The History of Evangelicalism (Part 1)

Pulpit Magazine March 16, 2009

(by Phil Johnson)

Today's post is adapted from part of Phil's seminar at the Shepherds' Conference on "What Is an Evangelical?"

Now we have to move on. And this is going to be a very quick birds-eye view if we're going to finish. That means I have to skip through the centuries and hit only the highest of high points. But the next major all-out, worldwide battle for the gospel occurred during the time of Augustine and was embodied in the Pelagian controversy. Pelagius (and his sidekick, a man named Coelestius), were in love with the notion of human free will, and they took that doctrine to the furthest extreme possible. They denied the doctrine of original sin (because they couldn't understand how we could inherit both guilt and a bent towards sinning from Adam and still be responsible for our own evil deeds). Responsibility demands ability, they insisted, and their refusal to see any other possibility forced them to the conclusion that all any sinner really needs to do overcome our sinful tendencies is exercise human willpower. Salvation, they said, is purely a choice you make. All you have to do to save yourself is decide to stop sinning. That's what pure Pelagianism ultimately boils down to.

Or to say it another way—Pelagianism is a denial of the necessity of grace. Pelagius himself claimed grace came into play only in the forgiveness of past sins. He said we don't need grace to empower us to choose good or even to perform good works, because we have the power of our own free wills.

And Pelagius's main target was Augustine. Augustine pointed out that Scripture everywhere attributes our salvation to the grace of God and nowhere gives credit to our own willpower. On the contrary, scripture repeatedly says we were slaves to sin—dead in sin—until God by grace saved us. Incidentally, Augustine went to Scripture, not to the bishop of Rome, to make those points. He insisted not only on the necessity of divine grace, but also the primacy of grace. If God did not first grant grace, no sinner would ever make the first move toward God. Augustine was defending the very spirit of evangelical conviction.

Now I'm not suggesting that Augustine was classically evangelical in the sense we speak of evangelicalism after the Protestant Reformation. I'm saying he kept the spirit of evangelicalism and a commitment to evangelical truth alive, even though he himself was in places inconsistent with his own evangelical convictions. For example, it is patently and grossly inconsistent to teach (as Augustine did) on the one hand that divine grace always precedes and initiates the sinner's positive response to the gospel—so that even our faith is the fruit of God's work in our hearts; not a decision we concoct for ourselves out of sheer willpower—and yet to teach on the other hand that the sacrament of baptism (a human work) somehow frees us from the taint of Original Sin and causes regeneration ex opere operato.

So Augustine was somewhat inconsistent, but a strain of evangelical conviction dominates all the aspects of his teaching that he spent the most time and energy on.

Skip to the medieval church, and one of the brightest lamps of evangelical truth was Anselm of Canterbury and the work he did with regard to the atonement. After 1,000 years of neglect and inconsistency, he took up the doctrine of atonement and brought a major dose of clarity to the subject, arguing that the atonement was a substitutionary offered to satisfy God, not the devil. Christ died to appease the Father, not to pay a ransom to Satan.

Anselm was actually beginning to lay the foundation for the Protestant Reformation. The Reformers were as indebted to Anselm for their understanding of the atonement as they were to Augustine for their understanding of Grace. And here is the vital point: Anselm and Augustine before him both were concerned primarily with the need to understand the gospel correctly. That passion for getting the gospel right is the very lifeblood of authentic evangelicalism.

Some four centuries after Anselm, William Tyndale gave us the earliest recorded appearance of the English word evangelical. In 1531, in his commentary on the gospel of John (published 5 years before Tyndale died and just 16 years after Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg), Tyndale wrote, "He exhorteth them to proceed constantly in the evangelical truth." Tyndale was not using the word to describe a theological position. It was simply an adjective meaning "of or pertaining to the gospel."

But just a year later, you have the first known published use of the word evangelical in English where the word refers to a specific theological point of view. Sir Thomas More seems to have first used it in a derogatory and descriptive sense to speak of Tyndale and his followers. More, of course, was a devoted Roman Catholic. He was Lord Chancellor of England during the reign of Henry VIII, known for burning many of the first English Protestants at the stake because they questioned the precepts of the pope. In 1532, in his Confutation of Tyndale's Answer, More spoke of "Tyndale [and] his evangelical brother Barns."

More was referring there to Robert Barnes, an early English Reformer who had fled to Wittenberg to escape More's persecution just one year before. As a matter of fact, Barnes spent about four or five years with Luther and returned to England five years later. He was later burnt at the stake in 1540. Carl Trueman has a great book, based on his doctoral dissertation, which you can read freely on line, in which he argues that Tyndale, Barnes, and others weren't even truly Protestant in their soteriology until after their contact with Luther. They began their careers as Catholic humanists who had more in common with Erasmus—until Luther got them thinking about the gospel. That's when they became true evangelicals, and the first Englishmen to wear that title. The timing of their awakening to the truth of the gospel almost exactly coincided with Sir Thomas More's coinage of that term as a derogatory expression.

Reformation theologians began to embrace the term. Luther used the German equivalent to speak of gospel truth, and Lutheran churches throughout Europe soon were called Evangelical—actually, the German version of that word—to stress their common belief regarding the gospel.

All the major Reformers were evangelical. Here's an interesting fact: you can survey all the major Protestant creeds—Lutheran, Calvinist, English, Dutch, or whatever—and you will discover that while they disagreed on many secondary things and sometimes the distinctions between their opinions are stark, the one doctrine all the Reformers and all their creeds consistently held in common was the doctrine of justification by faith. They stressed the imputation of righteousness to the sinner.

In other words, the evangelical doctrine could be summed up in this idea: Our standing before God is secured by a righteousness that is imputed to us—credited to our account; reckoned in the courtroom of God as if that righteousness were our own, even though justification is only a forensic or legal transaction, distinct from the sanctifying work that will eventually make us practically righteous. Justification itself is a legal decree that takes place in an instant, whereby we are declared by God Himself to be righteous—fully justified on the spot.

Roman Catholicism, by contrast, said the ground of our justification is a real righteousness that must be inherent in us. Therefore, Rome said, justification is a long process that isn't even finished in this life. That's the point of purgatory.

The term evangelical therefore became a way of designating someone who believes justification is a forensic past-tense reality grounded in a righteousness that is imputed to those who believe. Anyone who saw justification as an unfinished work that must be perfected by the believer's own faithfulness was (by definition) not evangelical.

(To be continued tomorrow) 

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