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Historically, Evangelicalism as a movement began only around the time of the First Great Awakening. In the deconfessional era and with the slow erosion of orthodoxy in the churches, those who believe in the Bible began to see fellow compatriots across denominations. Pietism with the emphasis on one's personal spiritual walk broke down the link between corporate and individual spirituality, which enables believers to see the former issues that divide them as being of lesser importance compared to their shared conversion experiences in the faith.
Evangelicalism (with a capital "E") therefore seems best defined as a social, as opposed to a theological movement. It is a social movement centered around certain experiences (i.e. conviction of sin, assurance of salvation, burden for the lost) with a claim to follow the Bible; a social movement with a theological claim(s). In other words, the Evangelical claims unity around certain theological truths, whereas it actually is more centered around certain experiences assumed to be consonant with those theological truths.
In his book Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s, D.W. Bebbington claimed 4 distinctive characteristics of Evangelicalism. They are (1) Conversionism (a focus on the necessity of each person to individually turn to Christ in faith for salvation), Activism (a commitment to participate with God in his saving mission in the world), Biblicism (a devotion to the Bible as the Word of God written for all of faith), and Crucicentrism (a focus on Jesus Christ and the substitutionary atonement of Christ for sins). In light of historical realities, it is better to elaborate these points as follows (with the underlined parts added for clarification):
- Conversionism, a focus on the necessity of each person to have a decisive act of turning to Christ in faith for salvation
- Activism, a commitment to participate with God in his saving mission by identifying all manner of causes to which Christianity has possible implications for and promoting these causes through the agency of trans- and non-denominational agencies
- Biblicism, a devotion to the Bible as the Word of God written for all of faith with a minimalistic understanding of what the Bible teaches and a naive view of exegesis and hermeneutics, with a corresponding rejection of any authority of creeds and confessions, and an emphasis on individual spirituality at the expense of the corporate dimension
- Crucicentrism, a focus on Jesus Christ and the substitutionary atonement of Christ for sins without a necessary soteriological framework which shows why the Cross is meant to be central and thus a weak assertion of its centrality.
As it can be seen, each of the underlined parts indicate a particular tradition or practice Evangelicalism has either subconsciously (mostly) or knowingly adopted. The first tradition is revivalism, which emphasized the conversion experience over the reality. Profession of faith is insufficient in this system; one must have the conversion experience in order to be considered a true "born-again" Christian. The difference between the older Evangelicalism and the post-Finney Evangelicalism is in whether the experience is man-made and able to be perceived as to the very day and hour, or whether it is not so.
The second tradition is the continuation of Constantinism as seeing the Church is in some sense intertwined with Society and thus bearing moral obligation upon the church qua church to get involved in all manner of causes. The Pietist tradition elevated the value of godly behavior above doctrinal fidelity, while deconfessionalism eroded the value of theology in general. The last two resulted in the perception of commonality between "evangelicals" from different denominations to come together, instead of them trying to reform the churches or split off from apostate denominations to join orthodox denominations.
The Romantic impulse behind the elevation of experience over doctrine resulted in a denigration of "dead" theology and thus resulted in biblicism, "me and my Bible in the woods." Lastly, Pietism and Deconfessionalism resulted in minimalizing doctrine to its supposed "essentials" which is "the Cross" (whatever that means), leaving the entire soteriological framework behind as being "technicalities."
Evangelicalism is thus more than just a movement that focuses on the Gospel. Implicit in the movement is an entire framework of theology for faith and life which is antithetical to true Christianity. One can be a Christian and be an Evangelical, but one cannot be a biblical Christian and continue to be an Evangelical, for its worldview and praxis are not in line with Scripture.