I know. The title of this blog post has no chance of supplanting the famous Bebbington Quadrilateral—British historian David Bebbington’s rubric of common characteristics and emphases historically shared by evangelicals (conversion, the Bible, activism, the cross).
But Mark Noll, in his essay on “What Is ‘Evangelical’?” in the Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology (ed. Gerald R. McDermott; Oxford University Press, 2010) has his own list of common characteristics. He identifies two key markers, and three that flow from the second.
The key in a remarkably diverse range of social, political, and intellectual circumstances was evangelical resilience defined by  Christian experience, personally appropriated, and  trust in the Bible above all other authorities.
Differ as they certainly did in many particulars, the individuals and groups that were recognized as evangelical possessed a core of common characteristics.
First, evangelicals throughout the North Atlantic remained firm Protestants who accentuated the historic Protestant attachment to Scripture.
They could differ wildly among themselves on the meaning of the Bible, but the Scriptures remained a bedrock of authority.
Second, evangelicals shared a conviction that true religion required the active experience of God.
Again, evangelicals prescribed myriad norms for that experience and even more ways for accommodating the experience of God with reason, traditions, and hierarchies. But the experience of God remained a sine qua non for the type of religion that many contemporaries and more historians have labeled “evangelical.”
He then identifies three characteristic that flowed from this biblical experientialism:
First was a bias—it could be a slight prejudice, it could be a massive rejection—against inherited institutions.
Since no inherited institution could communicate the power of God’s presence as adequately as Scripture and personal Christian experience, no inherited institution enjoyed the respect accorded to experience and the Bible.
Second, evangelicalism was extraordinarily flexible in relation to principles concerning intellectual, political, social, and economic life.
Since such principles possessed primarily instrumental value by comparison with the ultimate realities found in Scripture and the experience of Christ, they could be taken up, modified, discarded, or transformed as local circumstances dictated.
Third, evangelicals practiced “discipline,” to borrow a well-considered phrase from Daniel Walker Howe. Their experiential biblicism might lead along many different paths, and with contrasting conclusions, to principles of conduct for self and others, but, however derived, those principles embodied a common evangelical conviction that the gospel compelled a search for social healing as well as personal holiness. In subsequent history, evangelicalism has often expanded in outreach and gone deeper in spiritual depth precisely amid similar scenes of disorder and unrest.
[Bold and brackets all mine.]
One of the things I appreciate about this essay by Noll is that he reminds us that evangelicals are theologically orthodox Protestants. In other words, the characteristics above may be necessary conditions of being evangelical, but not sufficient ones. After all, an Arian or a Galatian heretic could theoretically sign off on the Bebbington Quadrilateral. But being evangelical put one into a larger theological category.
Noll points to the Evangelical Alliance statement as representative of this theological lineage:
Evangelicals often combated each other aggressively on the details of their convictions, but in 1846 delegates from many churches in Britain and North America, as well as substantial representation from the European continent, met in England to establish the Evangelical Alliance, a voluntary interdenominational organization whose doctrinal basis succinctly summarized major points of mutual evangelical agreement. The founding commitments of the Alliance remain central to evangelical movements around the world today: (1) the divine inspiration, authority, and sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures; (2) the right and privacy of private judgment in the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures; (3) the Unity of the Godhead and the Trinity of the Persons therein; (4) the utter depravity of human nature in consequence of the Fall; (5) the incarnation of the Son of God, His work of atonement for the sins of mankind, and His mediatorial intercession and reign; (6) the justification of the sinner by faith alone; (7) the work of the Holy Spirit in the conversion and sanctification of the sinner; (8) the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the body, the judgment of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, with the eternal blessedness of the righteous and the eternal punishment of the wicked; (9) the divine institution of the Christian ministry, and the obligation and perpetuity of the ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
There’s no one perfect way to define evangelicalism. But as Noll notes to close another piece:
Our world of rapid change and media rush-to-judgment threatens to destabilize all matters that once seemed fixed and secure. Yet for the terms “evangelical” and “evangelicalism,” ambiguity is not the only possibility. When used with responsible attention to history and careful focus on generally accepted norms of the Bebbington definition, they can still communicate reality and not just confusion.