The late missiologist, David J. Bosch (1929-1992), expressed the complexities involved in understanding the interrelationship of evangelism and proclamation:
“It remains difficult, however, to determine precisely what authors mean by evangelism or evangelization. Barrett lists seventy-five definitions, to which many more could be added.”
In his Transforming Mission, Bosch later elaborated on a definition of evangelism with the underlying theme that evangelism was not to be seen as mere proclamation. He clarified this idea in his last of eighteen points, “Evangelism is not only verbal proclamation.” He explained rather emphatically, “There is no single way to witness to Christ, however. The word may never be divorced from deed….”
Bosch’s view approached that of the aging Gustav Warneck (1834-1910). In his third English edition of 1905 (translated from the eighth German edition), Warneck made an informative assessment of John R. Mott’s The Evangelization of the World in This Generation:
“In view of the ambiguous definitions which have been and are still given of the watchword “evangelisation,” it is difficult to say exactly what is to be understood by it. Mott in his book, The Evangelization of the World in this Generation (London, 1900), written with a burning enthusiasm, explains that it means “that a sufficient opportunity shall be offered to all men to become acquainted with Jesus Christ as their Redeemer, and to become His disciples,” but not “Christianisation in the sense of interpenetration of the world with Christian ideas,” although educational, literary, and medical work are not excluded, and the proclamation of the Gospel is not to be of a superficial character. Dr. [A. T.] Pierson understands the word as only “preaching and testimony. These two words embrace all that is meant by evangelisation.” What the definitions lack in clearness is supplied by the principles laid down as to methods of practical action. …
“This last task is the task of missions [the founding of a Christian church]; the limitation of this task to mere evangelisation confounds means and goal. Mere preaching does not suffice; it is to be the means of laying the foundation of the Church. …mere announcement of the Gospel is not sufficient for this.”
Warneck’s three uses of the German word “bloß” were translated by the English word “mere.” This 1905 triple-use of “mere” by Warneck sent a shaft through the heart of the English-speaking missionary movement, which had already begun dividing over “social gospel” versus “soul-winning.”
In 1944, the missionary Samuel Zwemer (1867-1952) addressed the definition of evangelism:
“It is time that protest be made against the misuse of the word evangelism. It has only one etymological, New Testament, historical and theological connotation, namely, to tell the good news of One who came to earth to die on the cross for us: who rose again and who ever lives to intercede for those who repent and believe the Gospel. To evangelize is to win disciples, to become fishers of men, to carry the Gospel message directly to all nations.”
Zwemer differed from Warneck in that he sought to build his approach to evangelization from an etymological foundation. This exegetical approach led him to the conclusion that New Testament evangelism was in fact “to tell the good news. … to win disciples.”
In fact, research of New Testament verbs provides clarity to an understanding of the interrelationship of evangelism and proclamation. For present discussion, I posit only one verb, euvaggeli,zw (euangelizo, or “evangelize”), as used in one book, 1 Corinthians.
The Greek verb euvaggeli,zw is used 55 times in the Greek New Testament (54 times in Nestle-Aland related texts). Euvaggeli,zw is found 25 times in Luke-Acts and 24 times in the Pauline letters (Hebrews included). A chart of these 55+ uses and there translations in seventeen versions is available for consideration. Euvaggeli,zw is also used 20 times in the Old Testament Septuagint (for the Hebrew basar), including in the well-known passages, Isaiah 40:9; 52:7; and 61:1.
Some initial comments may be made about this verb:
- It is interlinked with the Greek word for “Gospel” (euvagge,lion), as they share the same root.
- Its use or disuse in the history of Bible translation illustrates that evangelizing is a volatile subject matter.
- Use of this verb in its New Testament context provides helpful clarification as to parameters for definitional purposes.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul used this volatile verb three times. In 1 Corinthians 15:1-2, Paul used the verb in the context of the proclamation of the gospel that led to the first hearing of faith for the Corinthian believers:
“Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I evangelized to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I evangelized to you—unless you believed in vain” (1 Cor 15:1-2; translation mine).
Paul also commented on the priority of this proclamation for his ministry:
“For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to evangelize, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect” (1 Cor 1:17).
Lastly and perhaps most powerfully, Paul called a woe upon himself if he ceased evangelizing:
“For if I evangelize, I have nothing to boast of, for necessity is laid upon me; yes, woe is me if I do not evangelize! For if I do this willingly, I have a reward; but if against my will, I have been entrusted with a stewardship” (1 Cor 9:16-17).
So, what may be learned from these three uses of euvaggeli,zw? Evangelizing is the simple preaching of the gospel that people may respond with a hearing of faith. Further, not evangelizing brings a curse upon the minister of the gospel!
Several Christian leaders have been asked to continue the conversation by responding to this lead article.
Thomas P. Johnston, Ph.D. Professor of Evangelism, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Kansas City, Missouri, USA
David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, 409.
Gustav Warneck, Outline of the History of Protestant Missions, 3rd English edition [translated from 8th German edition of 1904] (New York: Revell, 1906), 406-07.
Samuel Zwemer, Evangelism Today: Message not Method, 4th ed. (New York: Revell, 1944), 17.
Thomas P. Johnston, “Latin, English, French History of the Translation of”; available at: http://www.evangelismunlimited.com/translations_of_evaggelizw_chart19.pdf (online); accessed 12 July 2012; Internet.