Tim Keller: What is an Evangelical?

I didn’t have many takers on my question, “What [doctrines] would you put in the essentials list?” So I’m going to go back to a talk by Tim Keller last year at the EMA Conference in the UK called “What is an evangelical?” This might be a good way at getting at the topic of what is essential, even though I know many of us have mixed feelings about the term evangelical.

Why define evangelicalism and draw boundaries?

Keller first dealt with three objections to using the word evangelical and drawing boundaries.

  • First, some say the word has had it and is no longer useful. Keller is somewhat sympathetic and doesn’t use the word evangelical in New York City because it’s frequently misunderstood, but he argues that every other label has the same problems. The label evangelical is just as capable of being misunderstood as all the rest.
  • Second, some say we shouldn’t draw boundaries because it excludes others. Keller says this carries no weight. You can’t avoid drawing lines; the minute you say you’re not, you are. The most inclusive groups by definition exclude those who oppose their positions. What matters is how we treat those on the other side of the line.
  • Third, some argue that it’s a meaningless category because of its breadth. It’s so broad it’s meaningless. Keller disagrees with this. There are some key doctrines that are important and agreed upon among all of evangelicalism.

What are the evangelical essentials?

Keller lists three using the philosophical category of causes:

  • the final full authority and clarity of Scripture (the formal cause, the idea)
  • the gospel – that salvation is by sheer grace alone through faith alone in the substitutionary work of Christ alone (the material cause, the raw material)
  • in a life of repentance – repentance as a life and not as a one-time event (the efficient cause, the means)

The last point keeps us from living as Pharisees, and ensures that we believe at the level of the heart and not just the head. It works the gospel into our hearts.

My Observations

I think Keller’s list isn’t what a lot of us would have picked, but I like it. Some will say it includes too much, especially if you have trouble with inerrancy. Others will say it doesn’t include enough, although I’d assume it implies belief in other doctrines like Trinity and the deity of Christ.

One thing I really like is that it includes a bit of praxis. The third point applies the other two.

It may be a good place to start. It includes the important points but not much else. Thoughts?

Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church Don Mills. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada