Friday, November 08, 2013

Wesley's definition of "evangelical"

I chanced upon a place in one of John Wesley's sermons where he used the word "evangelical." I've been curious about how the word was used prior to the twentieth century. I've generally found that those who argue for continuity of a concept throughout history (e.g., Al Mohler's sense of inerrancy throughout history) generally have a rather superficial understanding of how meaning works.

Just because someone uses the same or a similar word in a different time and place doesn't at all mean that they used the word in the same way. Meaning is always culturally embedded. The "denotation" of certain words may even seem the same, but the "connotations" may be quite different.

Thus is my contention that to be "evangelical" in the twentieth century is not the same thing as calling something "evangelical" in another time and place. The most obvious example here is the fact that "evangelisch" in German simply means Protestant and has little to do with being evangelical in the US today.

In any case, Wesley uses the word "evangelical" three times in his sermon, "The Spirit of Bondage and Adoption."  He is sketching out stages in a person's spiritual development. He sees three: 1) the natural state, 2) the legal state, and 3) the evangelical state (IV.1).

The progression goes something like the following. The natural state is not really aware of its sinfulness. This person sins willfully but doesn't really care. The person in the legal state comes under fear and an awareness of bondage to sin. He or she wants to stop sinning but cannot (Rom. 7). Finally, in the evangelical state one may still struggle against sin but this person is able not to sin.

Since Wesley likens the second state to being under law, the evangelical state is being under grace and being a child of God. He calls it at one point a "state of love" (IV.2).

So I infer that what Wesley means by evangelical here is something like "under the good news" or "under the gospel." The good news for him in this instance is that a person has been freed from the law and empowered by the Spirit to love and not sin.

I'm sure others could shed more light on what he meant. I did a quick search on the NNU Wesley site and found one other sermon in which Wesley used the adjective ("Spirit Bears Witness"). I noticed also that Arminius used the term in the 1600s. My first thought was that perhaps it was associated with Luther's idea of justification by faith as the essence of the good news?

There is much that could be studied here and no doubt it's been done. I am just not ready to trust what's been done. In any case, Wesley doesn't use the word "evangelical" anything close to the way we do today.

P.S. We can't fault Wesley for being a child of his age. For us today, he is a poor model of how to do exegesis. But that doesn't mean that his theology is wrong. We read Wesley for his theology, not for how to do inductive Bible study.  There is a picture of truth in this sermon, even if it is not absolute or exactly what Paul was thinking.


Joshua Rhone said...

Wesley also employs the term in sermons 83 (On Patience), 35 (The Law Established Through Faith I), and 11 (The Witness of the Spirit II).

In sermon 83, Wesley speaks of an 'evangelical law, which to the place of the Abrahamic law.' Specifically, the reference occurs within a paragraph in which Wesley argues that the doctrine of entire sanctification is not a new kind of holiness, but rather that love is a fulfilling of the law.

In sermon 35, Wesley asks, 'What then? Shall this evangelical principle of action be less powerful that the legal? Shall we be less obedient to God from filial love than we were from servile fear?' The context, once again, is a conversation regarding why an individual obeys God.

In sermon 11, Wesley states, 'It more nearly concerns the Methodists, so called, clearly to understand, explain, and defend this doctrine; because it is one grand part of the testimony which God has given them to bear to all mankind. It is by this peculiar blessing upon them in searching the Scriptures, confirmed by the experience of his children, that this great evangelical truth has been recovered, which had been or many years well nigh lost and forgotten.' The context of this use is a sermon regarding the Spirit's witness to a person's heart that s/he is a child of God.

Ken Schenck said...

Thanks for the added references! Did you do a quick search or is this research you've done?

Susan Moore said...

Checking the Oxford English Dictionary (online, the free one that doesn’t tell as much), the word
“‘evangelical’ originated in the mid 16th century and came from ecclesiastical Latin from ecclesiastical Greek ‘euangelikos’, from ‘euangelos’ (see evangel).”
That's as much as I can do on it tonight. After reading what both you and Joshua wrote, my question remains does it refer to a passive state of being by referring to anyone who realizes themselves to be under the freedom of grace, or is it referring to an active state of being where that realization is expressed through the person by their fruit of the Spirit or spiritual gifts; by one's own grace filled state of being Godly-loving?

Ken Schenck said...

Good research!

Susan Moore said...

