As I would redefine the term from a narrative-historical perspective, an “evangelical” in the broadest sense is someone who finds “good news” in the long and complex story of the historic family of Abraham, descended through Jesus. Or better, the church is “evangelical” insofar as it finds good news in that story.
The evangelical vocation
What Abraham stood for was the remaking of God’s good creation in microcosm, as a world within a world, after humanity had chosen, in defiance of the creator: i) self-determination (Adam and Eve), ii) a course of violence and injustice (the generation destroyed in the flood), and iii) the idolatry of empire (the builders of Babel).
That still encapsulates the broad purpose of the people of God: the church is not an aggregation of redeemed individuals; it is an alternative society, set in opposition to the idolatry, self-interest, injustice, violence, tyranny, oppression, and systemic arrogance of what we glibly call “fallen” humanity. To be evangelical is to embrace the full scope of that opposition.
But this has always been a troubled, painful, and controversial vocation. We still find it extremely difficult and unnatural to live up to the ideal of a just people, reconciled to the creator, as a blessing to the nations. To be evangelical, therefore, is to be unreasonably, absurdly, stubbornly optimistic about the concrete and symbolic potential of this people’s narrated existence; and we are sustained in that optimism by what is now for us, since Jesus, the unfailing grace of God.
The evangelical narrative
As I understand it, the bible tells the story of the people of God from the call of Abraham to the climactic moment when his descendants inherited the pagan world. It is authoritative for the church precisely because it tells this story. This, I think, is the proper starting point for an evangelical hermeneutic: the Bible sets the narrative trajectory for the people of God throughout the coming ages.
The story is told partly “historically” and partly prophetically or apocalyptically. The New Testament deals with a critical period when it appeared that the family of Abraham, in the form of national Israel, was about to lose the right, under devastating circumstances, to represent the creator God amongst the nations. Israel was hell bent on a course that would lead to the destruction of its national and religious existence, but in the fulness of time a young wonder-working prophet from Nazareth entered the charged political arena proclaiming a narrow and difficult path that would lead to life, though he was not confident that many find it.
The good news of Jesus (in historical context)
His death for the sins of his people defined the way forward for faithful Israel. His resurrection from the dead convinced his followers that the creator God, the God of Israel, had not only made him the way, the truth, and the life for his people, but also had given him the authority to judge and rule over the nations. This was the “good news” that was proclaimed first in Jerusalem and then across the Greek-Roman world. The inclusion of Gentiles in the commonwealth of Israel at this juncture was itself a sign to the empire of the transformation to come. This is the evangelical heart of the narrative: the “gospel” is public and political, not private and personal.
The exaltation of Jesus to the right hand of the Father set in train a long historical process. Through the faithful witness of communities of eschatological transformation the pagan world, which had for so many centuries opposed the God of Israel and oppressed his people, would be overthrown, and every tongue would confess that Jesus Christ—and not any other god—was Lord, to the glory of Israel’s God.
So from this point onwards the family of Abraham has had to relate to the one creator God on new terms—as the Father who determines the fate of his people, as the Son who has been given authority to reign, and as the Spirit who is the inspiring, empowering presence of the creator in the midst of his people. A statement of Trinitarian belief that is genuinely biblical—and so genuinely evangelical—has to take account of the apocalyptic narrative of Jesus’ “sonship”: unlike the pagan kings he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but humbled himself to the point of death on a Roman cross; because of this obedience he was exalted, and given authority to rule as Lord and king, to the glory of Israel’s God.
To Christendom and beyond
This is how the family of Abraham, for so long confined to the small beleaguered state of Israel, came to inherit the world. But the story does not stop there, and evangelicals must learn how to make sense of the continuing narrative. European Christendom, as both a political and a theological construct, lasted in one form or other for perhaps 1700 years, to be defeated in the end by the combined forces of secular rationalism and post-imperial pluralism. The heirs of European Christendom have been mostly exiled from the territory that they once dominated, and in order to survive are having to disengage themselves from many of the habits of thought and practice that characterize a world that no longer exists.
But an evangelical, being an incorrigible optimist, believes that the story is by no means over; that the family of Abraham, descended through Jesus, has a viable future; that there is still “new creation” ahead of us. Moreover, an evangelical has the confidence to invite people into this difficult historical journey of corporate witness.
The whole story (plus actions)
So to be an evangelical community now is to find and proclaim the good news that arises from this whole story. It is good news that God is; that he still calls into existence a servant people for his own possession, to be priests and prophets in the world; that he remains faithful towards those who trust him; that he can still hold his own against the powerful cultural forces that oppose him and oppress his people; that he is still able to effect the renewal of his creation in ways that convince us that he will not finally be defeated but will make all things new. It is good news that Jesus died for the historical family of Abraham; it is good news that there is no longer the possibility of terminal failure; it is good news that the doors of that community are open; it is good news that in and around this community lives are transformed, the sick are healed, sight is restored to the blind, the poor are comforted, captives are set free, relationships are renewed, divisions are healed, prejudices and fears are overcome.
It is good news that sometimes this is not all just words….