The difficult truth of the matter is that language, while actually having the ability to communicate, is not static. Words have real meanings, but those meanings are grounded both in history and in usage. Sometimes those two come apart, and a word is caught in the tension. “Evangelical” is just one of those words.
Historically speaking evangelical was a redundant term for Protestant. In both cases the term referred to those who affirmed the binding authority of the Bible alone and that one could have peace with God only by trusting in the finished work of Christ alone. Contra Rome then the term affirmed sola scriptura and sola fide.
Three hundred years after the Reformation, however, the term took a small turn, a tiny nuance was added by the beginnings of theological liberalism. Institutionally theological liberalism was found within Protestant churches. Its defining qualities, however, were a denial of the truthfulness and authority of the Bible and a denial of the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. Evangelical suddenly became not a synonym for Protestant, but a sub-category. It was how we distinguished actual Christians from liberal “Christians.” Thus Machen’s later great work, Christianity and Liberalism affirmed that the two were utterly distinct.
One hundred years ago there was yet another shift. The evangelical wing of the Protestant church offered competing strategies for dealing with the liberal wing. One side was slightly less sophisticated, slightly less academic, and, given its accompanying pessimistic eschatology, more retreatist. They, distinguishing themselves from evangelicals, called themselves fundamentalists. On the fundamentals both fundamentalists and evangelicals agreed. Evangelicals, sadly, were slightly more accommodating of theological liberalism, slightly less ardent in denouncing it.
Over the last thirty years that spirit of accommodation has mushroomed inside the evangelical church. Indeed if evangelical has any meaning at all in current usage, it is far more about a mood, a posture, than it is about an affirmation of cardinal doctrines. Evangelicals, on the whole, do not scoff at the Bible like theological liberals. They are willing to affirm, at least in principle, biblical miracles. They are even willing, in a nuanced way that ultimately neuters that authority, to affirm the authority of the Bible, at least parts of it. That nuance typically softens the edges of the Bible by interpreting it in light of our post-modern wisdom. Suddenly the “clear” passages by which we must interpret the less clear are those passages that best reflect current common wisdom. “God is love,” which the Bible clearly teaches, suddenly means that its condemnation of homosexual behavior, or women ruling over men in the church, are suddenly open to re-interpretation.
More important, however, is the notion that “God is love” undoes the necessity of trusting in the finished work of Christ for salvation. Now, either due to a generous inclusiveness that welcomes Romanists, Mormons, Hindus, Muslims, ad nauseum, or a denial of the reality of hell, we no longer must embrace the work of Christ to be with Him forever. This, historically, is nothing like evangelicalism. It is a denial of the most basic element of the word’s historical and etymological root- the evangel.
If current trends continue, evangelical will no longer be a synonym for Protestant, because there is no error so grievous that it must be protested. It will instead become a synonym for liberal. To be acceptable, respectable, we now must give up our narrow evangel. Will we, no are we willing to confess this hard truth- we are all fundamentalists now?