To be evangelical we must first be Protestant and to be Protestant we must first be catholic

Craig A. Carter; THE GREAT TRADITION; May 15

For most of my life I have used the term “Evangelical” to describe myself. For me it has been my most fundamental self-description. I could say “Christian,” but that term includes so much that it cries out for more specificity. After all, if John Spong is a Christian, then I’m definitely not that. So, we have to narrow the definition. It is possible to say John Spong is not a “true” Christian and that is fair enough, but it gets tiresome identifying yourself all the time by making a negative judgment about someone else. (It is tiresome for adults, anyway.) So, we need to specify what kind of Christian or what we mean by Christian in some positive way. 

I have been a Baptist since I was baptized at the age of 8 in a Baptist church. I have never attended anything but a Baptist church except as a very occasional visitor in the 56 years since and I never attended any other than a Baptist church prior to age 8. So, I guess I’m about as Baptist as you can get. Nevertheless, all my life I have been primarily an Evangelical and secondarily a Baptist. Why? Because there are non-Evangelical Baptists, and I wouldn’t want to be mistaken for one of them. I’ve always had closer friendships with non-Baptist Evangelicals than with liberal Baptists. My denomination growing up had a minority liberal group within it that comprised about 10% of the denomination and they were at home with liberal Protestants. We steered clear of them.

I was always far more comfortable with those churches and pastors that supported the Billy Graham evangelistic events in my home city. That really defined the boundary between the children of light and the children of darkness for me. The United Church and some Anglicans had nothing to do with the showing of the Billy Graham film “Time to Run” in my senior high school year (even though some of the Anglicans and one Presbyterian church were involved). I was on a city-wide committee representing high school students that met early in the morning for prayer and planning. (That was where I learned to like coffee for the first time.) But the lines were drawn pretty clearly. The Presbyterians were strict Westminster Confession folks, but they were in there with the Wesleyans and Pentecostals because they believed that everyone is either saved or lost and it is important to bring your friends to hear the gospel. None of the United Church pastors in my city believed you needed to be born again. For them, hell was just a myth. That put up a big gulf between us. We felt that we could sort out whether you could lose your salvation or not later on, once you at least had salvation. I still think that was a reasonable position to take on the matter. (We Baptists made sure our converts knew that you can’t lose your salvation, though.)

So, I’ve been an Evangelical for a long time and that has worked out pretty well, although no label is ever perfect. But from my vantage point today, the label “Evangelical” has lost its power to define anything clearly. Why? Well, today the liberal views that were clearly outside the Evangelical tent 50 years ago are now inside the tent. Not all Evangelicals have a clear, laser-like focus on evangelism. Many now tout “social action” as equivalent in importance to evangelism as the mission of the church and, in some cases, social action has replaced evangelism entirely. Those people were all in the liberal Protestant churches in 1973, but they are now within Evangelical institutions and churches. So, the term “Evangelical” no longer draws a clear line. 

In fact, the term “Evangelical” seems to have no particular doctrinal meaning anymore. Insofar as it means anything it refers to a style of worship and a tendency to activism. There is a lot of Evangelical jargon floating around and now, after a century of growth, there is a multitude of Evangelical schools, colleges, seminaries, publishers, mission organizations, networks, magazines and social action groups. Anyone who wants to sell popular religious books needs to get into the Evangelical market. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is no longer a focal point of unity and Christianity Today is a pale reflection of what its founders envisioned it to be. It now reflects some of the same liberal views to which the Evangelicalism of 50 years ago saw itself as being the alternative. Evangelicals of the nineteenth century founded universities and seminaries and lost them to liberalism. Evangelicals of the twentieth century founded new ones and promptly lost them too. Fuller Seminary is possibly more liberal today, in some ways, then Princeton was when Fuller was founded as an alternative to seminaries like Princeton. One can quibble over this particular judgment or that one, but the trajectory is clear.

I am no longer content to define myself as an “Evangelical” because that term used to presuppose and include within itself a specifically Protestant system of doctrine that I believe is catholic or universal – the teaching of the apostles handed down throughout history. It used to – but no longer. I now find it necessary to identify as a confessional Protestant who is sympathetic to evangelism and renewal, which is what Evangelical once meant but sadly no longer does. 

Evangelicalism as a trans-Atlantic revival movement originated in the 1730’s in England and quickly spread to North America. It started in the English-speaking world, but it became a global movement through the twentieth century impact of the nineteenth century world missionary movement. World Evangelicalism today is dominated by Pentecostalism, which is yet to make up its mind if it is Protestant or not. Evangelicalism is about revivalism and biblicism. It takes history for granted. For a while that worked out all right as the historic Protestant churches worked to keep tight connections to catholic Christianity through the confessions of the Reformation era (39 Articles, Augsburg, Westminster, 3 Forms, 2LCF, etc.). But in the second half of the twentieth century the confessional basis of Evangelicalism became more and more tenuous. Faithful confessional Protestant denominations still exist but they no longer provide the main theological leadership to the Evangelical movement. Diversity is celebrated for its own sake as the highest good, which in practice means that that there is a vacuum at the center. 

The thin, little statements of faith that Evangelical organizations adopted after WW II really did point back to our reformation heritage and were designed to connect to it while minimizing the flashpoints of disagreement such as eternal security, election, inerrancy, baptism, etc. But they have become thinner and thinner in practice. Evangelicalism is, increasingly, a church without a confession. As such, it is a movement characterized by a debilitating doctrinal confusion. This is partly why it keeps losing large parts of its youth to Protestant liberalism. This dreary scenario just keeps repeating itself over and over again. It wouldn’t be so bad if what remained behind retained doctrinal clarity, but that has never happened. Instead, the center keeps moving left and the whole thing gradually changes its character over a few generations. 

