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David Bebbington

Defining "Evangelical"

Part 1 in an occasional series.

Editor's Note: Rumor has it that somewhere in the US, there's an asylum for scholars and journalists—rigidly segregated, of course—who've been driven mad by the attempt to define "evangelical." They are not unruly patients for the most part, but now and then fierce arguments break out and the contesting parties must be separated.

Undaunted, the National Association for Evangelicals, in conjunction with LifeWay Research, formulated a new "evangelical beliefs research definition" intended to facilitate "accurate and consistent use among researchers." A press release in November 2015 spelled out the definition and its aims, which can be found on the NAE website.

In the meantime, in the midst of a wild US presidential campaign, the term "evangelical" is popping up right and left, meaning more or less whatever the speaker or writer in question wants it to mean.

This seems like a propitious moment, then, to ask some people who have thought long and hard about the subject (while still retaining their sanity) what they make of the NAE/LifeWay Research definition. With this issue, we're initiating an occasional series to do just that. Leading off is historian David Bebbington.

Unfamiliarity with evangelicals has led to their misrepresentation over the centuries. They have commonly been supposed, for example, to be unreconstructed biblical literalists or habitual hell-fire preachers. So it is invaluable that the National Association of Evangelicals has taken pains to produce a definition that can be taken up confidently by researchers. Evangelicals, according to this formula, are those who can strongly affirm four statements about the Bible, evangelism, the cross, and faith in Christ. It is gratifying that the statements, according to the NAE press release, "closely mirror historian David Bebbington's classic four-point definition of evangelicalism." That historian is especially pleased that the new ...

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