I get all hot and bothered when I see or hear the word "evangelical." I don't believe Evangelicalism has ever existed. If people say that they are "evangelical," I don't know what the word entails other than that they are in fact Christians, in which case I think they should use the word "Christian". When people write for an "Evangelical" audience it is never clear who that includes; or, rather, it is never clear who that excludes, other than people who don't believe the gospel.
I say all this in the light of Michael Bird's forthcoming book Evangelical Theology. In the time-honoured tradition of commenting on a book one is yet to read, I am deeply suspicious of such a work. First of all, it seems to cater for "students." Ben Meyers has convinced me that theology aimed at students is unhelpful. Barth has convinced me that theologians will be most useful to everyone when they do the work of theology as theologians and for the sake of the discipline of theology. Students don't need books catered to them. They (we) are students of theology, not students of student-friendly theology. When I read that a work of theology contains a "'What to Take Home' section that gives students a run-down on what they need to know" I get upset, and worry about what kind of students will be produced by such books.
Second, while the "centre, unity, and boundary of evangelical faith" may be the gospel, this is not true of the Christian faith. The centre, unity, and boundary of the Christian faith is the God of the Gospel. When Karl Barth wrote his introduction to Evangelical Theology he made it clear that what made it "evangelical" was that it had to do with the God of the Gospel. Barth was a fan of the word "evangelical," because it was for him an ecumenical word, a catholic word. He says that there is such a thing as evangelical Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theology, in the sense that there is Roman Catholic and Orthodox theology that is concerned with the Christian God. Yet when we put it like this Barth's use of the word "evangelical" is hardly charitable. Roman Catholic or Orthodox theology has always been concerned with God, with or without the adjective "evangelical" attached to it. What, it must be asked, is the difference between an evangelical Roman Catholic and a Roman Catholic? What is the difference between an evangelical Baptist and a Baptist? And if the difference is that the evangelical Baptist has to do with the Christian God, then what the heck does the word "Baptist" mean or do?!
I don't think that the word "evangelical" has the ecumenical potential Barth thought it had. Indeed, a reliable South American source informs me that in at least one of the countries over there, "evangelical" distinguishes someone from "Catholic," rather than being a term that brings everyone together. It is a synonym for "Protestant," which usually functions as a synonym for "Christian" (with the odd "evangelical Catholic" exception). And it is in South America (and other so-called "developing" regions) where "evangelicalism" is said to be flourishing. This faux-tradition is Western Christianity's "gift" to the rest of the world, but it is a gift that comes at considerable cost, because it leaves every tradition that doesn't adopt its label on the outside. No longer is it sufficient to be a Presbyterian. One must now be an evangelical Presbyterian, or a Presbyterian AND an evangelical. Of course don't go joining the actual Evangelical Presbyterian Church, because that wouldn't be very evangelical. Or would it? Who knows!?
The irony of evangelicalism is best captured by Martin Marty:
I often, and gladly, accept invitations to evangelical gatherings, think tanks and schools, where I am introduced as the participant-observer "nonevangelical." I like then to point to a linguistic irony: I am often the only person in the room whose very denomination has "evangelical" in the title and whose confessional tradition was "evangelical" in dictionary senses (gospel-centered, German-Lutheran or Reformed, mainstream Protestant) before the Newsweek version was patented in America.
Of course the word will continue to be used, and continue to refer to something or someone. Personally, I have never thought of myself as an evangelical. If someone were to ask me if I am an evangelical, I would ask them what they mean by that word. If they tell me that it means you believe the gospel, then I would tell them that I do believe the gospel, but that I have a different term for a person who so believes: a Barthian.