One Thing Every True Evangelical Has in Common

Some people doubt evangelicalism exists—it’s too fractured to be called an -ism. And in the last year the value of the label has been fought over more vociferously than ever. What is “evangelicalism”? Is it even a useful concept anymore?

I believe it is still a useful concept, and I’ll tell you why: there’s a little something called “biblicism” which, thankfully, is still recognizable in basically all sectors of evangelicalism. It’s weakened in some places and under threat in all, but I still see it as a unifying center for evangelicalism.

I just wrote study questions for 43 “devotionals” written and presented by evangelical Mobile Ed professors. They hail from many different institutions, and these institutions most certainly have their differences. These men inhabit discrete positions on various theological spectrums. But when they were asked to briefly exposit particular Bible passages, they just did it. They explained the text, illustrated it, and applied it to their expected hearers. They acted like the text stood over them and not they (or any tradition) over it. They were all “biblicists” of one kind or another.

I have various theological disagreements with certain Mobile Ed professors; it’s impossible to agree with anyone on everything. Some of those disagreements are pretty important, and I think I’m right—and, yes, I think they’re wrong. But as I sat and read their brief expositions, I was truly heartened. I was reminded that despite our differences we share something impossibly valuable and rare on this planet: a reverence for and trust in and desire for obedience to God’s words in the Bible. And I got the sense that if our differences for some reason came out, each of us would have the same impulse: go back to the Bible. That’s an excessively important baseline to share.

The Bebbington Quadrilateral

Most of the evangelical chattering class has accepted David Bebbington’s “quadrilateral” as an adequate definition of evangelicalism: 1) biblicism, 2) crucicentrism (the centrality of the cross), 3) conversionism, and 4) activism. I certainly could not improve on this list. But I’ll observe that I never notice a professing Christian’s “activism” and think, “That person must be an evangelical.” I do notice crucicentrism, the placing of the greatest stock in the necessity of Christ’s blood atonement for sin. I do notice conversionism, the insistence that regeneration issues in a noticeably transformed life, most likely beginning with a conversion experience. And I do for sure notice biblicism, which is a bit hard to define—but is, I think, the most important of the four identifying marks of evangelicalism, because the other three rest on it. We wouldn’t know Jesus died for our sins, we wouldn’t know we need to be converted, without God’s words telling us.

I’ve tended to follow John Frame’s view, which he calls “something close to biblicism” (see his oft-cited article in Westminster Theological Journal 59). “The term ‘biblicism,’” he acknowledges, “is usually derogatory.” It usually means someone who denies the value of truth outside the Bible, or someone who thinks the Bible serves as a “textbook” for science or politics, or someone who doesn’t value creeds or tradition, or someone who lifts “prooftexts” out of their contexts to build his or her theology.

But a carefully calibrated biblicism—a Reformation-era sola Scriptura biblicism—avoids these errors. It “avoid[s] opposing sola Scriptura to human reason as such,” Frame says. It has an important place for tradition and creeds. It seeks to be always reforming Christian practice and belief to the scriptural norm without “rebuild[ing] the faith from the ground up.” That’s why we just celebrated the 500th anniversary of the “Protestant Reformation,” not the “Protestant Revolution.” Biblicism is just the church insisting on listening to God.

Biblicism by degrees

There is no doubt that Scripture plays an important role in various non-evangelical Christian traditions, and there is no universally agreed upon measuring stick for how much biblicism a church or denomination or theological tribe has to have in order to count as evangelical. I think, honestly, I know it when I see it; I know it in my bones.

But you may have different bones, so let me suggest a practical test, one you might apply to your own Christian tradition: what is your group’s first impulse when questions come up that the Bible could possibly answer? If you were to ask people in your church a question you think the Bible answers, to what authority would they first appeal? Tradition and science and even the zeitgeist may all be right about something; they are all, I think, appropriate “authorities” to bring in on certain questions. But a biblicist tradition tends naturally to appeal first to Scripture as often as possible. It’s our norming norm.

And here’s another test: what kind of overall facility in using the Bible does your tradition tend to give people who are formed by it? Say this to five someones in your church: “Does the Bible have anything to say about rosary beads? Go.” See what passages, if any, they come up with on this question of piety (hint: I think the answer is in the Sermon on the Mount). Questions of major importance to Western societies are also answered by the Bible.

  • Should people cohabitate?
  • Do I have to pay my taxes when some of the money goes to things I disagree with?
  • Are there races, and if so, is any superior to another?

Does the rank and file in your Christian tradition have the impulse to resort to Scripture and the ability to do so?

I won’t say the Bible speaks with equal clarity and fullness to every major question being asked in our news cycle today. Politics frequently focuses on finding the best means to agreed-upon ends (peace and economic prosperity, for example), and the Bible tends to speak to the ends more directly than to the means. It calls for wisdom and prudence and attention to the shape of God’s creation in the latter. But where the Bible does speak, does your Christian tradition help them listen?

Evangelicalism and biblicism

There was a lot of talk a few years ago about whether evangelicalism is a “center-bounded set” or a “circumference-bounded set.” In other words, does it have clear boundaries around the edges so we can know who’s in and who’s out, or does it just have central truths that people can be either closer or further from affirming?

I think we all recognize that only God can make ultimate judgments: “Before his own master he stands or falls, and God is able to make him stand” (Rom 14:4). I think my readers will agree that it’s God’s categories of “sheep” and “goats” that matter in the final analysis, not our human-created categories.

But the biggest reason I am where I am on the evangelical spectrum is because I want God’s words to be a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. I want my Christian tradition to push me in every way possible to live and walk and grow in that light.

Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now works at Faithlife as a Logos Pro. His most recent book is Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (forthcoming, Lexham Press).