(Using Lewis and Short 1879, and Oxford English Dictionary online) Following the lineage of our english word, “evangelical”, from what I can so far gather, there is one Latin reference to evangelical, “evangelicus” and that reference goes to a poem written by Aurelius Clemens Prudentius, a Spanish writer, titled, “Apotheosis”, line 495. It is reported to be a didactic poem written about the trinity. But I have not yet found a free copy of the poem online to view, and no, I have not yet checked IWU’s online library. (I don’t know Latin very well, but because of my recent reconversion it became a necessity to learn due to my interest in the lineage of words. Learning Latin now trumps learning Hebrew in order of priority.)
Curiously, the best I have figured so far, Prudentius uses the word, ‘evangelicus’ to refer to the spoken voice of the written scripture. There are also a few additional references to other latin writers using other forms of ‘evangel’.
Wikipedia records the 1st English usage of ‘evangelical’ to be by William Tyndale in 1531, who wrote “He exorteth them to proceed constantly in the evangelical truth.” However, the link to that quote was dead when I clicked on it. But looking at that quote, perhaps the meaning refers to the spoken voice of the written scripture about truth. Tyndale was supportive of the Reformation and executed for heresy in 1536 by King Henry VIII.
The second incidence of ‘evangelical’ is noted by the same source to have come one year later, in 1532, by Sir Thomas More, an English Roman Catholic councilor to Henry VIII. More opposed the Reformation and was beheaded for his efforts in 1535, when the king changed his religious allegiances. More is now known by RCs as St. Thomas More. More apparently “spoke of Tyndale [and] his evangelical brother Barns.”
Now that is curious, because instead of referring to the spoken form of written scripture, we already see the word ‘evangelical’ referring to the human who speaks –and this is the question- who speaks and either quotes the scripture or speaks about the scripture?
Changing the word, ‘evangelical’ from referring to the words of the written Bible itself, to the spoken words about the Bible, may indicate a major change in the usage of that word.
RCs are evangelical in that they quote scripture, however, they are not usually referred to being Evangelical. That term is used to describe certain people within Protestantism who speak about the Bible. It seems ‘Evangelical’ begins to take on its own nature when its meaning metamorphisizes into referring to the people speaking, presumably, about scripture, instead of people quoting scripture. That is the way we use the word, ‘evangelical’ today, yes? Referring to Fundamentalists or, more generally, people who ‘evangelize’ the scripture by talking about scriptures.
As soon as ‘evangelical’ became connected to the fallen human, and not to the inerrant and inspired written Bible, our automatic trust of what is said must stop. Therefore, it makes sense, then, that the only inerrancy in evangelical truth is in a direct quote of scripture from the original languages. Because of that change in the reference of the word ‘evangelical’ we have no other viable option but to always compare what is said to what scripture says, and what our faith traditions and reason lead us to believe.
Interesting study, thank you. Now time to do more homework for school. :-(

Susan Moore said...

I see, now, what the issue is. The reformation was based, on large part, by a people's desire to have their faith based only on written scripture, not on what someone (such as the Pope) interprets those scriptures to mean.
But that is problematic, isn't it? Unless those people are fluent in the original languages, they are automatically left to trust the interpretation of the people who translated those scriptures (from whenever and by whomever the earliest transcripts came), into Greek and then Latin or German, and then English. And did the English translators translate the word or the meaning of the Latin or Greek word?
Then, let's look at the various church leaders who teach scripture, or about scripture; whose taught them? Whose interpretation(s) do they favor and why?
There is no such thing in 'just' basing one's faith on the Bible. It is always based on someone else's interpretation of the Bible. So, the question is really, "Whose interpretation do I trust?"
Because it still comes down to the leaders of the churches being the ones who establish the doctrine and the distinctions of the churches they represent, whether they be Catholic or Protestant.
So where do the interpretations stop? Who decides? Do beliefs about cessationism really come from the same God who miraculously healed me? Do beliefs in a God who creates through random mutations and survival of the fittest describe the same God who created the universe in 6 days and then rested?
Thus enters my reversion to Catholicism. I did not find the greener grass promised on the other side of the fence. I found the same grass; and no fence.

Ken Schenck said...

thanks for this great research Susan. It looks like some of the early uses would almost be the same as speaking of the "gospel truth" when it says, "evangelical truth."

Susan Moore said...

Yep, I think that is accurate. And it is not the gospel truth that has changed over time, it is our interpretations of that truth that have varied over time.

Joshua Rhone said...


It's research that is fresh in my mind. Been reading through Wesley's journals, sermons, and hymns for the lit review portion of my thesis.