evangelical or not evangelical....that is the question

I recently listened to Richard Turnbull, Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, give a short talk in which he briefly mentions the 4 marks of the Evangelical. You can listen to the talk on the Reform website [update: unfortunately this talk has now been removed from the Reform website], just search 'turnbull' and then click on the links for Richard Turnbull's talk at the Reform Conference.

The 4 marks suggested were these:
  • Supreme authority of Scripture for all matters of faith and conduct
  • Doctrinal marks - the heart of which is Substitutionary Atonement
  • Personal relationship with a personal God
  • Evangelism (as opposed to 'mission')

You will spot, in point 2, that Penal Substitution (which Richard names Substitutionary Atonement) is named as the heart of the doctrinal marks of an evangelical.

I wonder what you think of this statement? If you are an evangelical reading this, what is your 'defining doctrinal mark'?

I think if I were choosing for myself I would have to say that belief in a Triune God would have to be at the heart of who I am. I know that this is not necessarily distinctively evangelical, but it still has to be my centre.

And if you think about it this sums up all the other 'marks' of an evangelical that there might possibly be. A God who is defined by personal relationship within Himself, who is community within Himself, can ask for no other relationship with His creation than a personal one. A personal relationship with a personal God does not negate the need for living within a community which consists of persons, just as God's own community does. I suspect that we turn this 'mark' into something which means an 'individual relationship' rather than a 'personal relationship'. It is the personal relationship, ie a relationship between persons, that brings us to be the person that we have the potential of being. I do not and cannot stand alone as an individual, because I image God, who is defined by personal relationship.

Our faith in Scripture as the Word of God is also rooted in a Triune God who chooses to reveal himself in such a way through Word and Spirit as to leave no other linguistic option than to speak of God as Trinity. Those who wrote Scripture speak of a God who is above and beyond, who is down and mucky with His creation, who is at once everywhere within creation. One God, Three Persons - Hallelujah.

Lastly, with regards to Evangelism. I am not convinced of a direct dichotomy between the words 'evangelism' and 'mission', nor, as Richard suggests, a broadening or submerging of evangelism into mission. I think that this is most likely the idea that evangelism should really be 'proclamation' rather than 'social'. Both to me seem to be bringing Good News or Gospel and are therefore evangelism. This Triune God created the cosmos - the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit. It is His Creation and He is at work in it. It is not our idea to evangelise the world, to speak the Good News of God's love and reconciliation, it is God's idea. He is missio dei, the missionary God, at work in His own creation. The Triune God who, within Himself, images distinction between Persons, chooses to love the 'other' - His creation. We image the Triune God when we choose to love the 'other' - when we join Him in his mission to His creation.

So, no, Penal Substitution is not the heart of my doctrine, it is not what makes me an evangelical. Please let's not reduce our evangelical nature to a legal transaction alone.

In the Name of Father, Son, Spirit, Amen.


Karen said...

The 'hidden' curriculum of this video, and the other two available on the same page, is most interesting to any anglican.

I think the whole speech is very telling in terms of "them and us" attitudes. The odd views expressed about evangelism are par the course.

This little speech holds the kernel of the conservative project for the CofE and its colleges.

jody said...

I found the denotation of '2+4' evangelical theological colleges very interesting.

The '2' being Oakhill and Wycliffe, and the '4' being Ridley, Trinity, St John's and Cranmer.

Rich Burley said...

I'm an ordinand at Ridley Hall and have been looking into early Evangelicalism in a dissertation. David Bebbington, whose book 'Evangelicalism in Modern Britain' is the standard textbook for the subject, says there have been four essential characteristics of Evangelicalism through the ages. These are Crucicentrism, i.e. the centrality of the cross, although not necessarily belief in penal substitution, Conversionism>, which stresses the need for personal conversion, Biblicism, the centrality of the bible over tradition and reason, but not necessarily any doctrine of inerrancy, and Activism, the need to spread the message.

I'm quite happy to sign up for all these things. Richard Turnbull seems to have taken them and narrowed them down to become things which are not necessarily marks of 'true' Evangelicalism at all, but marks of what has come to define a particular Evangelical grouping (which we migh call conservative evangelicalism) in the decades after the war.

If anything what has most predominantly marked out Evangelicals from non-Evangelicals in their near 300 years of history is not 'correct' doctrine but the shared experience of being converted.

David said...

Thanks for this Jody. I guess if Richard Turnbull is right then I'm no evangelical.

If Richard Burley is right (reading your comments), then I'm definitely happy with the label and to be honest I think that this narrowing down of evangelicalism into the kind of thing that Dr Turnbull is describing is unhelpful... and would probably make our evangelical forefathers turn in their proverbial graves.

jody said...

Rich, I had come across David Bebbington's suggested marks and this has held for a very long time without the kind of narrowing that is being done with them now.

There is also another book 'What a Friend we have in Jesus: the evangelical tradition' which I believe is a good look at evangelicalism as a movement. I haven't read it myself, so I can't recommend it personally, just one that has been recommended to me and on my 'to read' list! It's written by a tutor of mine who I rate highly, Ian Randall.