So, if you asked me today what I am, I would have to say that I am a confessional Protestant. I affirm the reformed confessions including the five Solas as the heart of Protestant doctrine. But I also affirm that the five Solas are the truest expression in soteriology, sacraments and ecclesiology of the great catholic truths that form the bedrock foundation of the faith, namely the trinitarian and Christological orthodoxy of Nicaea and Chalcedon. The Roman Catholic is not catholic to the extent that it is Roman. Protestantism is the true catholic church and the reformed tradition, in my opinion, is the purest form of Protestantism. 

At the time of the Reformation all sides except the radicals affirmed the basis of salvation as consisting of the historic, orthodox doctrines of Trinity and the two natures of Christ. Rome, Wittenberg, Geneva and Canterbury all accepted the ecumenical creeds of the first five centuries. Those who did not, such as the Socinians and some of the Anabaptists, were not part of the church catholic. The dispute between Rome and the magisterial Reformers was not over the basis of salvation; it was over how salvation comes to the individual believer. All agreed it comes from Christ and all agreed that it comes to us, but does the “comes to” part happen? The issues revolve around the sacramental priesthood mediating grace under the control of the hierarchy. 

The issue of how high a view of Christ’s presence in the eucharist we have is secondary to the issue of whether or not the eucharist can be validly celebrated by someone not in communion with Rome. The Reformers believed that the Word of God is free, and the Holy Spirit blows where he wills. Therefore, they held that when the gospel is truly preached and the sacraments rightly administered (and, for Calvin, where there is church discipline) there is a true church. The central Protestant claim is that the five Solas are the soteriological and ecclesiological implications of the trinitarian and Christological orthodoxy of the first five centuries. Therefore, Rome is not catholic to the extent that it denies full communion to those who affirm Nicaea and Chalcedon and preach the gospel of justification by faith alone in Christ alone by grace alone under the authority of Scripture alone to the glory of God alone. Rome needs to be reformed in order to become truly catholic.

An Evangelicalism that does not clearly affirm in a binding fashion the truths of the previous paragraph is insufficiently catholic and inadequately Protestant. What, then, is it? Who knows? It is a revival movement on a journey. Everyone who is in it needs to find roots because to drift along without putting down roots in a classic Christian tradition is spiritually dangerous. Sheep will wander off and join the emergent church or an Anabaptist sect or even the Roman church. Many will attend Evangelical churches yet fall into heresy without even realizing it. 

If pastors are going to guard and lead their flocks as the New Testament orders us to do, we are going to have to find some way to adopt, articulate and conform to a Protestant confession that links us to the magisterial Reformers and the church catholic of all ages. The statement of faith of the Evangelical Theological Society stands out as pitifully inadequate in that regard, especially since it is an association of theologians! But the thin, idiosyncratic statements of other Evangelical organizations have also proven to be inadequate. 

One might be forgiven for wondering how a person with these views can remain a Baptist. After all, are Baptists confessing Protestants or rootless Evangelicals? It would seem that the answer to that question is not straightforward. Within the Baptist world today, there is a spectrum from confessional Protestant to nearly Anabaptist. And there is a big difference between most Baptists today and our own seventeenth century, particular Baptist heritage. Are we best defined by current fads or by our historic identity? 

At a minimum I would say that the term “Baptist” by itself is no more adequate a descriptor for what I believe than is “Evangelical.” My problem is similar; both terms have a much wider range of meaning that what would apply to me. I am, I suppose, a reformed, confessional Baptist with Evangelical leanings. The Second London Confession, which is a light revision of the Westminster Confession of Faith, seems to me to be the best option for a confession. At the very least, it links us back to the Reformation and the church catholic. But more Baptists need to recover this heritage and embrace it if we want to have an identity that is not in flux and in the process of drifting into heresy. This, in my opinion, is a matter of great urgency. 

The problem is one of pastoral care and theological witness. You might wonder how a person with convictions like mine can remain in a mixed multitude. (I’m tempted to joke that I found the perfect church once, joined it, and promptly made it imperfect!) But seriously, it is the perennial question of purity and separatism and there are no easy answers, not even Augustinian ones.

I would say that my own sense of calling at this point in life is to call my fellow Baptists back to our seventeenth century particular Baptist roots as a way of connecting both to the magisterial Reformation and pre-Reformation catholic orthodoxy. It is not a matter of being sectarian or narrow; it is a strategy to connect to the catholic church while affirming the necessity of the reformation of the sixteenth century. I don’t want to be in a small sect; I want to be in the universal church! No perfect denomination exists in this world, but there are greater and lesser degrees of purity in doctrine and life. The impossibility of entire sanctification or sinless perfection in this life is no reason not to pursue holiness, without which no one will see the Lord. (Heb. 12:14)  

But it is not just Baptists who need to hear this message; all modern Christians need to hear it. The answer to modern rootlessness and drift is the same for all denominations. Back to the biblical sources of our faith! Back to tradition! Back to the great teachers God gave to previous generations of the church! Back to the biblical orthodoxy that characterized the Protestant Reformation! 

DR. CRAIG CARTER is professor of Systematic Theology at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto, Canada.