The Evangelical Manifesto was published in Washington, DC, in May 2008, to reaffirm the foundational importance of the evangelical principle and imperative in the Christian faith and for all Christians, but especially for those who identify themselves within the Evangelical movement, or Evangelicalism. Os Guinness was among those drafting and signing this manifesto, most of whom were American Evangelicals, but anyone reading it can see that its import goes far beyond any one nation and time. All who are concerned for the evangelical principle and imperative are confronted with a grand irony today. On the one hand, the terms evangelical and Evangelicals are widely derided or dismissed today because they have become laden with cultural and political baggage, so much so that many are abandoning both the terms and the movement. The manifesto grew in part from the widespread concern that “evangelical” and “Evangelical” were too important to allow them to be confused with political and cultural labels, and therefore that a positive statement was needed to counter this erroneous impression. On the other hand, many people in other traditions of the Christian faith are increasingly recognizing the inescapable importance of reintroducing the evangelical principle into their own understanding of the faith, and therefore speaking of an “evangelical Catholicism,” an “evangelical Orthodoxy,” and so on. The lessons of this irony are plain. The evangelical principle and the evangelical imperative lie at the heart of the Christian faith, and they must never be abandoned. They are part of “the plain, central Christianity” that C. S. Lewis, following Richard Baxter, called “mere Christianity.” But they are essentially theological terms, so they must never be confused with any purely human movement, let alone be laden with the political and cultural baggage of any passing generation. The Evangelical Manifesto therefore reaffirms the primary spiritual and theological significance of “evangelical,” and asserts that, properly understood, the principle and the imperative are nonnegotiable in understanding and expressing the good news of Jesus, in living the Christian faith and in reforming the church when it has grown worldly and corrupt. It is significant that the term Protestant was invented by the Counter Reformation as a term of abuse. The truth is that the Reformers in the sixteenth century were called “Evangelicals” before they were called “Protestants.” “Evangelical” spoke of what they were seeking to return to. In 1536, when the General Assembly of the City of Geneva voted to join with Bern and the Reformation, they voted to “Live by the Gospel.” Earlier, when Francis of Assisi determined to live closer to the way of Jesus in his daily life, he too was praised by the pope of his day for being “evangelical.” Even earlier still, the prophet Isaiah was hailed rightly as the “evangelical prophet.”
In other words, the deeper into history we go, the less sufficient all other labels are. They are shown up as the product of one age or another, and they do not go all the way back to Jesus himself. Catholics often say that to go deep in history is to go beyond Protestantism, and they are right, for Protestantism is a term limited by its times. But to go deep in history is also to go beyond Catholicism and Orthodoxy too, for those labels do not go all the way back to the authority and standard of Jesus. In short, the Evangelical movement itself is recent, whether it is traced back to the Reformation or the First Great Awakening in the eighteenth century, and in many ways the movement is in danger of losing touch with its core principle. But its core principle is synonymous with the gospel itself. There is therefore no substitute for the evangelical principle and imperative, properly understood. There never will be, and there never can be. They are not an alien growth on the great tree of faith with its many branches, but part of the very sap and trunk of the tree. As long as there are followers of Jesus Christ on earth, there will always be people who understand this truth clearly: Whatever the defining issues in any generation, there is no more authoritative definition of the Christian faith, Christian thinking and the Christian way of life than the supreme standard of Jesus himself, the good news of the kingdom of God that he announced, taught, demonstrated and advanced, including the supreme authority of the Scriptures that he endorsed and the power of the Spirit whom he sent. No other authorities are ever infallible. All must be subject to the supreme and final authority of the Word, the whole of the Word and the Spirit, and nothing less than the Word and the Spirit. St. Athanasius and St. Augustine lived more than a millennium before the Reformation, but it was their view that the entire Christian era is the age of re-creation and reformation.
“What then was God to do?” Athanasius wrote of God’s response to sin as nothing less than “re-creation.” “What else could he possibly do, being God, but renew his image in mankind?” The Christian era, Augustine wrote, is the age in which “we are reformed to the image of God.” Their point is very close to the principle of semper reformanda, though in practice the Reformation principle tends to focus on the negative, the recurring forms of bondage from which the church needs freeing, whereas Athanasius and Augustine put the emphasis on the positive—Jesus himself—into whose likeness we are being transformed as at the first creation. But in either case, the challenge goes all the way back to Jesus himself. Whatever our tradition, we are all both individuals and members of the worldwide church. And our goal as followers ofJesus is to grow and be shaped in who we are and how we think and act, so that we become more and more like Jesus, and live closer and closer to the way of Jesus, and so are freely able to invite others to join us in that venture too. Along that way lies a life of freedom and service for each of us, and along that way lies the hope of reformation, restoration and renewal for humanity. If there is a correct and understandable call today for “evangelical Catholics” and “evangelical Orthodox,” there is no less urgent a call for “evangelical Evangelicals.” Only as all followers of Jesus are all truly evangelical will we together become worthy of his great call.