The development of the first statement of faith of the Evangelical Alliance in 1846 is stirring, [Lindemann. Geschichte. pp. 87–98] as the first two sentences have produced a dynamic tension of complementary principles which we must embrace and employ:
“1. The divine inspiration, authority, and sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures.
2. The right and duty of private judgment in the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures“. [Lindemann. Geschichte. p. 98.]
On the one hand, you find here an unalterable and unifying provision in the sufficiency of Scripture. On the other hand, it reflects an extreme pluralism, obligating each believer to interpret the foundation for himself.
Evangelicals are marked by two opposite poles, and one does not do them justice if one only observes or stresses one pole of those positions.
Restated, on the one hand, there is the centrality of the Holy Scriptures inherited from the Protestant Reformation. On the other hand, there is individual salvation that arises from Luther’ question: “How do I find a gracious God?” It is a matter of each person’s having a personal relationship with God and there arising as a corrective to the centrality of the Scriptures the entitlement, even the obligation, of every Christian to study the Scriptures himself and to interpret them. The result is that such an individual stands on a level with every evangelical theologian, no matter how learned, even if it is his pastor. Thus the evangelical world unites dogmatic constriction, thanks to the position of the Bible, with an enormous democratic breadth, because every Christian is allowed to have a say.
The second two poles are missions and religious freedom. From the enormous emphasis on a personal relationship with Jesus, what arose was a strong stress on the ‘duty to witness’ as well as a strong emphasis on religious freedom. The concept of voluntariness marks not only free churches. Rather, it also is marks intra-church pietism, for which faith should not be something that is only external, or inherited, but rather something which is personally experienced. But for all that, no one can be forced into it. Indeed, coercion destroys the possibility of accomplishing a truly independent, personal repentance before God. Thus we prefer a smaller church with convinced members over a large church with many members who belong only due to societal, family, or other pressures.
A typical example is the relationship to the Catholic Church. At the time of the founding of the Evangelical Alliance, its advocacy of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience represented the complete opposite of the Ultramontanist Catholic Church, which decidedly rejected religious freedom (and human rights) as being atheistic in favor of a Catholic State. Thus the religious freedom approach of the Alliance met its utmost opposition in the development of the Catholic Church on its way to papal infallibility (1870). The Alliance’s emphasis on the primacy of voluntary personal conversion excluded any sort of coercion in missions or religious coercion from the side of a Christian state. This is pure history now, because since Vatican II and by the latest in the new statement “Christian Witness …” the Catholic Church has become a major proponent of religious freedom as a Christian principle.
But at time of political tension between evangelicals and Catholics, the Evangelical Alliance defended discriminated Catholics in Protestant countries. When the Alliance opposed Sweden with a delegation in 1858 after the highest royal court expelled six women from the country who had converted to Catholicism, by calling for religious freedom for these Catholics, there was throughout Europe a storm of outrage outside of the Alliance. [Lindemann. Geschichte. pp. 295–300.] The Alliance was then significantly involved in the Swedish Parliament’s 1860 abolishment of the penalties for leaving the Lutheran state church.