With the "defection" (as an angry few would see it) of the president of the Evangelical Theological Society to Roman Catholicism, and now most recently the passing of Jerry Fallwell, the founder of the religious right, everyone wants to know what "evangelical" means. Is Francis Beckwith an evangelical Catholic? Was Fallwell a fundamentalist evangelical?
"Jon," a commenter on a previous blog, asked a provocative question concerning the Evangelical Theological Society's statement on Beckwith's resignation from their society: What if someone wants to call himself an "evangelical Catholic"? Who has the right to prevent him? I was asked a similar question in an Evangelical / Liberal dialogue at United Seminary several weeks ago by: "Can I call myself an 'Evangelical Liberal'"? The answer is easy: "Of course you can. You can call yourself whatever you want."
If Wittgenstein (*now enticing his fans to my blog*) has taught us anything, it's that words have meaning in context. There's no single, transcendent meaning of words aloof from concrete, historical, social, ideological situations. Thus historical scholarship has disagreed on what, exactly, defines an "evangelical." In fact, there is not quite consensus on how to go about that definition: sociologically? theologically? ideologically? I'm not suggesting we're lost in a sea of relativism, and that anybody can legitimately call themselves whatever they want and expect affirmative nods in their direction. Rather, it is up to communities in historical contexts to shape definitions of themselves, as they engage and interact with others within and outside their communities of discourse and belonging. However, we cannot assume that communities will not shift in their use of and understanding of terms (history suggests otherwise) and thus in the extent to which persons may sense that they belong within that group. In other words, definitional labels are malleable.
So who gets to define the term evangelical? For one thing, evangelicals do. But who are they? Is it Carl F. H. Henry's clan only? Or, more broadly, Donald Bloesch's? Or does it include Francis Beckwith's? Regardless, whoever "they" are, they can't assume that everyone outside their camp will defer absolute right of way to them in constructing a definition. Like it or not, dialogue and engagement is necessary. The evangel is too compelling: lots of people want a piece.