Gospel-Driven Blog is privileged to have Dr. Tom Nettles, Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, contribute a five part series on evangelicalism.
About Dr. Nettles
Dr. Nettles is widely regarded as one of the foremost Baptist historians in America. He came to Southern Seminary from the faculty of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. He previously taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author or editor of nine books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, the highly influential volume which he co-authored with L. Russ Bush; and Why I am a Baptist, co-edited with Russell D. Moore (see SBTS website).
About the series
The first two articles give a helpful, brief historical introduction concerning the term evangelical. The following three articles will explore three central ideas of evangelicalism, without which, as Dr. Nettles argues, evangelicalism could not exist.
The three central ideas to be explored are: The necessity of a word-centered approach to theology, ethics, preaching, and social engagement; The necessity of a Christ-centered approach to all these same areas; A further defining paramenter by pointing to the cross-centeredness of evangelicalism.
Evangelicalism- An Old History, Part 1
As is commonly known, the word “Evangelical” comes from the New Testament word for “Gospel.” Its verb form means to announce good news. The concept of evangelical has been used in Christian literature from the first century to the present, long before there was a subdivision movement within Protestantism known as the “Evangelical movement.”
During the early Reformation period the nomenclature referred particularly to the Lutheran churches, a device of their own to distinguish them as followers of the theology of Luther.
Those leading ideas that distinguished them from Roman Catholicism were the rejection of the authority of the pope, councils, and tradition for the sole authority of Scripture. On this point, they were not oblivious to the contributions made by Christian theologians or councils before the sixteenth century, and they clearly affirmed the orthodoxy of the person of Christ so clearly enunciated in the early councils. These, however, served not as authorities in themselves, but as lucid articulations of a biblical idea as opposed to the many inadequate and heretical presentations of the doctrines of Christ and the Trinity.
A second distinctive concept was their commitment to the finality of Christ as the one mediator between God and man. No need for intercession of the saints, Christ was sufficient. No need for a further sacrifice in the mass, Christ’s death accomplished all. No need for a vicar of Christ on earth, he communicates his blessings in the church through the ministry of the word.
Vitally connected to the second distinguishing trait, the third affirmed the finality of justification. Justification, inextricably connected to Christ’s obedience, was not seen as a process [at least after 1519] of gradually accomplished righteousness through accessing all the advantages of grace embedded within the sacramental system, but as a legal declaration from God. This declaration affirmed two things, forgiveness of sins and the imputation of righteousness. Luther also believed that such a view of salvation was made necessary because of the bondage of the human will to sin. In this he was rediscovering the evangelical Augustine. No merit was even possible for fallen man because sin penetrated in varying degrees every thought, motivation, word, and deed. With such an insuperable indebtedness to divine righteousness, what could possibly give hope? Only a divine plan for forgiveness and for a granting of righteousness arising from a gracious God could do any sinner good. Our obligation of obedience to divine law and the merited punishment for disobedience to it both were assumed by Christ. This declaration is neither immoral nor illegal, for God’s character has been honored with unalloyed and uncompromised perfection and the divine law vindicated fully in Christ’s voluntary assumption of our humanity and thus, as the last Adam, our debt. Thus God can be just and yet justify those that have faith in Christ.
The other Reformers, such as Zwingli, Calvin, Bucer, Bullinger, and Cranmer accepted these ideas and at points strengthened their expression and worked out their implications into church life. Among those that embraced and expanded these evangelical ideas were the Puritans in England and America and the Pietists of the late seventeenth-century Germany. Puritans and Pietists brought an emphasis on conversion with a careful delineation of its constituent elements. Along with this they emphasized assurance of salvation and the rigorous examination of evidences that an individual had indeed been converted.
This entire spectrum of belief—the orthodoxy of the early councils, the Reformation emphases on Scripture, Christ, and the cross, and the concern for individual conversion—all found solid confirmation in the First Great Awakening in America. The accumulation of these ideas, given expression progressively through Christian history, formed the basic theological and practical concerns that gave rise to American evangelicalism that also included an abiding commitment to the principle of the necessity of continuing reformation of the church and a hope for intense and rapid extension of Christ’s kingdom through revival.
Our next entry will show how “Evangelicalism” came to be seen as a particular type of Protestantism and what its leading concerns were.
Tom J. Nettles