Former Fuller president Richard Mouw often remarked to new students—“Welcome to Fuller! Someone is probably mad at you for being here.” Fuller occupies a middle space in American and even global Christianity. It occupies a middle space and sometimes confusing space in American evangelicalism. More conservative evangelicals wonder out loud: Has Fuller gone liberal? Is Fuller jumping off the cliff? More progressive evangelicals are distraught that Fuller has not taken a more open stance on issues theological and ethical. To these, Fuller sometimes feels too fundamental. Fuller occupies this middle space. It is a confusing space sometimes, but a good space. I am glad to be a Fuller graduate three times over (MDIV, DMIN, PhD), and I am so honored to work at Fuller. As a Fuller DMIN student or graduate, I hope you are proud of your school. My bottom line: Fuller is an evangelical seminary in the best sense of the word. Though that word has been diluted or redefined recently. Let me explain:
I am an evangelical. It defines the way I think (my orthodoxy), how I act (my orthopraxy), and how I relate to God, to others and my world (my orthopathy). This is a joyful and hopeful way of being a Christian. An evangelical loves God greatly, and seeks to serve others and bless the world. An evangelical is eager to engage in a community of faith that worships and encourages discipleship, and engages in mission around the world and in a neighborhood. This is that faith that is part of my heritage. This is the brand of Christianity that I have chosen. I am proud to be an evangelical.
But a crime has been committed. I am an evangelical, and I have been robbed.
American culture is eager to talk about religion, and this becomes very apparent as national politics heat up. In this cycle, I am hearing the term “evangelical” bantered around more frequently. Unfortunately this term is used to describe a wide range of people:
Those eager to decide who is in and who is out
Those who see God as stingy
Those who hold tightly to a strict set of doctrines and question anyone outside of their fenceposts
Those who are certain who goes to heaven, and who goes to hell
Those who ascribe to well defined and narrow moral and social values
Those who see evangelical as a synonym for Republican
I am proud to be an evangelical both theologically and genealogically, but the term has been hijacked.
My great grandfather was part of a pietistic movement in Sweden that broke away from a theologically cold State Church. They focused on Scripture and found new life, vibrant life in Jesus Christ. My grandfather emigrated to the United States and found a spiritual home with other immigrants who would band together to become an evangelical movement called Mission Friends. These Mission Friends became what is known today as the Evangelical Covenant Church. My father and mother in different parts of the country grew up in Covenant Churches; they met and were married in a Covenant Church. My brother and I came along growing up and being nurtured in a Covenant Church. I was ordained in the Evangelical Covenant Church and served as pastor of an Evangelical Covenant Church for 24 years. Now I work and teach at Fuller Theological Seminary, an evangelical seminary. Evangelicalism is my heritage, my story.
Scholars work to define what evangelicalism is. Briefly, it emerges out of the Reformation, and the renewal movements of the 18th and 19th Centuries influenced by two major streams-Puritanism, and Pietism. A classic definition says that evangelicalism focuses around five themes:
- crucicentric (the work of Jesus on the cross is key)
- biblicist (the Bible is the Word of God and the central guide for life)
- conversionist (people’s lives are transformed by following Jesus)
- missional (evangelicals actively work in the world, making the world a better place, proclaiming good news, and making disciples), and
- transdenominational (evangelicals believe and partner together across denominational lines).
An easier way to say this is that an evangelical is someone who is transformed by the person and work of Jesus Christ, finds the Bible to be authoritative for life and doctrine and practice, and actively works to make the world better. This is a humble, vibrant, and generous faith that comes alive in communities of faith full of people who believe this good news and live it out in thoughtful and heartfelt ways. This is lived out in the Evangelical Covenant Church and Fuller Theological Seminary.
The Covenant and Fuller have shaped me. The Evangelical Covenant Church grew out of the Pietistic revivals in Europe. Holding to the centrality of Scripture and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, it values a freedom in Christ refusing to divide over minor issues. The Covenant Church as a community of learners asks—“where is it written?” An early Covenanter remarked that the church with its membership as a fellowship of believers has doors narrow so to exclude those who don’t give witness to Jesus, but wide enough to include all who do.
Fuller Theological Seminary is an evangelical seminary that wrestles to maintain a theological position between a liberal Christianity and a fundamentalist Christianity. It holds tightly to an evangelical core and explores theological innovation at the edges. It is a risky theological adventure, but an exciting endeavor.
People in America are free to believe whatever they please and to follow whatever religious paths they would like. Not everyone who is a Christian is an evangelical. I want a richer definition of evangelical back. I call myself an evangelical in the best sense of the term. I am proud of that description and proud of Fuller.