Literalist and evangelical are considered in some circles to be synonymous terms. Deep concern has been expressed that the growing strength of the evangelical movement may initiate a “return to literalism.” Reinhold Niebuhr, for instance, has warned of the tendency toward literalistic orthodoxy encouraged by Barth and of the danger of simplifying the Gospel in either literalistic or individualistic terms as typified by Billy Graham. A recent book baldly states, “Protestantism’s ugliest feature has been its frequent relapse into literalism, usually caused by making a fetish of biblical authority.”
The Use of Terms
Are evangelicals literalists? The question cannot be answered with a categorical yes or no because of the different ways in which the two terms are understood by their users. To some, “evangelical” conjures up the picture of an unlettered extremist who takes every word of the Bible literally. Without deprecating such an individual—for a naive faith is not the greatest of evils—the historical definition of “evangelical” brings to view a different conception. The term “literalist” is often applied to those who interpret all the words of the Bible literally. But those who hold steadfastly to the doctrines of the Scriptures are on that account often called literalists.
Historically, the term “evangelical” designates one who holds to the absolute supremacy of the Scriptures as a rule of faith and practice, and to justification by free grace through faith. Webster’s New International Dictionary defines “evangelical” as “designating that party among the Protestants which holds that the essence of the Gospel consists ...1
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