News, History, and Events

Interview: Dr. Tinder on the Evangelical Movement

January 07, 2008

Leading scholar on the history of church and faith communities Dr. Don Tinder was interviewed by Olivet Theological College & Seminary following his graduate course "History of Evangelicalism."

What follows is a transcript of the interview.

OTCS: How do you define Evangelicalism?

TINDER: Evangelicalism is a growing movement within Christianity that basically began with the Protestant Reformation in Europe in the 1500s. (There were smaller similar movements before that.)

Evangelicalism has always seen itself as being based on the Bible and has agreed with the formulations of the Trinity and the fully divine-fully human natures of Christ that were hammered out from the New Testament by the Church by the 5th century. However, Evangelicalism differed from the larger expressions of Christianity by insisting that Scripture is the sole source of doctrine, and by emphasizing that salvation is by grace through faith alone in the finished work of Christ on the cross with the associated doctrine of the priesthood of all believers.

Related to this is an emphasis that all believers should then sanctify every aspect of life rather than stressing a separate monastic calling, including celibacy, for those who especially strive for holiness. Moreover, godly living is to exhibit a freely given salvation rather than an attempt to earn it.

OTCS: What do you see as the milestones in the history of Evangelicalism?

TINDER: A key milestone in the history of Evangelicalism occurred when preachers like John Wesley and George Whitefield in the 1700s began widely stressing in a new way the possibility of personal acceptance of the Lord Jesus Christ. They did this in accordance with the doctrines of the Bible that had been recovered by the Reformation. Moreover, they in no way depended upon the civil state to encourage—even enforce—such beliefs as almost all the Reformers of the 1500s had done. Ever since, Evangelicalism, even when remaining as a minority within a state-supported church, has been a voluntary movement.

Another milestone of that time was when the Moravian community in eastern Germany (which in turn was based on Slavic refugees from the Bohemia area) began taking seriously the command of our Lord to take the Gospel into all the world. Eventually this inspired Evangelicals from most other countries to send out some of their number as missionaries to foreign lands.

A little later, a milestone in the homelands was the successful ending of first the slave trade, and then slavery itself, in large part because of Evangelical campaigning.

A sadder milestone also occurred in the 1800s, when Evangelicals saw so many of their established institutions re-interpreting previously accepted doctrines such as the unique divine inspiration of Scripture, the true deity of the Lord Jesus, and the necessity of conversion as we turn from trusting in our own supposed righteousness to accepting His work on our behalf. The result is that almost all Evangelical institutions (local churches, schools, denominations, specialized agencies) are less than 200 years old, often less than 100 years old. In other words, organizationally they had to start over again, but on the doctrinal and experiential foundations that had been laid earlier.

OTCS: What do you consider the main achievements of Evangelicalism since its beginning?

TINDER: The main achievement is to be a major vehicle for bringing people into a personal and saving relationship with the living God that will continue for all eternity.

There is always the danger of Christianity simply being part of one's socialization and that going through certain rituals and professing certain doctrines is all that is required. Evangelicalism tries to overcome that danger by stressing the necessity of personally trusting Christ and seeing the Church as the vital fellowship of those who have believed rather than the institution that mediates between humans and God. Evangelicals take the church very seriously indeed, but in a different way from those Christians who stress the importance of conforming to their church and its rituals and rules if one is to be in right relationship with God.

For most of the time since the 300s, Christianity in most places until recently, was something that the rich and powerful in the nation or society controlled. Evangelicalism as a movement appealed much more, though not exclusively, to the numerous masses of people. But the nature of its teaching also propels many of them and their descendants into the middle classes and occasionally even into top leadership.

In addition, Evangelicalism is disproportionately responsible for taking Christianity to many previously unreached parts of the world, such that Christianity is now the one truly global religion.

OTCS: What do you see as the main developments  within Evangelicalism across the world today?

TINDER: There are several major contemporary developments within the Evangelical movement.

Starting in the 20th century, it has grown enormously all around the globe at a faster rate than the population so that it now encompasses probably at least 5% of the world's population, maybe more. (Professed Christianity itself has remained steady at about one-third of all people.)

The movement has always had lots of diversity around its common core of emphases and this is increasing especially now that it is growing much stronger in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Styles of worship, organization, and doctrinal details and emphases vary considerably. It is often said that Europe is post-Christian, but it would also be true to say that Christianity is now post-Western.

Evangelicalism finds itself caught between two aggressively opposite positions in today's world. Both Evangelicalism and Islam believe each is entrusted with the only true message of how to be right with God. But Islam believes in the use of the state and of strong coercion (sometimes even force) to promote itself and forbids its adherents to leave the religion. By contrast, both Evangelicalism and the secular minded believe religious faith is a matter for voluntary choice and therefore optional. However, Evangelicalism is often falsely accused of intolerance and restrictions on it sought by secularists because it stresses the necessity of faith in Christ for eternal salvation. (Other forms of Christianity now mute, or sometimes oppose, that claim.)

Two other developments represent slight recoveries after more than a century of absence of Evangelical influence, but both require vigilance lest they lead to departure from correctly interpreting and applying biblical teaching. 

One development is political where in America and certain developing countries the Evangelical vote is being sought, but perhaps too easily given to politicians who take positions on, say, abortion, while also pursuing policies which undermine a more comprehensive biblical ethic. The other development is academic, where at least in the English-speaking world, Evangelical scholars are once more, at least in certain disciplines, receiving attention instead of being ignored.

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Dr. Tinder is a widely published scholar on Christian history; many of his writings have appeared in Christianity Today, where he served as Associate Editor before moving to Europe. 

In addition to earning B.A., M.Phil, Ph.D. degrees from Yale University, Dr. Tinder holds an M.Div. degree from Fuller Theological Seminary.