That question has been kicked around a bit. And, I know, there are as many unsatisfying or cloudy answers as there are people who think they can define it clearly. Some even think we should retire the word and move on from any titles or create new ones.
I've not thought about the word recently, though I find myself thinking and talking about the people/movement called "Evangelicals" all the time. The most recent prompt to think about the question "What is an evangelical?" came from Francis J. Beckwith's recent letter explaining why he has re-joined the Roman Catholic Church. Until May 5, 2007, Mr. Beckwith was the sitting president of the Evangelical Theological Society.
This post is not about Mr. Beckwith and his recent decision. I don't know him personally and it would be both unwise and uncharitable for me to speculate on his motivations (public and private, theological and personal) leading to this move. Carl Trueman offers some good responses to the few theological reasons that Beckwith offered for his move to Rome (HT: JT).
But what caught my attention was a statement Mr. Beckwith made when he was considering the possibility of serving out his term as president: "I can in good conscience, as a Catholic, affirm the ETS doctrinal statement."
If a former-evangelical-turned-Roman Catholic can in good conscience sign the ETS doctrinal statement, how good a statement can that be? How does that shape our definition of evangelical? In the words of one hotly debated book, is the Reformation over?
Here is the ETS "doctrinal basis" in its entirety: "The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs. God is a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory."
I'm not a member of the society, so perhaps an ETS member out there can help me out. Is this really all there is to the "doctrinal basis" for the society? It seems to me it would be difficult for any orthodox Christian to deny this statement, whether or not they are "evangelicals."
I can well understand an academic society dedicated to a particular purpose wanting, for intellectual and other reasons, to maintain a membership with people from disciplines and perspectives not necessarily its own. That can add much needed rigor and richness to the intellectual climate.
Yet if someone not committed to "evangelical" truth can maintain one of the highest posts in the organization in good conscience, I think that organization hasn't done a robust enough job in defining itself. "Evangelical Theological Society" sounds like it's a group of evangelicals (and a smattering of others) who commune together over theological issues from a distinctly evangelical perspective. If that's not the case, perhaps the group should be called the "Society for the Study of Evangelical Theology."
In suggesting a name change, I've gone beyond a certain boundary I should respect. It's not my place to suggest that an organization change its name. But if the group does not change its name (and I don't think they would), could they take up that tired ol' question and help the rest of us out: What is an evangelical?