Understanding Evangelicals and Scripture

A friend asked me for some references on how Evangelicals think about scripture, so I naturally turned it into a blogpost. Let me introduce this with a few basic points about definitions and history.

First, “evangelical” is a very fuzzy term. It’s not a church or denomination, and scholars argue over its ever-shifting definition and usage.  One general definition incorporates four characteristics: emphasis on being born again/spiritual conversion; the centrality of Jesus’s divinity, birth, and resurrection; the centrality of the Bible and its authority; that conversion entails missionary work/preaching/spreading the gospel. But as it turns out, not everyone who identifies as “evangelical” fits these. One recent article (which I can’t find at the moment) found that many of those who supported Trump and identified as Evangelical in polls did not hold to those views; “evangelical” was being claimed as a kind of generic non-Catholic Christian term. So, the definition is fluid and tricky.

Second, “evangelicals” grew out of the Fundamentalist movement of the early 20th century, in the Fundamentalism/Modernist dispute; modernists like Harry Emerson Fosdick argued that it did not matter whether Jesus was divine, resurrected, born of a virgin, miracles actually happened, etc. Fundamentalists argued that those things constituted the heart of Christianity, they were the fundamentals. (I think the LDS Church fits pretty squarely on the side of the Fundamentalists here, with the arguable exception being inerrancy. Then again, we have many inerrantist tendencies, and in a letter to Henry Eyring, Joseph Fielding Smith expressed the view that “men were infallible… when they, as prophets, reveal to us the word of the Lord.”  I think there are good historical and scriptural reasons to think prophets and revelation are not presenting perfect and accurate divine facts, exhibits A and B.)

Note what was not fundamental. William Jennings Bryan, in the Scopes Trial, had little problem with an old earth and the evolution of plants and animals (except humans.) In fact, before the term “fundamentalism” was coined in 1920, it was sometimes called “Bryanism.” So “fundamentalist” today does not mean the same thing as it did 100 years ago.

Now, I’ve talked about a few of these things before. 

  1. Mormons, Evangelicals, Tradition, and Sunday School
  2. Podcast about why we and Protestants view and use scripture differently. (Basically, we have very different authority structures; we are not sola scriptura, but have an open canon and prophets. This simultaneously helps and complicates things considerably.)

Suggested and accessible books

Happy reading.

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