses and seminars will be developed around the meaning of global evangelical theology, historical movements from the time of the Reformation to the present that have shaped evangelical theology, the Princeton and Mercersburg theologians, dispensational and covenant theologians, evangelicalism and fundamentalism, shapers of evangelical theology, prominent evangelical theologians, evangelicals theology and American Christianity, evangelical theology and southern culture, evangelical theology and Baptist life, evangelical theology and liberalism, as well as global evangelical theologians and movements. The Center will seek to build upon and extend the good work and leadership provided by Malcolm Yarnell and Madison Grace related to what was formerly called the Center for Theological Research at Southwestern Seminary. In addition, the Center will work constructively across the seminary community to partner with other centers, schools, and programs in the areas of worship, education, cultural engagement, church renewal, and global evangelism.
Christianity Today once described Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary as the most significant and influential evangelical seminary in the world. We believe that one aspect of the revitalization of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary involves calling our faculty, students, churches, and friends to the biblical strength and theological beauty found in the best of the evangelical heritage.