Simon Heron said...

The 'turnbull' search at Reform yields no results!!!

jody said...


just to let you all know that the video has now been removed from the Reform website.

tis a shame as it was most enlightening.

Rich Burley said...

Cheers, I'll look out for the book. Another enlightening read will be Richard Turnbull's "Anglican and Evangelical?: Can They Agree?" which was published 3 weeks ago.

Chris said...

I think that as far as distinguishing marks go, penal substitution and authority of scripture are pretty consistent with my experience of evangelicalism. Having said that, all categories are somewhat artificial. I know that evangelicals vary in how rigidly they interpret the Bible and how far they're willing to affirm its infallibility. And I don't think all of them would make penal substitution the heart of everything, though I have to admit it seems like it's probably pretty close to all of them.

Timothy said...

I think that it is a little unfair to claim that by substitutionary atonement, Richard Turnbull means specifically PENAL substitutionary atonement, disqualifying all who have doubts about PSA. He is sufficiently educated to know that there are expressions of substitutionary atonement that downplay the penal aspect. If he had wanted to exclude such people he would have done so (diplomacy not being his strong point).
I think that an aspect of the debate not made explicit so far is what exactly is the nature of the category Evangelical. There is an excellent essay by Paul Hiebert on the Category "Christian" which helps here. In the language of that essay, Evangelical is a fuzzy set or category. It is not a matter of black or white, evangelical or non evangelical. This makes it quite different from the Category Christian, where according to evangelicals and Hiebert one either is a Christian or one is not. The emphasis upon conversionism forces evangelicals to accept this distinction as they hold that conversion marks the transition from nonChristian to Christian and not theological education. Inevitably, on conversion all kinds of theological misunderstandings may persist for a while. Thus, evangelicals are committed to the notion that real Christians may have quite wrong notions but still be real Christians. The challenge for evangelicals is then to accept that Christian fellowship is wider than evangelical party boundaries, unless one is prepared to jettison the evangelical distinctive of conversionism or alternatively to separate from other Christians. This latter move is tantamount to failing to recognise the body of Christ as described in 1 Cor 11:29. This I take is the challenge that needs to be levelled to Richard Turnbull, one I hope he meets.

Anonymous said...

It's strange the things that Evangelicals get hung up on, isn't it? All hung up over right beliefs but the more I read and re-read the Gospels the less I see about beliefs and the more I see about behaviour: Jesus doesn't give a fig about whether we believe the right things: what he cares about is how we behave, the way we treat one another.

Can evangelicals be saved? I hope so, but I'm not convinced, not unless they're prepared to let go of all their self-righteousness, the 'we're right and everyone else is wrong' mentality that excludes the people Jesus is holding his hands out to... and partying with!

Ford Elms said...

I confess to holding some very nasty stereotypes about Evangelicals, but I'm trying to change, and this blog might be the right spot, since you don't seem to fit most of them. What follows is more about expressing my confusion than criticizing, though it'll sound like it at times. I do not accept the validity of PSA, nor that any form of SA can be central. Ideas about SA are not new, though PSA certainly is. If 1500 years worth of Christians didn't think SA to be central, and didn't know about PSA at all, how can they be central? I do not understand how Evangelicals can say that non-Evangelicals do not have a personal relationship with God. I'm an Anglocatholic, and my relationship with God, His Mother, and the Saints is quite personal. I do not accept that Scripture takes precedence over the guidance of the Spirit acting in the assembled body of believers, and I don't understand why anyone would think it did. Can someone explain these things for me?

Charlie J. Ray said...

The heart of Evangelical theology includes everything Turnbull listed. I would add several others. The most important doctrine is justification by faith ALONE. In fact, I would add the other four solas: Grace alone, Faith alone, Christ alone, Scripture alone, and to God alone be the glory.

Substitutionary atonement is meaningless without also including along with it the substitutionary righteousness/merits of Christ in living a sinless life for us and "earning" our salvation by fulfilling the covenant of works which Adam violated.

Substitutionary atonement is non-negotiable. Without Christ as substitute for our sins on the cross there is no Gospel!

jody said...

Wow Charlie, this is a blast from the past - being a 2 year old post.

I guess I want to ask whether you are wedded to 'penal' SA as opposed to SA.

I believe that Christ substituted himself for us. His substitution, his representation, his example, his 'standing with us', all mean that when we face God's judgement, only then can we stand. Only because of these things can we stand through the fire.

But the good news is wider and bigger than even this, we get so caught up in our own individual salvation that we forget it is a salvation, not just for 'all people', but for an entire cosmos wrought with sin. Sin is at the depth of me, the sinews of my being have been corrupted, every relationship is distorted - it is the same with others and with our relationships with the whole of God's creation.

He dealth with it all.

But I still don't believe it was 'Penal'. Have you engaged with the difference between PSA and SA?

blessings, Jody