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Written by
Mark Ward

Christian, husband, father, writer, ultimate frisbee player when possible.

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  • Isn’t there an inherent contradiction in the very title of this article? The notion of a “True Evangelical” seems to require an appeal to a tradition outside of the text of the Bible, since this label is not found in the Bible. Further, an appeal to an extrabiblical tradition is something almost antithetical to the notion of a “True Evangelical.” Therefore, isn’t the notion of a “True Evangelical” self refuting?

    • Actually, evangel is a Bible word. “Evangelical” is a claim to have the gospel.

      Along with every responsible evangelical theologian, I am arguing for a sola scriptura, not a nuda scriptura: the Bible is our ultimate authority, but it is not our only authority. The Bible itself gives a significant measure of authority to human teachers and, I’d argue, to tradition. Paul speaks positively of tradition in several places in his epistles, including 2 Thess 3. Any group that tries to follow sola scriptura will form its own traditions; the alternative is reinventing the doctrinal wheel every generation.

  • Great post Mark! It brings a lot of clarity. If it were not for a deep respect for the inspired written Word of God, what ground would we have to stand on? I wonder, however, if there is any erosion of this stance happening as a general phenomena among evangelicals. If so, what are the threats to genuine biblicism that we face today? I have some ideas about that but perhaps you could write another post some time addressing that question. Thanks again for a great post.

  • Very interesting article.

    Problem is that it seems that the even the so called “carefully calibrated Biblicists” seem to go around the rules of internal evidence when it comes to certain doctrines.

    The old Matthew 28:19 versus the Acts 2:38 baptismal formula comes to mind.

    Carefully calibrated Biblicists say that the way to go is Matthew 28:19.

    But when looking at the Bible objectively the internal evidence is:

    No parallel passages of Matthew 28:19 in any of the other Gospels.

    The language used in the Mt. 28:19 is liturgical, and according to experts, that is not the way Jesus spoke.

    No one in the Bible is recorded as being baptized in the Mt. 28:19, way, all recorded instances follow more the Acts 2:38 manner.

    Jesus Himself warns that His true followers will be persecuted because of His name, obviously not referring to a Mt. 28:19 formula that has no name on it, but referring to the name above every other name: Jesus Christ.

    [And that is something that systematically can probably be related to:

    Zec 14:9 And Yahweh will be king over all the earth; on that day Yahweh will be one and his name one. (LEB)

    I wonder what that Name is, I sure think it is not Mt 28:19 formula. Peter the authorized spokesperson at Pentecost revealed the authorized name in Acts 2:38, so if Jesus Christ is the King, why not baptize in His name as prescribed by Peter for compliance with the New Covenant?]

    To many persons, this subject is very confusing… Talk about persons that build a whole theology on just one text… then wonder why persons are distrustful.

    It is like a certain group all over again, not in vain Jesus said: “do as they say, but do not do as they do”.

    Teaching much about internal evidence in textual criticism, then grossly ignoring all that is recommended in that teaching, to push a theology that does not seem to hold in the light of the Scripture.

    A different angle for further research, reflection and comment.

    • How did the Church historically baptize? What dis the Church historically teach about baptism? What is the pillar and ground of the truth?
      Unless your mind has been taken captive to heretical teaching (oneness Pentecostals) the answer is simple: in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. If that sounds liturgical to you, guess what? It is, and so is Holy Baptism, the Eucharist, and the Mass (AC XXIV). When you reject those, you reject the worship of the Church. You are an outsider – a heretic

      • Delwyn asks: How did the Church historically baptize?
        In the Bible the Church baptized the way Peter instructed: in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

        Delwyn asks: What dis the Church historically teach about baptism?
        In the Bible no one was baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And that is the point of the Article, Biblicism is about having the Bible as light to doctrine and action.

        Delwyn asks: What is the pillar and ground of the truth?
        I would think is the Church that is guided by the Holy Spirit to all truth, and the Holy Spirit does not contradict Himself. Peter said it clearly, and the Church baptized like in Acts 2:38.

        Have you considered why when Peter said in Acts 2:38: “And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized, each one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.””
        None of the other Apostles (key part of the pillar and ground of the truth, with the Holy Spirit in them), did not say: “excuse me Peter, that is not what Jesus said, He said something else”… This is another internal evidence question to ponder about, why none of the other Apostles raised an objection?

        As far as worship, God wants worship in Spirit and truth, and for sure the Spirit does not contradict Himself.

        Then again, what do you understand of the following:

        Zec 14:9 And Yahweh will be king over all the earth; on that day Yahweh will be one and his name one. (LEB)

        What would that one name be?

        and how about the following:

        Rev 7:17 because the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and will lead them to springs of living waters, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

        What about the Lamb in the midst of the throne? does that mean that Father, the creator of the Heavens and Earth is a little bit to the left so that the Lamb can be to the right?

        Oneness Pentecostals are not the only ones that have noted that the baptismal formula in Mt. 28:19 seems not in the way Jesus would have expressed Himself.

        Take a look at:

        Jackson, S. M. (Ed.). (1908–1914). In The new Schaff-Herzog encyclopedia of religious knowledge: embracing Biblical, historical, doctrinal, and practical theology and Biblical, theological, and ecclesiastical biography from the earliest times to the present day (Vol. 1). New York; London: Funk & Wagnalls. Look in page 435.

        With respect to the trinity:
        Hypostasis was the Greek word theologians used to express the reality of God that is different from ours. The Latin word suggested for it was “Personae” which means “the mask worn by a character in a theater”, and has nothing to do with Person, which is a modern concept not equivalent to Hypostasis.

        Kind regards.

Written by Mark Ward